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When Antiquity Trained the Future
History, culture, and the quest for practical wisdom
This month’s guest post is by Sebastian Garren. Sebastian founded a hybrid classical school, teaches ancient history, Latin, chemistry and economics, designed a game theory board game, runs a yearly logic tournament, and is creating a humanistically inflected career guide for students.
America and the Classics
The Founding Fathers of the United States looked to the texts of Greece and Rome for models of virtue. Such models would instruct one how to behave in the adversity of personal and political life. This study went beyond mere moralizing for the schoolroom. The founders looked to the ancients seeking practical wisdom.
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By practical wisdom, I mean neither technical expertise nor some philosophical theories of life deduced from axioms and definitions, but rather something harder to grasp: the wisdom that comes from dealing with the messiness of reality. The classics might be an indispensable primer for this lifelong task.
John Adams’s most famous quote about education catches the vibe of the expansiveness of practical wisdom:
The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
To John Adams, the classics were the “science of government” and “the arts of legislation” and thus they were not arcane. He was studying questions that Greek and Roman authors also were trying to answer. How to negotiate with political opponents in times of external threat, like Pericles; what incentives keep politicians like Pompey in check; what exactly broke down the negotiations between Caesar and the Senate.
The American ethos is deeply pragmatic; nonetheless, practical lawyer-statesmen, like Adams, saw themselves as students of Greece and Rome. The Founding Fathers believed that by studying the political, historical, and philosophical works of antiquity, light could be shed upon their own situation. Through these models from the past, they could remake the present. Their purpose was not merely to understand history, but to intervene in it.
There was one notable exception, among the founders, to this trend: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was sui generis. He shared some of the scrappy, hard-bitten, rebellious drive of many Boston Calvinists, and then, springing for Philadelphia, rebelled against them.
Franklin was the prototypical American, a self-made man, wily, inventive, entrepreneurial, public-spirited and practical. Despite not being “educated”, he, too, brimmed over with practical wisdom. And with that practicality came an educational philosophy which put Benjamin Franklin at odds with the other founders and framers of the United States. This apprentice and autodidact lacked any classical bent. His mode of operation was more unmoored from historical precedent and more excited by the exploration of the world of today and tomorrow than of yesteryear.
In his Autobiography he makes an argument not only against Greek, but against Latin too. Why study these onerous languages when the modern languages can be more immediately and usefully deployed? Many students slave over Latin, never gaining enough proficiency to use it, and thus gaining little for years of effort. When classicists argued that learning Latin is a gateway to other languages, Ben countered with, Why not learn current commercial and diplomatic languages and those students still interested can then run off to stuff their nose into a dusty tome of Virgil?
Nonetheless, Benjamin Franklin wasn’t an iconoclast against ancient learning. The library he founded contained all the available classical works. Furthermore, the establishment of his Philadelphian Academy in 1749 included a rector who taught Greek and Latin. Franklin was fairly conciliatory and broad-minded. While he was ambivalent about the ancient flame, he was electrified by the 18th century’s leap in producing useful knowledge.
Franklin’s ambivalence provokes a question: is the study of the classics a mere display of cultural refinement? Or did Benjamin Franklin, the outlier, overlook something in his rejection of the classics?
The heart of the question for us is, can practical wisdom be usefully and reliably gained from the classics?
History in the time of Rome’s Triumph
Perhaps only experience is the only teacher of wisdom. Academia be damned. But if any field of study is going to be useful for acquiring practical wisdom without lifetimes of personal experience, it is history. The Greek and Romans saw in history the case-study approach to practical wisdom.
“From history one can find every model of behavior,” wrote Livy. “Works of the intellect outstrip those of the body (and from it one can learn) how to excel in peace as well as war," we hear from Sallust, whose concern was the preservation of a peaceful government. Polybius makes the case that “the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of history.”
Polybius was the historian most devoted to understanding the big question of 150 BC: All nations jockey and grow and compete, but why, out of them all, did Rome triumph?
Who is so worthless or indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government — a thing unique in history? Or who again is there so passionately devoted to other spectacles or studies as to regard anything as of greater moment than the acquisition of this knowledge?
Polybius surveyed the Roman constitution in detail. He wanted to find the general lesson for how good governance progresses. And unlike Aristotle who based his analysis in Politics on successful city-states of 180 years prior, Polybius had a solid example of a constitutional order which managed to dominate Greece and, soon enough, the Mediterranean.
In his Histories, Polybius suggests an explanation for the great success of Rome: the balance of the various forms of government contained in one structure.
Polybius defined the elements of the Roman constitution compared to the constitutions of Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Crete, and Carthage. Its mixed form of government, its military habits and incentives, and its religious customs all gave Rome advantages missing in the other poleis. Briefly, the consulship of two controlled all administrative practices. Although a powerful duarchy, it could make no great expenditures or declare military action without a decree of the Senate. The Senate independently dealt with matters of foreign policy, heard the case of all high crimes, and disbursed funds for the construction and maintenance of buildings. The people’s assembly decided punishments, passed and repealed laws, and voted for or against declarations of war. Thus elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy were combined.
In every aspect of affairs of state (domestic, foreign, judicial, and executive) each of the three elements had a role to play. Each could support or trouble the other elements, limiting or coordinating activity without too much miscommunication.
The idea that one needs to create a system which balances the interests of individual coalitions and the whole is also found in Aristotle’s Politics:
The two principles of democracy and virtue temper each other… In a well attempted polity there should appear to be both elements [the democratic and the aristocratic] and yet neither… Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.
The Romans found their way to a more fine-grained version of Aristotle’s solution without the benefit of deep historical study or academic political theory. It was historical circumstances and pragmatic governance that cast them into their winning configuration, not the study of Aristotle. The Americans who knew the great successes and failures of the Greeks and Romans wrestled with the herculean task of applying those lessons to their own circumstances. They were consumed by the same issues that the Greek and Roman historians were trying to puzzle through. They were trying to be wise, not merely lucky.
Classical Civilization as a Sandbox for Practical Wisdom
The classics come from a world that is smaller than our own.
Can studying a small world be more useful than a more complex one? Isn’t complexity and navigating an information rich society the task before us? Though human nature remains unchanged, our world is bigger. As a litmus test of this complexity, consider the number of careers which exist today. The staggering number of possibilities should overwhelm us.
The weight of so much history, philosophy, science, technology, and politics since 1800 has crowded out the classics in many ways. And accordingly, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, and even Cicero are now only discussed by specialists. And yet, this is not a cause to mourn the classics. Nor a reason to bury them. Out of our classical foundations, we have built a clearly better world, a world built on literacy, numeracy, and creativity. These tools have led to education, fertility, and electricity, and that trifecta of accomplishments has led to creative destruction and economic growth across the globe.
But what can the 50,000-person city-states of the Greeks teach nations numbered in the millions, or even billions? The sea of complexity produced by a world at our scale floods us with difficulties perhaps unimaginable to the ancient sages.
The answer is that when it comes to understanding how society operates, a smaller society which is relatively similar may be of great use.
I have written before that classical civilization is the perfect sandbox for students to play around with questions concerning civilization. It is of a manageable complexity, distant yet familiar, something we can both approach with impartiality and yet make our own. And more than this, understanding the rise and fall of the classical world teaches us valuable lessons about the hard work of building, preserving, and extending civilization.
One of the amazing things about studying classics is the immersive quality of the pedagogical approach. When a person studies classics, they become immersed in languages, philosophy, politics, economics, mathematics, rhetoric, art, architecture, religions, cults, and the lives of great and awful men and women. Students who climb this stair come to see how many individual decisions, cultural norms, and aesthetic preferences create both the big landscape and the subtle contours of an era.
Essentially, the classics provide a self-contained simulation of manageable size. That is how they can teach practical wisdom, despite being ancient works. More than other parts of history, the classics may even be uniquely suited to that task, covering the right topics in the right ways, ways that allow practical wisdom to be drawn out of them.
The early Americans fostered their own practical wisdom with study of the recent British civil war, personal experiences with law and mercantilism, and the classics. When I imagine Alexander Hamilton reading The Wealth of Nations sitting in the cold trenches and forts of the Continental Army, his mind is actively building and refining models of political economy. In those models, he creates counterfactuals and runs simulations, and from those counterfactual scenarios, he creates a view about what features of the economy and government matter most. Alexander is trying to build out a framework that then can be used to identify and weigh relevant facts.
Let us go back to Benjamin Franklin as the model critic of the classics. Recall that Franklin suggested that modern languages and culture were more useful to the average person because they were alive and present. Only select eggheads understand Greek and Latin enough to derive value.
Three kinds of challenges to the classics exist today, and all can be derived from Franklin’s ethos: cultural agnosticism about the classics, progressivism about all sciences, and preference for the contemporary social science toolset over raw historical study.
First objection: cultural agnosticism
It may not be the Greek and Romans per se that make the difference in gaining practical wisdom, but rather the people who studied them. The smartest and most prestige-seeking people were attracted to studying the classics because of the challenge and signal of intelligence it provided, rather than its utility. The interdisciplinary approach and close reading of texts in original languages could be applied to any culture, resulting in deep insights and useful lessons.
However, one issue with this view is that primary sources frame what types of readings are available. While some historians may offer complex arguments for consideration, others may not. Our views of history are crafted by the mental maps of the authors. Classical authors are generally keen commentators on human affairs and not all eras and geographies are so fortunate. The medieval “mirror of princes” historical genre is enjoyable for enthusiasts and useful for historians, but the authors are addressing different questions about kingship than the classical authors are about politics. That different orientation to the world decreases their sensitivity to the issues salient for republican governance.
A second issue with the culturally agnostic view is that there is typically more to learn from someone you wish to emulate than someone you don’t. For example, chess grandmasters are better teachers of chess than amateurs. Similarly, Greece and Rome were perceived as worthy teachers of enlightened government and a rational approach to the world. By 200 BC, they were at the forefront of military history, architecture, geometry, biology, ethics, and political theory. While all cultures are worth studying, when it comes to gaining practical wisdom one has to make judgment calls about whose institutions are worth emulating.
As a side note, I would like to to see a study of the US founders’ engagement or lack thereof with medieval and early modern republics like Venice, Florence, and the Netherlands. Would these have been examples of interest to them or not?
Second objection: progressivism in science and technology
Perhaps we have surpassed the Greeks and Romans in science and technology, and so their philosophy and historiography are obsolete.
Times change and with them the skills that make one free to live a flourishing life. While law, theology, and medicine used to be the only possible professions for educated free people, today we have viable careers in science, engineering, and technical arts. These disciplines attract the smartest people and provide better reasoning ability through complex problems. While studying classics may be an option for leisure time, it is not considered useful. So the argument runs.
However, to effectively tackle the intricacies of our world, one must have not only technical skills but also a vision of how those skills fit into the bigger picture.
When I look out at the world, it seems to me that the best people in STEM integrate broad-based scientific knowledge with political and business acumen and understanding of human nature animating their work. They have the synthesizing habits of the classical approach.
For example, teams must be led by generalists who possess a set of skills required to communicate across different fields of expertise. Virtue, context, perspective, and human understanding are necessary for their work. Technical skills and social skills are important at the micro-level, but incomplete. The narrow skills are deployed best by people who understand some history of social and political frameworks. The combination skills and mental models of history makes people more free and creates a more flourishing society.
Third objection: modern social science
The classics provided the seeds of social theory, but today we do better than theory. We have the science, data collection, and empirical tools that Lucretius never dreamed of. Social scientists study all the questions that the Americans were interested in: politics, law, institutions, economics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. And they do it with more robust methods than any historian or philosopher of 200 AD.
Consider economics. We have a sophisticated theory of price and price movements that take advantage of calculus, laws of supply and demand, and total factor productivity. In behavioral science and psychology, we do much better empirical work about how experts make decisions under uncertainty. Gary Klein’s psychological research on how experts make decisions helps firms and individuals learn how to build the intuitions to become masters of sensemaking within their area of expertise. In political science, we don’t merely have six different forms of government to analyze, but a nearly continuous number of constitutional structures based on hundreds of nations and many thousands of institutions.
Some might hope to replace classical studies, and history generally, with social science. The models of the social sciences rely upon abstraction. It is not obvious from reading the result of a social science paper whether it will generalize or not, whether it will replicate or not, or whether it is relevant or not. A zealous reliance on social science theories pulls beautiful theories out of the sense data, yet is dangerous. The danger, of course, is that in the process of abstraction some essential context is lost. Depending on what part of the social science sphere one inhabits, one can wind up in an intellectual straightjacket, living in a world of theory without history, models without contingency, contingency without humanity, humanity without choice, choice without individuals.
What classics offer to the social sciences is another type of model, one which should have a seat at the table, despite being less quantitative and despite the theories of the authors being less robust. The classics offer models of society based upon individuals, institutions, and philosophy: Cato, Pompey, Caesar. It’s a model (or set of models) taken from a different, original, yet very powerful worldview. Just as the bible is not systematic theology, the classics are not systematic arts and sciences. Both are filled with arguments, contradictions, confusions, poetry, philosophy, narrative, and beauty – those softer things which influence humanity in more subtle ways than the statistically significant incentives we study in economics. It would be a very sorry scholar who never returned ad fontes for the primordial cultural brew from which his own estate was born.
These three challenges go to excess when they are not tempered by other models of engaging the world. What they have in common is a narrowing of experience and epistemic expectations into more precise expressions. This is great progress for generating expertise, but insufficient for relating different fields of expertise to one another.
We must be careful, however. Excessive classicism is not the proper response. The classical model, at its best, offers a balance between history and abstractions without turning into navel-gazing classicism. C.S. Lewis argued that the obsessive Ciceronian formalism of the Renaissance killed Latin as a living language. We don’t want a return to deep linguistic classicism, to a rarefied aestheticization of everything. Aesthetics, philology, and philosophy can be the delight and aim of our minds, but aiming at only the transcendent things exclusively does violence to nature and to the opportunity to use our minds to partake in the creation of value. Training in only the abstractions of Plato is insufficient for actually serving the Good.
To put it in old Ben Franklin’s jovial pithiness, “I find the best way to serve God is by serving my fellow man.” This was the attitude of a man whose contributions to civilizational progress included everything from a written guide on how to swim, to roasting turkeys with electricity, to organizing a fire brigade, to building a library, and even hosting a constitutional convention. Franklin was no scholar, no philosopher, not a scientist, nor even a politician; he became all these as time and circumstance allowed. As a generalist, he grew into the free classical ideal of the man of practical wisdom.
The works of Greeks and Romans have been a Schelling point for intellectual generalists for two millennia. Like parents who cease parenting when the child grows up, the classics have switched from godlike parents into a council of advisors. As they become more distant, we become more capable of engaging them as equals. This trend will continue for as long as we find ways to draw inspiration from them.
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