What to do with the past?

Those of you, who like me, have been paying attention to the demands of students around the world, especially in Yale,  South Africa and UK, for a rewrite of history would welcome the suggestion by this reader of the Economist who wrote

What to do about Confederate monuments? One suggestion as you reported is to add plaques to them explaining their background (“Recast in stone”, February 6th). Statues and monuments are immediately visual experiences, not reflective mental experiences. Remove the sabre from the hand and put into it a lash and from the other hand a chain that leads to a collar around the neck of some poor miserable wretch. Add one or more statues of slaves to every monument to the Confederacy and the viewer will immediately and viscerally understand what the civil war was about and what Confederate soldiers fought for. Instantly those men will be deprived of the patina of nobility and gallantry that they did not earn and do not deserve to have attributed to them.

STEPHEN MERRIMAN
Bang Bua Thong, Thailand

This way all groups are appeased; those who want the monuments to stand get their wish and those who feel the monuments don’t tell the entire story also get their voice heard.

But I think there’s a problem when students in higher institutions of learning prefer sanitising their environment of every history. I have read of students voting to ban free speech groups on campus!  What’s the world coming to? Are the current generation of students so pampered they can’t read Huckleberry Finn without crying erase the nigger references! What world will they preside over?

Consider

These words of Plutarch.

[..]It may be possible enough, that statues may seem to sweat, and to run with tears, and to stand with certain dewy drops of a sanguine color; for timber and stones are frequently known to contract a kind of scurf and rottenness, productive of moisture; and various tints may form on the surfaces, both from within and from the action of the air outside; and by these signs it is not absurd to imagine that the deity may forewarn us.  It may happen, also, that images and statues may sometimes make a noise not unlike that of a moan or groan, through a rupture or violent internal separation of the parts; but that an articulate voice, and such express words, and language so clear and exact and elaborate, should proceed from inanimate things, is, in my judgment, a thing utterly out of possibility.  For it was never known that either the soul of man, or the deity himself, uttered vocal sounds and language, alone, without an organized body and members fitted for speech.  But where history seems in a manner to force our assent by the concurrence of numerous and credible witnesses, we are to conclude that an impression distinct from sensation affects the imaginative part of our nature, and then carries away the judgment, so as to believe it to be a sensation:  just as in sleep we fancy we see and hear, without really doing either.  Persons, however, whose strong feelings of reverence to the deity, and tenderness for religion, will not allow them to deny or invalidate anything of this kind, have certainly a strong argument for their faith, in the wonderful and transcendent character of the divine power; which admits no manner of comparison with ours, either in its nature or its action, the modes or the strength of its operations.  It is no contradiction to reason that it should do things that we cannot do, and effect what for us is impracticable:  differing from us in all respects, in its acts yet more than in other points we may well believe it to be unlike us and remote from us.  Knowledge of divine things for the most part, as Heraclitus says, is lost to us by incredulity.

Then we get to know partly his motivation for writing this history. He writes

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.  Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were, in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view

Their stature and their qualities,

and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.

Ah, and what greater pleasure could one have?

or, what more effective means to one’s moral improvement?

And he continues to write

My method[in response to what he writes Democritus advice], on the contrary, is, by the study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best and worthiest characters.  I thus am enabled to free myself from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged in, by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm temper to view these noble examples.

I don’t know about you, but yours truly agrees with Plutarch and hopes that by the end of this study, we, individually and severally, will be better for it and  also that in my brief snippets do justice to the men as illustrated by Plutarch.

 

Camillus, Pericles, Fabius Maximus

Camillus was five times chosen dictator, triumphed four times, and was styled a second founder of Rome, yet never was so much as once consul.

During his censorship one very good act of his is recorded, that, whereas the wars had made many widows, he obliged such as had no wives, some by fair persuasion, others by threatening to set fines on their heads, to take them in marriage; another necessary one, in causing orphans to be rated, who before were exempted from taxes, the frequent wars requiring more than ordinary expenses to maintain them.

He got himself banished from Rome for being too powerful. These Romans and Greeks were interesting people. Anytime someone appeared to have so much power, they banished him from the state. I wish we could do this now.

Pericles is a man who was beyond corruption. He, for reasons unknown to us, led to the death of many Athenians in the Peloponnesian war by failing to ratify the peace treaty that the  Lacedaemonians had offered could satisfy him.

Most of his laws are not extant today, or rather, were not extant in the time of Plutarch.

He adorned Athens with grand buildings. And when the citizens complained that he had drawn a lot of money from the public treasury, he asked that the buildings to be charged to his account and have the inscriptions in his name. The citizens on hearing this pleaded with him to draw from the public account and do as he pleased either to bring down or to build whatever monument or building he thought good for the public good.

He was frugal. There is a report that his household was not amused at his exactness with regards to spending. He even had an “accountant” whose duty was to ensure there was no waste in the family.

Of his head, a poem is written thus

And here by way of summary, now we’ve done,

Behold, in brief, the heads of all in one.

I know you know that great speech by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pericles paying tribute to those who had lost their lives in war said

For, we do not see them themselves, but only by the honors we pay them, and by the benefits they do us, attribute to them immortality; and the like attributes belong also to those that die in the service of their country.

His greatest failure, if we can call it that, was to let personal difference between him and Cimon and Thucydides use his power to have them ostracized.

After the loss of his legitimate sons, he asked that a law that stated only lawfully begotten children could be considered citizens be repealed so

so the name and race of his family might not, for absolute want of a lawful name and race of his family might not, for absolute want of a lawful heir to succeed, be wholly lost and extinguished.

A request the people granted arguing his suffering deserved their pity and even indignation, and his request was such as became a man to ask, and men to grant.

Fabius we are told was the son of Hercules and nymph.

He was five times consul, and in his first consulship had the honor of a triumph for the victory he gained over the Ligurians, whom he defeated in a set battle, and drove them to take shelter in the Alps, from whence they never after made any inroad nor depredation upon their neighbors.

During his reign, Hannibal attacked Italy and for a long time he tried to avoid direct combat with him arguing that with time Hannibal would be forced to retire and return to Carthage. Many of the Romans thought this strategy was because of a lack of courage on his part.

As testament to his honour and wisdom, we have Minucius, a young general who had been given as much power as Fabius address his troops in this manner

To conduct great matters and never commit a fault is above the force of human nature; but to learn and improve by the faults we have committed, is that which becomes a good and sensible man.  Some reasons I may have to accuse fortune, but I have many more to thank her;for in a few hours she hath cured a long mistake, and taught me that I am not the man who should command others, but have need of another to command me; and that we are not to contend for victory over those to whom it is our advantage to yield.  Therefore in everything else henceforth the dictator must be your commander; only in showing gratitude towards him I will still be your leader, and always be the first to obey his orders.

We find ambition and rivalry made him oppose the campaign of Scipio to Carthage, a campaign that in the end saw the defeat of Hannibal and Carthage come under Rome, a victory Fabius did not live to see for he died shortly after Hannibal left Italy for Carthage after being recalled to attend to matters at home.

such is the candidature of the popes

[..]the successful candidate is drawn from the church and even the convent- from the mode of education and life that are most adverse to reason, humanity and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith he has learned to believe because it’s absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues, to place the saints of the calender above the heroes of Rome and sages of Athens and to consider the missal, or the crucifix as more useful instruments than the plough or loom.

Edward Gibbon, the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, pg 632