Category Archives: 7 Hard Problems

Antiquity 3: Reading “Rubicon”

I’m almost done with Tom Holland’s “Rubicon”.  Close enough to the end — we are at the point of Caesar’s showy campaigns in Gaul and the collapse of his first Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus — to see how the stories are going to work out.

I know now how to a break the spirit of a citizen of the Roman Republic: pour shit on his head.  Or, more to the point, exile him from Rome.  The latter was apparently enough to break the spirit of Cicero, who goes from “pretty square guy” to “mouthpiece for Pompey and Caesar” after just a bit of exile.

(I’m being flip.  How would any of us react to exile, forced separation from our families, the country that gave us life and defines us, etc. etc.?  Not well.)

But a lot of the work of destroying the Roman Republic wasn’t done by threats or blows or exile alone but by the ceaseless slow work of corruption.  Holland tells us the same story a dozen times: a member of the Roman Senate is scared by threats and then seduced by a lucrative governorship or proconsul stint.  He forgets his civic virtues (or, worse, re-imagines his civic virtues to consist of the very things he is doing to betray them).

A pretty potent parable.  Makes me think our Republic doesn’t have much of a chance.


Antiquity 2: The Death of the Roman Republic

(Lest anyone think I’m being systematic here, I’m not.  I jumped to the “Death of the Roman Republic” because, of the twenty books I have on deck to read (about antiquity and other topics) “Rubicon” called out to me to be read.)

So it is not hard to find parallels between the collapse of the Roman Republic in 27 BC and the potential collapse of the American Republic in the era of Trump.

What a book like “Rubicon” (by Tom Holland) does is to frame the establishment of the Roman Empire (which is what happened in 27) with:

  1. The story of the ~100 years which preceded 27
  2. Some themes which the author posits about the Roman Republic — the tension between competitiveness and civic-mindedness, for example — which made the Romans unable to save their democracy
  3. The massive corruption ensuing from the colonies and their corrosive effect on Roman politics and elites.

Americans, too, have been corrupted by our Empire, although our corruption takes a different form than the “loot and slaves” of the Romans.  We are probably in graver danger from the power of super-national corporations that can move capital and jobs rapidly from less complaisant geographies of the world to more complaisant ones.

Just about halfway through “Rubicon”, to be followed by Mary Beard’s SPQR and then — if it doesn’t put me to sleep — “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire”, by M. Rostovtzeff.  If you know some better sources, please let me know.

Antiquity 1: The End of the Middle Ages

I cleverly avoided studying “Western Civ” in both high school and college.  A pity, because, although I had studied it in grade school — and thought a grade-school course was enough — it wasn’t.  It would have behooved me to have a go at either Exeter or Harvard, where I would have gotten a world-class exposure.

Instead I’m coming back to it late(r) in life, now in my sixties, and having to play catch-up.  The downside of doing so is that I may not have enough time.  The upside is that I’m a better steward of my time and more in touch with my purposes.

My purpose is 1) to get a hold on how “the modern era” (the era of science, humanism, liberal democracy) arose out of the seemingly unpromising Middle Ages and 2) to figure out and savor exactly what was stunning about what they thought back in antiquity.

(I’m aware that “the Middle Ages” is a catch-all term for 1000 years of history — from, say, the Fall of Rome to 1500 — of wildly varying character.  That topic is also grist for the mill: you see why I’m worried about time?)

So, I’ve read “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, and I’m in the midst of “Rubicon”, by Tom Holland and “The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox”, by Stephen Jay Gould (posthumous).

Gould makes the case that the transition from “the Middle Ages” to “the Scientific Revolution” was not a simple struggle between science and dogma but rather a two-step process (at least!), consisting of:

  1. Humanism in revolt against Dogma: in this phase the humanists looked to “Antiquity” (Greece and Rome) for new wisdom that had been forgotten/suppressed by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom.  Both Greenblatt and Gould make the case that there was both forgetting and suppressing.
  2. Science in revolt against Humanism: Humanism, the reverence from the Ancient, became a dogma in its own right, and science-oriented thinkers in Europe (and, in time, America) touted the virtue of direct observation over reverence for the past.

Greenblatt provides lots of supporting detail which seems to support this point of view.  He is, however, after a different quarry: he wants to emphasize:

  1. What a near thing it was that we ever recovered Lucretius’ Epicurean masterpiece “On the Nature of Things”
  2. How vile the Christianity of the 1500’s was
  3. What had to happen in order for the science-based order to come into being.

These to me represent a more complicated point of view than I’ve been accustomed to, but for historians I’m sure it’s a glib oversimplification.  At any rate, that’s what some reviewers said per the Wikipedia article on Greenblatt’s book.  I’ll take it as my working theory for the time being.

So: 1) there is Truth beyond The Church and 2) Seek Truth from skeptical theories about Nature.

I want to read Lucretius now, of course, but first I want to find out more about Rome (and then probably about Greece).

Themes for study and learning in February

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done this!  I had no idea, and although, of course, the other stuff I’ve been doing has been boundlessly important, I’m sorry to have let this one go.

So, themes for study in February:

  1. Future of Work.  This is robots, guaranteed annual income, future of labor, AI, etc.
  2. Antiquity.  I’m interested in the glory that was Greece (and Rome :-)), why it got hammered, and what we can learn about classicism, faith, science, curiosity, paganism, etc.
  3. Morning Routines.  I’m trying (yet again) to “Kaizen” my morning routine, so I’ll be looking at stuff like Tim Ferris’ “Tools of Titans”, Mason Currey’s “Daily Rituals”, etc.