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Tag: Livy

Truth, Eternity, and Mere Facts

The Magician's Twin http://bit.ly/magictwin

On my way back from a recent meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group, I caught a snippet of Al Kresta’s interview with John G. West, editor of a new book called The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.  West was discussing the philosophical shortcomings of scientism, an ideology that reduces all truth to that which can be verified empirically. Coincidentally, at our writers’ meeting, I’d just had a conversation with a writer working on a short story that explores a similar theme.

This coincidence points to a problem that plagues the modern mind, i.e., the bad habit of confusing mere facts with truth, of conflating knowledge and wisdom. The world we live in today is obsessed with facts, yet has little understanding of (or appreciation for) truth; when scientists claim they know something to be true, we too often take them at their word, never questioning the relationship between particular empirical facts and universal truths. Few scientists are willing to admit the inability of the scientific method to arrive at universal truth (although it can, I believe — if properly employed — inexorably approach absolute truth). Anyhow, if you don’t believe me, watch this TED talk (since banned from the TED channel for daring to question the dogmas of scientism)by biologist Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge University. (If you like the video, you might like his book as well: The Science Delusion — recently re-published under the title Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.)

Christians know – or should know – that the most important truths cannot be verified by science. These are immaterial, spiritual, and transcendent, metaphysical, literally beyond the realm of science. (Let us not forget that science can observe, and pronounce judgments on, only material and contingent (physical) reality. If it claims to be able to do more, it lies.) Sadly, the modern age has seen a schism introduced between physics and metaphysics, which at times appears to be more of an all-out war.

‘Twas not ever so, however. Earlier ages (one might say wiser ones) understood that there is more to the cosmos than meets the eye, and until the modern era people had no trouble grasping the idea that the immaterial and transcendent is greater than (i.e. truer and more important than) the merely material, because the former is eternal while the latter is contingent and ephemeral. In ancient times, the imagination was often of more help than the naked intellect in grasping such immutable truths. This is why, at the dawn of western culture, poets were considered something akin to prophets; it’s why Homer and Hesiod invoked the immortal Muse to inspire their writings, so that they could adequately convey the truth about their poetic subjects.

Conversely, even fields that today we would regard as matters of fact – history, for instance – had something in common with poetry, in that the facts of the matter were important chiefly because of the universal truths that they bring to light. (Remember that Aristotle acknowledged that history was “philosophical,” but poetry was even more so.) When Livy sat down to compose his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, he acknowledged that there was scant documentary evidence for many of the legendary figures and events about which he wrote, but he didn’t necessarily see that as a stumbling block. In the preface to that massive work, he wrote:

I do not intend to either affirm or refute those traditions, more suitable to poetic fables than to authentic historical records, which are handed down from times before the founding of the city or from times just before it was founded. …

The traditions he referred to were the legends surrounding the birth and upbringing of Romulus and Remus, who were reputed to be demi-gods fathered by the war god, Mars. After being stolen from their mother and exposed in the wilderness (the “after birth abortion” common in the pagan world), they supposedly were suckled by a mother wolf who heard the

Sons of War God + Suckled by She-Wolf=
The founders of Rome were bellicose and savage,
like modern scientific dogmatists.

pitiful cries of the newborn twins. Livy did not wish to dispute pious legend, because his purpose was not to critique his source material but to expose the moral lessons contained therein, his overall aim in writing the history being the edification of the Roman people, who were greatly demoralized and disillusioned after generations of civil strife. Waving aside the question of whether Rome was literally or only figuratively born from the god of war, Livy goes on to say:

But, however those and similar myths are considered and judged, I myself will give them no importance. In my opinion each reader should focus attentively on these points: what were the life and customs? Through the actions of which men and by means of what skills, at home and in war, was dominion brought forth and increased? Thereafter the reader may follow mentally how morals collapsed, as is characteristic of a thing sitting idle, little by little when discipline was first slipping, then more and more, then began to plummet, until these times arrived in which we can tolerate neither our faults nor the remedies.

In other words, there were moral and civic lessons to be gleaned from this history that transcended mere fact or legend. If Livy had insisted (as a modern historian might) on recording only those public figures and events that could be pinned down with documentary certainty, his history would have been much shorter and of much less value either to his contemporaries or to his posterity.

Mere facts will get lost in the dust of time, but truth will endure.

©2014 Lisa A. Nicholas

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Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

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