We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most srious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before.
The Great ConversationRobert M. Hutchins
With AI-centered technology like ChatGPT, the world of writing looks to be on the verge of changing yet again. LinkedIn, Instagram, Inc.com, Forbes, and all the news channels, writing groups, and copywriting-centered business haves like Copyblogger and AWAI have been blowing up with what AI means for what has been a human-centered activity since the Sumerians.
But is this new? No. It’s not. Writing trends have been changing since the beginning of writing.
How do we know? Well, we know because of the writers who no longer inspire us. The same kind of writers who are a specialty on my blog.
So, today, I’m going to introduce you to four Roman writers we no longer talk about or go to for inspiration but yet have done more for what we think than the majority of people out there will ever recognize.
They, too were the AI-fueled novelty of their day. And they continued to be must-read writers for most of our ancestors right up to the Victorian Era.
The Romans again!?!?
What if I were to tell you that, aside from Homer, the foundations of what we consider “Western” literature are centered in four Roman writers?
Would you be surprised? Shocked? Or would you roll your eyes in boredom?
I suspect the vast majority of you out there would roll your eyes. After all, does everything have to revolve around an Empire that went defunct well over two millennia ago? Why can’t we learn about a haiku for once or one of the Upanishads? What about Rumi?
Yes, it’s more fashionable to read one of the many Upanishads or delve into Sufi mystics like Rumi. But these do not negate how important our Roman forbears were to our worldview and our overall culture, both the good and the bad.
And contrary to what you may have been led to believe in school, the Roman poets we’re looking at his in this post are definitely pre-Christian, even though most of their fans were Christian themselves.
This makes them even more valuable, or should because they provide a vital literary link between the pre-Christian and the post-Christian world. These were works, when everything else was being destroyed, and were saved repeatedly from the clutches of religious fanatics. Sometimes, quite by accident. Now, that should intrigue anyone.
So, let’s go over a very brief introduction to each, shall we?
Virgil–he’s not just a Roman Homer.
Arms, and the man I sing, who forc’d by fate, And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate, Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Virgil is THE Roman poet to beat all the Roman poets. The Aeneid famously takes up the tale of Troy where The Iliad and The Odyssey leave off. It describes the wandering of Aeneas through the world at the behest of Hera until he discovers a land in Italy which later becomes Rome. h.
Fast-forward a bit. In fact, fast-forward all the way to the 1100s–the Medieval Era–and the birth of Arthurian literature. What is everyone referencing? The Aeneid and Virgil’s mythical foundation of Rome. Go a little further to Dante’s seminalDivine Comedy. Who’s one of the main characters? Virgil.
When Milton sits down to write Paradise Lost, who does he take as his poetic inspiration? Virgil.
The Aeneid, more so than either of the works we have from Homer is about exile, wandering, overcoming, and of finding home. It encompasses the entirety of what it means to live in a harsh world where everything changes, and not always for teh better. You can even go so far as to say that neither The Lord of the Rings nor The Wheel of Time would have existed without The Aeneid.
In fact, we continue to see Virgil at the top of reading lists well into the 20th century, but not entirely into the 20th century. Even my mother’s generation (the so-called Boomer generation) had started to forget writers like Virgil ever existed.
Why, you might ask? Mostly because we commit the grave sin of lumping Virgil in with Homer. We relegate Virgil as a sort of duplicate that merely casts the Trojan War in a way that honors Roman history. Except that he’s not.
When poets from Dante to Milton, to Tennyson, and beyond reference the writers who inspired them, nearly all of them will go to Virgil first and Homer only as a precursor.
The man who inspired writers from Shakespeare to Ezra Pound.
Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchesafe (for you are they ywroght this woundrous feat)
To further this mine enterprise.Ovid
When I was coming through school, Edith Hamilton’s book on mythology was the one most of the kids in school read to get their Greco-Roman mythology. My experience was the classic Bullfinch’s Mythology, but many of my peers experienced theirs through Edith Hamilton.
However, if you want to go directly to the source for most of the mythology we identify as being Greek or Roman, go to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Here, you’ll find not only the story of Creation, but the story of Apollo and Daphne, Jason and Medea, Athena and Arachne, and many more. In fact, Ovid focuses almost only on the stories where humans and gods change form. This is why he gives it the title he does: a human may metamorphose into a spider or a tree.
In fact, to hear his account of Creation itself is to witness another instance of one things changing into another. Why is this important for us? Because our own understanding of biology is based on the same concept—the idea that creation we know it is an ongoing process whereby living things change from one thing into another.
So why do we leave Ovid at the door along with Virgil? Well, that again goes back to our faulty modern “wisdom.” Why read Ovid when you can assign Edith Hamilton or Thomas Bulfinch? Well, one narrative is just like another, right?
Wrong. That’s like calling The Aeneid the Roman version of The Odyssey. There are other forces at work here. For one, the concept that Ovid is actually tying these things together thematically should tip you off from the start that what we’re looking at is not just another collection of myths, but a collection of myths that are told through the lens of change.
That means that while you can read Edith Hamilton or Thomas Bulfinch, or even Rick Riordan and get the jist of the myths, you are missing out on at least one very specific element which Ovid is using to enhance our understanding: change. Remember, the stories are about metamorphosis. Not just about the gods and humans.
Lucretius celebrates life and love. And causes offense to a lot of different people.
Since thou then are sole mistress of the nature of things and without thee nothing rises up into the divine borders yo light, nothing grows to be glad or lovely, fain would I have thee for a helpmate in writing the verses which I essay to pen on the nature of things.Lucretius
Lucretius is slightly lesser known than either Virgil or Ovid. In fact, I hadn’t heard of him until Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve came out in 2011/2012. At the time, I couldn’t appreciate Lucretius because I saw it as being almost too hedonistic. But, I also clung to some ideas out of false sense of duty. And fear.
In fact, the same fear Lucretius talks about.
If you haven’t read On the Nature of Things, it’s part philosophy, part science, and part poetry as it celebrates and describes the explosion of living things, plants, colors, and creatures in the world. Unlike the usual Roman works such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, it’s a love song to the Epicurean way of looking at the world.
It’s also a pearl-clutcher if you’re steadfastly closed-minded because it calls into question religion. And yes, at this time, it was pagan religion Lucretius was calling out. But, if freedom of thought and debate is something you cherish, then reading On the Nature of Things is a bit like reading Ayn Rand’s Anthem: empowering. If anything, it makes you want to roar in the world’s face and laugh at its reaction.
I fall into the latter category, although, as I realize now, I didn’t always embrace such philosophical abandon. But then, I had very little philosophy and it takes a lot of years of messing up, and of actually living to really come to a better understanding of the world.
And Lucretius enhances that understanding on more than one level.
But why is Lucretius still abandoned today?
You can thank those closed-minded pearl-clutchers for that. On BOTH sides. Because while the mainstream likes to make fun of what it calls “white middle-class” culture and portrays it as closed-minded, we all know that closed-mindedness isn’t just a white middle-class phenomenon. More than a few would read On the Nature of Things and call it blasphemy for Lucretius’ criticism of religion.
But then, “religion” as we understand it was not as Lucretius understood it. He lived in a society that had many religions, so when he calls out “religion” he was referring to the superstition and the horrible things some of those religions made their adherents do. Specifically, he recalls a young maid getting slain by her father for the sake of “religion.”
He doesn’t approve of murder. But then, if your “religion” calls for you to do horrible things like, say, betray your own family, murder your children, or otherwise be a nasty person, then you have to call into question not only the religious practice but the god or indeed the ideology
Let’s not forget the knitting wars of recent memory or the Twitter mob phenomenon. Or the machinations of certain ex-aristocrats and politicians who only cater to whatever crowd they can to get votes and adulation. Or how about certain public figures who have had greater privilege than most people but still claim because they are in a certain place on the color scale that they’re victims?
In light of those circumstances, it would seem we need to read Lucretius again.
Horace inspired poets for millennia, but we ignore him because we don’t want to do the work.
Horace used to enjoy greater prestige than he does currently. He wrote extensively in his lifetime and has odes and satires which bear his name. He influenced generations of other poets and satirists as well.
Why don’t we still read his works today? Well, I’ve read a few of his Odes, thanks to Project Gutenberg and they do take some getting used to. Like Dante, there are a lot of contemporary references that just don’t resonate with us like they would have for him, or even for a poet like Tennyson who was well-versed in Roman history.
Should this deter you? I don’t think it should Personally, think you should read his poetry and take it as a challenge. There’s nothing that says your “growth mindset” only has to be about business or any of the numerous contemporary “issues” that you can read about anywhere on the internet.
So go, read some Horace. You’ll appreciate it. Personally, I like his satirical poems And when was the last time in this present age when satire was properly appreciated?
Oh wait, this is the age where people can publish what is very obviously a satirical piece which the object of the satire justly earned and get “canceled” for it. Don’t even get me started on the more recent attempt by Greenwich University to virtue-signal by giving Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s best example of satire, a “trigger” warning.
See? Satire is offensive these days.
The real reason we don’t read the writers in this post.
We believe that in the passage of time the neglect of these books in the twentieth century will be regarded as an aberration, and not, as it is sometimes called today, a sign of progress.Robert M. Hutchins
Why don’t we read the four writers in this post? We don’t read them because we have closed minds. We’re so distracted, so misinformed, and so overwhelmed by everything else that we’ve forgotten treasures that should be enjoyed the world over. And we’ve forgotten them because we believed the lie of “relevance.”
There’s a huge set of books on my shelves in my library from Britannica Great Books. It’s 45 volumes in total and it has nearly everything from Homer to Freud. I’ve kept this series on my shelves for decades, even if I have several copies of some of those works.
Recently, I picked up the very first volume entitled The Great Conversation. It’s an introduction to the entire series with several essays on what comprises the “Great Conversation” as they call it.
I took two of the quotes in this post from the Preface of that first volume because while it was written in 1952, I think the ideas are as fresh today as when they were written. Fresh, and yet with the steady stability that our ancestors’ wisdom can provide.
That is what classics are all about. They aren’t about grandstanding. They aren’t about inclusion for inclusion’s sake. They are about communicating a common lived experience, even if that experience is slightly different. They don’t cease to be relevant with the passing of the years, they ARE the essence of relevancy in every age.
For the Romans in this post, that lived experience was like another world than what we experience today, but, as Stephen Greenblatt, modern scholar extraordinaire, and his 1952 predecessors at the heart of my collection of classics point out, these are the people who helped us get where we are. The least we can do is to draw upon their wisdom to help our future get to where it needs to be.
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