Friday, March 27, 2009

Mark Antony ConsideredOf all the Great Romans of his time whose exploits and persons are written about in Plutarch and other ancient authors, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Cato the Younger, Pompey the Great, even the arrogant and ill-fated Crassus, Mark Antony was always the one I found least impressive. My favorite was Pompey the Great, who in his youth and early manhood was the golden boy of this generation, and had the misfortune, as it were, to live too long. Cicero came off as an intellectual who foolishly got mixed up in disputes with the wrong crowd without having anybody at his own back; in his natural sphere of action he was a singular talent, however. Cato had one of the most remarkably developed, and disciplined, consciences of all time, wholly free from any taint, so far, it seems, as he could make out according to his own rigorous processes, either of impure motive or illusion. He went to his death, the books say, with the edifice of his mind unbroken in all its parts, and raised even then to the most complete and superior state it had ever to point attained. Antony, on the other hand, seemed to lack any particularly distinguishing spark of mind, an able, perhaps even likable, second banana, and manager of campaigns, enterprises, etc, in cooperation with or under the direction of men of greater talents, but intellectually rather out of his league at the extreme levels of society, culture and politics where he ultimately found himself. His end, at least as it has been traditionally conveyed, was pitiable. To fall under the spell of sensualism so recklessly! I do not begrudge indulgences in such exertions if one is of an irresistibly lusty constitution, indeed I stand in awe of them, so long as the sensualist does not deplete his strength, that quality which is the source of his greatness, in his debaucheries. The first Caesar, if legend is to be believed, came upon the teenaged Cleopatra, infused her with his love, and progeny, and one imagines contributed to the formation of her ultimate character that was found so marvelous and attractive, and returned to the arenas of war and politics twice as robust, which lends credence to the theory that such kinds of sexual affairs, where a man acts as a sensual and worldly teacher to a young girl/woman, are generally invigorating to men of parts at least and a spur to dynamic actions and achievements in the public sphere. Antony meanwhile found himself infatuated with a woman whose character and intellect were already as it were formed beyond anything he could contribute further, and his hopeless determination to defy this limitation drained him of all his force and heat. Mark Antony himself does not stir up much more feeling in my imagination, so I will write something of my feelings about the Roman world generally. Because this blog is not about thought of course, but is about the struggle to give feelings something of the form of thought.

On the rare occasions when I dare to peek at the writings of modern scholars with a serious background in Greek or Roman studies, I usually become depressed within a few sentences, so great, I discover, is the gulf between any real knowledge of those times and peoples, and what the general mass of the public has been told about them. As seems to be the case in most areas of study in our times also, at the same time that the knowledge and work of a tiny cadre of experts is vastly superior to that of generations of predecessors and amateurs in their fields, the level of accurate, semi-thorough basic knowledge in these areas among the ranks of the nominally educated but non-expert seems to be dropping. Hence the scholarly understanding of say, the Latin language, its origins, the translations of its literature, etc, are heaps more accurate, supposedly, than they were in 1750, despite the circumstance that a more than working knowledge of Latin was taken for granted in all writings aimed at educated people at that former period, and hardly anyone who is not a specialist could decipher so much as the Vulgate Bible in it today. When John Stuart Mill's father set out to teach him Greek at the age of three, there was not even any such thing as a Greek-English lexicon (that did not appear until the 1840s or 50s), the father himself had to serve as his own lexicon, with reference to a Latin-Greek dictionary if he happened to forget the meaning of one of the words in Homer or elsewhere that only has one or two known appearances in the whole of Greek literature. With such handicaps it is doubtless certain that Mill and his father knew much less about the real nature of Greek history and culture than modern research reveals to us. The question of course is why the general dissemination of knowledge such as the Greek language, which would appear to be so much easier to teach to a far wider range of learners now, and would seem to be no less useful a foundation for acquiring all sorts of other knowledges and cognitive skills than it ever was, appears to have actually declined among the identifiably bright? Surely it is not taught well enough in most instances, perhaps not infused enough with the right spirit/conviction when it is competently taught? I suspect that if one really learned the languages, and really read the literature, all of the things--music, economics, women's status, history--it is argued, that an education based solely on reading, leaves out, you would find yourself as immersed in the actual nature of these subjects about as accurately as it is possible to get. The more knowledge you have, the more facts you know, the more other knowledges you will find yourself coming into contact with, the more insights are likely to come to you. Far from ignoring or closing off aspects of Greek life or the Greek mind that lay outside the acceptable narrative of Greatness!, Greatness!, Greatness! the interpretations and conclusions of former scholars, their understanding regarding these matters concerning the whole of Greek or Roman society I suspect are underestimated, because they understood certain aspects of life differently than we do, and took others for granted that we don't. We, or I should say many modern scholars, seem to make it a point of honor not to allow themselves to take this into consideration.

This reminds me of the 13 volume set of Will Durant's history of civilization, which we used to have in our house, I must confess, and which books I have the general impression are laughed at by serious people, the truly intelligent, and that whole crowd, you may or may not know who they are. Anyway, it always seemed to me that if one actually read all the books, whatever the interpretations of the writers, exposure to the facts alone, which for the most part I would think are not controversial, would still make one more knowledgeable about history than probably 99% of the population--even if only 97 or 98 that is still a decent start--but I guess the argument is, everyone who is actually intelligent knew everything in the Will Durant book when he was 12, and understood it better than Will did, so the idea that sitting in your veneer-paneled basement thumbing through such books is going to do anything meaningful for your intellect is a cruel, even borderline sadistic joke to be perpetrating on the earnest American masses.

If I still had those Will Durant books I would have looked up what he said about Mark Antony and Cleopatra for you, but I don't have them.

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