The study of antiquity in American schools is superficial, lackluster, and in a state of asphyxia. State curriculum frameworks have all but stripped the histories of ancient Greece and Rome of depth, meaning,
|Ancient bust of Seneca.|
Greek democracy failed miserably. The other city-states quivered under the threat of Athens and her oppressive empire. Furthermore, the Greeks often envisaged humans caught in a double-bind, ensnared in webs of conflicting moral obligations between their relations and the meddling gods. As a result, the Greeks thought themselves to be better off dead than living. “For man the best thing is never to be born, never to look upon the sun’s rays,” bemoaned Theognis of Megara. “That the best thing for a man is not to be born, and if already born, to die as soon as possible,” bewailed Silenus.
Rome was about more than a great capital city and gladiators. By the end of the republic, Romans desperately yearned for hope and meaning. The tyrants Caesar and Pompey battled not for honor and virtue, but for total control of the government. The Romans’ society was falling apart right before their eyes. Everything they believed in was slowly disappearing. “The whole scene is changed,” Cicero wailed, “as though for me the sun has fallen out of the sky.” Even more disconcerting was the idea that maybe this chaos was their fault. “[Rome] is crucified by conscience, tormented by shame,” decried Flaccus.
And yet, out of the misery and despair came life itself. The Greeks and the Romans offered ways to make life worth living. Through his teacher Socrates, Plato argued that aletheia, or the higher truth, was worth pursuing. When a person finds this deeper truth, she finds fulfillment because in knowing this truth she understands completeness and meaning. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declared that the deep joy that comes from knowing thyself and becoming an active citizen in society, i.e., happiness, makes life worth living. Plato’s aletheia and Aristotle’s happiness, however, only come from actions—search, deduce, pursue, and contribute.
Romans insisted that humans live by the philosophies of either Stoicism or Epicureanism. The Stoics rejected the senses, put mind over matter, and as a result felt no pain. To an Epicurean, the highest good is pleasure. It is best to enjoy the moment, and put one’s problems aside. Everyone is going to die no matter what and so carpe diem—seize the day; “seize” being a verb.
Read the Greeks and the Romans. Pursue life and truth. At some point in our lives, we are all captives of despair. But, as the Roman poet Seneca reminds us in his Troades, “Let us live. For captives this suffices.”