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What Does Classical Education Have to Do With Revolution?

As I read about the political insanity this weekend and the ridiculous blame game for the looming government shutdown—will it be remembered as Trump’s fault or as Schumer’s fault?—I can’t help but think about what no one is talking about: how to solve our $21 trillion national debt. This number breaks down to a little over $170,000 per U.S. taxpayer.

It’s infuriating that the politicos attempt (and, more often than not, succeed) to distract us from this real issue. There’s an Orwellian element to all of this, whether intentional or not. That is, the most important issue is so critical that it is overwhelming in what it demands of our faculties to understand: that Washington, D.C., and our federal government are, at this point, simply insolvent. Whether this has been caused mainly by social issues or military ones, we’re insolvent. As some point, everyone will see the federal government for what it is, and, at that point, the collapse will be not just swift but horrific. Yet, there seems to be no reform coming. At least no serious reform.

Even the most pro-interventionist of the American founders, Alexander Hamilton, could never have imagined or desired the kind of federal government we have now. When he wrote of “energy” in government, he meant it as a means of restraint. To give “energy” to government meant, at least to Hamilton, giving the federal government the means to execute the powers expected of it by its Constitution. Rather brilliantly, he argued that a government charged with a duty but not empowered by the specific rules of that government to accomplish its duty would merely make up its own rules, thus taking government away from restraint and toward leviathan. Though many libertarians think of Hamilton as the touchstone for all future expansive government, they’re wrong. Even Alexander Hamilton desired ways to limit the expansion of government, and whether he wanted a strong executive or not, he envisioned a small, commercial republic as the proper outcome of the American revolution.

Over the previous three pieces in this series [1], “The Origins of the Rise of the Modern Nation State,” I’ve focused almost exclusively on the classical understanding of government. There is, I must confess, a method to my madness. One need only look at the actual classical words and symbols used by the founders to see how immensely indebted they were to the ancients. The U.S. Senate, for example, is modeled on the Maryland Senate, which is modeled on the Roman Senate. “Senate” comes from the Latin for “old wise men.”  If only!  

Two Roman fasces grace either side of the Speaker’s chair in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Or, even more blatantly, look at our capitol building. While we might expect our founders to have designed it as something grand and spectacular, such as the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal, or, even, English Parliament, they chose an architectural style from the height of the Roman Republic. Which, of course, is also why a Washington with thousands of armed guards, black SUVs, road blocks, and rooftop surface to air missiles looks so ominous. Nothing is worse when regarding the symbols of authority than the militarization of republican architecture. The fasces [2] of Congress quickly look like the fasces of Mussolini. Even if we don’t recognize it immediately, something in us reminds us of how readily Rome succumbed to the temptations of power as we drive around the D.C. of 2018.

The hold of the classical world on the founding mind, however, is much deeper than architecture or names. To enter college in one of the nine schools available in the American colonies in, say, 1750, one had to prove fluency in Greek and Latin. The grand historian of the period, Forrest McDonald and his wife, Ellen, explained:

Just to enter college during the eighteenth century—which students normally did at the age of fourteen or fifteen—it was necessary, among other things, to be able to read and translate from the original Latin into English (I quote from the requirements at King’s College—now Columbia—which were typical) “the first three of Tully Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid: and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be a ”expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’

To be prepared for a college education, pupils began studying Greek and Latin around the age of six or seven. Indeed, one thing we in the world of schooling for democratic citizenship often forget is that all education in the 18th Century was classical education (even the term, “classical education,” would be redundant to the 18th Century mind). One was supposed to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic at home. Schools taught only Greek, Latin, and classical literature. Even farm children, with only a year or two of schooling in their lives, spent their school days drilling Greek and Latin.

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For the truly enterprising student, he would also study Italian, if for no other reason than to read Dante in the original.

This is a world 300 years and 1 million miles apart from ours. It is no wonder, though, that George Washington (one of the few founders not liberally educated, interestingly enough) chose the mythic Republican Cincinnatus and the Republican rebel Cato the Younger as his exemplars or that the founders as a whole wanted a republic. This understanding of the classical world pervaded all of America, even the America that had not received much classical education, if any. Names such as George (Latin for agriculture), Narcissa, and Romulus were not uncommon proper names. Towns and counties took the names Homer, Athens, Remus, etc. Though not every American had read Virgil’s Aeneid, every American knew something about Aeneas, Troy, and Dido. Tellingly, the McDonalds reminded us, when American officers and French officers spoke on the field of battle during the Revolutionary War, they spoke in Latin, the only common language they shared. The index to the Federalist Papers quickly reveals as much, with 56 references to the classical and medieval world of the West and no references to John Locke.

Among the Romans, the American founders most appreciated and idealized the stoic Cato the Elder, the martyr Cicero, the poet Virgil, the historian Livy, and the theorist Tacitus. While the founders knew and studied the Greeks, it was the Roman Republicans that inspired them and the Roman imperials that terrified them.

“The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easier for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” historian Trevor Colbourn has written. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.”  

When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources:  

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.

Unlike the French or Russian revolutionaries, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a “brave new world,” the American patriots turned the world right-side up. They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. “We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book,” a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.

For this reason, the modern American conservative has a duty to know not just the origins of the American republic, but its origins in the Roman republic. After all, if we’re not conserving these things, what is it worth to be a conservative?  

When the founders of the United States created her, they wanted a republic, not an empire; a government, not a state; and a commonwealth not a democracy.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "What Does Classical Education Have to Do With Revolution?"

#1 Comment By Bill Occam (@drbilloccam) On January 21, 2018 @ 3:59 pm

Dear Mr Birzer,

Nice article! Reminds me of when I was a wee tyke taking Latin and my teacher was trying to convey the notion of pietas into us. She was adamant that it wasn’t important if Aeneas was real or not, we all need to strive toward Aeneas’s example of pietas.

With kind regards,

Bill

#2 Comment By Helvius Pertinax On January 21, 2018 @ 4:22 pm

As someone with a doctorate in Classics who was ertwhile an instructor in Latin at a Canadian university, I enjoyed reading this – the “are we Rome?” Question frames a peculiarly American genre of punditry – sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on whom you read. Minor quibbles: “George” is not “Latin for agriculture” – it is Greek for “farmer”, lit. Worker (ourgos) of the “earth” (Ge). The Latin equivalent would be “Agricola”. Neither do I know of any Classical scholars who would describe Tacitus, the historian of the Julio-Claudian emperors and shorter biographies (e.g. “Agricola”), as a “theorist” – that is a gross anachronism that no ancient author would have understood.

#3 Comment By Otis Day On January 21, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

At 21 trillion the debt is about 110% of GDP. While economists agree it’s better not to owe money, none of the establishment gurus think the debt creates an imminent danger of collapse. People out to sell you gold disagree. There are different schools of thought, of course.
As for the shutdown, any sophisticated person knows it’s a game of ‘Chicken’ (now a technical term in Game Theory) for which neither side can be ‘blamed’. Trying to blame each other before the lunkhead public is a cynical game both sides play because if one abstains the other won’t. It’s a classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

#4 Comment By B. Bagheri On January 21, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

This is a strange essay. Why try to paint revolutionaries as conservatives?

It is true that the American founders where inspired by the Roman history they knew. But creating a new republic based on an idealized long-dead Roman republic was nothing short of revolutionary as they themselves realized.

They drew on ancient sources because they believed those sources to have been informed by reason as opposed to superstition and folly. They didn’t do so just for the sake of being conservative.

#5 Comment By Ted Saad On January 21, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

If Conservatism does not show itself as a reforming the future by conserving the Truth, then it loses its essence. That’s why many of the libertarian Conservatives miss the mark. Still, politics will always fall downstream of culture.

#6 Comment By William Burns On January 22, 2018 @ 6:14 am

This is a bit of a nitpick, but I think the popularity of the name “George” had more to do with the fact that Britain and its empire had been ruled by a King George since 1714 than it did with the Georgics.

#7 Comment By Youknowho On January 22, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

The problem with taking Greece and Rome as ideals was that they based it on their romanticized views of both places.

They did not consider the constant warfare between cities in Greece, nor the descent of their admired Roman republic into the Empire depicted in “I Claudius” as warning signs that showed the flaws in their models.

Same as artists and writers enthusing about the marble purity of ancient statues, unaware how those statues were garishly painted in the good old days, wiht the paint weathered away through the centuries.

Still if you are going to take you inspiration from somewhere…

#8 Comment By Youknowho On January 22, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

Yes, nowadays few people study Latin and Greek in order to read the Classics.

Why should they? The few people who DO know those languages provide abundant translations for people to enjoy. Also the canon of classics have expanded and those works are NOT written in Latin or Greek though they might use themes gleaned from previous works.

The fact is that most graduates of those disciplines, if they work in the field, end up back in Academia, shows how little they count in the outside world.

#9 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 23, 2018 @ 9:21 am

Never got past “Caesar’s Gallic Wars.” Reading this makes me wish that I had taken four years of high school Latin rather than two.

#10 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On January 24, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

I was fond of the Greek antique period in high school and I understand the desire of Mr. Birzer to consider the events of history, taking as a starting point the Roman Republic. But how to build a concept that will become a benchmark for consolidating the efforts of various participants in the conservative movement? While we are trying figuratively speaking, “catch in words” the spirit of the imperishable value of conservative life. How to make ideas take on flesh, and not dissolve in non-existence, without getting a continuation?
European civilization stands on three pillars: Roman law, Greek democracy and Judaic morality. The situation with democracy and law is more or less clear.
Everything is much more complicated with morality, which draws strength from religion. In my opinion, morality and religion are most responsible for making ideas come to flesh. I really liked how unusually realistically wrote about this children’s writer Sven Nordqvist
in “The Mechanical Santa”
St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is one of the most revered Christian saint in Russia..