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Just what is this classical patrimony received by the inhabitants of North America and consciously cherished well into the twentieth century? To Europeans living west of the Elbe or south of the Danube, the remains of classical civilization are visible still: intelligent observes are aware of a continuity extending over many generations. For that matter, Roman ruins survive from the Atlantic shore of the Iberian peninsula all the way to the Euphrates, or from Scotland to Morocco. People who speak Romance languages cannot be altogether unaware of the Roman past, nor can Greeks forget their distant cultural ancestors.  But in North America, neither monuments of antiquity nor the roots of language can evoke memories of civilizations broken, yet somehow working through us in a ghostly fashion. Nevertheless, we pay public homage to long-dead Greeks and Romans. Why is the public architecture of our national capital still dominated by classical columns and domes? Why do we still pay some lip-service to the disciplines of the humanities, the sources of which may be traced back to Greece six centuries before Christ?

I propose to discuss with you, succinctly, this question of the ways in which our American civilization has inherited much from cultures distant in space and time. Let me commence by confessing that in some respects our debt to the ancients is not so great as certain historians and professors of politics would have us believe. The “lamp of experience” which Patrick Henry held high was not, in any positive fashion, the political experience of the Greeks and the Romans.

In these Bicentennial years a good deal has been said about the Greek roots of our democracy, the model of the Roman Republic for Americans, and that sort of thing. And for the past four decades the disciples of Leo Strauss have been declaring that they design “to restore the polis.” But in truth America’s political institutions owe nothing to the ancient world–although American modes of thinking about politics indeed were influenced, two centuries ago, by Greek and Roman philosophers.

One learns a great deal about constitutions from reading Plato and Aristotle and Polybius: constitutions monarchic, aristocratic, democratic; about oligarchies and timocracies; about tyrannies and kingships; about the polity, that blending of types of government. The educated Americans of the generation to which the framers of the Constitution of 1787 belonged studied the books of the Greeks and the Romans. But those books could not teach the Americans much about constitutions that might be applied practically to the infant Republic of the United States of America.

For the people of the Thirteen Colonies had known almost from the first English settlements the institutions of representative government, while the ancient world had known nothing of the sort. Representative government, indeed, was what the War of Independence had been about. Only through some system of representation could a far-reaching United States of America be conceivable. Votaries of my old friend Leo Strauss who would “restore the polis” near the end of the twentieth century would have been regarded by the fifty-five gentlemen politicians at Philadelphia, in 1787, as subjects for derision, at best. Even the most redoubtable Anti-Federalist did not fancy that the American Republic could consist as a league of infant city-states.

For Greek politics in ancient times were the politics of city-states for the most part, compact in territory, limited in population; and in the Greek democracies the entire body of male citizens was able to assemble in a forum for making public decisions of the gravest sort–sometimes foolish decisions with ghastly consequences.  The United States, on the contrary, was a vast expanse of territory in which the few cities, in 1787, counted for little. And the Americans, unlike the Greeks, had the printing press to inform their democratic society. Many other differences existed.

Anyone who studies history seriously is liable to be disheartened by the repeated disastrous failures of human attempts to achieve a tolerable measure of order and justice and freedom, for any great length of time. Sir Ernest Barker, an eminent English professor of politics, commented on the views of that great historian of law Sir Henry Maine: “History has with Maine, what it tends to have with many of us, a way of numbing generous emotions. All things have happened already; nothing much came of them before; nothing much can be expected of them now.”

Maine, writing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, knew from his studies in ancient law how the democratic republics of classical Greece had failed. A hundred years before Maine wrote, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and the other framers of the American Constitution, had perceived that Americans could not find in the history of the Greek city-states any satisfactory model of a good constitution.

Study of Greek and Latin literature, and of the ancient world’s history and politics loomed much larger in American education during the latter half of the eighteenth century than it does in American education today. Most of the Framers at one time or another, in translation or in the original Greek or Latin, had read such ancient authors as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Livy, and Plutarch–philosophers and historians who described the constitutions of the Greek and Roman civilizations. But from such study the American leaders of the War of Independence and the constitution-making era learned, by their own account, chiefly what political blunders of ancient times ought to b e avoided by the Republic of the United States.

For the Greek city-states of the sixth and fifth and fourth centuries before Christ never succeeded in developing enduring constitutions that would give them order and justice and freedom. Civil war within those city-states was the rule, rather than the exception, class against class, family against family, faction against faction. And when half of those cities went to war against the other half, in the ruinous Peloponnesian struggle, during the last three decades of the fifth century–why, Greek civilization never wholly recovered from that disaster.

Leading Americans did study closely the old Greek constitutions. In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787, on the eve of America’s Great Convention), John Adams examines critically twelve ancient democratic republics, three ancient aristocratic republics, and three ancient monarchial republics–and finds them all inferior to the political system of the new Republic of the United States. James Monroe, a hero of the Revolution, later the fifth president of the United States, wrote descriptions of the ancient constitutions of Athens, Sparta, and Carthage–finding them all seriously flawed and not to be emulated in much by Americans. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist Papers that explained and defended the Constitution drawn up in 1787, often referred to “the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece” (Madison’s phrase) and to other ancient constitutions. In general, these three writers found the political systems of Greece and Rome “as unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius of America” (again, Madison’s phrase).

Eighteenth-century Americans did respect Solon, the lawgiver of Athens in the sixth century B.C. But Solon’s good constitution for his native city had lasted only some thirty years before a tyrant seized power in Athens. Few American leaders were much influenced by Greek political thought; John Adams wrote that he learned from Plato two things only, that husbandmen and artisans should not be exempted from military service, and that hiccoughing may cure sneezing. Ancient Greek culture did indeed help to shape education in America, but Greek constitutions had next to no part in shaping the Constitution of the United States–except so far as Greek constitutional flaws suggested what the framers at Philadelphia ought not to adopt.

The Roman Republic was taken somewhat more seriously by leading Americans in the 1780s. The English word constitution is derived from the Latin constitutio, meaning a collection of laws or ordinances made by a Roman emperor. American boys at a decent school in the eighteenth century studied the orations and the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the defender of the Roman Republic in its last years. The Roman term Senate was applied by the framers of the American Constitution to the more select house of the legislative branch of their federal government – although the method of selecting senators in America would be very different from what it had been in Rome.

For the American constitutional delegates at Philadelphia, the most interesting feature of the Roman Republican constitution was its system of checks upon the power of men in public authority, and its balancing power among different public offices. The Americans learned of these devices from the History by Polybius, a Greek statesman compelled to live long in Rome. The two Roman consuls, or executives; the Roman Senate, made up of rich and powerful men who had served in several important offices before being made senators; the Roman assembly, or gathering of the common people–these three bodies exercised separate powers. And the Roman constitution (an “unwritten” one) included other provisions for preventing any one class from putting down the other classes, and for preserving the republican form of government. Praised by Polybius as the best constitution of his age, this Roman constitutional system was bound up with a beneficial body of civil law, and with “the high old Roman virtue”–the traditional Roman morality, with its demand for the performance of duty and for determined courage.

The actual forms of checks and balances that the Americans incorporated into their Constitution in 1787 were derived from English precedent and from American colonial experience, rather than directly from the Roman model. Instances from the history of the Roman Republic, nevertheless, often were cited by the Framers and by other leading Americans of that time as reinforcement for the American concept and reality of political checks and balances. And the Americans’ vision of a great and growing republic owed much to the annals of the Roman Republic.

In consequence of the long civil wars of Roman factions in the first century B.C., the Republic fell, to be supplanted by the Roman empire. This Roman experience, and the decadence that fell upon Roman civilization as the centuries passed, were much in the minds of American leaders near the end of the eighteenth century. The grim consequences of political centralization under the Roman Empire did something to discourage the notion of an American government that would be central rather than federal–much as the Greeks’ disunity was pointed to by some delegates as a warning against leaving the American Republic a mere confederation. Besides, Roman struggles of class against class reminded Americans that they must seek to reconcile different classes through their own constitutional structure.

Thus Rome’s political and moral example was a cautionary lesson to Americans of this early Republic. Edward Gibbon’s great history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had been published between 1776 and 1783, the period of the American Revolution, and its details were vivid in the minds of the delegates at Philadelphia.

Yet it will not do to make too much of the influence of the Roman constitution upon the Constitution of the United States, two thousand years after Polybius wrote in praise of Roman character and institutions. The more immediate and practical examples of constitutional success were the British and the colonial political structures; and the American Republic was joined with England and with her own colonial past by a continuity of culture that much exceeded the Americans’ link with old Rome, so distant and so remote in time.

In ancient times and in modern, the central problem of political constitutions has been this: how to reconcile the claims of authority with the claims of freedom. In any tolerable society, there must exist a permanent authority that maintains order and enforces the laws. Also, in any tolerable society, individuals and voluntary groups ought to enjoy considerable freedom. If authority (whether a government or some other general authority) claims too much, despotism may result. If too much is claimed for personal freedom, anarchy may result. The states of the ancient world never wholly succeeded, in their constitutions, in satisfactorily balancing authority and liberty.

It was the aspiration of the delegates at Philadelphia, in 1787, to reconcile the need for a strong federal government with the demand for much personal liberty and for state and local powers. They could not find in the history of the ancient world any model constitution that might achieve this purpose. In 1866, nine decades after the Great Convention at Philadelphia, Orestes Brownson–one of the more interesting of America’s political thinkers–would write in his book The American Republic that America’s mission under God was to realize the true idea of the political state or nation; to give flesh to that concept of the commonwealth “which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual–the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy… The Greek and Roman republic asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state. The American Republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other.”

Certainly such a high ambition, surpassing the political achievements of the Greeks and Romans, was the spirit of 1787 at Philadelphia.

Our Debt to the Ancients

If, then, the Greeks and the Romans bequeathed to us no political institutions–why, what is our legacy? Primarily, that patrimony is a body of great literature. The poets, the philosophers, the rhetoricians, the historians, the biographers, the satirists, the dramatists of the ancient world move us still: in Eliot’s famous line, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Aye, the theologians of the late centuries of the Greco-Roman culture, too: for Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great were men of the classical culture, and so were other Fathers of the Church, West and East.

Am I not forgetting our patrimony of justice and law that has come down to our time from Greek, and more specially Roman sources? No, I am not ignoring that great inheritance: I am merely pointing out that it is a literary, rather than an institutional, legacy, especially when we are referring to the laws of the United States and of other countries basically English in their legal institutions. Our jurisprudence was much influenced, at least formerly, by the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero; and British judges, reading Roman law surreptitiously despite fulminations from the Crown, were not immune from the doctrines of Gaius, Ulpian, and the Corpus Juris. But obviously the judicial system of the United States is not copied directly from the Roman system of courts and procedures, any more than the Constitution of the United States is an embodiment of Greek political philosophy.

So it is through books of one sort or another that the ancient world moves us. Once upon a time, well-educated men could read those books in the original Latin or Greek; but in the present century, and more particularly during the past seven decades, the proportion of people well acquainted with the classical languages has shrunken fearfully. In translation, nevertheless, the works of the greater writers of ancient times continue to work upon our minds and consciences, if not so strongly as those writers did two centuries ago, when the Americans accepted “a more perfect Union.”

Much of the decay of the influence of classical wisdom has occurred during my own life-span. When I was in high school, all students were required to study some language, other than English, for two years at least: and that language must be either Latin or French; in consequence, about half the students in my high school studied Latin. (In my mother’s time, at the same high school, the study of Latin was required of all students, I believe.) But today we have private schools denominated Podunk Latin School (or some name of that sort) at which no actual classes in Latin are offered!

Now why is it that educational authorities, down to my own youthful years, believed the teaching of the great literature of Greece and Rome to be essential (or at least highly important) for the development of mind and character, wisdom and virtue? Why was it that the British pattern of schooling, developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continued little altered at the better schools down to recent decades, consisted in large part of careful study of Plato and Aristotle, the Greek dramatists and historians, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Livy, Tacitus, Seneca, Plutarch? Why was it that well into the nineteenth century, even a wild Connaught, hedge schoolmasters like Yeats’s Red Hanrahan went about with an inkpot hanging about the neck, a heavy copy of Vergil in a coat pocket, teaching Latin poetry to little barefoot Papist boys? Were the educational authorities of yesteryear absurdly mistaken about the importance of the ancient writers? Have today’s educational authorities mercifully rescued us from servitude to the dead hand of the past, that we may rejoice in the blessings of the new discipline of computer science?

To the contrary, the classical disciplines in schooling were immensely important, and for centuries successful. Their purpose was to bring about order in the soul and order in the commonwealth. Permit me to suggest some of the ways in which these purposes were accomplished.

First, the poets and the philosophers of antiquity examined keenly the human condition. What are we mortals, and what are we to do in the short span of our existence? Such ultimate questions were taken up boldly by both Greek and Roman men of genius. People of the modern age were able to profit much from these discourses and disputations of some two thousand or two thousand, five hundred years ago–I profited from them on city buses, reading Haldeman-Julius’s Little Blue Books as I commuted–because the very remoteness in time of the ancient poets and philosophers emancipated their modern readers from the tyranny of present-day passions and complexities. The Greeks and the Romans did not possess the Hebrews’ treasures of the Book and the Law; but they possessed insights into human nature and even into physical nature–the theory of atoms, for instance–that we people near the end of the twentieth century cannot account for. Once I remarked to the Earl of Crawford, a considerable classical scholar, that the ancient Greeks knew everything important. “Yes,” he replied, “and the question is, ‘How did they know it?’” Knowledge of ancient insight and speculation is the way to acquire a philosophical habit of mind.

Second, the literature of the ancient world was employed to form good character among the rising generation. Plutarch’s heroes were exemplars for the men who framed the Constitution of the United States. In my own case, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius have influenced me more strongly than has any other treatise, of any age, in any language. The high old Roman virtues were inculcated among the literate of many lands, century upon century: one might write an essay upon how the audacious character of the Polish nobility, down to the very recent years, was formed in Roman molds, Latin being the language of the educated in Poland until well into the eighteenth century. Or one might trace the strong influence of Roman models upon the Spaniards–Iberia having been more Roman than Italy, in imperial times–and through the Spaniards, upon the upper classes of Latin America. Cicero’s Offices became in medieval times a manual for the duties of the leaders of men; and although presumably no candidate for the presidency of these United States, last year, kept on his bedside table the Offices, nevertheless in subtle ways that book and the manuals of the Stoics still linger as exhortations to, or restraints upon, public men in this land–linger in ghostly fashion, transmuted through later writers or embedded in political customs. One may add that the very recent concern for restoring in American public schooling some measures to form good character has revived in certain quarters an interest in classical moral philosophy, as distinguished from religious instruction.

Third, the classical literature of jurisprudence and law obviously is a very important part of our patrimony from Greece and Rome. The theory of justice which prevailed in the West generally until the Russian Revolution, and which still prevails after a fashion in western Europe and the Americas, has its root in Aristotle’s doctrine of “to each his own”, and in Aristotle’s observation that it is unjust to treat unequal things equally. The Ciceronian teaching of natural law, though much assailed and battered since the closing years of the eighteenth century, still has vitality–if sometimes in curiously distorted forms. And of course Justinian’s Corpus Juris reconquered Europe, gradually, for Romanitas–long after Rome had fallen, and spreading its power even after the fall of Constantinople. And incorporated into canon law, Roman legal principles still function within the framework of the Catholic Church and are studied in this metamorphosed form today, in the law schools of central and southern Europe most notably.

I have emphasized strongly our classical literary patrimony, and have denied that we enjoy much inheritance from Greece and Rome in our political institutions. But I do not mean to argue that no Roman influence survives in social–as distinguished from political–institutions, even to this day.

In Italy, and to some degree in Spain, it still is possible to find functioning, especially in old-fashioned towns and villages, remnants of social usages that apparently have survived many centuries of devastation and radical social alteration, even of vast demographic changes. But when I refer to social institutions, I mean something larger and more wide-spread than remnants of ancient folkways.

Nay, I mean, rather, to give an eminent example, the institution of the family, still most close-knit in the south of Europe, but transplanted to northern Europe also, and across the Atlantic. The Roman state never forgot that the family was the footing of all civil social order; the state was solicitous for the family’s well-being–if, at the end, unsuccessful in its protections. This function of safeguarding and upholding the family passed from the dying Roman state to the emerging universal church, gradually, but most notably during the reign of Gregory the Great. Thus the Church, in medieval times and in modern, labored skillfully to nurture family loves and family duties: the institutions of classical Rome transmuted into the institutions of Christian Rome. “Rome is the power that withholds,” John Henry Newman wrote–the power, in ancient times and even in our day, which restrains men and women from the indulgence of those appetites which, given their head, would shatter the human race. The strong family has been such an institution of restraint, life-giving restraint. No-fault divorce nowadays is only one of the socially-destructive assaults upon the traditional family that, in the name of emancipation, would make us all into orphans. When that restraining power of Rome is broken, Newman declared, there will come the Anti-Christ.

Books by or on Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreOriginally appeared in the The Intercollegiate Review (Vol. 24 No. 2, Spring 1989) and appears here by permission.

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