It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.
Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.
Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy. He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.
In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.
If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.
Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.