Friday, September 2, 2016

"O Tempora O Mores!" Oh Please!

"O tempora o mores!" is a quote from Cicero (106-43 BC), the boring old gasbag who somehow became the single most well-respected writer in Latin and has remained that way for thousands of years. It translates to "Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!" and it means, basically: "Oh, how our civilization has fallen from what it once was!" Or, to put it another way: "Let's make Rome great again!" It has been a very popular saying from Cicero's time down to ours because there has never been a shortage of boring old farts complaining about these kids these days with their hair and their clothes, pining for the supposedly good old days.

I don't deny that Cicero was an effective politician, I just don't find him to be a very effective writer. Put it this way: I think Sallust's accounts of Cicero's actions are much better-written and more edifying than Cicero's own accounts of himself, and I think it's a real shame that dozens of times more of Cicero's writing has survived than Sallust's.

I realize that I'm in an extreme minority position with my dislike of Cicero the writer. I realize this, and I'm trying to keep an open mind about it. If I'm completely wrong about Cicero, it wouldn't be the first time someone had stubbornly clung to a completely-wrong position about something for a long time. (Not that that's any excuse.)

It has often been said that the study of human history is a study of horrors, and to a great extent this is true: history records a great number of wars, famines, plagues, murders, deceptions, betrayals, a great deal of cruelty, cowardice, stupidity -- a whole lot of Very Bad Things. That has been said, and to a very great extent it is true. It may seem strange when I say that studying all of these things can be very encouraging, but that is also true, if it leads one to the realization that, however, bad things are at the present, they were in earlier times even worse. In other words, progress is being made.

Progress is a fairly new concept in human thought, barely a couple of centuries old. Cicero was hardly unusually in ancient times in his belief that civilization had sharply declined from a glorious past. A few centuries ago, some people started to notice that things changed, and that some changes were good. Then, what with world wars and genocides, many people found the idea of progress ridiculous. It may be that it is, ironically, mostly confined to circles of capitalists who are making things worse for humanity, what with pollution, global warming, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, the continuous struggle to squeeze more and more out of poor people, etc, etc. It may seem downright quaint that I am both a Leftist and optimistic.

But look at some historical evidence. Yes, exploitation is still with us -- but slavery is almost gone, and social support has grown greatly over the past two centuries, even in the US where so many people are terrified of the word "socialism," not realized that all it means is a lot of things they're in favor of. Yes, pollution and global warming are very bad -- but the use of petroleum can be reduced to almost none, any time we decide to convert to solar/wind/tidal/geothermal/etc. We have the technology. We can make us better than we was. Call me quaint if you want to, but what should we call people who call themselves Progressives but who have great difficulty seeing progress? Historically illiterate, perhaps.

We must keep in mind that the study of history can distort things greatly if it is poorly done. And there are all sorts of ways in which it can be poorly done. One of these is to fail to grasp the selectivity of history. Vincent Van Gogh's painting are well-liked today. During his own lifetime, only a few of them were sold, and not for very much money. Not nearly enough to to make a living for a single person for the years in which Van Gogh did nothing but paint.

Everybody knows that much. What is probably a little less well--established in people's minds today is the art which was popular and which sold for high prices during those same years when Van Gogh was failing to sell his, and which has been forgotten in the meantime.

The physics of Einstein and Planck and Bohr and Heisenberg is well-known today. Alfred O'Rahilly (1884-1969) is much less well-known today, but this contemporary of Einstein was one of the most highly-respected theoretical physicists of their day. He became the the President of University College Cork in 1943. And he completely rejected Einstein's theory of relativity, championing instead the theories of Walther Ritz (1878-1909), of whom you've probably also never heard. O'Rahilly also believed that the theory of evolution did not apply to humans. And he and Ritz have been forgotten, along with a great many other scientists of their time who rejected the ideas either of Einstein or of Darwin or both.

We know that the academic authorities of Bruno's time opposed him sharply -- do you know any of those influential people's names? How about the names of the academics who made life difficult for Galileo? Or those who ran the University of Glasgow and refused to approve Hume's appointment to a professorship there?

Lincoln's speeches are still printed and read. Stephen Douglas' -- much less so.

Who today knows the names of the people on the Pulitzer prize board of directors who overturned the unanimous choice of the fiction panel who in 1974 had decided to award the Pulitzer in fiction to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow? Were they the same ones who, 2 years later, approved the awarding of the Pulitzer to Humboldt's Gift, the one and only novel of Saul Bellow's which savagely and hilariously mocks the Pulitzers? (Bellow, as editor of the journal The Noble Savage, was one of Pynchon's first publishers, printing an excerpt from his novel-then-in-progress V in 1961 under the title "Under the Rose." Is it a complete coincidence that Von Humboldt Fleischer appeared in print dissing the Pulitzers so soon after the Pulitzers had dissed Pynchon?)

The passage of time sifts things. And so, many of the more senseless and horrid aspects of the past are forgotten. And so fools call the past "the good old days."

(Yes, I'm aware that my opinion of the quality of Cicero's writing combined with the stupendous endurance of his popularity as a writer completely contradicts the rest of this post. I'm aware of that. There are exceptions to rules.)

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