The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The Ancient Virtues Will Not Save You

A response to Echoes of Rome of The Chicago Thinker
The+Ancient+Virtues+Will+Not+Save+You
Cherie Fernandes

In the year 4000, an explorer trudged through the swamp-choked asphalt runs that feed into Lake Michigan. In the southern reaches, a complex of dark, weathered stone burst from the mangrove thickets. Cracked gargoyles crowed out from green coils; the rubble of high towers and rusted bells rose from the muck; upon a stalwart arch inscribed with dead languages perched the great phoenix, venerated by the ancients in their antediluvian wisdom. A fire rose in the explorer’s breast: what made these ancients so great, they wondered, and how might their greatness return in the present day? 

So they wrote down the creed of the ancients from their walls and metal tablets, and spoke unto the people, “The first virtue is the life of the mind…”

That hypothetical explorer of distant years is of a kind with John Kolettis of the Chicago Thinker, whose article Echoes of Rome: How Ancient Virtues Can Save America presents the four ‘Roman virtues’, specifically pietas, and advocates reintroducing them to American civic life in order to attain the same greatness as Rome. 

This analysis neglects to reflect on what greatness is, or why the Romans were “history’s greatest people.” It takes for granted that they were, and that the writings of their greatest figures, Seneca and Cicero and the like, hold wisdom which is missing from modernity. 

I don’t buy it. I write from a university with a Latin motto, never more than a stone’s throw away from a Roman antiquarian. I live in a country with a Senate, an eagle on its seal, whose capital is littered with classical architecture. The Roman virtues Echoes of Rome is so keen on, pietas and constantia and such, are those which the Romans inherited from Plato. Cicero and Seneca are already here and need no reintroduction.

Nor do I fear that the Chicago Thinker will dredge up ancient morals and impose them on an unsuspecting nation. Rather, I’m concerned with how notions of ‘greatness’ and antiquity play into modern discourse. 

There are many ways we can say Rome was great, cast into especially sharp contrast by its fall. As Professor Ada Palmer lectured in Italian Renaissance, it built continent-spanning infrastructure, eliminated Mediterranean piracy for the first (and only) time in history, hosted artistic and technological advancement, and opened an incredible breadth of trade. But we already exceed Rome’s performance in almost every category here. 

Perhaps Roman greatness is about its conquests instead; their immense land empire, reuniting many of Alexander’s former conquests, was the foundation and justification of Roman greatness and related to a much more uniquely Roman virtue—the masculine, martial virtus—than the virtues presented in the article. But America is already an empire of a modern sort which does not lose out in terms of landmass, wealth, or overseas influence loses out, and we are hopefully beyond the point of blindly associating conquest with virtue. 

The author might counter that Rome’s artistic and philosophical output outstrips our own. That question has been discussed at length elsewhere, and I will only remark that both Roman techniques, ideas, and history in both these fields are extensively studied by modern artists and philosophers, who do not produce similar work not because it is beyond them, but because art and philosophy have quite moved on. The author frames the Aeneid and its protagonist as embodiments of the piety they passed on to the Roman people, but doesn’t engage with its historical context: the Aeneid was, in fact, commissioned by the emperor Augustus as a founding myth for Rome. Moreover, the article ignores the century-old scholarly investigation into Virgil’s subtle criticism of Rome throughout the text. Truly, we moderns could never produce propaganda with such longevity.

Rather, the greatness the article prompts us to idolize derives not from any historical evidence of how well the Romans (or the peoples they subjugated or exterminated) actually lived, but from its aesthetics. The stark ruin-worth of crumbling columns, marble statues scoured of hue, philosopher-generals marching under the Aquila on Lunae and holding forth in the togaed Senate chambers on Jovis. It’s an attractive fantasy for many, especially combined with those ‘Roman virtues’. This mosaic of images depicts a culture that is wiser, more disciplined, more pious, more naturally correct. What if we could return to it? It’s already closer than you expect: through sentiments like these, it shambles out of history, reaching towards us with dead hands. 

Still, I don’t want to make too much of this. The aestheticization of politics is already ascendant in American public life, and this article isn’t an exceptional example. Instead, it’s best to understand these ‘ancient virtues’ as a fantasy, not a possibility, of civic life. A fantasy must be enjoyed and not fulfilled; it distracts, distorts, disguises. In this case, arguing about whether Roman virtues could save America masks the premise that America could be saved by virtues. It transforms social and material concerns into personal ones and imposes a romantic logic: if only people were more virtuous, our problems would be solved! 

This is by no means new, but it is telling that the fantasy targets antiquity. It would be ridiculous to insist that Soviet virtues, or colonial French virtues, or Ottoman virtues are the antidote to modern American ills. These states and their consequences are too close in time. But Rome is … romanticized. Despite popular historical interest, it exists in the space of dreams, forever hazy. But these virtues can never be implemented without the fantasy collapsing. Within this fantasy, the buccina must always sound from just over the hill, always coming, never arriving, always heralding salvation…

Nicolas Posner is a fourth-year in the College. 

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Cherie Fernandes
Cherie Fernandes, Columnist
Cherie is a second-year tentatively pursuing data science and economics at the College. She’s been on the Viewpoints staff since her first quarter, penning pieces on campus culture and happenings in the city. She is consistently awed by the eagle-eyed edits and gorgeous illustrations with which her writing is paired, and she is glad to continue working with such a talented team of editors and artists.   Outside of The Maroon, Cherie is an oral advocate on UChicago Moot Court and an active member of UChicago Effective Altruism. She also enjoys (not to be confused with “is proficient at”) playing the guitar and frequenting coffee shops in her quest to find the best hot chocolate on campus.
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