Why historical examples prevail

2020-06-22 @Blog

Here’s a strong case for reading the older historical materials.

They better assimilate. I sooner adhere to a maxim, principle or habit practiced among the ancients rather than a blogger or an eloquent voice on a video clip.

Granted, I’ve identified two extremes. However, any relatively recent model, be it a Rubber Barron, a respected post-modern author, or a cult musician, still lacks the conviction of the ancient.

The older the source, the more viable the idea, for it has persevered the time filter. And it’s the examples that really impact.

I could divulge principle all day, regurgitating moral philosophies, cognitive enhancers (or distorters), health habits, nutrition, life hacks, simplicity, etc.

I could provide personal examples for many. And sound that it be, this manner of presentation still fosters doubt for being subject to the fancies of modernity. It is less likely to stick.

Now the older content inspires confidence. It reaffirms that human history commenced not last week; that every fortune or malady has reoccurred a time too many. It reaffirms not only in principle, but by way of flesh and bone. And although centuries old, such cases materialize as if they stood before me.

Even modern synthesis dilutes the conviction element, especially with the sugarcoating of the contemporary jargon. The spoon-fed summaries, the recaps, the cute YouTube 5-10 minute presentations, the spark notes, feel grossly inauthentic.

I feel greater solidity in the material, having invested the time in the original unabridged reading; having accompanied the author’s journey in the full range and weight of thought.

Concerning the sources, I prefer those abundant in examples of human beings performing inspirational deeds; not strictly the Caesars or the Alexanders, but all sorts of figures of varying echelons of society, from servants to jesters to foot soldiers to beggars.

Plutarch, Seneca, Herodotus are a few viable options.

I prefer Montaigne’s essays. Although a vast synthesis of material, the 16th-century publication stands on sufficiently old grounding. The strength, however, lies in the absolute galore of exemplary cases referenced throughout; sources ranging from ancient Egypt to the author’s period.

Montaigne sources cases through his own lens, but also references an abundance of classic sources among those I’ve already mentioned: Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero, Plato, Horace, Lucretius, Livy, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil, etc.

In regards to the synthesis, especially for readers not thrilled about investing time in a specific ancient historian, Montaigne’s opus is as comprehensive and entertaining as any reading my modest exposure conceives.

The essays cover not only the illustrious and the grandeur, but the seemingly mundane affairs that nevertheless shed light on the repetitiveness of our history.

On the topic of avoiding comforts in favor of an austere lifestyle, among the multitude of models is mentioned a 16th century Cardinal who, despite the ample fortune to his avail, opted to wear identical garments throughout all seasons, to sleep on straw, and spend the leisure on the floor in study, nothing for food but bread and water.

Some of these peculiarities I question, although be they a product of even a total fabrication (the likelihood of that rather low), I don’t particularly care. I’m drawn more to their purpose and impact rather than scrupulous authenticity.

Further references are drawn to cultures which, despite the abundance of food provisions, opt for bread, ‘cresses and water’, or the similarly simple diets.

For the weather complainers: King Massinissa of Numidia (of 2nd-3rd century BC) never covered his head irrespective of whatever cold, storm or rain to befall. The same is said of Caesar, of a Polish king that never wore gloves, and of a plenitude of others. Or King Agesilaus of Sparta to wear the same clothes all year round to a ‘decrepit old age’.

Some of this detail, taken out of context, may seem trifling, but it is precisely what I value within a narrative.

Among the topics of prudence, Antonio de Leva, the governor of Milan appointed by Emperor Charles V, publicly opposed the emperor’s expedition into Provence. The act served as a kind of a simulation in the name of honour and glory on behalf of his master, such that the credit for the resolve be attributed entirely to the emperor, seeing his relentless drive.

Or King Edward’s (III) refusal to reinforce Prince of Wales’s troubled campaign in the battle of Crécy (between the English and the French), to the end that the honour (at whatever peril) be attributed to his son, unblemished by intervention.

Some kings and rulers maintained a total degree of trust and transparency with the enemy, both at an individual as well as military levels.

Some nations declared military campaigns to the enemy well in advance, disclosing the means, the army particulars, the ammunition, and contingency plans in its entirety (example related with the kingdom of Ternate).

Or rulers, having learned of assassination conspiracies against their lives, to openly and earnestly engage the conspirator with the sanction to act at will, full pardon presupposed. This has led not only to a fortuitous outcome for both, but in one documented case, the attempter ultimately became a close friend and heir to the target’s estate (Emperor Augustus and L. Cinna).

Concerning public oratory, one Severus Cassius (epoch of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula) spoke most effectively improv, advantage further drawn from interruption. His ‘adversaries were afraid to nettle him, lest his anger should redouble his eloquence.’

Some passages tread on the ever present superstitions, prophets, medical placebos, or the polarized viewpoints of childbearing.

Or the innumerable variations of tradition across cultures that would not only challenge the moral conceptions of many, but probably offend them.

Or exploratory accounts of seemingly mundane affairs such as journaling, sleep, reading, nutrition.

One essay speaks entirely of horses. Certain cultures viewed cavalry battalions as a matter of fragility, this point explored in detail; in contrast to simple construction/short-distance steel weaponry. The topic jolted my attention, as I tend to speak of similar fragilities among the contemporary machinery and digital technology.

It pleases me when I encounter recurring patterns of reasoning across time.

You need not strictly resort to formal historical material to extract pertinent snapshots. Even fiction serves for the purpose.

Tolstoy’s War and Piece presents an epic case study on morality and ways of being.

If not verse challenged, as I was but a short while back, there’s also loads to be learned from Shakespeare (even the comedies); or the colossal Goethe’s Faust if you welcome the allegories and the never-ending employ of myth.

With a bit of research, you’ll settle upon content that caters to aesthetic appeal. But do embrace the ancient.

Questions, comments? Connect.