21 November 2019

The High Ideal of Antiquity

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, "Limits of Culture," Essays and Studies (Baltimore: N. Murray, 1890), pp. 16-17:
As the Spartans discouraged those gymnastic exercises which did not bear directly on the efficiency of the soldier, so our modern reformers try to frown down all studies which do not prepare for 'the work of life'. But what is 'the work of life'? Is it not just here that we need the high ideal of antiquity in order to counteract the depressing tendencies of modern civilization, and especially those of American civilization? The aims of most cultivated people are, when examined, no more exalted than those of their uneducated neighbors. How few feel 'the poorness and insignificance of human life, if it is to be all spent in making things comfortable for ourselves and our kin, and raising ourselves and them a step or two on the social ladder.'1 Material well-being in more or less refined forms, is more or less consciously the main object. But the ideal life of antiquity is constructed after a different pattern; and though it is as unattainable by the means of mere humanity as the antique ideal of the state, we must confess the superiority of the one as of the other to the negative virtues and positive selfishness of our modern standards. 'Life is short', says the modern. 'Acquire by the shortest way the most efficient appliances for self-advancement.' 'Life is short', says an ancient. 'The one, true fruit of life on earth is purity of heart and work for the good of society.'2 Which is nearer to the Christian model? The one is a machine, the other a corpse; but into this you may breathe the soul of love, into that you can only introduce horse-power or donkey-power, as the case may be.
                 1 John Stuart Mill 
                 2 Marcus Aurelius, vi. 30.

Hat tip: Laudator Temporis Acti

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer (1885)