Don't ridicule the ancients; learn from them

Say, what ever happened to Fabius Maximus? I don't mean is he on your couch drinking beer. I mean why don't we tell ourselves instructive stories about famous people any more. Some folks might think I'm a snob for reading Plutarch's Lives, which describes and compares the lives of noble Greeks and Romans in search of examples to imitate or avoid. Others might think I'm a boor for doing so on the recommendation of the great western writer Louis L'Amour, whose battered heroes surprisingly often read Plutarch while recuperating. I haven't been riddled with lead and no buzzards are in sight, but I do not hesitate to recommend both. L'Amour, like Plutarch, tells a ripping good tale accompanied by memorable turns of phrase like the villain who "acts like he was raised on sour milk." And both offer valuable moral lessons.

For instance, Fabius Maximus was the Roman general who used patience to defeat the great Cartheginian general Hannibal. He shadowed the invader through Italy, harassed his communications and supply lines, but refused to be drawn into a possibly catastrophic decisive battle. Every now and then the Roman people got impatient, gave command to some hot-blooded demagogue who confronted Hannibal and promptly got crushed, then came back to Fabius and said, "Um, if we scrape together another army would you go try that delaying stuff again?" He did, in the end triumphing totally and earning the nickname "Cunctator" or "the delayer." Gee, maybe we should try patience in warfare. But wait. There's more.

Years later, Plutarch tells us, Maximus's son held the high office of consul, and his father "either by reason of age and infirmity, or perhaps out of design to try his son, came up to him on horseback." But the son sent a messenger to "command his father to alight, and tell him if he had any business with the consul, he should come on foot. The standers-by seemed offended" but Fabius leapt from his horse, hurried to embrace his son, and said: "Yes, my son, you do well, and understand well what authority you have received, and over whom you are to use it. This was the way by which we and our forefathers advanced the dignity of Rome, preferring ever her honour and service to our own fathers and children."

It is easy to ridicule such tales, let alone Plutarch's fables about obviously legendary figures like Romulus or Theseus. I even find Parson Weems's invented tale of George Washington and the cherry tree a bit silly. I mean, the kid was busted, right? He wouldn't have got very far quibbling about the meaning of the word "chop." But I wonder if we'd be better placed to cope with the ad sponsorship scandal if we still discussed how children taught to take honesty seriously can later be trusted with political power. Or if people in government could say to one another "you understand well what authority you have received" and not laugh. Instead we don't seem to tell ourselves any stories at all.

Pierre Trudeau admitted in his memoirs that after larking around the Quebec countryside in a German uniform frightening people, he realized around 1944 that he'd sort of missed the significance of the Second World War. Do we tell our children this story as a warning that a young person indifferent to Naziism would become an adult indifferent to Communism? Do we praise his post-modern ironic detachment from moral seriousness? Or do we just ignore the very possibility that history offers examples to avoid or imitate, and instead sit on our maximus flipping channels?

Not everyone in Plutarch is admirable, of course. He offers many examples to avoid, not imitate, including great men with tragic flaws. We are not always obliged either to believe his stories or accept his interpretations, which lean towards the austere, Spartan side. But argument depends on analogy, and he offers lots of useful ones. We could be arguing whether someone is another Themistocles (the brilliant Athenian leader too fond of money), or whether Themistocles was as bad as people say. Unless the only Homer we know is Bart Simpson's dad.

Even Louis L'Amour offers examples, like a villain who at age 40 "blamed the world for the success that had never come to him, failing to understand that the fault was his own. He was one of those who had always wanted to start at the top, and the idea of consistent effort to get there had seemed futile to him." Of course, 50 years ago a pulp western writer could call a villain's face "long and saturnine" and readers would understand.

See, Saturn was this Roman god, and ...

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson