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Magna Illusio: The Classical Inheritance and the Importance of Myth

In a more confident age, any conservative worth his salt would have accepted that the West could trace its legacy back, via the Renaissance, to the Ancient Greeks and the Roman classical period. Predictably, this act of self-confidence cannot be allowed; it has become popular, nay a rite of passage, to decry this 19th century fascination with ‘the classical inheritance’ as ahistorical arrogance. In a sense, the revisionists are right. The basis of our civilization is not in Rome or Athens, but in Jerusalem; what we have, what we think of as ‘Western,' we owe to Christianity. The Roman obsession with pietas, filial piety, more closely resembles the Confucian idea of xiào than anything familiar to us. Roman ideas about service to the state and dignity will strike the Western reader as deeply unfamiliar. The enduring lessons of the classical thinkers come to us via Christian interpretation. In the English-speaking world, our legal systems developed totally independently. Apart from philosophy, we speak the language of the brutish Germanic invader.

We have, for centuries, greatly exaggerated the impact that this alien culture had on our islands and broader civilization.

Yet, by this concerted civilizational exaggeration, we have actually created a reality in which we do owe a great deal to the Romans; our law, language, philosophy, and architecture is woven through with classical influence. The grammatical forms that we owe to Latin are deeply unnatural, the invention of linguistic reformers who felt that English would be better served by following the language of learning and liturgy. Nevertheless, those forms are present. The English common law has nothing at all to do with the Roman classical law, and yet we chose to allow classical law thinking to shape our contracts. The Romans left behind few grand structures in London or Washington D.C. (with good reason, perhaps), and yet in both cities columns abound. We have chosen, time and again, to let myths guide our decision-making, and in doing so, we have made the myth material. How one can look at this process and doubt the importance of fictions is beyond me. Myths, even myths consciously chosen, cultivated, cherrypicked, seep into our framing of the world until frame and fable are inseparable. This is why, in an age of both unparalleled access to historical record and unparalleled historical ignorance, we must be acutely conscious of how emerging myths and narratives could shape our culture in the future. We have quietly allowed our obsession with the classical heritage to slide into the background, for good or for ill. The civilizational hubris that saw us dare to dream of following on in the tradition of Rome’s great endeavour has fallen out of favour, along with the ‘civilizing mission’ that influenced our Imperial thinking. In the afterglow of the Cold War, the idea of ‘the West’ means increasingly little. Indeed, the very idea of the national myth is regarded with a sort of glib derision: the tongue-in-cheek invocation of the ‘Land of Hope And Glory’ motif, the raised eyebrow at the idea of a serious world leader taking inspiration from a long-dead statesman preserved in marble.

Still, the idea has not gone away. Abroad, this sense of mythical national heritage and purpose influences the thinking of more confident civilizations—one would be hard pressed to argue that Vladimir Putin’s view of Russia’s civilizational mission has not had a concrete impact on the people of Ukraine. At home, we have made a rush-job substitution, replacing our old myths with the post-war, post-civil rights cult of liberal democracy. History’s important moments are, we are told, all to be framed around liberation. Our civilization is justified because it is better than that of our grandparents, or their grandparents—and yet we must never be satisfied in what we have or what we are, lest we fall foul of the latest ‘bigotry’.

Is it any wonder, then, that these are the terms in which people have begun to view politics? With no sense of a connecting thread to anything before the post-1945 world order, there is no need to reconcile what came before with what is.

The antidote to this particular malady is not to point to the fallacies behind these emergent narratives—the romantic narrative is characteristically well-insulated against reason—, but to present and emphasize compelling semi-mythical narratives of our own. Our national curriculum is woefully vague on Anglo-Saxon history and the Reformation, two periods of marked national sovereignty which make clear that the Battle of Britain was not just a great moment of courage, but a part of a long history of independence and exceptionalism. This is to say nothing of the less particularistic elements of our national founding myths; remember that the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the advancement of workers’ rights were both pioneered by Christian activists. Our modern sense of fair play has roots in the same worldview which led warfare in medieval, Christian Europe to be so relatively bloodless. The examples are too numerous and varied to give appropriate time and space to each, but if one wants to find an authoritative narrative thread in our history, there are plenty to choose from.

These cultural battles are the most challenging trials that we face—no blunt instrument policy solution here—but undoubtedly the most important. Those Roman ghosts littered throughout our country’s intellectual heritage testify to this, and at this moment of great civilizational diffidence, it is more important than ever to remain wary of what ghosts we might leave for the future. We must choose carefully who and what to put at the core of our founding myths, who we consider to be our ethical, intellectual, and cultural forebears—and, most importantly of all, we must not shy away from a compelling narrative about ourselves.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


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