“A great French Scholar of the last century said to his class at College de France after Sedan and the triumphant occupation of Paris by the German army: Gentlemen, as we meet here today we are in a free country, the republic of letters, a country which has no national boundaries, where there is neither Frenchman or German, which knows no prejudice nor intolerance, where one thing alone is valued, truth in all her manifold aspects.”
How noble and how tranquilizing. The eternal perspectives open out, clear and calm. Intolerance, hatred – how false they look and how petty.
“Beyond the last peaks and all seas of the world” stands the serene republic of what Plato calls “the fair and immortal children of the mind.”
This is great stuff! Those politicians really had it together during the Golden Age of Greece. On the plane ride back from Athens I cracked (in e-book form) Plutarch’s Pericles. Plutarch describes the rough and tumble of the world’s first democracy and it’s not pretty. Pericles was an aristocrat who curried favor from the masses and pushed to get his political rival ostracized (which meant a ten year banishment when life expectancy was less than forty). He then pivoted back to the aristocracy and, declaring the Persian threat ended, took from the Greek alliance treasury to rebuild the Acropolis. He got Athens on board with that rebuilding and then, when Greece was dominant and Athens and Sparta were unquestionably the world’s greatest powers, initiated a disastrous thirty year war with Sparta that wound up laying all Greece prostrate. If not for Alexander the Great, his conquests, and his admiration for Athens, many of the achievements would have been lost. The Golden Age of Athens, no matter how bright, was a blip in the historical records. Any thought of quiet serene Athens under Pericles should be set aside. But what the Greeks did in the midst of their political noise was give us something precious: eternal perspectives.
The Greeks believed in pure forms. They believed there were essential unchanging ideas and ideals that humankind should strive to realize. Those ideas are what inspired Edith Hamilton.
We have many silent sanctuaries in which we can find a breathing space to free ourselves from the personal, to rise above our harassed and perplexed minds and catch sight of values that are stable, which no selfish and timorous preoccupations can make waver, because they are the hard-won and permanent possession of humanity.
It are these possessions that are most important—values that are stable, principles that stand the test of time.
Now that is solid ground to stand on! Stable values and principles that stand the test of time are the Holy Grail of civilization. When in Athens there was a magazine that talked of the ancient Greeks view of ‘noise’ and graded minds in accordance with their occupation: little minds concern themselves discussing people, mediocre minds concern themselves discussing events, and great minds concern themselves discussing ideas. Let us aspire to be great.
I’m going to close this Greece-inspired blog by mentioning what American philosopher Mortimer Adler called the six great ideas. Ideas that stood and will stand the test of time. There are three ideas we judge by: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And there are three ideas we act on: Liberty, Equality, and Justice.
Perhaps these six ideas can provide silent sanctuary as well as inform during this noisy political season.