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Being a classicist has left me with two not always useful habits of mind: to measure new things against old texts, and to think about current events as part of what the French call the longue durée.  This means that I’m always asking whether what looks like a crisis of the moment isn’t in fact a symptom of a much larger, slower change–the headache in the body politic that turns out to be not just a hangover, but a brain tumor. So in the wake of Michael Wolff’s new bestseller I’ve been wondering about our peculiar President of the moment.  Is Donald Trump just a headache that will go away at the next election, or is he a symptom of something slower growing and more serious? I think he is, and that the diagnosis might be found in Aristotle.

In the Politics (book 3, chapter 7 = 1279a) Aristotle sets out to consider “how many forms of government there are, and what they are.” He goes on to speculate about the correct or characteristic shape of each, and then about their “perversions” (παρεκβάσεις).    This gives the following scheme:

Correct Form Perversion
Rule by One Kingship Tyranny
Rule by a Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Rule by Many “Polity” (what we might call “democracy”) Democracy (really ochlocracy)


In the correct forms, whoever governs, whether one or few or many, governs in the common interest, “but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of of the few, or of the many, are perversions.”  What Aristotle calls “polity,” πολιτεία—literally just “(form of) government”—happens “when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest.”

The people who wrote our Constitution looked at Aristotle, filtered him through Polybius’ account of the government of the Roman Republic, and set up a “mixed constitution” with elements of all three forms: a monarchical President, an aristocratic Senate, and a House of Representatives answerable every two years to the people at large. In theory, these should check and balance one another and prevent perversions.  If a president threatens to become a tyrant, the aristocrats in the Senate can check him; if the Senate becomes merely a rich man’s club, the House can refuse to fund their follies; if the House seems to be letting mass sentiment override prudence and the common good, a wise President will refuse to allow their bills to become law, and so on.  Behind it all lie the sovereign People, who have their say at every election.

But could the Founders have foreseen that all three elements of the mixed constitution would become perverted at the same time? That a toxic brew of populism, income inequality, and a Tweet-mad president would push the common good off the agenda of government?  And that the sovereign people would have devolved into a mix of identities and tribes that make finding and agreeing on the common interest nearly impossible?  I don’t like Aristotle’s diagnosis, but it seems to fit the symptoms.

–Lee T. Pearcy

Addendum 1/7/18: Shortly after writing about Aristotle and the common interest, I came across this post from one of my favorite old-retired-academic-guy bloggers (who turns out to be also a transplanted Arkansawyer), John V. Fleming, on the tax bill:

In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.” How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation–has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?

What he said (in my also humble opinion).



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A recent post on Twitter tried to sum up the difference between learning ancient and learning modern languages:

True enough, but it didn’t touch on one of the biggest problems facing anyone who tries to teach students, or at least American students, about the ancient world: what do we say about slavery? And how do we handle sentences like this, from the Cambridge Latin Course: “Ego servo epistulas dictabam,” inquit Caecilius?

The first thing to do is to get rid of the translation, still found in a few older textbooks, of servus as “servant.” But then an American teacher is left with two hard facts:  the ancient world depended on slaves, and we have our own contentious history of slavery. Our students know about slavery.  They know that slavery is wrong, and when they imagine slavery, they imagine a world of black slaves and white masters. It can be a challenge to help them understand the complexities of ancient slavery.

The past is a foreign country, of course, and every word in that sentence from the CLC, even ego, means something different from its standard English equivalent. That’s because slavery in the ancient world was different—perhaps even a different institution—from slavery in the United States before the mid-nineteenth century. At least three features of ancient slavery need explanation: slaves were invisible, they were ubiquitous, and they did work that we do not associate with slaves. Sometimes thought experiments help students understand what these things meant.

I’ve tried asking students how many intelligent devices are in our classroom.  Usually the number surprises them—each student has a phone, and maybe a laptop, and there is the classroom computer, and so on.  “Those are the slaves,” I say, and to the Romans, slaves, like our smartphones, were little more than intelligent devices, and worth about as much attention. Most of the time, they were, if not actually invisible, unseen.

And like our intelligent devices, they were always there.   In our society, having sex is something that normally happens in private, in a space with only two people present. This fresco from the House of Caecilius Iucundus at Pompeii is one of several ancient representations of people engaged in this intimate activity with a third figure in the background—a slave, smaller and faded, almost but not quite invisible. The two people in the foreground aren’t paying attention to her (I think it is), any more than two people similarly occupied nowadays would pay attention to a television or computer.



Students have difficulty grasping what it was for a free Roman to live in a world where he or she was almost never alone, never in a room or outdoors without someone else.  (For today’s students, though, being alone might have been something like being without their phone!) It’s probably not a good idea to introduce scenes like the one from Caecilius Iucundus’ house into a school classroom, but explaining that being alone was an untypical experience for most Romans can help students understand, for example, why Ovid’s Ariadne in Heroides 10 seems so distraught when she is abandoned by Theseus on Naxos.  Part of her hysteria is Ovidian hyperbole, but some of it is an understandable Roman response to solitude.

Thinking about the kinds of work that slaves did in the Roman world underscores the difference between ancient and modern slavery more than perhaps any other feature. It can also make students uncomfortably aware of some features of their own world that often escape notice.  Roman slaves managed estates, drew salaries (their peculium, which, like their persons, remained their owner’s property but could be used to buy their freedom), taught in schools and tutored Roman home-schoolers, treated patients, and did all sorts of work that we don’t associate with slavery.  I invite students to imagine a time-traveling ancient Roman trying to figure out how our world works, and who works in our world; for myself, I often imagine riding the bus with Cicero.  SEPTA’s route 44, which goes from the western edge of Philadelphia almost to the Delaware River on its eastern border, is a good place to start.

Cicero would have had no difficulty identifying the slaves on that ride.  There’s the bus driver, for one, and the people in teal jackets from the Center City District pushing their giant vacuums, and the policemen, and the firemen in their station at 21st and Market –clearly public slaves, servi publici, and so perhaps a bit better off than others.  There are also the clerks glimpsed inside stores, and the servers in restaurants. And what about all those young men and women in business suits scurrying in and out of the tall buildings in the financial district? For Cicero, in fact, almost everyone who did some kind of work, and especially anyone who worked with his or her hands, would seem to be a slave.  Imagining a bus ride with Cicero can help students think about a fundamental difference between the Roman world and ours, and about people who are often unnoticed and everywhere, doing the necessary work of society.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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For about five years now, I’ve been trying to learn to draw and paint, mostly through the Continuing Education program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Last week my instructor suggested that I try copying paintings.  What I learned when I tried taught me something about painting and art criticism, but also something about what is, depending on how you look at it, either my job or my chief vocation: classical studies.

I set out to copy William Merritt Chase’s “The Big Brass Bowl,” now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I had seen it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the exhibit “William Merritt Chase: Modern Master” and had a copy of the catalog.  Here it is, courtesy of Wikiart:


First I made a very quick—about 15-minute—watercolor sketch.  That taught me that there are five important things in the picture.  Three of them stand out when you see the painting: the bowl, the plate (but not, I thought, the fruit in it), and the red box.  Doing the sketch showed me that two other things matter to the painting just as much: the reflection of the box in the bowl, and the background along with the table surface, treated as a single graded area of color from black at the top to dark yellow ochre at the bottom.  It’s also important that the black of the background is almost impossible to distinguish from the edges of the bowl.

Then I taped a piece of oil paper to my easel and set to work.  Here’s what happened:


Painting this copy taught me a great deal more than the watercolor drawing had.  First, I learned that the proportions of Chase’s canvas help to make the painting work.  The original painting is almost square, about 35″ x 40″.  My sketch was 9″ x 12″, and my painted copy is even smaller at about 7″ x 8″, but its relative proportions are the same as Chase’s.  Keeping Chase’s proportions allowed me to understand how carefully he had arranged the objects on his field, with the right-hand edge of the plate and the left-hand edge of the bowl each overlapping the center line of the canvas.  Then, when I’d laid in the five important pieces that emerged from the sketch, I saw that the fruit in the bowl really had to be there.  The grapes on the tabletop in the left foreground are essential to giving a sense of depth and taking your eye into the painting, along a diagonal from the reddish grapes to the red box, and beyond it to its reflection in the bowl.  Without them, there’s just too much tabletop.  (And look how the red box on the other side sucks up the energy in that part of the painting, so that the wrinkles in the fabric in front of it are enough to fill the space.)  The grapes on the table make no sense without the other fruit on the plate–and in the much larger original, the wonderful still life that Chase embedded in the left center of his canvas matters even more.

I also learned a lot from what didn’t succeed in my copy; in fact, I probably learned more about painting from the copy’s failures than from its successes.  I didn’t, for example, succeed in copying Chase’s tonal gradations; there’s too much contrast in my copy between the foreground tablecloth and the black background, and between the midtones of the bowl and the dark edges, and not enough between the fruit and the rest of the painting.  You’ve probably noticed that I left out the wineglass; the truth is, I don’t understand what its job is in the painting.

This exercise may have made me a little better as a painter, but it made me a much more perceptive critic of Chase’s still life.  I have, in a way, begun to reverse engineer it to see how it works.  And this takes me to classics.  When we classical scholars—and I’m going to limit my subject to scholars of Greek and Latin literature—practice our craft, we are critics, and with rare exceptions we are analyzing things that we do not know how to make.  Few if any scholars of Greek or Latin poetry also write poetry in any language.  A few more engage in the wonderful parlor game called “composition,” which consists of translating from a modern language into Greek or Latin verse, but I have a sense that even that practice is now uncommon.  That’s why I have been glad to see the move toward “active Latin” or “living Latin” gain steam, thanks to the work of the Paideia Institute and others.  It’s not terribly important to be able to order a hamburger in Latin, although it’s fun to be able to get elaborate public jokes like the signs at the Wallsend Metro Station.  it is important, though, to have some sense, however imperfect, of what Vergil or Ovid were up to.  A few years ago I had a group of students who got far enough in Pantin’s First Latin Verse Book to be able to turn English translations of some of Ovid’s poems into Latin verse.  Reverse engineering Ovid’s work and then comparing their copies to his original gave them a better insight into his artistry than anything I could have said in class.  So let’s write Latin and copy paintings—not because we want to become poets or painters, but because the better we are at reading and thinking and seeing, the better we will become at being human.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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Cicero’s De Officiis (“Tully’s Offices,” as it used to be called) was a late addition to my summer reading.  I dipped into it thinking that a work written in 44 B.C. and called “On Obligations” (or, as Andrew Dyck suggests in his magnificent 1996 commentary, “On Appropriate Actions”) might have some relevance to a problem that I’m now thinking about, moral agency in the Aeneid.  I found in addition a book that is helping me think in a new way about some of our current political dynamics.

Writing as he did before Christianity and before Kant, Cicero assumes that being good—being just, honorable, or humane—is not solely a matter of the choices that we make as individuals.  Humans in his world are not autonomous agents acting on the basis of individual will and intellect.  For Cicero, our moral agency, and in fact our very humanity, is in part created by other people through our connections with them, and being good and human in turn depends on our participation in those connections:

But because, as has been brilliantly written by Plato, we are born not only for ourselves, but our country claims one share in our upbringing, and our friends claim another. Moreover, as the Stoics like to say, all things which the earth bears are created for the use of humans, but humans are created for the sake of humans, so that they themselves can be of benefit to one another. In this matter we ought to take nature as our guide, contribute our part to the common good, and by the exchange of obligations, by giving and receiving, now by arts, now by labor, now by talents, bind tight the social union of human with human. (De Officiis 1.7,22)

That takes me to a recent article in the Philadelphia papers (the Inquirer and Daily News, both owned by the same company, share a web site). Helen Ubinas writes about a controversy over signs–not semiotics or the feminist journal, but actual signs, which people have been putting in their yards.  We’ve all seen the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, with a stars-and-striped heart and the same message in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and other languages used by immigrants to America.  They sprang up in the aftermath of President Trump’s first immigration order (or Muslim ban), and there are still a lot of them around, at least in my neighborhood.

It doesn’t take much political savvy to conclude that the people with HHNHH signs probably aren’t Trump supporters, and so a Republican commissioner in Springfield Township has come up with an alternative sign, which Ubinas calls “a not-so-subtle, right-leaning, middle finger directed at those inclusive messages”–meaning the HHNHH signs. The alternative or Republican sign reads, “Love Lives Here. Love of God, Family, Friends, Country, Community & the U.S. Constitution.”

I want to use Cicero to suggest that these two signs show why Republicans, despite their unfailing fondness for ignoring economic reality, slashing social services, making abortion illegal, and blundering into wars in the Middle East, still manage to get people to vote for them in numbers sufficient to control the current Congress and send an ignorant, vulgar, misogynist liar to the White House. The fact is, Republicans are better at framing their message in a way that appeals to voters, as George Lakoff has been arguing for almost 40 years. “Love Lives Here” will win more votes than “Hate Has No Home.”

For a person who agrees with Cicero that being a moral human being means being involved in communities, families, and networks of mutual obligations, “Love Lives Here” is a better sign than “Hate Has No Home.” Helen Ubinas valiantly tries to invoke the inclusivity trope by proclaiming HHNHH “inclusive” and suggesting that mentioning God somehow amounts to “cutting out people who might believe in someone or something else,” but that seems a counsel of desperation. Ignore the messages, implied or not, in the two signs and look at their vocabulary, syntax, and rhetoric. One sign features a negative sentence (“has no”) about hate. The other has an affirmative sentence about love. Both signs exploit alliteration, but one pants feebly (H … H …N… H…H…), like an out-of-shape jogger, while the other piles it on: three Ls, two Fs, and a concluding series of Cs. One doesn’t just hint at the interlocking communities that make up human life, but talks about them. Given a choice between family, friends, country, and community, and maybe even God on the one hand, and merely excluding hate on the other, which would you pick? I know which I would choose, and I think Cicero would agree.

–Lee T. Pearcy


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Michelle Francl, my Bryn Mawr colleague and chemistry professor, has a new post on her Quantum Theology blog (highly recommended) about summer reading. My memories of summer childhoods have much in common with hers, even though mine are from the 1950s, not the 1960s, from urban Little Rock, Arkansas, not rural Illinois, and don’t involve much cooking.  But we do have one thing in common: lots of reading, and a public library that made it possible.  In Little Rock it was the old Carnegie building, columned and classicizing, with its entrance on Louisiana Street.  The children’s section was in the basement, with its own entrance off Seventh Street–the doorway was one of the rectangular openings on the lower level, just behind the automobile in this picture.

By way of a thank-you for Professor Francl’s offering, here’s my stack for the summer, in no order except how they happen to be at hand:

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. This one has come across my radar too many times to ignore–and there’s no point in reading only books that you think you’ll agree with.
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America.*
Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.
Eleanor Dickey, An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek Prose.  One consequence of retiring from teaching Latin three or four times a day and Greek once, as I did for nearly 30 years at the Episcopal Academy, is that one needs to have a plan for keeping up the languages.  Doing a little of this a day is mine.
Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter.
Cicero, De Officiis (On Moral Duties):  A late addition to the list–I dipped into it thinking it might have some relevance for a book about the Aeneid that I’m writing, and can’t put it down.

-Lee Pearcy

*Follow-up 7/1: This may be the scariest book that I’ve ever read. Especially now.

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