Ain’t Dead Yet

AintDeadYetby Steve Lancaster    2/28/14
Almost 100 years ago, Oswald Spengler postulated that the West was in a death spiral leading to the violent end of American and European civilization. After the 20th century, that prediction seems more likely than it did in 1918. Well-respected scholars have addressed this idea, among them Victor Davis Hanson.

In 2001, Victor Davis Hanson published, Who Killed Homer, lamenting the end of classical education, not only in the United States but in Western Europe. From my personal experience in the wildernesses of academia, the lament is accurate and, from an academic viewpoint, VDH’s thesis is correct.

Classics are taught in most schools of arts and science as an obscure subtext of languages, almost never as literature and seldom as history. If you go looking for the classics department on most campuses, be sure you take a lantern; you are going to be digging in the dark. Should you find and actually enroll in a class, the odds are that it will be taught by a classicist who is more interested in the historiography about Cassius Dio than the events and people that shaped Western civilization.

I am not attempting to disparage scholarly study but, outside of a small group of professors, the conjunctive use of a Greek verb is of little interest to students. What is of interest to freshmen and graduates is the history of the era from about 1200 BCE to 1000 CE. This is a rich history that is full of myths, legends and stories that continue to have relevance in 2014.

In 2000, Gladiator was released. It was a huge movie that garnered critical and financial rewards around the world. More people now know more about Marcus Aurelius and Commodus than classists ever taught in the previous 50 years. Yes, I know that:

1. It’s a movie and made to make money
2. A lot of license goes into the story
3. It is not academic history; it is popular history, maybe low culture

While not formally a part of Western myth and culture, during this same time (2001-2004) three blockbuster movies did bring essentials of classical thought into the common culture worldwide. This is, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. These movies, and the books they are based on, set the stage for movies that expanded popular knowledge of our history.

In 2004, two movies arrived that continued to push change of the paradigm. Troy and Alexander, as movies, were not huge blockbusters. Both did well enough at the box office had big name stars. And although very loosely tied to Homer’s epic poem and the history of Alexander, they presented a picture of classical times that stimulated interest in Western history.

During this same time HBO released a television series Rome. Perhaps, we Americans have a soft spot for failed republics but there are at least a dozen books on Caesar’s commentaries at Amazon and there are copious pages of reference to Rome also. There is renewed interest in Suetonius history of the Caesars, at least in part because of the television series. Herodotus, Tacitus, and Pliny (both elder and younger) are better known today than when I was in school—Pliny the Elder due to interest in Pompeii in both new archeology and in the movies. It seems that classical education is sneaking in by the back door on television and not the class room.

The next year, The Kingdom of Heaven, was released, not a classical story but relevant to our history and again loosely based on actual antiquity. There really was a King Baldwin in Jerusalem who was a leper and the larger events did happen. A Christian army was destroyed at Hattin and Saladin took control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Again, a classical itch seems to be scratched with a movie.

In 2006, the movie 300 was released. Based on the valiant stand at Thermopylae by Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 warriors, it was a popular success. Purists panned the movie as comic book with lots of violence and stereotypes. Yet, again, the important aspect is the exposure to the values of our culture which are given to the world. In about a week the sequel to 300, Rise of Empire, will be released. The somnolent heads in the progressive and arts establishment, and in modern day Persia, Iran, will be offended by the unabashed statement of freedom, violence, and the depictions of the Persians as degenerate thugs. (How little the world has changed)  The battles of Plataea and Salamis will be better known by millions of people who had never given it a thought and for that we have to thank a capitalist economy not tedious lectures in academia or PBS. We are all the better for it. Leonidas ain’t dead yet.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

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23 Responses to Ain’t Dead Yet

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That’s a pretty good round-up, Steve, of modern movies that have shed some light on classical culture. Certainly I was invigorated to read more about Rome because of HBO’s Rome. And that can’t be a bad thing.

    Many may turn their eyebrows up at learning our history via the entertainment culture, which is one of the most vulgar and vacuous aspects of Western Civilization at the moment. But there have been some excellent movies or series produced (such as Rome) that are fairly accurate in the overall details and kindle interest in that period of time.

    But I’m dubious about movies ever reigniting an interest in, say, Shakespeare over “gender studies.” We have to boot out the Marxists in our institutions who were, in large part, responsible for the shift away from an appreciation for Classical Western Civilization in the first place. And they did so while that civilization was still revered. Touching this bastion from the outside with pro-Western-Civilization movies I don’t think will ever knock down that wall on its own.

    Still, another oar in the water towards reining in and overtaking the Marxists is a good thing.

    Personally, I thought Troy stunk and I didn’t get much out of it other than that the buffed-up Brad Pitt might vie with Antinous as an embodiment of male beauty. Alexander had its moments, a movie that was dragged down with flashbacks to Angelina Jolie. The actual story of Alexander would have been much more interesting. But I think they threw in Jolie as the token female. Equality uber alles, you know.

    I’d never thought of Lord of the Rings as an exposition in classicism. But compared to 99.5% of the other first-run garbage out there, it is indeed Shakespeare.

    Kingdom of Heaven I’m a bit more doubtful about. It was an okay movie. But the Left has done such a great job of making out Christians to be the invaders, and Muslims to be the victims, I confess I had a hard time stomaching much of this movie. But the sequel does sound promising.

    Anyway, you are now nominated as our own Michael Medved for having melded politics and pop culture and generally in a very thoughtful way.

    And when you mentioned “King Baldwin,” I assume you weren’t talking about Alec Baldwin.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    As a classical devotee, I enjoyed this piece very much, Steve……How about a remake of I, Claudius with Al Pacino and Miley Cyrus?

    • steve lancaster says:

      Miley Cyrus as Caligula sister Drusilla? and Pacino as the aging Tiberius?
      Type casting, how about BHO as Nero?

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Unfair! Nero wasn’t really that bad (though I can see a lot of similarities, including Nero murdering his mother and Obama traducing his grandmother, both being narcissistically convinced of their non-existent merits, and both targeting Christians). And besides, the Senate eventually outlawed him, which will never happen to Barry Screwtape Obama.

        I’ve been referring to most of Obama’s second-term nominations as Incitati (which I assume is the plural of Incitatus), so the better role for him would be Caligula. (And you might understand why Barackula is actually an apt sobriquet for him.)

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Poor Caligula, he started out well, but was laid low by a very serious fever. It appears that only after recovering from the fever did he begin to exhibit the insanity for which he is well known.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            And his insanity may have been exaggerated. When he made Incitatus a Senator (there was a nice short bit about this on History Channel once), was this an act of insanity, or a demonstration of contempt for the Senate? It’s with the latter thought in mind that I compare most of his recent appointment to Incy.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    The plays of Sophocles and Euripides were the vulgar entertainment of the day yet, Oedipus the King, teaches us that nemesis always follows hubris and Antigone teaches us that natural law trumps the positive law of the state. Perhaps, in some small way modern entertainment can still teach a lot. About 20 years ago, Kenneth Branagh produced Henry V to general a general audience. The great tragedies seem to make it to the screen on a periodic basis.

    Medved is well respected in my household. I am honored by the comparison.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Perhaps, in some small way modern entertainment can still teach a lot.

      My impression is that modern entrainment teaches all the wrong things. Mind you, I’m not one who believes that movies have to have a positive moral lesson, that they just can’t be entertainment.

      But the general things learned from modern movies are:

      + Businessmen are bad
      + White people can’t jump
      + Capitalism is raping the environment
      + Men are goofs, women are smart
      + Vulgar and crude is cool

      Again, much of Shakespeare was funny because it was bawdy. But I don’t think he was ever glorifying stupidity. But much of modern movies normalize and glorify stupidity. Often it is subtle, but often it is not (think Jackass).

      Dan Flynn has a somewhat interesting article on Harold Ramus, who recently died. Flynn talks about how the basis of much of his humor is now off-limits because of political correctness.

      Part of our job here, if you can call it a job, is reconnecting people to the virtues of Western Civilization. All that they learn from the Marxists is that Western Civilization is a racist, sexist, homophobic thing wherein people are “exploited” for profit by greedy capitalists. They’ve done a tremendously good job of radicalizing people, separating them from common sense, reasonableness, and a sense of proportion.

      Still, one thing to note about many of the movies you cited, Steve, is that they are not girly-man movies. And much of the deleterious effects of Marxist Civilization can be understood as the effects of feminism. Nothing against women, but it takes two to tango. And right now in our culture, real men are practically outlawed.

      If people can get out of these movies what it means to be a real man, then all the better. Heroism, bravery, adventure, sticking up for the weak, and a number of other values run in and through some of these movies, although they tend to just be orgies of mindless violence.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I never saw most of those Ramis movies, but I definitely recall that the human villain in Ghostbusters (whose vengeful idiocy helped set up the final confrontation) worked for the EPA. I’m not sure if Dr. Venkman’s sadistic (and fraudulently conducted) experiment at the beginning would be politically correct today.

        • steve lancaster says:

          Best line from Ghostbusters, to paraphrase;

          I like the university they give us money and resources and unlike the outside world don’t expect much for it.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    In high school, the Advanced English which I had included Greek literature (the Odyssey, the Oedipus cycle, and the Orestes cycle) as well as Russian and Indian (and related, such as Siddhartha and Demian by Herman Hesse) literature. We once stopped off at Thermopylae (it was our first trip from Athens to Thessaloniki), though I don’t recall much about it. But that famous couplet is meaningful to an Army brat like me.

    I liked the character portrayals in Troy (you get a good idea of why Achilles was called “fleet-footed”), but it took FAR too many liberties with the original myths to please me. I will add that there are other writers, such as Mary Renault and Steven Pressfield, who have written a fair amount of fiction on the classical world.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “In 2006, the movie 300 was released. Based on the valiant stand at Thermopylae by Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 warriors,”

    I prefer the late 1950’s or early 1960’s film “The 300 Spartans” starring, as I recall, Richard Egan. As to the film “300” CGG can only do so much for weak scripts. I particularly found the characterization of Xerxes to be foolish.

    While such movies do probably motivate some people to look further into actual history, I wonder how much damage they do by providing the low info crowd with downright false history thus leading them to take erroneous lessons from “history”.

    “will be offended by the unabashed statement of freedom, violence, and the depictions of the Persians as degenerate thugs.”

    This is exactly what I mean by erroneous lessons of history. The Spartans were in no way democratic. Hitler considered Sparta to be the first national socialistic state. They were a small minority of warriors who held a large percentage of Laconia’s population, called Helots, in slavery. Freedom for Spartans was for themselves only.

    It is true they were very violent. There whole society was built around the war camp. Virtually all a Spartan male did from the time he was about 7 until he was 30 was endure torture, deprivation and inflict the same on others.

    As to being degenerate thugs, well I guess it depends on one’s definition of “degenerate”. The Spartans, as a number of other warrior societies” were bisexual at least. Virtually every Spartan youth was taken under the wing of an older man. This relationship was supposed to be one of mentor and student. It included the younger man being the lover of the older man. The Spartans pretty much saw women as baby machines. And the Spartan ethic was so inflexible that they eventually brought about their own downfall as the number of Spartans kept decreasing over the centuries. They simply couldn’t replace themselves given their racial and communal demands. I think that could be called degenerate.

    No doubt the Spartans were an interesting group. But their society was extremely flawed. While they were certainly dedicated to their duty to Sparta, one could say the same about the SS. I guess constancy to a cause is always something which people admire, because most of humanity is feckless.

    As regards Thermopylae, what was admirable about the 300 Spartans and about 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians who fought at Thermopylae was first the fact that they moved to fight when the rest of the “Greeks” argued and second that all knew the chances of returning from the fight were slim, yet they still went..

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Indeed, if the oracles Herodotus cites are accurately reported, Leonidas went to Thermopylae knowing that he would die — and indeed, that his death (as well as presumably his men’s) was a necessary lesser sacrifice to prevent Sparta itself from falling to the Persians.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      While such movies do probably motivate some people to look further into actual history, I wonder how much damage they do by providing the low info crowd with downright false history thus leading them to take erroneous lessons from “history”.

      The key word there is “low information crowd.” Speaking for those who tend to hang a little outside that crowd, I am probably mostly able to tell fantasy from reality, as I’m sure most of you can. Even now, when reading a biography, it’s in my mind that I am reading “spin”…or could be. Part of the defense mechanism against BS is due (but not radical) skepticism, the withholding of final judgment until one has sifted through at least a minor mountain of facts rather than a collection of two or three sound bytes.

      So my point is that outside of the low information crowd (whose tastes and incredulity have been ground to dust by constant exposure to inanity and half-truths) it is perhaps true that one can gain inspiration to explore the history of some event or person via creative endeavors such as novels and movies. Art can enhance life.

      But that was before the Left more or less took over the arts (including movies as an art form). Now, as Dennis Prager notes, the point of art isn’t beauty or to uplift in some way. It’s to shock. “Real” art is vulgar. To be “important” art must make a “statement” and those “statements” are not multi-layered Rembrandts but some policewoman squatting over a puddle of her own piss. That is to say, ultimately “real” art is juvenile, nihilistic, and puerile.

      It is within this context that we can be dubious about the ability of the arts to move us to knowledge or to intellectual and cultural fulfillment.

  6. steve lancaster says:

    All that you say of Sparta is true, for someone in the 21st century. However, by 5th century standards Sparta was a remarkable city-state. I am certainly not contending that it was democratic by our standards in any way.

    There is one aspect of Spartan society that is mostly ignored. Sparta was the first culture to show a method of organizing male teenagers into something besides roving gangs. The harsh trials of Agoge, kept the youth in line, and stimulated the type of cooperative behavior that we hold as necessary in the corporate world of today.

    I doubt that any Spartan warrior could, or would condone the SS. Being admired by Hitler is not necessarily a bad thing, after all Hitler admired England and the United States.

    Yes, Sparta is a warrior culture, full of faults and errors so is ours, a warrior culture. The US is a country made by war. We do not celebrate it in the same fashion as Sparta, but the elements are there in everyday use. The computer you are using is a direct descendant of computers developed to plan thermonuclear war in the 50’s. If you wear a wrist watch it is a reminder of the watches officers picked up in France during the First World War. The money in your wallet is called a greenback, a reminder of the Civil War, a mustache is a callback to the Mexican War. The statutes in our cities celebrate war veterans, streets and even some cities are named for generals. We are not a pacific people, although we are generally slow to be stirred to fight it has always been to our enemies’ detriment to think us unwilling. We are the direct descendants of the Spartans and the world is better off for it.

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “All that you say of Sparta is true, for someone in the 21st century”

    Steve, all I wrote is true of 5th century BC Sparta. This reason I wrote it in such a way is because you couched your article in modern terms, both in the use of the media the statement ” Iran, will be offended by the unabashed statement of freedom, violence, and the depictions of the Persians as degenerate thugs.”

    This is what I mean about drawing the wrong lessons from history. There are of course the superficial lessons which are what, if we are lucky, most people will learn. But I am not putting a twentieth century gloss on Sparta. They were considered extreme even in their own time. Now I understand much of history consists of group fighting group with the stronger group usually winning. As someone who has studied history since he was about eight years old, I do not judge history by present artificial standards, particularly ancient history. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore facts. Rather, using facts, I try to put myself in a particular historical position and understand the world as someone in a particular place and time might understand the world around them. Of course this is not perfect, but it the best I can do.

    “I doubt that any Spartan warrior could, or would condone the SS.

    I am not so sure. The young Spartan was taught to lie, cheat, steal and kill. In fact it was a sort of rite of passage for a young Spartan to kill a Helot without getting caught. Really, the only crime was getting caught. Sounds pretty thuggish to me, 5th century B.C. or not. It was not de rigueur in other Greek city states to murder slaves or peasants.

    “Being admired by Hitler is not necessarily a bad thing, after all Hitler admired England and the United States.”

    I did not say Hitler admired Sparta, which he certainly did, I said he considered it the first National Socialist State. There is a major difference. For example, Hitler admired Wagner, so do I. That does not make me a Nazi. It means we both enjoy the same music.

    “The US is a country made by war.”

    I think I covered that in my remarks about history in general. I never said or implied anything different. But I do not find the arguments in your last paragraph completely correct or compelling.

    1. I would have thought the computer I use would have had its antecedents in Babbage at the earliest and perhaps Turing at the latest. In between there were several analogue machines. As regards the first electrical/programmable computer, I would guess this would be Colossus developed by the Brits during WWII. As to the P.C., I seem to recall it was developed back in the early 1970’s by some guy in New Mexico who basically gave it to Microsoft (a polite way to say it)
    2. Patek Philippe created the first wrist watch in 1868 for a lady who wanted something that was attractive as a piece of jewelry yet functional. The German army was the first to purchase these in large numbers in the 1880’s.

    What I am trying to point out is that the military or war did not create those things you mentioned. They did increase the production or development of, but intelligent people do such things. Cross fertilization so to speak.

    I am not sure how your other comments about our being a warrior culture pertain to this as I never spoke out against warrior cultures or Spartan warriors per se. Although it is true that the Spartans did not adapt to technological changes in warfare and because of this and some other reasons declined in importance and strength.

    As to our being direct descendants of the Spartans, well perhaps. But I would say we are more the descendants of fractious Germanic tribes, specifically the Angles and Saxons, than we are the Spartans.

  8. Glenn Fairman says:

    One thing most apparent between the Athenian and the Spartan of the Classical age is their art and architecture. The Athenian home was beautiful while the Spartan hovel was a gray wreck. The Athenian took refuge behind their Long Walls, and the Spartan was his own Long Wall. Lycurgus idea of iron money was founded on the concept that trade was essentially degenerate for a people, and few wished to trade with Lacedaimonian coinage—which kept them an insular people.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I see that a discussion of Sparta has broken out. There’s got to be a Godwin’s law for that.

    Anyone know of a good and fairly definitive book on Sparta that doesn’t just focus on one battle and is a good read?

    Regarding the movie, 300, I’m in the corner of Mr. Kung. It was a weak script. But everyone seems to love 300. It’s a guy thing. But I’m a guy so what’s the problem? (Again…weak script…and I would add — keeping in mind that this was based on a comic book — that the realism and immediacy of the battle was undermined by the stupid monsters and overt CGI).

    But I’m also in Mr. Lancaster’s corner in my love for Sparta. Well, it’s not a love, really, or even an admiration, proper. It’s a mild appreciative understanding. Reading a little Theodore Dalrymple (still plugging through one of his books) can do that to you. When you glimpse the civilizational anarchy that arises from a vapid belief system (sort of a girly-man, anti-belief system of Leftism), you gain an appreciation for order, any order, including Spartan order.

    Add to that the terrible ennui you come to realize is part and parcel of the weak and vapid identity of “multiculturalism” sweeping the West (see Mark Steyn’s America Alone) and one can thus appreciate a civilization (brutal though it may have been) that didn’t despise itself and actually had a central purpose.

    Maybe that is part of the attraction of 300. This is sheer speculation, but maybe the appeal of this movie is that it shows a man’s world full of adventure, heroism, and — most importantly — meaning. So much of this has been drained from men’s lives due to feminism, multiculturalism, and the generally open season that exists for heterosexual white males.

  10. Kurt NY says:

    I would hesitate to characterize any of those movies mentioned as of positive value in imparting anything at all about our classical past. 300 for one, seemed to me not only a particularly weird comic book, but a form of gay porn, with a lot of very fit males prancing about doing manly things while barely clothed (c’mon, they would have been armored, not bare chested to show off well chiseled pecs and washboard abs). Gladiator and others just used modern concerns of freedom and justice and slapped some historical names on them. In no wise are either the concerns, wisdom, failures, or accomplishments of our ancestors conveyed.

    If anything, these movies contribute to the profound ignorance of modern peoples of how we got where we are.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      On the other hand, a friend of mine pointed out that 300 with its naked men does reflect Greek art of the period.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I would hesitate to characterize any of those movies mentioned as of positive value in imparting anything at all about our classical past.

      Kurt, I see your point. Keep in mind Mr. Lancaster’s caveat:

      1. It’s a movie and made to make money
2. A lot of license goes into the story

      3. It is not academic history; it is popular history, maybe low culture

      What I got out of his article is that it’s better that movie makers are delving back into Western History for stories rather than, say, giving us Brokeback Mountain II: The Hidden Valley.

      I guess this gist of it is that, just as Star Trek and other sci-fi ignited a lot of imaginations for technology and space (even though there are no such things as Vulcans), so could a few movies that delve into generally western history (fictionalize, though it is) be a tonic for what ails us. I tend to agree even while noting your objections and some of my own.

      Don’t be a stranger, Kurt.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        It’s a start. The person who watches the movies might then check out some of the sources (e.g., the Iliad or Herodotus), which might even lead to more modern histories, such as Donald Kagan’s series on the Peloponnesian War (which includes a pair of chapters on the battle of Arginusae — one on the battle, one on the trial and execution of the victorious commanders), or John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea about the Athenian navy (he was a high school classmate, so I figured I ought to give him a plug).

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