“Do not shrink from evils, but meet them all the more boldly…” Virgil, Aeneid.
Spring semester 2016 ended one week ago, when I walked out of my last final burdened with the knowledge that I now have senior status. The onerous responsibility of being the one others look up to was suddenly very hard to bear.
I have since watched many friends graduate and leave campus, some of whom were very dear friends I may not see again for months, or even years. And by this time next year, it will be my turn to leave and move on with my life. I will be just one more person who continues the cycle. The loss I felt at watching them leave to begin new chapters in their lives was deep, and caused me to realize how important they have become.
My life at school, both academically and socially, has been most of my life. I have been living and thriving in a rigorous college environment for nearly three years now, and it has shaped me in ways I never imagined.
One thing that never fails to astound me is how both my academic life and social life intersect in ways I never expected.To be a student of classics is to be immersed in so much more than vain literary pursuits as some seem to believe. Instead of that, I have been immersed in what is pure, raw humanity. Ancient authors face some things with a boldness we can only admire from afar today.
I honestly believe that studying classics has taught me to lay my finger on the pulse of humankind. I have learned to synthesize what I know of people from my personal experience with the ancient literature I spend so much time reading. They inform each other, and give one another a depth I had not believed possible.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of having lunch with a very distinguished professor of classics, who told me that hardly a day went by without him drawing on his knowledge of the classical world, because it taught him about people and how to understand them. This statement struck a chord within me, which I have been slowly drawing out ever since.
I think of a character like Achilles, characterized by his implacable anger brought on by Agamemnon’s challenge to his status as the foremost Greek warrior. Or Hector, who is torn between love of his family and his duty to his country, whose death brings unimaginable grief to his parents and his wife, Andromache. The jealousy between the gods (who are arguably just giant humans with slightly more power) resounds not just because of its outrageousness, but because it is a reflection of who we are. Our motivations are no different.
Poets like Sappho and Catullus write on some of the most visceral experiences humans are capable of having. Catullus’ violent exclamation of “odi et amo!” (I hate and I love) is perhaps the most abbreviated way of expressing the deep conflict that we have all experienced at one time or another. This “odi et amo” has resonated with much later authors such as Petrarch, who wrote many similar things in his Canzoniere . Petrarch gloried in his ambivalence.
Historians like Thucydides, Herodotus, Sallust, and Tacitus write about human motivations in a manner that is more penetrating than even the poets. Ancient historians are constantly interacting with the deep dynamics of human motivations and actions. They often seek to understand why certain individuals behave in certain ways.
Tacitus in particular seeks to understand the most deep-seated motivations of human action. This exploration leaves him sounding bitterly cynical, yet also optimistic. When Tacitus seeks to describe an individual’s motivation for something, Tacitus usually gives the reader two distinct options. The first is usually moderately optimistic, while the second is very pessimistic. As the action unfolds, more often than not it is the second, more cynical option that proves to be the correct answer.
Yet, Tacitus gives us hope for something better. Though we find that most human beings often take the low road, there is yet value in naming the high road. That high road still exists, and that in itself is incredibly hopeful. If we are to benefit at all from Tacitus’ work, we are to adopt his understanding that most take the low road, but also understand that we are not bound to that. Our motivations are deep-seated, and it takes much more than philosophical ranting to change how we act in accordance with our motivations. Tacitus understood this, and sought not to philosophize, but to offer an experience.
One of my favorite aspects of Tacitus is the panoramic experience of existing within a highly political world, where no one is really trustworthy and where only the unusually savvy survive. As much as he can, he mimics the experience of such a world because experience is the best teacher. I have never read another author like him, except perhaps Thucydides. The Annals especially is a masterpiece of political education, and something from which I drew a lot of understanding about people.
I suddenly found myself adopting in my day-to-day life the habits I had acquired in reading Tacitus, and myself resolving to be the person to take that high road even when the low road was easier. I suddenly did not need others to take the high road, when I understood its real value. I could face the evils with more boldness than ever before.
Coupled with months of interpersonal experience (of both positive and negative kinds), Tacitus gave me a new perspective on how I approach life and humanity.
Other authors I read have made me more acutely aware of the sadness I feel upon watching my closest friends move on with their lives, leaving me to continue in their footsteps (thinking of Virgil and Cicero more specifically). Cicero taught me the great importance of friends for living the fullest life, but nobody understood sorrow of loss more than Virgil.
The words between Aeneas and lost comrades (e.g. Palinurus in the Underworld) are striking for their depth. While my friends may not be lost to me in the same sense that Aeneas’ comrades were lost, they are no longer here on this journey with me. They’ve taken another path, and that in itself feels like loss.
For that reason, Virgil has given me plenty of food for thought lately, as the Aeneid is a story of departures and new beginnings, like my life now. I see others departing this stage of life to begin a new one, as Aeneas left Troy to begin a new phase of his life. Soon, it will be my turn to leave a comfortable, familiar place for something strange and unknown. And I can only hope to face it with the same courage.
Because of classics, I am not just an anomalous being with random feelings that I can’t explain. I am a part of the vast tapestry of humankind, with feelings common to all. My life is just a part of the cycle of life, and the experiences I have are also a part of it. This experience is my connection with the ancient world, more so than a mere intellectual understanding of their work. It runs so much deeper than that.