The Roman Search For Wisdom

the-roman-search-for-wisdomKellogg, K. Michael. The Roman Search for Wisdom. New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.

Reviewed by James Booker

When most people think of Rome they think of its military conquests, its massive aqueducts, huge building programs, its roads, and gladiator games.  Very few would equate Rome for a search for wisdom. Michael K. Kellogg dispels this perception. Greece invented history, poetry, philosophy, and plays, but Rome would later build on these genres – adjusting them to fit into their own time. They not only borrowed from them they refined them – to the extent they influenced Shakespeare, the Founding Fathers, and many others. Rome militarily conquered Greece, but Greece conquered Rome with its arts. According to Horace, “Captive Greece took its Roman captor captive, / Invading uncouth Latium with its arts.” [1]

For Kellogg, Roman literature begins with Titus Maccius Plautus (ca., 254-184 BC), and ends with Emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121 AD -180 AD). Roman writers (highlighted in this book) would later write on Rome’s beginnings, but most of it is shrouded in mystical origins. Even though Rome fell many years later after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Kellogg believes this was the end of an era for Classical literature and the beginning of a new era – influenced by Christianity.

Kellogg covers eleven people: from playwrights, poets, historians, politicians, and an Emperor. They were: Plautus, Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus – a freed slave. We would have known very little of the Rise and Fall of Rome if it were not for these writers. Incredibly, after reading each one’s work, the themes and issues still resonate today. For example, Plautus, considered the “father of modern comedy,” [2] exposed the human condition through laughter. Moreover, the plays, perhaps were a means to cope with life. Romans – and most people during this time – controlled very little, especially their own lives.

What is especially enlightening about Kellogg’s book is he brings to bare the competing philosophies of each writer. Every writer had a particular view of society, of the God(s), of themselves, and on how each functioned in an ever harsh world. Stoicism and Epicureanism was prominent. Each used their skills to advance their philosophies. Some writers used narrative to expose their philosophy to others, whereas others were open about their intent.

Kellogg starts off with a brief history of Rome – from its beginnings to its last emperor, Romulus Augustus. It is a good introduction that gives the reader a macro-view of Rome. Then he starts to cover each writer. He gives a brief background to each and then breaks down each of their works individually. In so doing, he also plunges the reader into the politics, the major players, and society. The book is rich – a kaleidoscope, reflecting a deep culture. It is not dry. It is, however, saturated with multilayered and diverse backgrounds. He is true to his word. He exposes Rome’s search for wisdom. By juxtaposing each major writer with their contemporaries, politics, and society – Kellogg was able to make Roman history and the work they contributed come alive.

limage_et_le_pouvoir_-_buste_cuirasse_de_marc_aurele_age_-_3I have a few issues, however, with the book. Traditional stoicism taught its adherents to use reason, not allow emotions to rule them. They taught a form of detachment from humanity.  Not so much literally, but mentally and spiritually. But they were to engage in public duty. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. He, on the other hand, developed and introduced certain types of virtues and especially love, found in his book, Meditations, into the pantheon of Stoic philosophy. Kellogg makes a claim, “These same virtues would largely become those of Christianity as well.” [3] This is a leap, for Kellogg.

The New Testament had long been written. Christ’ teachings and the Apostle’s teaching on love was becoming widespread. There is no proof he had copies of the New Testament nor was influenced by Christians. But it is hard to imagine a strong concept of love coming out of classical times – especially from a Roman Emperor, no matter how virtuous he was. Indeed, his concept of “love” was twisted.

The popular movie Gladiator, released 2000, portrayed Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harrison) as a wise sage and a beneficent ruler. Others have portrayed him as an enlightened ruler. However, he “authorized the persecution of Christians as a moral and social danger,” [4] as stated by Isaiah Berlin. The Christian concept of love and virtues were far different than those of Marcus Aurelius. Later, when Christianity became the sole religion of the state (Roman Catholicism), did the church mimic Marcus Aurelius “virtues” – in that they persecuted other Christians.

The second issue I had was at the end, Kellogg seemed to become repetitive on the points of Stoicism. But this is just my personal opinion. Nonetheless, I was left with one lasting point.  Stoicism and Platonism teaches reality is not so much what we feel, see, or experience – or as many Stoics would say, impressions, but rather, reality is hidden. With reason and self-discipline, however, reality can be apprehended. This theme helped laid the foundations of natural law and natural rights. If the universe is not rational – then change and chaos is the only reality. Karl Marx and Saul Alinsky would probably agree with this premise. The only constant they believed was real — and should be advanced — was revolution, ever changing and progressing.

For an undergrad in a private college or university this would be an excellent compendium to a history text book, but not some much for public colleges or universities, because there is more rigor in the private schools than there are in public colleges and universities, in my opinion. But this book would be a good source to any graduate student majoring in history – especially in Greek and Roman history.

September 30, 2016

 

 

 

Bibliography

Kellogg, Michael K. The Roman Search for Wisdom. New York: Prometheus Books, 2014.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.

 

[1] Michael K. Kellogg, The Roman Search for Wisdom (New York: Prometheus Books, 2014), 9.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 290.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and utilitarianism (London:  Oxford University Press, 1992), xix.

1 Comment

  1. NICE

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    Reply

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