Thursday, October 13, 2011

“Only one era and one small group of writers”

In the colonists’ use of classical literature, for example, “their detailed knowledge and engaged interest covered only one era and one small group of writers”: Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus—those who “had hated and feared the trends of their own time, and in their writing had contrasted the present with a better past, which they endowed with qualities absent from their own, corrupt era.”

- The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, Gordon S. Wood, (The Penguin Press: 2011), pages 46-7.

Wood’s quote comes from Bernard Bailyn’s study of Revolutionary pamphlets, but I’m not sure the claim survives Wood’s next essay/lecture (“The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution”). I post it here not to attempt to support or refute the claim…simply to note it to keep it in mind as I read through more of the literature of the founders as well as highlight it for other readers.

Wood’s book looks at the importance of ideological origins in the American Revolution, weighing how easy it is to place too much or too little emphasis on ideas in shaping the course of that history. For the record, from Woods’ afterword to the Legacy lecture:

No doubt the classical world was an important part of the political memory of the Founders. We might even say that the relationship between the Founders and the classical past was similar to our present relationship to the Founders. Just as we use the Founders, such as Jefferson and Washington, to get our bearings and reaffirm our beliefs and reinvigorate our institutions, so too did the Founders use antiquity, especially republican antiquity, to help shape their values and justify their institutions.

We borrow what we need from the ideas of the past, and in the process we inevitably distort those past ideas. Of course, the Founders’ use of classicism was different from the classicism of antiquity, just as our use of the ideas of the Founding bears little resemblance to the thinking of the eighteenth century. … Yet by questioning whether the ideas of antiquity were determinative of the Founders’ thinking, I do not mean to suggest that the classical past was unimportant to them. Ever if ideas of an earlier era are not determinative of later thinking, it does not follow that these earlier ideas were simply ormentation and had little influence. I believe that the classical past was much more than illustrative of the Founders’ thoughts. Earlier ideas can, as I tried indicate in the essay, influence and affect behavior.

- (pages 78-9)

No comments: