Thursday, April 20

Winners and Losers

Dan Brown, author of the blockbuster novel, The DaVinci Code, boldly asserts that, "History is always written by the winners." It is the sort of untrue truism for which his book, chock-a-block as it is with historical howlers, gaffes, and conspiratorial gumbahs, has become all-too notorious. The fact is, history is often written by the losers. Witness Thucydides, Augustine, Bolryn, Eusebius, or Bede--all progenitors of the art of history, all indispensible to our understanding of history, and all living in perilous times on the losing side of some great conflict.

The first installment of Plutarch’s famous Lives was published on this day in the year 118. He came to his vocation rather late in life, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. And he, like so many other historians before him, was a man living on the wrong side of an imperial conquest that subsumed his land, his people, and his culture.

He was a Greek pagan at the time of Roman and Christian ascendency.

Greece, of course, had lost by this time the last vestiges of her independence. Her population had fallen precipitously since the days of her glory—the riches of Rome and the Asian provinces had not only attracted her most able administrators but also her most capable laborers. Thus, materially, culturally, and politically Plutarch’s homeland was is decline. Though he could do little to arrest this trend, he felt obliged to put it into perspective. And that he did quite ingeniously in the Lives.

At the same time, the Roman Empire was in its most stable and vibrant stage. The economy was prosperous. The military was invincible. And the culture was vibrant. Education, the arts, and the sciences were all flourishing. Despite the decrepit paganism of the day, there was a degree of personal freedom unprecedented in all of history.

But the most significant feature of the age was the sudden emergence of Christianity as a major societal force. Although Plutarch does not deal with Christianity directly, it is clear that he was attempting to revive interest in the very best of ancient paganism. In the face of the moral challenge that Christian evangelism posed to the ancien regime he wanted to reignite the moral vitality of classicism. Thus, we see in the Lives the last great gasping apologetic for Greco-Roman civilization on the threshold of an ascendant Christendom.

When later writers, thinkers, and social activists would appeal to the classical age for reforms in their own time, they would picture its ideals as seen through Plutarch’s rose colored glasses. This is why the American founders could remain so enamored with ancient mores—despite their unhesitating commitment to Christian truth, the founders' comprehension of the pagan essence of Greece and Rome was myopically obscured by Plutarch.

Thus, there are times when losers actually have more impact than winners in the writing of history.

4 comments:

Mama Squirrel said...

Dear Dr. Grant,

I think I understand what you're saying about Plutarch's aim in protecting the classical heritage, and that his positive take on it obscured some of its uglier side for those who came much later.

But you've also said (in an earlier essay on Plutarch) that "When we read, we must read Christianly. But all that being said, we need to read. And Plutarch is a fine place to start."

Are you less enthusiastic now about Plutarch's value for Christian readers?

Dr. Knox said...

I take it then that you have a dim view of Brown's wild theories in DaVinci Code. I saw an interview in which he expressed the hope that his book and the new Hollywood movie would "put an end to the nonsense of Christianity." Thank you for pointing out the flaw in his principle presupposition.

George said...

Yes, I do use Plutarch with Christian students as a great place to begin a study of Antiquity. But, it is always important to do so with a Christian worldview grid--which means reading critically and not uncritically like so many of the American founders.

Dan Brown's work, on the other hand, has little to commend it. Not only is it filled with historical distortions and theological nonsense of the basest sort, it is not even very good prose.

larry white said...

Dan Brown's prose is arguably better than many of the alternatives who wear the Christian label. There is, of course, Jan Karon, and some others quite good and increasingly popular in that vein. Would you recommend any other current writers of very good prose to put up against Dan Brown? I'm a public librarian in a small midwestern town.