I just finished Clive Skidmore’s “Practical Ethics for a Roman Gentleman,” a work analyzing the writings of Valerius Maximus, the 1st century A.D. moralist. Valerius’s substantial compendium of examples of male and female virtue was designed to spread traditional moral standards throughout his age and beyond.
Valerius believed that the welfare of the state rested upon individual courage, moderation, loyalty, modesty, gratitude and religious faith. The state also depended upon the transmission of these values so that the young would grow up determined to outdo the virtue of their elders. Valerius held that the key to happiness lay in finding satisfaction in simplicity, not in wealth. As such, he was an “equal opportunity” champion: the path of virtue (and to its rewards) was open to both slave and patrician alike.
According to Skidmore, inspiring tales of the virtuous were main-streamed throughout Roman society – told at theater, recited at dinner (often to flute accompaniment) and were tricked-up whenever necessary to avoid putting listeners to sleep. And individuals practicing the vaunted virtue of moderation also ate in moderation, and were not afraid to be seen taking their meals in public!
I do know that the study of the ancients and their virtues helped hold western societies together from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century. At home, our Founding Fathers were no small products of rigorous classical training. At Valley Forge in early 1778, recall how Washington entertained his men with a production of Joseph Addison’s “Cato,” the drama of the Roman senator who fought to his death the tyrannical ascendancy of Julius Caesar (i.e. read King George III!).
Not to pile on Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, but it appears that, contrary to olden times, tales of astounding male and female sordidness, as opposed to tales of virtue, dominate today’s United States. Cable TV and check-out counter publications seem engulfed with it, as do the London Daily Mail, much of Drudge and thousands of other online sites.
Certainly, as Skidmore points out, the ancients also broadcasted unwholesome tales. But these were cautionaries on how not to behave. I should add that in medieval times tales of caution were repeated on western church facades, sometimes in the form of processions of ravishing but sad-looking babes in stone– the Foolish Virgins– naïfs encaptured and doomed by their attraction to the wicked Prince of the World, AKA Satan. (Knowing a thing or two about little girls, we tried our best to fortify ours with such lessons!).
But what has happened to such transmissions of core values? Rather, today’s Foolish Virgins are presented as twerking, happy and fulfilled tabloid idols, dressed in style and making $zillions. And though we have progressed in time, there is, sadly, little or no push back whether of the ancient, medieval or tepid modern variety. Is this why dozens of young women (and still counting) wound up on Weinstein’s office “casting couch,” in Weinstein’s hotel rooms for heaven’s sake?
But where were the parents and others, those who presumably guarded the adolescent path of the young people they loved, who should have transmitted traditional values and counseled them on the way the world turns? God help me, but I see that the fault for this Hollywood collapse lies chiefly with them. Their abysmal failure, not Weinstein’s, is the real news headline here. Truth to tell: the prince of the world and dirty old guys are old news; they still exist and always will.
Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.