As I was reading along in Plutarch’s Lives today I was struck by something that Plutarch related about Camillus, a great Roman general and leader who lived from 446-365 B.C. He was famous for aiding the Romans in battle but he was also a politician and was elected to office several times. On one particular occasion, some Romans wanted Camillus to do things that he was not legally empowered to do. He refused. The Roman people respected his “noble resistance” and loved him even more for being incorruptible.
This got me thinking. The Roman people, almost 2500 years ago, considered it “noble” of Camillus to resist his passions and temptations– they actually honored him for this. They thought it was fantastic that he would lay aside his own natural urges, be forbearing and put his country first, even when he had every reason and opportunity not to.
Ironically, this is exactly the type of behavior we still honor today! When people don’t just give in to every lust and passion, when they control themselves and forego pleasures, we consider that they are doing the ‘right’ thing. Why do we still agree with the Romans that Camillus was good? Why do we intuitively believe in a right and wrong that so closely corresponds with ancient ideas of right and wrong? Aren’t modern scholars always telling us that we have ‘progressed,’ that virtues and values have ‘improved’ since ancient times, that we have a ‘better’ set of values today because of the beautiful progressive movement of evolution. But do we?
My reading of ancient history convinces me over and over again that we haven’t changed all that much. The ‘innovative’ laws that great leaders like Solon or Numa put in place thousands of years ago – like greater punishment for rape, or taking better care of the poor – that were lauded by the people and the thinkers of their day, still sound like good ideas to me. And the same kinds of issues that they struggled with, we still struggle with today – how to get government leaders to be less corrupt, what the best education is, how criminals should be punished, which laws are the most humane, how to develop a civilization toward greater enlightenment and goodness. I know some ideas from ancient times are just backward but I see backward things still happening today. And I know that some individuals and groups think they are the best and wisest and have it all figured out and that everyone should follow their example, but those people existed in ancient times too. In my opinion, human values are human values and they won’t ever change.
COMMENT BELOW: What do you think? What conclusions has your education led you to? Are we truly better people or are we just a little bit smarter?
*For more on this idea and suggested readings click HERE