“Sixty Centuries Are Looking Down On Us”

A few years ago, I wrote a short critique about optimism in classical education circles, an issue I feel strongly about because I think that for the most part that type of optimism may be evidence of an intellectual and spiritual hubris unbecoming of anyone who really and thoroughly tries to ground himself in the classical tradition. On the other hand, at another point, trying to deal with the opposite error, extreme cultural pessimism, I wrote a short “balancing” piece “Is Western Culture Worse than Sodom and Nineveh”. Here I want to take up the large theme behind both posts yet again, but give it more development.

Writing about the section of Aeneid Book II in which Aeneas realizes the weight of how he must lead a “wretched band” of refugees to a new home, Stanley Lombardo comments:

“Yet it is not for the dispossessed alone that this passage has extraordinary resonance; any student of human history knows that Aeneas’ speech represents an event all too familiar in human experience and captures an unhappy truth of the human condition: however secure the present may seem, our deepest intuitions…recognize our communities to be fragile, vulnerable, contingent.”

The Essential Aeneid, p. x

One of the greatest benefits of classical literature consists in how, thoughtfully engaged, it exposes the dichotomy between what we know to be true in our heart of hearts and the fantasies we read onto the present out of a motive of desiring security.

Consider: we all have a tacit belief (at least if we’re remotely thoughtful about anything beyond our immediate present) that what happened to other societies in the past can’t also happen to us. At the same time as we realize our society is experiencing many grave trials, we really do tend to get so caught up in the moment that mostly what we see is our fantastic material prosperity – which we easily assume entails actual cultural might.

Yet in truth, we need only to spend a while pondering the fate of Troy as read in Homer’s Iliad and continued in Vergil’s Aeneid to gain perspective and point us toward a desperately needed moderation of attitude and practice. (A moderation most sadly lacking, in my estimation, over the last year and a half of COVID, which exposed to the bone the rank materialism and scientifictitious blindness of our culture – even of many purportedly “conservative” Christians.)

Someone has to say it in this age of overweening prideful assumptions of our “exceptionalism,” and since the classical authors already said it, all I have to do is report their words. The actual truth of the matter, borne out by six millennia of recorded history, is that civilizations come and civilizations go, and where this cycle stops, no one knows.

At a point not really all that far from the dawn of recorded history, we read the opening lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh extolling the great city of Uruk that he, the great semi-divine king, had caused to be built. It’s a stirring scene (at least, for anyone who bothers to think about how unbelievably fragile a thing a city really is), and it’s followed up by many pages of fantastic heroic adventures pushing back monsters and gods and even throwing down the gauntlet in the very face of Death Itself. Yet after all is said and done, Gilgamesh’s friend is dead, Gilgamesh himself realizes he, too, will die, and the poem closes with the exact same lines it began with – extolling the great marvel of a city that, whatever it looked like fifty centuries ago, now looks like this:

Uruk, Iraq | Ancient | Pinterest | Sumerian and Ancient ...

So then. Given the uniform testimony of history, it is actually just ludicrous for any generation – for we ourselves! – to act as if we living in the 21st century, surrounded by technological whiz-bangery and material glut and apparent freedoms greater than that of any ancient kings are somehow the goal toward which all of history has been pointing. Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and all the rest – we will escape their fates for we are just really Super Special People. Like Midas, doesn’t everything we touch turn to gold – or at least, promise that it will as soon as we can apply our sciences, our mastery of nature, to it in just the right way?

Scarcely only 200 years ago – a mere drop in the bucket of history – Napoleon is reported to have said to his troops as they prepared to fight the British in Egypt near the pyramids, “Forty centuries are looking down on us.” Ponder that for a moment. Napoleon blazed like a shooting star across European culture, and left a seemingly indelible mark on all of human life. Yet, like Caesar, Napoleon “came, saw, and conquered” and like the builders of the pyramids he, too, is now gone, leaving only fragmentary traces of his “exceptionalism” behind.

Judged in the light of history, we living in the 21st century are just more temporary actors passing across the stage, most of us almost never conscious that, to borrow Napoleon’s words, “Sixty centuries are looking down on us.” Don’t judge the happiness of your life by your prosperity now, the Athenian statesman Solon warned one of the most powerful men of his day, Croesus of Lydia, “But look to the end, for only when it’s all over can other people judge whether you were trully happy.” It never ceases to be odd to me how many classical educators tell this story as part of classes on Herodotus, but fantastically fail to draw the moral lesson out to their own selves and our own time.

When you get right down to it, NO, we are not somehow better than other cultures in terms of what the nature of the world and the nature of humanity itself can allow to happen. We ought not to assume that whatever comes our way we are not only ready to meet it but able to decisively overcome it. The end of such hubris stands revealed in the stark, resigned words of Aeneas to his men as the Greeks ravage once proud, prospeous Troy:

Brave hearts – brave in vain
If you are committed to follow me to the end –
You see how we stand. All the gods
Who sustained this realm are gone, leaving
Altar and shrine. You are fighting to save
A city in flames. All that is left for us
Is to rush onto swords and die. The only chance
For the conquered is to hope for none.

Aeneid II.409-416 (Lombardo)

True, Aeneas survives that battle and, after seven years of bitter wandering and a horrifically bloody war in Italy, founds the race that would one day produce Rome. Proud Troy fell, but shreds of hope carried Aeneas forward to a new destined greatness. Troy was reborn, after a fashion, and many centuries later, so too was Rome when the barbarian tribes swept in and refashioned her legacy into a dozen “Romish” localisms whose influence persists even today in our architecture, our languages, and our literature.

So, then. To try to see where all the Optimists are coming from for a moment, let’s not be Johnny Rain Clouds, since as that old pop song from 1986 enthusiastically proclaims, “Things are going great, and they’re only getting better….the future’s so bright / I gotta wear shades.”

And yet, where is Rome, that grand, fantastically ordered and prosperous place that no less than the god Jupiter himself declared would possess an imperium sine fine – an “empire without end”? It’s arguable, as noted above, that Rome changed forms and so is in a whole lot of smaller, less ostentatious ways still hanging around. But even so, consider that Cicero lived and breathed and walked and talked and spun out the most epic speeches you’ll ever read about ethics and philosophy and about how he, by the passionate fire of his own incredible forethought and industry, almost single-handedly saved the Republic from ruination at the hands of Catiline in this place:

File:Ruins of Roman Forum.jpg

As they say in logic classes, Q.E.D.

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

So, then. Perhaps we can just seek refuge in a pious theological appeal to God’s providence. In Scripture God said He wanted to bless His people and the Patriarchs were crazy-rich and God promised Israel temporal abundance for covenant faithfulness in the land He gave them and aren’t we God’s new special people, King’s Kids, just “postmillennially” waiting for our Father to make all enemies Christ’s footstool in a great, visible instantiation of widespread cultural triumph? What’s to be all that concerned about? We’re on the cusp of a great civilizational reinvigoration and reformation. Rejoice for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

But wait – after centuries of hopeful striving Israel spectacularly failed and at last joined the great litany of fallen, ruined cultures already chanted out above. Fascinatingly, too, lots of replacement-type theologies focusing on Christian cultural work (“the Church”) usually try to make vague appeals to “hope” do all the heavy conceptual and practical lifting while they leave out most of the worst parts of the historical story, which looks on the whole all too depressingly like everything that came before it. The questions arise from the texts themselves – at least they do for people who really and truly do read the texts.

As Lombardo put it in the opening quote of this post, “however secure the present may seem, our deepest intuitions…recognize our communities to be fragile, vulnerable, contingent.” And let’s not forget –

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

Augustine spends many pages walking though Old Testament history in his masterwork The City of God. He makes a very thorough case against cultural presumption, concluding that after the inspired record of the Old Testament no one can speak for Providence. After the time of Christ, no one can “read” Providence with great accuracy, for no one has the status of prophet that the Hebrew writers did. Accordingly, it would be a strange thing indeed for someone living today to read all this and yet still reassure us that someday, perhaps not really all that far off in terms of the brevity of human consciousness judged against the immense weight of time, someone won’t come across the shattered remains of, say, the Statue of Liberty, and be forced to apply to it the profound words of Shelley’s poem: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

So, then. If that short, simple phrase doesn’t make a person tremble at the “unhappy fragility” of the present and take everything he does with much more gravity, what can?

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

But, hope! Yes indeed, hope. It’s not wrong, surely, for any generation, our own included, to hope for better things in the future. If we give up hope, what will have left but broken spirits that dry up the bones (Prov. 17:22)? As Aristotle notes, human beings marry and have children because they want to leave behind an image of themselves for the future – which shows that built right into our very DNA itself is a need to assume that there will be a future and a need to hope that it will be better in discernible ways because we were here. And yet –

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

Perhaps Augustine was right: we know that God is in control of history, that His providence is, in fact, guiding and directing all that occurs in history toward His own ultimate victory, and yet, at no particular stage along the way are any of us ever justified in setting the united witness of sixty centuries aside in order to aggrandize whatever puny little culture-thingies we’re doing at the moment. As if we poor souls, scrabbling about amidst fantastic cultural ruins that we can scarcely comprehend, are in fact just what history has been waiting for.

So, then. Hoping for a better future is not wrong. Working hard for a better future is not wrong. What is wrong is making any kind of assumptions about the future based on our own radically contingent, unhappily fragile presents.

For not only are sixty centuries looking down us, proclaiming one united message of unpredictable ups-and-downs, but Scripture itself bracingly reminds us that “The Lord opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

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