It’s Super Bowl weekend! I’m reading The Aeneid. The Super Bowl costs millions of dollars. A billion seems reasonable considering how many people will watch and eat and drink. My copy of The Aeneid cost $16 and will last much longer than four quarters of a football game. I know, I’m in the midst of a literary geek moment, but I read the classics to see how we have and haven’t changed. The Aeneid only cost me $16, but the original Olympic games probably weren’t cheap, and the Trojan war definitely bankrupted nations and sent men on journeys of emotional recovery that lasted years. At least most folks will recover from the Super Bowl within days. And there have always been people willing to take on risk for reward.
Allow me to display my ignorance. I’d never heard of The Aeneid until Brad Pitt starred in Troy. I knew about The Iliad, which is about the Trojan War, but I hadn’t read it. I’d read the Odyssey, which is about the Greeks’ and Ulysses’ trip home from the war, so it was natural and easy to read both and get the whole story. Except that I’d missed The Aeneid, which is about the Trojans’ fugitive journey. After any such conflict there are two sides. According to the authors, Homer and Virgil, both sides had a tough time recuperating – and both sides spent a lot of time sailing around in the Mediterranean. (Didn’t these folks realize they could have walked there quicker?) I’m glad someone suggested that I complete the set.
Life over two thousand years ago was short and a struggle, but they dove into their struggles passionately. The honor and glory that the soldiers sought are reflected in today’s football players. Most of the Greeks hoped for riches. That part’s the same. The Trojans just wanted the Greeks to go away. That part’s different, but the difference is between a game and war, not a difference produced by 2,000 years of attempts at improving civilization.
Our ancient ancestors’ lives were driven by fear and greed, the same things that drive the investment world. Even back then, most wanted just enough or a bit more while a few could never have enough. I suspect that Paris, the guy who seduced Helen, another man’s wife, could’ve made a better choice for everyone by holding back on the coveting. He was a prince. He probably didn’t have any trouble getting a date. Instead they started a war, Paris was killed, Troy fell, and we end up with epic tales of lives gone awry for years (with some unconvincing happy endings from my point of view). We’re witnessing something similar today. Most people want enough and maybe a bit more, but some people want so much that everyone else is affected, and the recovery may take years.
Some things have improved. We get more of a voice about things like wars and excessive greed. Things can get out of control, but we also have societal mechanisms for pulling them back. As much as I am not in favor of our various wars and financial deregulations, I also know that I haven’t fully exercised my personal authority by running for office. The Greeks may have started this democracy thingie, but even they didn’t give everyone a voice. The decision to go to war with Troy was not unanimous. I think we’ll fix the things that started our current mess. It will take time, but at least it will happen.
We are also more aware of our world, and less likely to misinterpret cause and effect. The reach and speed of information is marvelous. If we want to know something there’s a good chance we can find answers. (Thank you wikipedia.) Causes are less likely to be attributed to omens. An eagle carrying a snake probably won’t start a war. In comparison, our debate over the causes of global climate change are in a much tighter range (though with 7,000,000,000 people we can also have a few folks much further out than before). Effects are harder to discern because we are more interconnected. A war in the vicinity of Troy is a topic for debate, argument, and taxes in North America, but the original Trojan War didn’t bother the Mayans.
Life before the Romans was more self-contained. Farming was just transitioning from subsistence to surplus (though they weren’t aware of the long term impact of cutting down their forests to plant grains.) A farmer could maintain a sustainable life with a small plot of land. That is becoming true again as technologies and efficiencies make it easier to go off the grid. The difference is that now such a life can be lived while also being aware of the rest of the world.
Yes, our ancestors wore togas and sandals, covered themselves with oil, wouldn’t have understood homophobia, and purposely and regularly spilled wine and ox blood as offerings; but they also were driven by the same emotions we feel and had the same biological needs.
Ancient armies balanced risk and reward. Plunder fueled nations. War wasn’t the only way to advance wealth. Farmers prayed for bountiful harvests. Businessmen traded for profit. The rare master artist or craftsman could live very well with the right patronage. Plunder may be a subconscious motivation, but it is no longer a consequence of war. If it was, then the price of gasoline would be much lower. Farmers still pray for bountiful harvests, or at least a favorable bump in the futures market. Businessmen are more regulated now than then, though I think some de-de-regulation is due; and a businessman can now be a woman. I’m not sure the arts have changed. Virgil died while in the midst of editing The Aeneid, and it was published contrary to his wishes; though his wishes were that the poem be burned, so maybe it was good that they ignored him.
I think we, as a society, are maturing. Yes, multitudes will live their lives within narrow borders and won’t look beyond their horizons, but more people now are aware of the world, the rest of the people, and are reassessing values, lifestyles, and changes. Some will reconcile their relationship with money (and of course I recommend the 9-Step Program championed by New Road Map Foundation.) Some will investigate alternative lifestyles like zero-carbon footprint or living off the grid (which are not the same thing.) Many will simply recognize that old habits, conventional thinking, following anachronistic institutions are all worth considering changing. Maybe in two thousand years people will look back and recognize this era, the era of our efforts, as the classic beginning of a new age. Maybe I should write a book about that.