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Should We Learn “Outdated” History?
What to do with Columbus?
It seems like most holidays start with a bit of throat clearing nowadays... Followed by a few caveats... and the inevitable, “well... actually...”.
I’m acutely aware of this because I’m regularly tasked with the job of explaining American holidays and their corresponding customs both to my seven year old and local friends down here in Argentina.
Thanksgiving is always a... long story.
Demonstrating all the pagan vestigial elements of Easter, Halloween and Christmas seem to confuse rather than illuminate.
And why exactly again does everyone celebrate Cinco de Mayo when it’s not even a thing in Mexico?
This week’s holiday, whatever you wish to call it, conjures up a whole other level of difficulty. Whenever asked, I immediately begin the spiel I was taught in school many decades ago... and then I stop.
I mean, Columbus never even went to North America. Heck, he barely even went to South America, despite having a whole country named after him... Meanwhile, it’s well established that Norse explorers *actually* went to North America a good 500 years before. Moreover, October 12th didn’t become a federal holiday until the mid-20th century as an effort of the Italian-American community to re-integrate culturally after WWII.
Now, of course, it’s ‘indigenous day’ in the US... while here in Argentina, where there still are a whole lot of indigenous peoples, it is ‘A Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity’. The kids at school have been assigned different countries and are expected to dress up from that country and bring food. No, they haven’t heard of ‘cultural appropriation’ yet, so they can still enjoy cultural appreciation.
Now, as a lover of history, I feel compelled to get to the truth of any event - but now as histories get more and more updated, I wonder, is there any value in learning ‘outdated’ history? Will Christoper ever again just simply sail the ocean blue in 1492? Is there any point telling the ‘old’ version?
Now, if 15th century Italian explorers aren’t really your cup of tea - perhaps the topic is too controversial or just not sufficiently classical (fair enough!) - then consider the beloved bare breasted Minoan snake goddess...
Ancient Greek buffs might recognize the figurine as the quintessential statue from the Aegean Bronze age civilization. Discovered by the always controversial archeologist Sir Arthur Evans in Knossos, Crete, the Snake Goddess may not be what she seems.
In one of our Classical Wisdom Speaks Podcast episodes, the associate Curator of the Walters Art Museum, Lisa Anderson Zhu drops some truth bombs on the subject.
Let’s just say, I WAS SHOCKED.
If these statues are all fakes, then... should we even care about them anymore? There’s enough stuff to learn in history that perhaps the history of history is simply too niche for most people.
So, I’ll ask again for this week’s mailbag question: Should we learn “outdated” history? Is there any value in it? Or should we cross it out and move along?
As always, you can write me at: Anya@classicalwisdom.com or reply to this email.
Now, onto this week’s responses, an eclectic collection from mental illness and making mistakes to some final submissions and thoughts on the age old dating debate.
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This Week’s Mailbag
On Mistakes, a few readers wrote in their very kind support from last week’s admission of fault (as well as ‘Cicero’s’ contribution):
If you decide to do something you have never done before, and you do it perfectly the first time, you have learned nothing. Only by making mistakes, then correcting them, do we learn.
I'm not well read or clever enough to have spotted such a mistake. But what I am hopefully clever enough to see is how admirable it is when someone owns a mistake, learns from it and takes it in good spirits when it's pointed out.
That is an attribute the greatest philosophers would herald and celebrate.
Superb to see!!
"...and yet in my flurry of typing/paraphrasing/rushing out the door to pick up dear daughter, I left out a few essential lines."
It's better to left out a few lines and pick up your daughter than get a few lines right and leave out your daughter :)
Too true! Finding work/life balance is always tricky... but few things are more sacred than a punctual pick up. Next up, some afterthoughts on “Mental Illness” ... and its role in society:
After reading this week’s commentary on the subject of mental illness, I had to laugh because some of the letters fairly scream, “Res Ipsa Loquitur!” (in the literal translation rather than its legal definition… ).
Though I must admit, the variety and depth of individual viewpoints is always interesting, entertaining and on occasion, enlightening.
Thanks for sharing.
Sorry I missed the chance to comment on this interesting question.
Native Americans ostracized and other societies did the same, or killed those who could not conform to the many diversified human civil codes of conduct. (Plato was, practically speaking, wrong; there are no universal moral truths - look at any point in human history, truth like beauty is in the eye of the beholder). If you don’t fit where you are you may well be labeled “mentally ill” to those around you.
At a medical level, this basically ties in as an inability to function in your environment.
Some individuals are blessed with this illness; some are cursed. The best societies recognize and cherish the blessed and protect themselves against the cursed.
Finally, some last thoughts on the BC/AD vs BCE/CE debate, as readers still pour in support for both sides of the argument::
On the basis of some advocates of change from BC/AD, logically, on that basis, should we not add this to every daily, weekly, and monthly date as well?: On 04 October 1582, the Gregorian Calendar was implemented in most countries throughout Europe, replacing the Julian Calendar. Pope Gregory XIII had instigated the reform, which the German Jesuit mathematician Christopher Clavius gave its final touch. On behalf of the Pope, he set the first day of the Gregorian Calendar as October 15, skipping ten days from the last day of the Julian Calendar on October 4, in order to synchronize the new calendar with the seasons.
I can't see why people worry so much about this issue on the basis of not being Christian believers. I do not come from a former territory of the Roman Empire; neither am I a believer in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, but I readily accept their legacy in names of days and months, along with the wider classical legacy. Similarly, just as I readily acknowledge the Indian invention of the mathematical concept of zero, I have no problem in acknowledging my cultural debt to Christianity. As Tom Holland points out in his book, Dominion, it saturates our culture to such a profound extent that we do not even realise it.
Dr Donal L.
Thank you for posing this question
For me the answer is very easy.
BCE and CE all the way.
I myself was brought up in a white Protestant Anglo Saxon background in Australia.
However many people in the world, in fact the majority were not.
I think having such an Anglo Christian centric way of marking eras is both unnecessary and disrespectful of other backgrounds and beliefs.
It’s a little analogous the ‘going metric’ with our marking of eras, why not? It makes sense and is far more inclusive not to mention scientific.
Just my 20 cents worth.
And we’ll end it today with one last reader mail, who proposes a very interesting question. Feel free to write in or comment below with your thoughts on the topic:
I had no idea that the (nowadays) more commonly used designation BCE/CE dates back to 1615. I thought it a far more modern 'invention', induced by a changing world that is both multi-religious and more secular, and certainly in the UK (I am British but live in Portugal) one hardly sees BC/AD referred to now, though I prefer it, having been "brought up" on it.
But this brings me to my main point: though I was brought up in a strictly adhering Christian family, and though my first degree was in Theology (which involved the use of Classical Greek, which I learnt at school), I am not a " conventional Christian" these days, nor a regular churchgoer. I prefer to take a questioning and philosophical approach to matters of religion. I find myself "looking in from the outside" and examining it "piece by piece", so to speak. And I often see the ills that organized religion has contributed to, over and above its positive contribution. Nor can I go along with all those religious (e.g. Christian) believers who proclaim the truth (of the Gospel) from the rooftop, so to speak, and yet in some cases (e.g. in the USA) hold some alarmingly extreme political views. That is why I feel more affinity with aspects of Classical philosophy (e g. Stoicism?) as well as with the thoughts of more modern philosophers (e.g. Soren Kierkegaard).
This brings me to my final question(s) to you.
To what extent do you see "Classical Wisdom" as a sort of "alternative gospel"? To what extent can lessons from Classical thinking be as relevant to the modern world as Christianity and other religions are to many? Are the two strands or paths contradictory or/and mutually exclusive? After all, Classical thinking doesn't take a missionising stance or ram itself down people's throats (if I'm not mistaken).
Nevertheless, the Greek/Roman concept of ancient gods has been thoroughly debunked. Will the first Century AD/CE Christian message be similarly debunked, or has it come to stay? When all is said and done, it has to compete with other influential religions. It (the Christian message) hasn't exactly "conquered the world", not yet!
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