There is a tendency, especially among the young, to view the past as irrelevant. After all, the ancient Greeks did not have smartphones; Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not have video games; and 18th century gentlemen wore powdered wigs, took snuff, and made a big show of their calves. What can we possibly learn from them?
Part of the problem is the way we teach history in our schools. The denizens of past times are not allowed to speak for themselves. If they did, we would find that they were not so very different from us in what mattered: The differences are mostly superficial.
There is a wonderful website called Laudator Temporis Acti (Praiser of Time Past) in which we can find startling glimpses into the great minds of the past. Here, for instance, is Horace in one of his satires:
Seize the path, comrade, believe me. Since all terrestrial creatures are fated to mortality, and since there is no escape from death for either great or small, then, good friend, while it is permitted, live happily among pleasant surroundings; and live ever mindful of how brief is your span.
And here is Plutarch discussing the Spartans:
When one of the elderly men said to him in his old age, inasmuch as he saw the good old customs falling into desuetude, and other mischievous practices creeping in, that for this reason everything was getting to be topsy-turvy in Sparta, Agis said humorously, “Things are then but following a logical course if that is what is happening; for when I was a boy, I used to hear from my father that everything was topsy-turvy among them; and my father said that, when he was a boy, his father had said this to him; so nobody ought to be surprised if conditions later are worse than those earlier, but rather to wonder if they grow better or remain approximately the same.”
Lately, I have enjoyed reading the journals of James Boswell, son of the Laird of Auchinleck and author the great biography of his contemporary, Dr. Samuel Johnson. As a young man in his twenties, he carouses his way through London while sucking up to the nobility to get a commission in the King’s guards. Then he goes to Holland to study law and falls in love with a beautiful young heiress named Belle de Zuylen. Like many a millennial, he is frequently depressed and uncertain about how to proceed.
Belle de Zuylen
Then there is that master of wisecracks, Lucian of Samosata (circa 125-180), who scoffs at the gods and in every way looks as if he were about to launch into a Saturday Night Live skit:
They see nothing indecent in sexual intercourse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, and indulge in it quite openly, in full view of everyone. The only exception was Socrates, who was always swearing that his relations with young men were purely Platonic, but nobody believed him for a moment, and Hyacinthus and Narcissus gave first-hand evidence to the contrary.
When I go searching into the minds of men and women who lived in the past, I am constantly realizing that they are my contemporaries in every way except for accidentals that don’t much matter.