The Classics and Their Relevance Today

"What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books." -- Sigmund Freud

History is fascinating, but The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox is particularly noteworthy. The book describes a thousand years of human development, from the 8th century BC with Homer to the dawn of the Christian era with Emperor Hadrian.

The classical world marked universal thinking. Many modern ideas that contemporary authors presume to be their own actually have roots in classical authors from past millennia.

For example, the concept of The Element, developed by Ken Robinson, was set forth by Aristotle and called eudaimonia. One of the authors I have mentioned in this blog, my friend Nassim Taleb, frequently cites and exalts the classical authors in his books and reminds us of the current validity of their ideas.

Human evolution is unquestionably admirable. However, the transition to a civilized society has not been linear. In many cases, major advances are followed by sharp setbacks. This is very evident in Latin America.

We can credit classical Greece for its invaluable contributions to humanity. After seeing governments led by aristocrats and tyrants in the sixth century BC, Cleisthenes proposed that sovereign power correspond to a broad group of citizens, marking the introduction of democracy as a form of government.

The ancient Greeks were also great philosophy scholars. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have made countless contributions. Other lesser-known thinkers who left their mark on modern society include Thales of Miletus, Parmenides and Heraclitus. Pythagoras was a great philosopher and mathematician.

In fact, Greeks began to explain the universe with reason, without resorting to gods or myths. We also owe them a debt of gratitude for the major advances in mathematics, medicine and history, and in the arts, from literature and music to dance and theater. Aristophanes' comedies continue to entertain us because the underlying issues continue to be relevant.

These advances, however, coexisted in a panorama marked by tremendous social insensitivity, including the presence of about 100,000 slaves in Athens alone in the 5th century BC. Ancient Greece also barred women from politics and severely limited their participation in education. Authoritarian regimes were eventually reinstated in Greece, such as those headed by Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great. Despite major military advances, society was severely compromised by setbacks in democracy.

Many years later, in Rome, the contrasts in development were very pronounced. We owe much to ancient Rome for its contributions to law and architecture, considerable improvements to urban services, and major hydraulic works and roads, which we continue to admire to this day. In Latin America the model of Roman law remains in effect, though perhaps the time has come to move forward in this regard.

For close to four centuries, Romans created a flexible form of government that prevented the excessive concentration of political power, based on the coexistence of two consuls elected annually. After Augustus, however, political decisions were concentrated in the hands of an emperor who imposed the most arbitrary measures without opposition.

In the 21st century, humankind, in its journey toward more civilized forms of coexistence, continues to take two steps forward and one step back. But if the classics teach us anything, it is that we must never lose confidence in progress, especially in Latin America, because it is in the tyrant's interest that people give up the liberal and democratic dream.

In 2014, we have seen how people in countries such as Ukraine and Venezuela are fighting in the street for their freedom. A few years ago, we saw similar movements in the Middle East.

Today people have very powerful organizing tools, including free press, independent electronic media, smartphones and social networks that allow instant reaction to threats by autocrats, who now have much less maneuvering room. For the same reason, some leaders have become more astute and repressive. If the Greeks and Romans managed to put a halt to tyranny, what can't we work to further the advance of freedom, especially given all of the communications technology at our hands?

I firmly believe that the advance of freedom and common good should be pushed ahead through organized civil society. The classical philosophers taught us that nothing is impossible. Change is in our mind, and therefore we must always strive to promote cultural change that moves us forward.