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Making it Relevant: Although it’s a Roman classic, The Satires could have been penned today

June 12, 2009

“People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything now retrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things – bread and circuses.” –Juvenal, from The Satires

If I were to turn on the news right now, a deluge of tales concerning our crooked politicians, wild celebrities, and the downfall of American civilization would rush at me faster than if I had upset the herd of elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo (which I nearly did last week). This week I’ve considered the work of the Roman poet Juvenal who, to my delight, had to deal with essentially the same things I deal with today. In his body of work, collectively known as The Satires, he lambasts the civilization and culture of the day for being corrupt, materialistic, and displaced from its tradition. If Romans had allowed themselves to laugh, he may very well have been a toga-wearing Stephen Colbert.

In an age like his, he asks us, when basic civility has collapsed and people have forgotten their heritage, why shouldn’t he write satire? When prelates rob the city treasury, eunuchs marry, and foreigners can buy noble titles, what joy can he find? It’s no joke, of course, that we could replace the names of some of the Roman senators known for taking bribes with the names of some modern American senators and emerge with essentially the same text.

When we consult the classics, we learn something truly wonderful about ourselves: people have remained essentially the same in their concerns and motives. It is a real delight to find our thoughts today expressed long ago by people who dealt with the same concerns. Juvenal’s satires prompt us to ask the same questions of ourselves and of American culture that he asked of himself and of Roman culture. What are those institutions which remain sacred to our culture? How did they form and where are they headed? How do we participate in them individually? How do we respond when it seems that our entire culture seems to be headed in the wrong direction?

Juvenal asked these questions thousands of years ago, and we should ask them today. We won’t come up with the same answers, but we’ll find where our values lie. Classics like The Satires help us to see the paths already tread, to sweep the dust away or, if we like, to clear a whole new way.

What other classics are as relevant today as they were when they were penned? Or, is timeless-ness what makes a classic?

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