This quote is often attributed to war and to remembering the darkest moments of humankind. Bombs, death, chaos and tyranny; all horrifying stuff. Equally terrifying, yet significantly less noticeable, is the more nuanced aspect of humanity; that is, not single acts of terribleness or war, but recurring passive choices, repeating themselves over and over again for so long in human history that they could almost be considered part of the human condition. But they are not. To inertly accept the world in which one is living is a choice. To succumb to trends, positive or pernicious, is also a choice. We may learn to be more aware of our current world if we try to remember the past in these same aspects.
Let us examine our life.
The moment in history we will analyze comes from Pliny the Younger, born 61CE (or AD, whatever date system you subscribe to). He was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. He worked with the historian Tacitus and served as a magistrate under Trajan, one of the greatest Roman emperors. He talks about how his generation stopped thinking critically about politics and art, and are rather persuaded by spectacle and sensation.
To provide some context for this moment, there were two types of presentation in the Roman world for politicians: oration and recitation.
Oration was the old-school style of presentation (as it predates written language) and recitation was a relatively new type of performance in Pliny’s time. Orations were performances without any notes on hand. They required memorization and concise and honest expression of one’s ideas and thoughts. Recitations were performances where one would read aloud from a previously written text. (we get the word ‘recite’ from this). Because one could prepare for a recitation, this allowed for a much more convoluted expression of one’s ideas, as people succumbed to verbosity in order to sound intelligent and illustrious (just like I did in that sentence).
Recitations were able to generate much more excitement than orations as well, due to the performer’s new capacity to embellish, aggrandize and adorn their content (like I just did again). This led to much higher attendance at recitations than orations were able to generate. J.H Wescott writes:
The occupation of the real orator being taken from him by the changed political conditions of the age, the reciter had usurped his place. Reputation was measured by the size of audiences and the noise of their applause. The influence of sensationalism, invading all departments of literature, produced an era of false taste, of artificiality in both matter and expression.
If after reading this quote you felt some tinge of recognition, some intuition tugging at the base of your skull, forcing you to sense an eerie familiarity, ask yourself why that is. Why might this age, our age, feel similar to the one Pliny is disgusted with? What may be happening that is unobvious to us now, but glaringly observable to the historians of the future?
Is history repeating itself? Have the politicians of our time resorted to emotion and sensation instead of honesty and conciseness? Are we living in a sensationalized age of false taste?
Maybe all of these questions are just reiterations of age-old issues.
The Golden Scribe
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Pliny’s Letters (partially translated by Westcott) Allyn and Bacon’s College Latin Series, 1898, Norwood Press