Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

'What is "progress"?' asks President Sarkozy, and answers 'happiness and relationships'. One looks forward to his 'progressive' policies. The ancients would have thought him mad.

Greeks and Romans took the view that, far from things getting better, they were getting worse. The ages of gold, silver and bronze were long gone; they now lived in the age of iron, when (to paraphrase the 7th-century BC farmer-poet Hesiod) there would be no cease from toil and misery;

men would hold the law in their fists, disrespectful of parents, family and friends, honouring criminals, abiding by no oaths, while Decency and Moral Disapproval disappeared from the earth.

As a result, the main purpose of education was to open up to students the accumulated experience of this golden past, mainly literary and philosophical, so that it brought its influence to bear on the iron present, in particular by providing students with a rich source of material for understanding how humans behaved and of examples, largely moral, to follow and avoid. Absorbing and putting into practice those lessons, especially those relating to the control of emotions and appetites, constituted the key to successful living. …

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