Monday, October 29, 2007

Tacitus, Germanic Tribes and Political Correctness

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus 56AD-117AD

In high school, I went through a Roman historian phase where I read many of the classic Roman historians; Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, etc. The issues addressed by those writers of two millenium ago often felt so contemporary and I found it fascinating.

I came across this interesting set of observations on the naiveté of Tacitus via a couple of bloggers, Glenn Reynolds and then Gail Heriot. Once again, it is a tying together of today with the long ago.

The essay is by John M. Ellis and is actually the first chapter of his 1997 book Literature Lost; Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities.

Opening excerpt:

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

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