FRIED LIGHT: The tale of the tape

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By Roger Snodgrass

FRIED LIGHT: The tale of the tape

I recently finished listening to a 48-tape history of the Roman Republic and Empire.

Since I spend a good part of my day reading news and documents, non-fiction for some reason is harder for me to read as a recreational pursuit, unless I become obsessed with a whole subject for a time, in which case I dive into several books at once.

When the recession/depression struck, I was inexplicably compelled to read about the Renaissance, maybe because subconsciously I was trying to get a tip on a happy ending.

The Renaissance was actually a very painful and frantic beginning to so many features of our culture and values. It was a breathless and dangerous time to be alive, but a little less dangerous than the “Black Plague” and the endless strife that came just before it, and the religious wars that followed.

Jaques Barzun, the great French cultural historian who now lives in San Antonio and reached his 100th birthday in 2007, wrote a book, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. He thought the Renaissance marked the beginning of the decline of Western Civilization.

Clearly, after Leonardo da Vinci, and his contemporaries there was nowhere for the human race to go but down.

One of the best books I found on the period was “The Flowering of the Renaissance,” by Vincent Cronin, who captured so many of the exquisite contradictions and sensibilities of the time.

Discussing the nature of feminine beauty, like the Mona Lisa, Cronin wrote that the “cult of women,” made everybody a little gentler.

He quotes a bishop’s book of manners: “Jests must bite the hearer like a sheep but not like a dog.”

Further, he warns, “And, when thou has blown thy nose, use not to open thy handkerchief to glare at thy snot, as if thou hadst pearls and rubies fallen from thy brains.”

Those were books I was reading just before getting the big history lesson on cassette.

Listening is a different, more immersive experience.

Hearing about gladiators and Cicero and plots and fate and pagan religion, I entered directly into Roman history and got a sweeping sense of how one thing led to another, why Julius Caesar and Augustus came along, ending a republic that was in the throes of breakdown. That was evident in the fact that society was becoming ever more impulsively militant and violent.

The rulers began cheating and breaking the laws to gain power. Finally as in one of the archetypical cycles of civilization, power was not merely gained but seized.

Still, even at that there was a difference between the early emperors, when there was a sense of the maximum ruler as the first citizen or the father of the country and later emperors, who increasingly had to enforce loyalties by dominating the population.

It was a society that could easily slide into that because it depended for a thousand years of existence on slavery, which was not at all uncommon in the world.

But how could people live that way? Well, now I understand that it was simple little trick of the mind. Slaves probably began as conquered people, spared on the battlefield. They might as well be dead, so letting them exist as slaves, was really doing them a favor. Children of slaves were even luckier to be alive. They were second generation dead, and therefore even less of a problem to enslave with a clean conscience.

This is the way the world worked and thought for a long time. And we ourselves, or at least some of us, are perfectly capable of thinking this way again, and we have just gone through what many feel was a close call of delusional rubbish about the new American Empire.

It is hard to imagine a worse system to live in than a world based on slavery.

The Renaissance had slaves in the Fifteenth Century and so did the Reformation in the Sixteenth and the Enlightenment in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, dwindling down over the next couple of hundred years, well into another era of republics. But finally, with a brain that started to think and with a reason that started to make some important distinctions, the world began to change.

We may have gone from dawn to decadence culturally in the last five centuries, but socially it’s been more like decadence to dawn. The end of slavery is probably the best thing that ever happened to us. Let’s get on with that.