Thursday, January 4, 2024

Rote, He Wrote.

Cancel culture, circa 100 CE.

If you grew up in what we call ancient Rome, say from about the time of Julius Caesar to about the time of Constantine, if you were watching, if you could find a news source, if you could find unbiased history, if you could find that most precious of all gifts--perspective--you might have noticed something.

You might have noticed that very few emperors lasted very long. During that roughly 400-year-period, Rome swung from one emperor to another, one set of beliefs usually to another very different set of beliefs. There was very little political or philosophical continuity.

As Christianity began to take root, the swings got even more dramatic. In 100 CE, there were roughly 7,000 Christians in the vast Roman empire, about 0.001-percent of the population. By 200 CE, that number had grown 30-fold to roughly 200,000 or 0.035-percent of the population. Christianity was the crack-cocaine of the day. Addictive.

Eventually, Christianity became a major player. And as Rome itself suffered the things all giant social organizations suffer--pandemics, hunger, class-strife, bad economies, wars--more and more people would conclude Rome was following the wrong gods and the next emperor would follow different gods and thereby make things better. 

For a couple centuries Rome would shift seismically from pagan emperors to Christian emperors. Of course the above list of societal woes occur regardless of the religious and political orientation of political leadership, so Rome would shift again.

It went like this: 
"Under pagans life sucks. Let's switch to Christians."
"Under Christians life sucks. Let's switch to pagans."
That's how the world works. 
It works that way today.

Now, finally, at last, and wtf, I get to the point.

At 1:11.

I am 66 years old, and an old 66. I was born old and have stayed that way forever and will forever more. I grew up believing that rote memorization was a good, maybe painful, but necessary discipline. There were just things you had to know, had to have at your fingertips.

I can still decline bonus bona bonum and hic haec hoc in under ten seconds as I was trained to do as an eleven-year-old in 7th-grade Latin. (I can decline them in under seven seconds; Connie Jacobs was class champion and came in under five, though she didn't remember doing that when we Facebooked- back in touch after 55 years.)

I still know all the state capitals and most of the world-wide ones. I still know the Great Lakes, city populations, all the US-presidents and their terms of office, much of the Gettysburg address, the Preamble to the Constitution, the highest and lowest points on various continents and in various oceans &c.

All this memory training, though needing to know the capital of Nigeria (Abuja) or the name of William McKinley's first Vice President (Garrett Augustus Hobart) is never needed and can be supplied instantly with the press button, has served me well. 

It's not the obscure information at my fingertips that helps me in business meetings, in writing, in recalling client-conversations, etc. but it is my ability to recall things that were said, past marketing examples that might be relevant, even songs and jokes from days of yore that might be useful in today's current end-times.

It's not the what. It's the how.
It's not what I was taught, it's how my brain was taught.

The point in all this is that it's easy to reject everything that came before. It's easy to throw out experience, age, old-fashioned ways of doing things and even things no one has to be able to do anymore because we don't do those things anymore. But a lot of those "came-befores" were based on an understanding of the underlying physics of the world. How to get a stain out of a white shirt, how to change a tire, how to find a detail (what today we call an insight) that could separate the prosaic from the profound.

My guess is that many of these little things were never screaming at us--they weren't found on 48-sheet billboards. They were picked-up inter-generationally, they were on page 96 of an obscure and excoriated book by Toynbee or they were just found through trial and error and somehow retained. My wife for instance, when she makes matzo balls always adds an ice-cube to the mixture. She tells me they come out softer that way.

As humans we will always do things the old way, then abjure the old way and adopt a new way. We'll do this over-and-over during the course of our lives from the time we're born until the time we no longer have decent healthcare. You will always raise your fourth dog differently than your first, or approach a client in 2024 differently than you did in 1984. 

The trick in trying to grow as a human and to succeed, whatever that means in life, is to be judicious, measured and rough on what you decides needs throwing out. 

We're always, as a species, going to bellow, "The King (or emperor) is dead; long live the King." Or we'll divorce our first wife and choose a second one more like the first one than the first one.

As Dashiell Hammett wrote in the only chapter John Huston left out when he brought "The Maltese Falcon" to the screen:

Or, as maybe Robert Frost said even more succinctly in his 1914 poem, "The Mending Wall," 

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Or as Marcus Aurelius said even more more succinctly, "Same play, different cast."

Sometimes the old ways work.

Remember that.

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