October 09, 2014

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Thirty Seven places equal value on religion and scientific rationality, an attitude that seems bizarre in our time but was natural to the ancients. Curtius never quite says Cicero is his favorite hero, but he has torn at least one page from Cicero’s playbook: though he seems ambivalent himself when it comes to the literal existence of a God or gods”€”and he’s willing to learn from all traditions”€”he repeatedly hints that the majority have a hard time being virtuous without a common religious faith to keep their chins up. When deities fade, he says, contra Diderot, morals do too:

For a moral code to take root in a society, and to become embedded in the psyche of a people, it must have some supernatural sanction. … No one has found an adequate substitute for religion as a source for instruction of youth, for consolation of the old, and for solace to the stricken. … I thought to myself, the myth is the last thing to die. When that goes, so goes the man.

The book is also refreshing in its insistent elitism, an idea that’s become as verboten as masculinity. The discovery that our DNA is 98 percent identical to that of a gorilla might make elitism now look ridiculous on its face”€”but Curtius”€™ arete isn”€™t about IQ, cash, or dexterous thumbs. Superiority is a decision you make, a commitment to building virtue, which must be backed with steady effort. He argues that it must also be occasionally protected under the guise of anonymity:

The experience of Averroës teaches us that the learned man can only rely on other similarly positioned men to confide in; others are neither worthy nor deserving of illuminative revelation.

Despite a welcome section of advice on learning foreign languages”€”don”€™t be surprised to hear that the secret is perseverance”€”Curtius”€™ English prose is not perfect. His continual confusion of the verbs “€œto sow”€ and “€œto sew”€ set my teeth on edge (and for all the gods”€™ sake, “€œthirty-seven”€ needs a hyphen). The writing is leavened, however, by his commitment to forthrightness: while pseudonyms have made Twitter a mass of savages, in the hands of this honest soul, the safety of a pen name adds the final touch of freedom required for perfect fluency in his dialogue with truth.


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