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    Book Club: The Roots of American Order{Chapter 3}

    March 6, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    This chapter’s angle wasn’t what I expected at all. The main point seemed to be that Greece set a poor example, and that, for the most part, the Americans learned from Greece what not to do. After the previous chapter singing the high praises of the Hebrews, I expected the same for the Greek Empire, but that wasn’t what happened:

    What they found valuable in the Greek experience or order was a cautionary tale of class conflict, disunity, internecine violence, private and public arrogance and selfishness, imperial vainglory, and civic collapse: what to shun.

    I found it fascinating that Kirk says that what the Americans knew of Greek’s history, they knew from…Plutarch. This was encouraging on so many levels. I think the American Founders pulled off an amazing feat when they designed the United States Constitution. In the same way, Charlotte Mason pulled off an amazing feat when she designed her curriculum. {Follow me here…} With Charlotte Mason, I have been trying not just to read what she said, but read what she read. This is obviously a long-term project. But my point remains. I don’t just want to be educated by her, I want to be educated like her.

    I feel the same way about the Founders when it comes, especially, to the type of reading I’d like to see my children do before they leave home. I don’t want them to just read the Founders {though read the Founders they will}. I want them to read what the Founders read. The Constitution was born out of the souls of men who were filled up to overflowing. Out of the man’s heart comes the documents he writes.

    Or something like that.

    I don’t pretend I’m raising the next John Adams, but I’d like to think I’m educating men {and women} who have souls full of similar thoughts.

    So to know that Plutarch was the biggest influence? I heaved a sigh of relief. We’re already doing it, and I didn’t even know!

    And having read Plutarch, even just a little bit {Poplicola and Brutus only}, greatly enhanced my ability to understand the chapter.

    Is there one chapter of Plutarch that is a must-read before graduation? According to Kirk, it’s the life of Solon:

    The Greek architect of order most impressive to Americans of their country’s formative years was Solon.


    Dr. Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia physician, scholar, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was no hearty admirer of the curriculum of classical studies generally. Yet Rush dreamed a dream in which three lawgivers came to him, and the first said, “I am Solon.”

    On Democrats and Democracy
    I just thought this little fact was interesting:

    [T]hen most educated Americans read Plutarch attentively, and some read the overwhelming history of Thucydides, the Athenian general who beheld the end of the Great Age and understood the reasons for Greek failure. The Great Age of Greece was a democratic period, in Athens and many other states: that was one reason why few American politicians, until the time of Andrew Jackson, chose to proclaim themselves democrats.

    Attempting to export “democracy,” as our nation has been doing for most, if not all, of my short lifetime, is the equivalent of exporting foolishness and failure. It will be most interesting {and likely saddening} to see where these poor countries, to whom we gave the “gift” of democracy, will end up.

    Democracy wasn’t the downfall of Greece, but it probably made sure she couldn’t get back up once she fell.

    Restoring Culture
    I’m trying to keep a mental list of what restoring culture {or renewing culture, or whatever along these lines} looks like according to Kirk and the sources he quotes. Here are three I noted in this chapter:

    Like Socrates before him, Plato endeavored to renew the vitality of Greek society by deepening its religious understanding.


    [Plato] sought much of his life for a philosopher-ruler, a second Solon, who might restore righteousness through wisdom and example. 

    And finally:

    [Plato] could not cleanse his world, but it would have become a worse world more swiftly had not Plato taught those who would listen to him.

    It’s probably obvious, but for now my list looks like this:

    1. Deepening society’s religious understanding
    2. Find a ruler who leads by his good example and not just his words
    3. Teach and engage those who will listen 

    Considering what it is I do all day, I’d say number three is the top of my list right now.

    On Philosophers and Philodoxers
    This was only one portion of the chapter, but I could think about it for a long time, there was so much to it. Kirk explains that the Greeks had two words, for one of which we have no English equivalent. The philosopher was the lover of wisdom. The philodoxer was the lover of opinion. The philodoxer was

    an opinionated man suffering from vain wishes, who passionately pursues illusion.

    I was trying to think of an example, when I read a little post from Andrew Kern in which he said:

    I read this on another blog that I don’t care to draw attention to:

    Remember, comrades, it is only bourgeois truth that is concerned with actual facts. Revolutionary truth is concerned with what advances the revolution. That is the truth we should be embracing.

    Of this sort of thing, Kirk says that the philodoxer is

    the man whose desires override his righteousness.

    The concern for truth and real knowledge has been superseded by a special interest {or two}. This morning, in our Pilgrim’s Progress reading, we covered the Mountain of Error. For ages, men climb upon the mountain, believing that if they gain its height, they will be able to see farther than other men, but once they reach the height, they fall and are dashed to pieces at the base of the mountain. The Shepherds show Christian and Hopeful the bodies at the base of the mountain as a warning to avoid error. This seems an appropriate warning for all of us, who are all tempted to be philodoxers at one time or another. From the Mountain of Error we think we gain a great view, but the result is death. Much better to love knowledge more than our own opinions; by this, we gain integrity and avoid a grisly death.

    Read More:
    Buy the book and join in the conversation
    More book club posts linked at Cindy’s blog

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  • Reply Sarah March 7, 2012 at 4:08 am

    I was very encouraged while reading the references to Plutarch in this chapter. It’s one of those cases in which I know it’s important that we study what Plutarch had to say, but I haven’t exactly seen the fruit of the study yet, at least not with the child who’s been less than thrilled with reading Plutarch. I know that when the children and I begin to study the next “life,” I’ll be watching for connections to what America’s founders carried forward to the Constitution.

    A bit off topic, but I’m so grateful for the AO Advisory’s wisdom and insight, especially Anne White’s helpful guides for Plutarch’s Lives. I felt so at ease reading this chapter.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 7, 2012 at 8:14 pm

      I really don’t know what I would have done without Anne White’s study guides, either! I really think they made me brave when it came to simply beginning. Now that we have done a couple of them, I feel I could go on without them if necessary {though I will not as long as they are available}, but how grateful I am to have started out well-armed, so to say. 🙂

      I don’t think that all of my children will enjoy Plutarch like my oldest son is enjoying it, but I hope they will be grateful that they read him, regardless of how they felt while reading him.

  • Reply Go quickly and tell March 7, 2012 at 1:20 am

    I like your list of things to do: 3 things distilled from lots of Kirkean advice.

    Here’s one more that is has been encouraging to me ~

    A culture is perennially in need of renewal.
    A culture does not survive and prosper merely by being taken for granted; active defense is always required, and imaginative growth, too

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      I am adding one more thing that I found when I was typing up my quotes this morning.

      I agree that it is encouraging that what we see as a need in our culture is one that naturally comes to every generation…

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