#Seed028: Tradition and the Fallacy of Romance
On caricatures, continuity, and learning from the past
Cultura promiscua was a form of agriculture adopted by early Romans where they “planted a multistory canopy of olives, grapes, cereals, and fodder crops.”1 Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, is said to have offered an acre to each Roman citizen for subsistence farming. In that tradition, Thomas Jefferson, wrote “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” In both Rome and America, it was believed that citizen-farmers would form the backbone of an agragrian ideal.
In both its rise and its fall, America is following its Roman heritage. Roman small-scale subsistence farming didn’t last long. Eventually farms became large estates, usually owned by city-dwellers, who had slaves working their land. Land management and husbandry was no longer a priority, and eventually the soil eroded, the people revolted, and Rome was sacked. Unfortunately, for the romantic traditionalist, cultura promiscua was a historical anomaly, not a rule.
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Our past is filled with historical anomalies. The righteousness of Marcus Aurelius was an exception amongst Roman empowers. The Ummayad Caliph, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, known for his justice and piety, was a light in the dark legacy of Ummayad tyranny. Our relationship to the past must recognize the ebbs and flows of virtue and vice. Unfortunately, we either dismiss the past due to the sins of our forefathers or we glorify them turning heros into gods. This pattern ultimately does nothing but turn the past into a caricature, which severs our connection to it.
Historical caricatures fill our imagination. Our perception of the past is often shaped by film producers. Hollywood has shaped the mind of people for generations. Other film industries have now caught on. Whether it comes in the form of American Exceptionalism, Neo-Ottoman Revivalism, or Hindu Nationalist Revision, masses are fed with caricatures that do nothing but sever our connection to it. There can be no continuity because history becomes something to be observed rather than something we are actively participating in. In other words, we are turned into mindless consumers, instead of people with moral agency.
Cultura promiscua provided a moral ideal for Roman citizens. But this ideal required citizens to participate in the preservation of that ideal. This is the function of stories, myths, and legends. Mythos are not meant to create a caricature but to help answer the three ontological questions:
Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Where am I going?
As we embark on our life’s journey, we look for answers to those questions. The stories and legends of the past provide use with a road map, but we still need to learn to read that map and to get to our destination. Cultura promiscua, as a mere caricature, leads to the fallacy of romance. That fallacy is the all-too-human tendency to daydream of a golden age. Nostalgia has its place in the human imagination, but it should only serve as a lamp to read the map. The lessons of history teach us how we ought to live. They shouldn’t lead to pride or guilt, that’s not the point.
Montgomery, David. Dirt. University of California Press. 2007.