Monday, October 29, 2007

Political Correctness, Imperial Rome, and a Little Validation

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds' being the center of the blogging universe for the time being, a post by Gail Heriot at The Right Coast came to my attention dealing with a book by Dr. John Ellis of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Dr. Ellis is a professor emeritus whose specialty is Germanic literature. Now, as a History major, I had to dabble a bit in literature, a bit in economics, a lot in political theory, a lot in research and finding primary sources, and some amount in interpretation and writing. It is the primary sources, interpretation, and political theory which I'll deal with for this post.

Dr. Ellis' book excerpt in the Washington Post from his 1997 book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities upholds within its first few paragraphs an idea I was explaining to my professor before she dismissed it out of hand as "wrong." For all the problems I may have with Dr. Stocking's office politics, she is an excellent professor for Roman history. She specialized in 5th-century Spain, putting her right into the study of the Late Western Empire and the effects of its collapse. We were discussing the concept of German tribal structures as shown in Tacitus' Germania. In his description of German tribes, Tacitus compares the nobility, wisdom, and morality of these "barbarians" with the moral depravity, laziness and general unworthiness of Roman upper-class life.

If this sounds familiar like the "noble savage" myth of Rousseau, you'd be right, and Dr. Ellis says it as such. Tacitus was projecting the qualities of his desired Roman society upon a rather warlike and bloodthirsty group of people back in the first century A.D. He had no actual primary source, relying on secondhand accounts from travelers. Where Tacitus lacked information, he plugged in his ideas of what their society would be like based on a simple but faulty premise. His premise was that Roman society was rotten to the core, and that as the Germans were not Romans, therefore their culture was not rotten either. This, mind you, was the same group of enlightened people who later invaded Roman lands, trashed the place and tossed Western Europe into the era known as the Dark Ages.

The evidence I used to back up why Tacitus would project his own wishes upon foreigners were my professor's own lectures on previous Roman writers and their own problems with historical accuracy. Men like Livy and Cicero couldn't always get a verbatim report of which general said what to his army especially if the battles they recounted took place centuries before the author's birth. So, they had to figure out what they would say if placed in that historical event and then ascribe it to the historical figures. This was done to not only inspire the reader but also to pass along a moral truth as seen by the author. Tacitus followed in the same tradition as these men, ascribing certain moral traits to the varied characters in the books. The issue here was a matter of scale as Tacitus wrote of the tribes in a manner stereotyping them as more noble than mere Romans. He gave the tribes the aspects of the morals he wished to instill within his readers. How then could Tacitus be one hundred percent accurate with his descriptions of the Germanic tribes? He was not one hundred percent accurate because he projected his ideal Roman society on a group that was nothing like Rome at all.

For this defense, I was simply told I was wrong and the matter was settled. Tacitus was not accurate in everything, but the Germans were morally and culturally superior to the crummy old Romans. He contention was that at least Tacitus got that part right. I should have known better than to badmouth the Visigoths' ancestors in front of someone who studied them so closely.

However, let's go to 7 and a half years later. Thanks to pure happenstance, I find that a professor from the University of California at Santa Cruz is of a similar mind that Tacitus was projecting his desires for a better Rome upon the Germanic tribes. Dr. Ellis does go off on a different tangent showing the roots of the "noble savage" myth, where a writer filled in what he didn't know with what he thought was ideal. This leads to all kinds of wackiness with folks like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his rebirth of the noble savage myth, the troubles with the French Revolution, and so on.

The effect is still the same though. Someone else agrees with me that Tacitus wasn't accurate in his descriptions, and wasn't accurate because he wanted to show everyone what Rome had thrown away in terms of morals and civil society. The fact it was an idealized Roman society doesn't make it less of an embellishment. Tacitus wasn't a liar out of intent to deceive, he was a poor guesser. It's a minor victory, but it's nice to have my arguments backed up by scholarly writing. I only wish I'd had Dr. Ellis' book in my possession when I made my argument.

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