I am a political junkie. I listen to speeches, follow to campaign trail, and watch party conventions (even of the party I don’t like). It always amazes me to witness how hyped people get every four years for the presidential election. I specifically remember the 1988 Democratic Convention. I recall confetti and balloons coming down from the rafters. People screaming out the name of their candidate. Some looked like they were yelling so hard that they would pass out. Who inspired this sort of frenzy? Michael Dukakis, the diminutive, crooked-nosed governor of Massachusetts. I remember looking at the unimpressive man and then at his ardent support and thinking, “How can he inspire this reaction? Am I missing something incredible in this man that everyone else in this crowd sees that makes them treat him like a king or celebrity?”
Reading the Great Books can help us navigate the swirling winds of political hurricanes blowing through our land. Learning about the past through the great books can also help us make proportional reactions to what we see in politics today. Here are 5 ways that Omnibus prepares students to be politically discerning:
Gridlock characterizes our politics. Nothing gets done because leaders cannot find common ground. Often, they can’t because they are not even looking for it. Our leaders then try to sell us on their true-blue commitment to their political party while screaming about the wickedness of their opponents. Their goal in this isn’t even to get the support to make laws; most legislative proposals, instead, are made to stir up and excite people that agree with the proposal. Most have zero chance of actually passing and becoming law.
This activity of working to look good instead of getting things done is dangerous immaturity, particularly in a democratic republic like America, where it is the only way to get things done. But if you read Thucydides from the Omnibus curriculum, you would be able to call out this sort of foolishness. Thucydides writes about the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The war divides the city states around Athens and Sparta. Some city states take the side of the Athenians; others follow the Spartans. One city-state that was cleft by this division was Corcyra. Some of the citizens wanted to side with Athens; some wanted to side with Sparta. The citizens of Corcyra turned on each other because of this decision and completely destroyed the unity of the community, creating an extremely polarized, hate-filled political atmosphere. Here is how Thucydides describes it:
Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries (from Part III).
We should be thankful that our unwillingness to listen to and persuade our opponents has not often resulted in “frantic violence.” We should not be surprised, however, if and when it does. If you have read about the dreadful situation in Corcyra, you can learn from this situation and help others see the futility of this sort of extremism which insists on being called “manly” when really it is simply juvenile, and instead point them in the direction of compromise and middle ground.
This takes us back to 1988 and my introductory anecdote. Dukakis certainly was not the Messiah or the last, best hope of humanity that those in the hubbub around him made him look to be. Their excessive praise of Dukakis reminds us of passage in Acts where people are trying to win Herod’s favor. They cry out, “The voice of a god not a man!” (Acts 12:22). Herod falls over dead and is eaten by worms. Not much of a god! For another example, the Psalmist similarly reminds us, “Put no confidence in Princes” (Psalm 146:3). There will never be a prince that we can put our full trust in besides the Prince of Peace, Jesus.
The Scriptures and the Great Books show us that even rulers at their best have feet of clay. Rulers, good or bad, likable or hateful, are imperfect humans. We should never put all our chips on a president or leader ruling perfectly. Every great leader in history has had faults. Cicero was vain. Jefferson claimed that all men are created equal but did not free his slaves. FDR led us through War and Depression, but his marriage was a mess. Neither Clinton nor Obama, neither Reagan nor Trump should be followed without hesitation. The office of Messiah has been permanently filled.
The Great Books give us a tour of demagogues and their vanity. My favorite example of this goes back to Thucydides. The Athenians are considering starting another war while they are still fighting Sparta. They are debating sending forces to the Island of Sicily. This is a dumb idea. The General Nicias is one of the three generals chosen to lead the expedition, but he thinks it is a bad idea. He stands in the assembly and decides that he will get people to reject the idea by giving a rousing speech saying that the army he needs to muster will be huge and the price to fight Syracuse will be astronomical. Instead of getting them to come to their senses, he unwittingly convinces the Athenians to go all in. Bad idea. He is so attentive of his reputation, however, that he won’t refuse to lead the doomed forces.
World War II and Stephen Ambrose’s Book Citizen Soldier (in Omnibus VI) is also a lesson in what a demagogue by the name of Hitler does to an army. Ambrose analyzes how American and German junior officers, lieutenants, and captains made decisions on the ground during the post D-Day invasion by the Allies. German soldiers were extremely obedient; they listened to orders and followed them, even when they knew them to be harmful or wrong. American soldiers did not blindly follow their superiors’ orders like their German counterparts; they took the initiative, coming up with their own strategies when their superiors did not tell them what to do. Demagogues like Hitler make slaves; leaders like FDR and Churchill inspired thinking citizen soldiers.
Omnibus not only helps its students detect demagogues, but also helps them identify the things and patterns of behavior that define a good leader. The rhetoric of great political leaders of the past that are recorded in the Great Books sets a standard that helps us to discern the greatness of our current leaders. Great leaders inspire great sacrifice toward good ends with powerful words. Back to Thucydides, Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” is the gold standard for political rhetoric. He not only honors the dead but calls the living to take up the cross of their sacrifice and continue their cause. He shows the citizens of Athens that their way of life is worthy of this sacrifice. Lincoln hits the same notes in the Gettysburg Address. Churchill calls Britain to “their finest hour.” Henry V tells his soldiers that there is no place they would rather be than outnumbered at Agincourt with him on St. Crispin’s Day. Martin Luther King Jr. calls us to a dream of racial equality. The words of these speeches should be the standard of greatness. The political greatness of these leaders that wrote these speeches was that they could take biblical truth and apply it the needs of their day.
While Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural demonstrate greatness, they also show us that most leaders aren’t great, and they help us to see the great truth that the apostle Paul pens. To paraphrase, we can respect the office even when the office holder is banal or wicked. Wicked rules come into power in every age. Some are overtly evil while others are evil in small ways or behind closed doors; nevertheless, our jobs as citizens and faithful Christians is to respect the office, even if the person that occupies it is not to our liking.
We see the mediocre nature of leaders at many points during the Omnibus reading, most of the Roman Emperors were perverse—some staggeringly so, but others are just stupid, weird, or lazy. Many of the kings in the Middle Ages that we read about in Omnibus were average or below average, lazily living off their subjects and devoting their lives to pleasure, not the kingdom’s advancement. Dante litters Hell with Popes who neglected their duties and behaved sinfully, harming the progress of Christendom so that they could have what they wanted. In conclusion, the Great Books are filled with evil and mediocre political leaders that God ended up using in his grand plan, but that probably didn’t make much sense to the people who lived in their time.
So, we can’t stop politics, and we can’t stop foolishness. But we can see it, we can call it out, and we can try to lead others away from it. Reading Omnibus is a great way to prepare for a life that is politically engaged while remaining discerning.
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