The Founders of the United States Were Classical Futurists

Imagine you landed on Mars tomorrow with the first wave of colonists. You’re mostly cut off from Earth — communication takes forever and is unreliable, and travel back home takes months and is extremely dangerous and costly.

Now imagine your job was to design and run this new society on Mars. What would you do?

Maybe you’d see it as an opportunity to start society from scratch; to discharge all the flaws you perceived in the system you grew up with back on earth. Call this the radical approach — and what radicals often find is that it is much easier to point out the flaws in a system than to build a better one. Personally, I think this radical Martian futurist society would not last very long.

Or maybe you’d just recreate the exact same system you had here back on earth. Same constitution, same jurisprudence, same mechanisms of government, same flag, same anthem, same symbols. Call this the traditional approach — and what traditionalists often find is that what worked well in one time and place can fail dramatically in another.

Or maybe, you’d experiment with a new system, both drawing from what seemed to work well from back on Earth, while slowly iterating to find policies and institutions that better served your needs here on Mars. Call this the iterative approach.

As it so happens, this is very similar to the situation that the American Founders found themselves in during the American Revolution. The added twist was that they had to carry on a war with their mother country at the same time as designing a system for the new world.

We take the success of this for granted because it worked — the American Founders not only won the Revolutionary War (and the potentially even more dangerous war of 1812), but designed a system very different from those prevailing in their mother country at the time, which went on not only to survive, but to amass great power and influence.

But without the benefit of hindsight, it would have appeared fantastically unlikely that this should happen. Very few new ventures work even well enough to survive very long, especially when those new ventures are pioneering new forms of government. France is now on their fifth republic after the French Revolution, which began after the American one. Of all the communist countries that arose in the early 20th century, only North Korea, China, and Cuba remain standing — and China in a barely recognizable form.

I think we are extremely lucky that the Founders of the American system — to whom all people who now live in liberal democracies, as opposed to the various despotisms, monarchies, and theocracies that typified societies across the world before 1776, now owe a great debt — chose the iterative approach.

They were neither too traditional, unlike their loyalist compatriots, to acknowledge the structural flaws of the inherited system of the British monarchical state, nor too radical, unlike the French revolutionaries, to throw the baby out with the bathwater and totally obliterate all the organic, emergent systems that they had inherited.

Government is one of the most complicated areas of human endeavor; and that complication means that progress is not easy, while catastrophic failure is easy. The Founders therefore understood that, wherever possible, it was best not to reinvent the wheel — but that this does not mean, conversely, that nothing new should ever be tried.

For inspiration they looked, more than is commonly realized today, to the very roots of their civilizational inheritance: the world of Greco-Roman antiquity. This inheritance not only had a powerful influence on their ideas and attitudes, but it was also critical to the success of the American experiment.

We live at a time when the institutions inherited from the Founders are starting to break down. Despite its great merit, we can no longer afford to idly rely on the system we were born into. Too much has changed, even if the underlying principles — e.g. the rule of law, of preventing absolute power, preserving the primacy of virtue and reason, of safeguarding freedom of thought and expression — remain sound.

In the face of rapid and accelerating change, to preserve our civilization we must relearn to think like Founders, not merely inheritors. The time is approaching when we will be called upon to either duplicate their heroic feats, or languish on the margins of history while being surpassed by other societies who may not be magnanimous in triumph.

Here I try to do three things:

  • First, to draw attention to the extent of the founder’s training in, and passion for, the inheritance of classical antiquity.
  • Second, to throw light on the lessons they took from the ancient world and used it to pave the way forward.
  • Third, to analyze how we may draw from the same wellspring, and to recognize the features of the system that worked well so that, when we build the next version of our own society, we too can avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I. The Founders and the Classics

The extent of the Founders’ training in the classics, and their reverence towards them, is not nearly emphasized enough in the way they are remembered today, both by Americans and by the world. The average modern person is barely aware that there is anything at all to tie together the generation who fought the Revolutionary War and designed the United States’ constitution and the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans. 

But the Founders themselves were quite aware of those ties, and openly sought to advertise them. To them, the ancient past was a living reality; the Founders of the greatest of the modern Republics were keenly interested in their ancient predecessors. They found the Greeks and Romans to be kindred spirits in a way that the more recent medieval and early modern societies of Europe were not, though being more proximate in time.

Modern histories and modern scholars seem to have utterly failed to appreciate this. We hear a lot about the influence of early modern thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, and Descartes on the Founders, but relatively little about the (I would argue much greater influence) of ancient writers like Homer, Plutarch, Cicero, Tacitus, Polybius, and Sallust. 

This is at best an oversight, and at worst a gross distortion. The effect has been to obscure the deep civilizational foundations of the United States in the Mediterranean civilizations of antiquity, and to falsely depict the US as something new and rootless, instead of the rebirth of a proud and ancient civilization in a new hemisphere. 

The Europeans had their rebirth based on a classical revival movement that began with the Italian Renaissance, but the United States were born natively as a classical revival movement, one which went a lot farther in building their society on the values, culture, and political theories of antiquity than the Europeans could, because they were enacting the revival on terra nova

The evidence of classical inspiration — almost infatuation — of the US Founders is littered throughout the words and actions of people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. The single best resource I’ve been able to find that pulls it all together is a 1994 book called The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment by Carl J. Richard. 

It paints the picture of a generation of Americans educated and acculturated to be almost as if they were Greeks and Romans themselves, who had been transported forward in time to build a new world. 

As I’ll attempt to show you, such was the Founders’ familiarity with Greco-Roman culture and history, and such was their literacy and fluency with the Greek and Latin tongues, that I think it would be more accurate to describe them as Greco-Romans than as Anglo-Saxons.

To give some idea of how much the Founders were steeped in the classics, here are some of the most striking anecdotes (amongst many, many more) about the Founders and the classics.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was steeped in the classics his whole life. Schoolmates claimed that he studied Greek and Latin fifteen hours a day and carried his Greek grammar books with him wherever he went (The Founders and the Classics, 22). His granddaughter claimed that “I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than any other book (The Founders and the Classics, 27). 

Jefferson considered the Roman historian Tacitus to be the best writer in the history of humankind.

Tacitus I consider the first writer in the world without a single exception. His book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.

In 1810, Jefferson said: 

I read one or two newspapers a week, but with reluctance give even that time from Tacitus and Homer.

And in 1819:

I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has happened two or three thousand years ago than what is now passing.

His favorite language was Greek, despite his reverence for the Latin writings of Tacitus, and his favorite poet was Homer. In 1819 he called Greek “the finest of the human languages” (The Founders and the Classics, 28). 

It was Jefferson who led the classical revival movement in American architecture; for example, he based the design of the US Capitol on the temple of Erectheus at Athens (The Founders and the Classics, 44). When it was finished, he called it “the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people, embellishing with Athenian taste the course of a nation looking far beyond the range of Athenian destinies.”

When he was designing the University of Virginia’s library, he based it on the pantheon. He wanted the American colonies to adopt the Latin motto insuperabilies si inseparabiles (“unbeatable if united”), based on the ancient Aesop’s fable of the bundle of rods (instead we got the very similar “don’t tread on me” snake and e pluribus unum).

There are many more such examples, but I think you get the picture as well as it can be conveyed in a brief summary like this. Suffice it to say that Thomas Jefferson was both a keen student of, and enthusiast for, classical antiquity. It shaped his attitudes, tastes, actions, and principles profoundly — and through him, the classics shaped the very foundations of the United States in ways that are vastly underappreciated by the modern Americans who have inherited them.

John Adams

John Adams was no less influential in designing the foundations of the United States than Thomas Jefferson, and was perhaps an even greater enthusiast of Greco-Roman antiquity. 

John Adams’ father was middle class, and saw an education in the classics as a path to upward mobility for his son. He therefore demanded John Adams begin learning Latin at an early age, which he saw as a ticket to getting into Harvard.

John Adams initially found the study of Latin extremely dull. He begged his father to let him drop it. Instead of saying no, Adams senior told his son that he could go dig ditches instead if he preferred. Initially John was delighted and gleefully took up the offer, but after two days of intense menial labor he could not face another day of it and resumed studying Latin, which suddenly seemed much more appealing.

Later in life, Adams would be immensely grateful to his father for changing his mind like this. He commented that “if I have gained any distinction, it has been owing to the two days’ labor in that abominable ditch.” He became an extremely enthusiastic lifelong student of the classics (for an in-depth article on John Adams in particular, check out John Adams & The Classics by Dorothy M. Robathan).

Adams, like Jefferson (who had an enormous collection of classical-themed sculptures and paintings), was a great enthusiast of classics-themed art. A particular favorite of his was the 1733 engraving by Simon Gribelin entitled Hercules Rejects Pleasure and Chooses Virtue

Adams described what he saw in this painting: 

The Hero resting on his Clubb. Virtue pointing to her rugged Mountain, on one Hand, and persuading him to ascend. Sloth, glancing at her flowery Paths of Pleasure, wantonly reclining on the Ground, displaying the Charms both of her Eloquence and Person, to seduce him into Vice.

The opposition between virtue and pleasure was a powerful classical motif that seems to have left quite an impression on John Adams. 

In 1759, he wrote in his diary that “the Choice of Hercules came into my mind and left impressions which I hope will never be effaced nor long unheeded… Let Virtue address me — ‘Which dear Youth, will you prefer? A life of Effeminacy, Indolence, and obscurity, or a Life of Industry, Temperance, and Honor?” He loved the engraving so much that he even proposed, in 1776, that it should become the Great Seal of the United States (The Founders and the Classics, 49). 

Throughout his life, John Adams called on classical heroes to inspire him, on Greco-Roman history to make political arguments, and on classical political theory to make his own. The Greek and Roman writers were profoundly motivated by the quest for virtue, and this rubbed off heavily on Adams. In his 1776 essay Thoughts on Government, which would influence the American Constitution, he dwelled heavily upon the subject in arguing that the Republican form of government, as practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans in their various republics, was best:

The form of government which communicates… happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best. All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue… If there is a form of government, then, whose principle and foundation is virtue, will not every sober man acknowledge it better calculated to promote the general happiness than any other form?

For Adams, the classics were not only a theoretical foundation, but also a basis for action. He lamented later in life that he did not learn them well enough because early on he had concentrated on mathematics and science — according to him, he was “destined to a Course of Life in which these Sciences have been of little Use, and the Classicks would have been of great importance… my mind has laid uncultivated, so that, at 25, I am obliged to study Horace and Homer — proh dolor [with great difficulty].”  

But in the greatest trials of his life, his classical education, such as it was (by modern standards, he became quite advanced), served him well. 

When Adams, one of the greatest orators of his day, rose before the Continental Congress on July 1, 1776, to rebut John Dickinson’s contention that American independence would be premature, the New Englander thought of Cicero. He recorded in his diary:

I began by saying that this was the first time of my Life that I had ever wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for I was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more importance to his Country and to the World.

The Founders and the Classics, 61

He found that eloquence, and 3 days later the US issued the Declaration of Independence. And when this ultimately resulted in the creation of a new government with a new constitution, Adams, alongside James Madison, was influenced by the Roman historian Polybius’s formulation of a tripartite government in designing the three branches of the US government — he had three editions of Polybius in Adams’ library (The Founders and the Classics, 96).

James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were perhaps the most pronounced examples of the Founders’ classical influences, but they were hardly alone. 

Almost everyone in the generation of Americans that founded the country were deeply steeped in the classics, either through formal study (classics were the dominant subject in both school and college for educated Americans up until quite recently — as late as the early 20th century). 

But even for those without a formal education like George Washington, the classics were still deeply ingrained. Washington, for example, was inspired by the classical heroes Cato the Younger and Cinncinatus. His favorite play, written by Joseph Addison, was about the life of the former, who he sought to emulate, and he had it performed at Valley Forge. 

Cincinnatus, an ancient Roman hero who was given an emergency dictatorship to fight an invading enemy, but who gave up the power voluntarily after triumphing to return to his farm with his duty done, was emulated by Washington in giving up presidential power after his second term and setting a precedent that would last for the majority of US history — many of Washington’s contemporaries, including Lord Byron, explicitly compared him to Cincinnatus because of this.

Washington also drew inspiration for the cause of republican government and liberty from the example of antiquity. In 1777, a year after the Revolutionary War began, he wrote:

The associated armies in America act from the noblest motives, liberty. The same principles actuated the arms of Rome in the days of her glory; and the same object was the reward of Roman valour.

In the same year, Hamilton too drew inspiration from the classics. He copied the following line from the Greek orator Demosthenes, whose speeches in favor of Athenian democracy and against Macedonian monarchy made him famous for all time:

As a general marches at the head of his troops, so ought wise politicians, if I dare to use the expression, to march at the head of affairs; insomuch as they ought not to [a]wait the event, to know what measures to take; but the measures which they have taken ought to produce the event.

Richard says he also copied large extracts from Plutarchs’ biographies of the various Founders of ancient democracies and republics: Theseus (Athens), Romulus (Rome), Lycurgus (Sparta), and Numa Pompilius (The Founders and the Classics, 26). Hamilton often used classical pseudonyms in his essays, like “Publius” (who helped expel Rome’s last king and institute the Republic in 509 BC) and “Tully” (another name for Cicero). His son later said that Plutarch, the Greek biographer, was one of his favorite authors (ibid.). Hamilton’s political theory was clearly influenced by his study of the classics — in Federalist No. 34, Hamilton argued for the legitimacy of the parallel institutions of state and federal legislatures by comparing them to the parallel assemblies of the Roman Republic, the Comitia Centurata and the Comitia Tributa. 

James Madison kept a commonplace book from the age of 8 until he graduated from college, and it was riddled with Latin quotes. When he was reading a copy of a Latin author which had a nearby English translation, he would always ignore the translation and copy the Latin directly into his book — hinting at his fluency and comfort with Latin (The Founders and the Classics, 25). His essay “A Brief System of Logick” borrowed heavily from Plato and Aristotle, and in his home he placed the busts of Homer and Socrates besides those of Thomas Jefferson, himself, and his wife (ibid., 50).

The lives of many other American Founders — the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the delegates of the Continental Congress, the ratifiers of the constitution — were powerfully influenced by the classics; with many examples from Samuel Adams to John Dickinson to Patrick Henry. The above should suffice to hint at the extent of the influence of the classics on the American Founders; more can be found by reading Richard’s books, or reading the writings of the Founders themselves.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at how the Founders used their knowledge of antiquity to design one of the most successful experiments in governance the world has ever seen.

II. Lessons from Antiquity

The Primacy of Virtue

In 1778, John Adams wrote of Arthur Lee’s sons that “their father had given them all excellent classical educations, and they were all virtuous men.” This statement reveals a common attitude at the time of America’s founding — namely, that virtue ought to be the main pursuit of the person who seeks to live the good life, and that the best way to inculcate it was through a rigorous education in the classics. 

In this, the Founders understood something that we have since forgotten. As Adams wrote in Thoughts on Government, they were, like many today, utilitarian in the sense that they saw the object of government to provide “happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree.” 

However, they did not see the route to happiness as one of crude hedonism and consumption. They thought it obvious to any educated and “sober” person that virtue was the key to happiness, both for individuals and for societies.

Classical writers dwelt on virtue incessantly. They saw furthering its pursuit as the first object of all philosophy — indeed of all learning. 

Virtue, as Adams’ favorite painting the Choice of Hercules illustrates, is opposed to sloth, vice, and folly. For the Greeks and Romans, virtue therefore meant something different than “morality”. For the Christians, virtue meant chastity, piety, obedience. But for the pre-Christian Greco-Romans it meant strength of character, body, and mind, temperance, discipline, and moderation; cultivating virtue in its citizens was the main object of a polity, and a society that succeeded in doing so was guaranteed success in war, commerce, and any other arena of international competition.

Virtue for the Greco-Romans was something that must be trained vigorously, the way an athlete trains their body. Its pursuit was unpleasant at first, and required great effort. But people like Cato the Younger, Sparta’s founder Lycurgus, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and others who the Founders saw as role models took great trouble to study virtue and often sacrificed everything else in life for its pursuit, implying their deep belief that virtue was the single true path to the good life and to happiness.

Today when we think of utilitarian ethics, which are perhaps the default ethics of our time, we think of maximizing happiness-as-pleasure, or happiness-as-comfort, or happiness-as-wealth — for ourselves, and for our societies. But the framers of the constitution believed differently — and I would argue, knew better, since those versions of happiness lead inevitably to the hedonic treadmill. The Founders and their classical role models were instead devoted to the pursuit of happiness-as-virtue.

That the Founders valued the classics in this pursuit is further evidenced by the pains they took to educate their children in the classics. A few examples:

George Washington, who lacked formal classical training, saw to it that his stepson, Jack Custis, was not similarly deprived. In 1761 Washington purchased copies of Phaedrus, Eutropius, Sallust, Horace, Terence, and Cornelius Nepos and several Latin grammars and dictionaries for his eight-year-old stepson. Eight years later he bought dozens of classical works for the boy… He boasted of Jack’s command of Latin, based on his having begun study of the language ‘as soon as he could speak.’

The Founders and the Classics, 36

John Adams was similarly eager that his son John Quincy Adams, later the sixth president of the US, excelled in his classical studies. He wrote to him the following:

I wish to hear of your beginning Sallust, who is one of the most polished and perfect of the Roman Historians, every Period of whom, and I had almost said every Syllable and every Letter, is worth Studying. In company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus, and Livy, you will learn Wisdom and Virtue. You will see them presented with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror. You will remember that the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.

When is the last time a US politician talked about virtue in these terms? Our path has strayed very far.

The Ideology of Liberty

The ancient seats of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome.

John Adams

On the eve of the American Revolution, Founders recognized that the experiment in self-government they were about to embark upon was a drastic break from about 1,500 years of European governance, with a few notable exceptions like the Dutch and Venetian Republics. 

Ironically, amongst European countries, human rights theory and the value of liberty was nowhere more advanced than in Great Britain. The Americans, with their fervent belief in the idea that the form of government which provides individuals with the greatest liberty, were therefore taking an existing strain of thought from Britain — one popularized by John Locke — and extending it further than the British themselves were willing to go.

But as John Adams put it: “Whig principles were the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero.” The European Enlightenment drew many of its political principles from ancient predecessors, and the Americans knew that the revered examples of Rome and Sparta (republics), and of Athens (a democracy), would confer greater legitimacy on their experiment in popular government in the eyes of the world.

Inherited power had long been the modus operandi of the Old World; the legitimacy of hereditary power was an assumption so firmly fixed in the mind of the Europeans who had only recently begun to escape the trappings of feudalism that to question it required more than just good arguments or shining ideas — it required the power of inspired precedent.

Classical authors and their constant praise of liberty provided the legitimacy the Founders needed. Liberty was a powerful theme in the writings of historians like Herodotus, who contrasted the freedom of Greek citizens who lived under popular governments with the slavery of the subjects of eastern monarchies like the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty. 

That contrast was also a theme for Roman writers like Tacitus, who contrasted the freedom and prosperity of the Roman Republic with the depravity and violence of the Julio-Claudian emperors. 

For the Americans and Europeans educated in the classics, a powerful association between “liberty” and “good government” was therefore inevitable, and was directly at odds with prevailing European political traditions like the Divine Right of Kings, the monarchical form of government, and the feudal organization of class.

For the American founders, who saw themselves as more akin to the ancient Romans and Greeks than modern Europeans, who spoke their language, revered the same symbols, and imbibed the same myths and legends, a clash with the established order was inevitable.

An Empire of Laws

The very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men

John Adams, Thoughts on Government

The political theory of the ancient world was defined by the idea of anacyclosis (ἀνακύκλωσις) — which was the idea that there were 3 basic benign forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, which tended to easily decay into their perverted forms — tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy (mob rule). 

Polybius, in his Histories, tried to define the elements of the Roman Republic which made it such a successful form of government. He concluded that its mixed form of government, which combined monarchic elements (the consulship), aristocratic elements (the Roman Senate), and democratic elements (the comitiae and the office of the Tribune of Plebs), made the Roman form of government much more stable than any Greek polis because it combined all three types of government into one form, like an metal alloy that is stronger than any of its constituent parts would be alone.

This was powerfully influential to the Founders, who sought to replicate such an alloy by creating a system of laws through the US constitution that mixed together pure democracy (the house of representatives) with monarchical (the Presidency) and aristocratic (the Senate and electoral college) elements at the federal level.

Mixed government was just one component; another was the primacy of reason and a free marketplace of ideas (enabled by the First Amendment) in upholding the “empire of laws, and not of men”.  In 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “in a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion, and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of the first importance”, and he claimed that Roman historians like Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus were the role models for such rationality (The Founders and the Classics, 29).

III. What We Should Do Now

I think I have now at least offered a compelling glimpse at the fact that the US founders did not come up with their ideas for how to structure their nascent society out of thin air, but were powerfully rooted in a living inheritance from the Greeks and the Romans, whose languages and literature they were vigorously trained in from childhood.

I would argue that to revive the Founder mentality that we seem to have lost as a society, but that is fundamentally necessary if we are to revive our culture and design new institutions that will work for the 21st century and the digital age, we need to reconnect with our civilizational roots in a similar way.

A society without a deep connection to its roots is like a person without a memory of his formative years; a big piece of our identity is missing from the picture, and the crisis of identity, of values, and of social cohesion we are experiencing, I believe, can be directly traced to this. 

Forget the surface-level explanations for polarization and atomization and mental health issues and all the rest. Americans have lost our way because we have fundamentally forgotten what made us who we are.

This begins with a failure of education; not a failure of education in the sense that we don’t learn enough math or science or facts about the world, it’s a failure of education in the sense that we are not competently taught who we are or what we should value. 

In an era of abundant information, facts are cheap; education should not be about stuffing citizens’ heads with things they could easily learn themselves, it should be about training us in virtue. As John Adams told his son, “the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” 

That’s why I think we need to bring back the classics as the centerpiece of a modern education. Let our students read Xenophon and Aristotle, Livy and Sallust; not shitty textbooks. Bring back classical training and create a common cultural canon; doing so will let us regain a sense of rootedness, an attachment to the deep flow of history and the grand drama of civilizations. It will let us understand our part in the human story with a clarity and certainty that few of our citizens now possess, to the detriment of us all.

Why the classics? Isn’t it a narrow slice of human experience? Isn’t it “eurocentric”?

I would argue that it’s better for us to deeply understand our own civilizational roots than to shallowly understand every civilization. The only thing more parochial than a country bumpkin who has never read a book is a shallow cosmopolitan who knows every culture on earth at the surface level and none deeply.

It is fine to be curious and empathetic towards other cultures, but we have gone too far astray in the morass of cultural relativism. We are squandering a rich inheritance, perhaps the richest that humanity has ever produced, for the sake of seeming worldly and in terror of being accused of parochialism or chauvinism.

It is not parochial or chauvinistic to find value in Western culture and the classics — quite the opposite. Greek and Roman culture, though long dead, have served like a lightning rod for the best minds on earth for thousands of years — from Averroes to Aquinas, from Madison to Adams. By turning away from it, we are enervating our minds, destroying the foundations of our own culture, and guaranteeing that we will never be anything more than inheritors of the systems and ideas of better people than we’ll ever be.

Greco-Roman ideas are timeless because they are instructions on how to live virtuously as individuals and as a society; how to prevent the excesses of both luxury and poverty, of mob-rule and of tyranny. 

We have surpassed both the civilization of classical antiquity and that of the American founding fathers in many ways, but only by standing on their shoulders. If we now abandon their meticulously laid foundations — the values and principles upon which the teetering edifice of our civilization now stands — we can expect nothing but chaos, dysfunction, and failure.

That’s why the future must be classical. It must be based on a common outlook, a common set of principles — the value of liberty, of the rule of law, free expression, virtue, and temperance. We must teach our young to revere the classical examples of Plutarch, to study the Iliad and the Republic, just as children in China are taught to study the Analects of Confucius. 

A common canon of literary symbols and stories is the glue that holds cultures together — the more we stray from this, the more dissolute we become, the more we are divided both between ourselves and within ourselves. 

The classics offer a tried-and-true guide to the question: what is the good life? They do not offer a final answer, but they do offer a place to start. How many lives, ignorant of the classics, are now wasted pursuing dead ends like hedonism? American life is riddled with diseases of abundance — diseases whose cures have long been known. 

The best chance of building a better tomorrow is by returning to these foundations. We should revive the classics as the central organizing principle of our education and of our intellectual life. This is the path to the cultural and institutional renewal that we so desperately need.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.