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The Roman Search for WisdomReview - The Roman Search for Wisdom
by Michael K. Kellogg
Prometheus Books, 2014
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Oct 21st 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 43)

One of the reasons I chose to pursue an academic career was, I believe, the influence a certain kind of book had on me.  The books I have in mind are the sweeping intellectual histories of the sort written by Will and Ariel Durant, John H. Randall, Jr., and Jacques Barzun.  These were books not written for the scholar or specialist, but for a general audience.  They were intelligent discussions written in elegant prose.  They did a service to the reading public.  They made sense out of complex ideas.  They contextualized the motivations of various intellectual debates, showing how ideas developed from the past and how they evolved into a future.  I would not include Kellog's The Roman Search for Wisdom in the catalog of great intellectual histories with the Durants, Randall, or Barzun, but I would include it in the list of books that aspire to the same overall goal as those great works, to share with a general audience important cultural artifacts in order to inspire thinking about who we are and what matters.

Kellogg's 364-page book is divided into ten chapters, an introduction, an abbreviated chronology, a list of suggested readings associated with each of the chapter themes, and an index.  The chapters cover Roman playwrights (Plautus, Terence), poets (Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid), philosophers (Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius), historians (Livy, Tacitus), and those difficult to categorize (Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch).  One may question the need for an expository work on Roman authors given the received view that the Romans were nothing more than a shadow of the Greek giants that went before them.  As Kellogg himself puts it, "What would the Romans say that was not just a pale imitation?" (9). He answers this by saying "…they absorbed what the Greeks had to teach them and created new works of art and thought that withstand comparison" (10).  There are, of course, scholars who would debate this point (as there are scholars that would debate virtually any point).  But it is not a stretch to agree with Kellogg that the Roman men of letters to which he chooses to introduce us in The Roman Search for Wisdom are worth exploring even if only for the reason that the leading lights of any culture are worth exploring simply because they are the leading lights.

To that end, The Search for Roman Wisdom is a useful text.  Each of the chapters is a stand-alone exposition, presented in accessible prose, of one or more of the Roman figures' major works.  The introduction ("The Grandeur That Was Rome") consists of a brief history of the founding and growth of Rome.  Both later Rome's own mythological self-understanding as well as the actual shaping historical developments of the republic and empire are quickly covered.  Of all Roman writers of merit, though, how did the author choose his focus?  "The ten Roman authors who are the focus of this book were, for the most part, and easy choice" (29).  There is not much explanation of the criteria of inclusion, except to say of them things like, "Plautus was by far the more popular and productive playwright," "Lucretius...and..Cicero..are the towering figures," "…the major poets were incontestably Virgil…and Horace…."  There is no reason at all offered for why Seneca, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius were included.  But for a general reading audience, I believe, this is a minor issue.  As I mentioned, I can't imagine anyone seriously disputing the importance to western intellectual ideas of the figures on which Kellog ultimately settles. 

The Roman Search for Wisdom proceeds through a discussion of the ten authors chronologically, summarizing their major works.  These summaries are intelligent and clearly presented.  But there is scant commentary on the works or the ideas in them.  For example, in "Chapter 1: Plautus and Roman Comedy," we are offered a brief discussion of the context for Roman comedy, and then sometimes brief, sometimes lengthier, discussions of each of several plays by Plautus.  At the end of the chapter Kellogg offers only two sentences to sum up the playwright's influence.  "Cicero, Horace, and others would look back to the era of Cato the Censor as a lost golden age of the republic in which men were governed by a simple, straightforward morality.  What they should really have mourned was the loss of Plautus to keep them honest and fully human" (55).  This sort of brevity is typical.  The chapter about Cicero ends this way.  "Cicero had such a passion for his beloved republic and for the teachings of philosophy, and he strove to remain true to both" (82).

If there is one thing that Kellog's booked lacked, for me it would be some sort of final assessment of it all.  There is no concluding chapter in which Kellog offers some overall evaluation and assessment of the works that he discussed in the book.  What can we take from and what can we abandon from these ancient authors?  How exactly can we weave important insights from them into our own self-understandings?  Interestingly, the very title of this book, The Roman Search for Wisdom is not explained or alluded to.  Kellog repeats the uncontroversial claim that, "The Romans made original contributions to architecture and engineering, not to poetry and philosophy" (9).  So what is it, readers might wonder, that makes each of the Romans discussed in this book participants in a search for wisdom?  Is this book worth reading?  Yes.  Any book that presents great works in an intelligent fashion, as this one does, can potentially enrich our lives and make us more human.

 

© 2014 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.


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