Archive for the ‘Ancient History’ Category

HistoryAtOurHouse podcast #4 features a segment from the High School class on the topic of what I call the “Thucydidean” approach to history.

Thucydides is the first historian to explicitly identify that history should be pursued for the purpose of instruction, as I discussed recently here.  As a tribute to Thucydides, I thus refer to the objective pursuit of knowledge about the past–as opposed to the intrinsicist and subjective approaches–as “Thucydidean.”


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Want a tiny dose of what a history class could and should have been like when you were young?  Excerpts from the ongoing History At Our House ancient history program are now available via Podbean and iTunes.

This week’s segment:  A discussion with high school students concerning the value of history — especially a crucial contrast between the Founding Fathers and nineteenth century German intellectuals.

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Although the instructional value of history provides a crucial underpinning of the American Revolution, it is not the only value that history provides that helped make the republic that is the United States and that can help those who still seek to keep it. “Without the classical example,” states historian Hannah Arendt “…none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.” In other words, history can empower us emotionally as well as intellectually by presenting actual, successful heroes who moved the world.

Literature and art, for their part, serve as inspiration when they present human beings as they could and ought to be: Michelangelo’s courageous David facing off against Goliath, the swashbuckling poet Cyrano de Bergerac questing for love, or Terrence Rattigan’s Arthur Winslow seeking justice for his son in the Winslow Boy. Although, due to the failing of modern historians, history is usually viewed as dry and devoid of such emotional fuel, one of the crucial functions of history is in fact to inspire, and to do so in a way that only it can.

The unique source of inspiration that a proper study of history can provide is the sight of man as he actually has been and can be again.

The incomparable heroism of King Leonidas of Sparta, defending Greece to the death at Thermopylae, the unbending integrity of Galileo in his pursuing of scientific truth in defiance of the nearly monolithic power of the Catholic Church, the genius and poise of Washington crossing the Delaware to victory against the Hessians at Trenton; these examples are not invention. They are the truth of human beings at their greatest. It’s no wonder that a young history student of mine from Norway once exclaimed, history “…keeps me more thrilled than any movie.”

HISTORY THROUGH ARTHistory can inspire in many ways.  In its basic narrative form, it can mimic literature.  But its power to inspire can also arise in other forms, including film and painting.  One of the unique features of the Powell History pedagogical approach is the use of visual art to both facilitate students’ grasp of history and to help students draw inspiration from the past.

The benefits of this approach are manifold.  From an instructional perspective, visual art concretizes the abstract narrative of the past, providing us with a past that can be seen.  By means of the compositional or thematic integration of the art itself, it also helps to integrate the meaning of the past.  (For instance, in the painting below, the symbolic inscriptions in the bottom left tie the events of Napoleonic history to an ancient past, evoking crucial comparisons and themes.)  Looking at great art, as in the images below, one need hardly elaborate on its power to inspire as well.  Challenges sometimes arise about the objectivity of the inspirational themes involved, but when instruction and inspiration are connected to genuine values, the final product is invaluable.  This will be a theme that we aggressively pursue in the new PHR!

Great historical art can inspire and instruct at the same time. Look for a complete analysis of David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps in an upcoming issue of PHR.

The unique ability of visual art to instruct and inspire will be regularly featured in upcoming issues of PHR, including Jacques-Louis David's amazing Death of Socrates.

The ultimate example of thematic historical visualization: Emmanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (closeup by Lee Sandstead). More on this painting coming up in PHR!

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In the preface to his immortal work The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides enjoined his readers to seek “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.” Thucydides understood that the careful crafting of the factual record into an instructive narrative would generate what he called a “possession for all time,” i.e. a story containing abstract lessons applicable to similar contexts in any era.

The important instructive value of history was upheld by Plutarch, a Greek historian writing in Roman times. In his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch explained that the purpose of biography was to instruct by example, that under the influence of proper history, the student would “pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.

After Roman times the instructive value of history was corrupted by its subordination to Christianity.  History became the handmaiden of theology, its only acceptable purpose to demonstrate the unfolding of a divine purpose or to glorify the Christian rulers supposedly enacting it.

The gradual overthrow of the religious monopoly on the intellect during the subsequent Renaissance and Enlightenment brought about a commensurate shift in the expectations of the instructive value of history.  However, a new corruption crept into the study of the past.  History was no longer to serve religion. Instead, it was to serve “reason.”  Unfortunately, this meant a kind of providential force that in the mind of Enlightenment thinkers had naturally overcome the  irrationality of the Dark Ages and revealed itself with an everlasting triumph of science and social progress.   Any  instructive value to be derived from studying history was marred by this obvious oversimplification.

Despite the failings of medieval and Enlightenment historiography, a generation of intellectuals benefiting from the freedom of learning during the Age of Reason was able to see through to the actual instructive value of history, and put the theoretical views of Thucydides and Plutarch into practice.   Not surprisingly, it was precisely the lessons of Greek and Roman history that this unique generation of intellectuals, the Founding Fathers, turned to when creating the first modern constitutional republic.  When, for example, James Madison and the federalists proposed to unify the separate states into a more perfect union, it was the failure of ancient Greece to do so and the resulting cultural disintegration, as illustrated in the work of Thucydides, upon which many of their calculations were based.  When the Founders devised the “checks and balances” of the federal system, it was the institutions of Athens, Rome, and even Sparta, which guided their deliberations.

The Founders were so convinced of the timeless  instructional value of ancient history that Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that all American children be taught Greek and Latin and the histories of Greece and Rome.  Benjamin Franklin had explained to a woman on the street of Philadelphia upon leaving the constitutional convention that the Founders had created “A Republic, if you can keep it.” To do so, Jefferson reasoned, would require that Americans keep the lessons of ancient history that had helped make the republic alive in their minds.

(The truth of Jefferson’s thesis is tragically illustrated in the fact that Americans are now thoroughly ignorant of history, and the republic created based on the Founders unique historical awareness has been continually in decline for over a hundred years, and may well be approaching a terrible tipping point.)

Powell History takes Jefferson’s vision seriously and advocates a return to a “Thucydidean” approach to history.  (For those of you who may have wondered, that is indeed Thucydides in the PHR logo.)  In our present context this means promoting a rebirth of the study of ancient history along side a proper study of European, American, and even Middle Eastern and Asian history.

This is a tall order, since we live in a society that has all but given up on history.  But it can be done.   Powell history supports adults who are seeking to make up for lost time by its “first history for adults” series, and it provides homeschoolers and afterschoolers with all the tools necessary to provide a complete history education to children from 2nd to 12th grade. These are the first steps required to rebuild history as an instructive science that supports ongoing progress within a free, scientific, secular civilization.

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The past year has been an incredibly busy time for me, with the launch of new products and a trip around the world, but I’m back, with some exciting announcements for the coming months!

For both those of you new to Powell History and those who’ve been around from the start, let me get you caught up on the history of Powell History, as well as recent goings-on.

For over five years Powell History has provided an unmatched educational experience for history students of all ages.  In 2006, the first sessions of “A First History for Adults, Part 1 (The Story of America)” were offered to students across the United States and the world.   A year later, History At Our House—the ultimate history resource for homeschoolers—was launched, making live professional history instruction available to homeschooled children of elementary grades everywhere.

Both products have grown by leaps and bounds.  Over the the past four years, A First History for Adults has expanded to include:

Part 2 – Europe: Context and Foil
Part 3 – The Islamist Entanglement
Part 4 – The Ancient Background,

…and European History Through Art for adults!

HistoryAtOurHouse has grown even more rapidly along side, as a fully integrated curriculum, offering a three-year program rotation of ancient, European, and American history for students from second to twelfth grade.

In 2010, the HistoryAtOurHouse model was adopted to begin making a wider range of homeschooling products available with the launch of MusicAtOurHouse, a music history and appreciation program taught by composer M. Zachary Johnson.

ScienceAtOurHouse was added to the growing array of programs available in 2011, and is currently enjoying great success thanks to work of curriculum director Dr. John Krieger of VanDamme Academy and life science instructor Rachel Miner.  Based on early progress in this venture, we plan to expand ScienceAtOurHouse into a three-year program rotation of life science, physical science, and earth science for students from 2nd to 9th grade.

2012 promises to be the best year yet with new curriculum offerings for children and adults alike.  Plans are in the works for literature, math, and physics in the coming years.   And for students of history — both homeschoolers and life-long learners — the coming year will be extremely exciting:  our focus will shift to the history of Asia.  A First History for Adults, Part 5: Japan, China and India – will begin this summer! — exploring the theme of the subordination of the major eastern cultures to western civilization and the evolving responses of each of them, which will play a crucial role in shaping the world we live in.

History At Our House will also focus on Asia in the coming year, breaking from its fundamental three year program rotation of ancient, European, and American history for a unique spectrum of courses on Asia, including units on the history of India, China, Japan, and the Middle East.

2012 is also the year when Powell History’s product lines will move to a new on-line platform developed by Cando.Com.

The new PHR blog and newsletter will serve as the vehicle for news on these exciting developments. It will also serve the broader purpose of promoting the unique value of history using Powell History methods.  Please look for the upcoming feature articles on The Five “I“s of the Powell History philosophy of history, and a stream of articles in which that philosophy will be put into action!

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One of the things that my readers and students have come to expect from me over the years is book recommendations.  For that reason, I’m thrilled to be able to announce the return of an important book…

Fingerhut Press has just published its first book “A Short History of Ancient Times” by Philip Van Ness Myers.  This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1922, and is first installment in a new History At Our House Series of books for homeschoolers and lifelong learners.  You can learn more about it and order a copy here.

Here is the preface to the HistoryAtOurHouse edition:

Anyone wishing to learn history in America today faces an almost insurmountable challenge.  Modern history texts – even those intended for children – impede the reader with vast quantities of non-essential information.  They abound with biased content (religious, multicultural, politicized, or otherwise subjective) while omitting, or at least deemphasizing, many of the most indispensable facts that render the story of the past intelligible.  Consequently, students find themselves unable to grasp the “big picture” when it comes to human history, and thus lack the foundational awareness required to appreciate the deeper meaning and relevance of its component narratives.

The tragic result for American culture is widespread and growing historical ignorance, and even disdain for history.

An explanation of the causes of the current debacle in historical pedagogy is beyond the scope of this preface.  It is enough for the reader to know that A Short History of Ancient Times is different.

This book was written in a time when historians still believed that the average educated person could and should learn the basic outline of history, and that learning that outline was a necessary step in becoming a “historically-minded” adult.  To facilitate the learning process, historians wrote short, accessible narratives, whose greatest virtue was that they stripped away all the minutiae and interpretive controversies that cloud the story of the past to reveal its straightforward, causal, fundamental progression of events.

I can honestly say that I could not have grasped the basic outline of history without the help of P.V.N. Myers.   I am thrilled that homeschoolers will have this resource at their disposal to help them salvage history education in America.

Scott Powell
Creator and Teacher, www.HistoryAtOurHouse.com

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Not a day goes by without some depressing reminder that our freedom is slipping away, whether it’s new taxes, new restrictions on blogging, new intrusive measures to protect against terrorism, or the ever-growing threat of the socialized rationing of medical services.  Each day we have to renew our commitment to fight the decline of American civilization. But where can we get the fuel to do that? Philosophy gives us the intellectual ammunition, but where do we find the will to use it?

The most important inspiration in life comes from art. It is in art that we find concretized the abstract values that we cherish–the romantic passion and grandeur of Cyrano de Bergerac, the fatherly love and courage of Arthur Winslow, the independence and rationality of John Galt. It is in art that we find nourishment for the soul.

History can also transport us to a world apart. History shows us the real-life triumphs of the Athenians over the Persians, the real-life political gains of the Roman plebeains against the patricians, the true story of the birth of philosophy, art, science and history in Greece, the true story of the rise of modern technology and industry, and the true story of America’s heroic founding.

What is more, when these two great realms of inspiration come together, a powerful synergy can occur.  This is evident, for instance, to anyone who has seen Emmanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, Daniel Chester French’s statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, or Jean-Pierre Cortot’s The Soldier of Marathon Announcing the Victory.

What never ceases to amaze me, however, is just how much inspiration of this sort there is out there to be had. Though it was not my intention to write this piece as an accompaniment to Thanksgiving, it is entirely appropriate that I should be writing it at this time of year, because if I had to name the greatest value that I have recently discovered — which has given me irreplaceable emotional and intellectual fuel, and for which I am especially “thankful” this year — it is value of history integrated through visual art.

Along those lines, here is one of my favorite pieces:

Empress Theodora at the Colosseum, by Benjamin Constant

My immediate response to this painting, which did not involve any focus on the historical details, was that I felt immersed in luxury.  The vibrant reds and yellows of the fabrics and the gold in the woman’s garments, the jewelry, the diadem, the flower petals, all made me feel that this was a place I could relax.

And I immediately fell in love with the curve–the curve that accentuates how the woman is laid back and her body has sunk down into the plush pillows.

Empress Theodora (Closeup), a.k.a. "The Curve"

There is also something very sensual about the woman herself.  I am reminded of Sargeant’s controversial Madame X.  Notice how they both have the bare shoulder and are both depicted in profile.  (More on that in a minute.)

Madame X, by John Singer Sargent

Obviously, since there is only one character in this image that’s where almost all of our attention is directed.  There are, however, a few additional elements that transform the image into what I would tentatively term a “narrative portrait”–a kind of half-way point between a portrait and a history painting, with the characteristics of both.

Evidently, the column is adorned with a golden wreath, which is symbolic of the emperor, so she is a member of the imperial family, most likely the empress.  (We know this from the title, of course, but I’m referring to approaching the image inductively, by which method we could still make that determination “visually,” as long as we have the least bit of knowledge of Roman icons.)

Beyond that, regarding the woman herself, she is evidently royalty.  The diadem is enough evidence of it, but the jewelry (bracelets, rings, earrings) all are indicative as well.  Her luxurious clothing, with gold accents, is somewhat revealing and ever so rich.

She is young, but not a girl.  She is slim, has smooth skin, and a “young” neck.  Her hands are delicate and smooth.

She is seated in a reclined, relaxed position on a kind of plush chaise or divan.  One hand rests on her outstretched left leg.  The other is draped over the top of the chaise, and is gently holding a flower.

Her eyes are almost closed.  She is looking downward, though not necessarily at anything in particular. Certainly, what she is not looking at is the spectacle for which she evidently has prime seating.

What is that spectacle?  A tiger is feasting on its victims in a stadium packed with crazed fans — a number of whom are reaching or gesturing excitedly from their seats towards the carnage below. (See here for a large version of the image.) The setting, evidently is gladiatorial games or simply the execution of criminals and/or Christians during Roman times.

The curtain, however, is drawn to separate her from the scene.  It is even weighted down by some kind of decorative object that is on the shelf next to her, beside the flower petals.

The key to the image is a precise integration of three things:

1) the woman’s separation from the Colosseum scene
2) her facial expression/look
3) the flower(s)

Evidently, as I’ve said, she’s not watching the spectacle.  What she is also not doing is looking at the flower(s).

There are so many images that we could draw upon for the sake of comparison here, to come to a clear interpretation, but look at this one:

A Rose, by John White Alexander

In this image, the woman is obviously fixated on the flower.  This warm, intimate image depicts a moment of reminiscence, in which she is recalling the experiences that the flower evokes.

With the empress, however, the flower does not appear to have any special significance.  It is there, in her hand, but in the manner of a trinket.  It certainly does not command her attention.  She just holding it in her hand as an afterthought, or even almost as an affectation.

What then of her expression?  It is almost featureless.  Certainly, there are no strong emotions visible.  In another context, it might well be interpreted as introspective, but I can’t see how it can be that in this context.  We can imagine the screaming crowd, and the noise of the tiger, which are barely muffled by the barrier that separates her from it all.  She would have to be aware of it, unless she were able to make a conscious effort to focus on something else.  If she were staring at the flower, as the woman is in the other image, then she might be able to block it out. But she is not.

So what is comes down to is precisely that separation between the outer world, and her, luxurious, personal world.  She is a woman apart. Her imperial status gives her that luxury — the luxury of not having to watch what the rest of the world thinks is entertainment.  She might have to be there for show, as the empress, but she can achieve that modicum of seclusion that her status affords.

Well, what about the history?

Empress Theodora was the wife of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian.  She was a notorious theatrical performer and courtesan, with whom Justinian is said to have fallen madly in love (more likely lust).  I think this is why she is depicted in the sensual manner that she is.

It is said that she was highly intelligent, even to the point of dominating her husband, who is known as an accomplished emperor (responsible for promulgating a famous legal code, for one thing) and defying him in many areas (such as his doctrinal position in theological controversies).

Regarding the historical Theodora, we might be inclined to believe that Constant wanted to say that she did not approve of the cruelty of the way death sentences were carried out in the arena.  But she is not depicted in the images as disapproving, just aloof.  My interpretation, historically is thus that Constant wanted simply to highlight her sensuality and her separation from the people, as a historical theme.  Those certainly are the dominant elements of the painting.  (Another way of looking at this might be to assume that Constant intends to show us how the Emperor viewed the Empress.  He places the viewer in the Emperor’s seat, thus giving us a sense of how Theodora dominated the Emperor’s attention.)

Either way, the image can provide a certain inspiration.

In particular, I am reminded when viewing this image of Ayn Rand’s statement concerning civilization, which she defined as the process of “setting man free from men. When I think of Empress Theodora, I think of an intelligent if damaged person, living in a culture that was crumbling.  She was able to separate herself from the men of her time.  Her world apart is a refuge afforded to her by her imperial status, which, thanks to the torturous progress of civilization since then, each of us can now attain in far more significant ways.

Naturally, political considerations will encroach upon our historical evaluation of this image, but if, in viewing it, we focus primarily on the contrast between the bankruptcy of the outside social world and the intimate values of one’s personal world, then we can derive the greatest enjoyment from it.  Indeed, the scene captures the very idea of maintaining A World Apart, which is so important to refueling one’s soul for each new round of intellectual warfare we embark upon to save our own.

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Croesus: Solon, am I not the most fortunate man alive?
Solon: No great king, anyone looking at us over there can afford to study you with Powell History’s payment plans!

The payment plans you’ve been waiting for are here!

The Ancient History page has been updated with three fantastic payment plans to suit your budget.

  • OPTION 1: The 5-month plan, for five easy payments of $69.80.
  • OPTION 2: The 7-month plan to reduce your monthly payment to only $49.86.
  • OPTION 3: The ultimate in manageable payments: 10 payments of only $34.90!

Classes start October 8th! Go to the Ancient History page now to take advantage of these great payment options!

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Hurricane Ike can’t keep a good history program down!

The Ancient History webpage for Powell History’s fourth installment of A First History for AdultsTM is finally up!

Classes start October 8th!

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In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte changed history.  In 1868, Jean-Leon Gerome showed us why.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome

Few figures in history are more controversial than Napoleon.  In his scholarly work “Napoleon: For and Against”, Pieter Geyl, a highly regarded academic historian, characterizes the litany of debates concerning this key figure over the past two centuries as an “argument without end.”

Was he a destroyer of liberty or promoter of the rule of law? Was he a conqueror or liberator? Was he conservative or liberal, pragmatic or enlightened? To come to a proper evaluation of Napoleon one must develop a proper understanding of the manifold contradictions that have long mired European civilization, and especially the period which gave rise to his imperium: the French Revolution. Few individuals with such a historical footprint embody both the trend and the exception, both the tide of culture and the piercing shock of the individual, and both must be brought to account.

For the record, let me say that I find Napoleon to be a malevolent and hateful man, despite (in some cases) positive intentions and (in some cases) positive results deriving from his actions. For all the good that was done to promote the dissolution of the decrepit order of European feudalism through his conquests (and through subsequent reaction to his conquests), no excuse can be made for the cataclysmic means employed, especially when they were used to promote a rotten code which blatantly evaded the only truly salutary principles so proudly hailed across the Atlantic.

Whatever may be said morally about Napoleon, there can be no question, however, that he commands our attention. All of subsequent world history has been irrevocably conditioned by his presence in the time line, and it is in this regard that those of us who wish to change the world for the better should examine him.

What was it about Napoleon that was exceptional, not mundane? What made him (in certain aspects) a world-changer, as opposed to a mere cipher of history? The root of the answer is provided in the deceptively simple painting: Bonaparte before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome.

In a barren landscape, in what appears to be a barren composition, a soldier–Bonaparte, of course–confronts the colossal remnant of a distant past.

The man appears to be alone, but for the shadows of his aides, who remain sufficiently far back not to intrude on this moment of reflection.

Slightly hunched, support himself by placing his hands on his thighs, Bonaparte sits in contemplation.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (detail)

It is important that we call him by his real name, Bonaparte.  He is not yet “Napoleon.”

The year is 1798, and Bonaparte is leading an expedition to conquer Egypt.  His army is seen in the background, moving across a vast plain.

What was Bonaparte doing in Egypt? France’s leaders at the time were as perplexed as many have been since.

Egypt itself was not Napoleon’s goal.  The ultimate target in Napoleon’s mind was India. But to reach India despite the seemingly insuperable power of the British Navy, France would have to secure a land route. An alliance with Russia would have to be arranged. Also, the Ottomans and Persians would either have to be bullied or co-opted. But Bonaparte was the kind of individual who could project such a complex line of developments and take the steps necessary to bring it to fruition. In light of his subsequent failure due to the heroics of Admiral Nelson’s navy at the Battle of the Nile, historians have tended to downplay Napoleon’s concept, but as his later conquests would show, his ambition was usually matched by perceptiveness, intellectual penetration, and an ability to carry through the most complex plans.

In addition, Jean-Leon Gerome proposes that Napoleon possessed yet another virtue: historical-mindedness.

In the painting, Gerome portrays the still young Bonaparte–whose plans to change history have yet to unfold–pondering the ruins of a once great artifact.

The particular juxtaposition of the larger-than-life Sphinx and the soon-to-be world-altering Frenchman on horseback has led some to find humor in the painting.  The man undoubtedly is smaller than the sculpture, and by making him look small, one may suppose that it makes him seem insignificant, even comically so.  However, had Gerome intended such a mood, he could easily have dwarfed the general by changing the perspective and including the Pyramids as well. Bonaparte is smaller, obviously, than the Sphinx. But this is fitting within the composition since he hasn’t yet earned a larger place in history.

That Bonaparte is not yet a great historical figure but that he must already have dreamed of conquering the world by this point in his career is what matters.  It is this individual who is juxtaposed with the mysterious deity, which once held sway over civilization but now is no more.

Thus the painting depicts a man who wishes to become important pondering something which was once important but is no longer.

“Will it matter,” wonders Bonaparte?  What does matter in history?  Who or what has a lasting effect through time?

Napoleon surely wished for a legacy.  But the Sphinx’s legacy, no matter how great it once was, had long been extinguished.

The painting invites us to consider the theme of historical significance, and proposes in a subtle manner that no matter how great something is, it is eventually discarded and forgotten.  And yet, Napoleon’s presence in history, viewed from Gerome’s vantage point, and still from our own, defies this idea.

That Napoleon did not accept this notion is a part of the reason why he occupies his unique place in story of mankind. Nobody who strives to change the world can accept that what they do doesn’t matter.  And nobody who does truly change the world in a significant way ever is lost to history.  The Sphinx also, despite lying in ruins and partially covered, still remains. Even if only as neglected ruin, it calls out through time for us to solve its mystery.

As far as history is concerned, we can enjoy Gerome’s deceptively simple painting for its ability to conjure this manifold context of thoughts.  On a personal level, we can also derive an important benefit.  We can contemplate the question of the importance of things–of the every day toils we engage in to reach a great goal, of the problems that get blown out of proportion in the moment, but then fade away.  Some things are important, and we should pay them the attention they deserve.  Others are not, and we can let them go.

Like Napoleon before the Sphinx, we have to consider the question, if we are to know the difference and act to make real changes.

To help you on your own journey towards historical-mindedness, consider joining my 20-lecture history course on Ancient History, starting October 8th.  Learn more here.  Register here. (More information to come on this blog.)

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