Jun 24th 2010
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us.
By Ferdinand Mount.
Simon & Schuster; 438 pages; £20.
FERDINAND MOUNT has enjoyed an unusually varied career—columnist, novelist and literary editor, head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in Downing Street, and author of a delightful memoir entitled “Cold Cream” that was an unexpected bestseller last year. His new book, “Full Circle”, is an altogether more serious and demanding work, but it is imbued with the same wit as its predecessor and is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Mr Mount argues that there is an “astonishing resemblance” between life in ancient Greece and Rome and the manner in which we live now. It is as though the intervening 1,500 years had never been. “We have been on a round trip…and we are back at the jetty we embarked from.” Now, as then, there is an obsession with the body. The baths and gyms of the classical world employed more people than any other institution except the army. We are hugely concerned with cleanliness and fitness. Many have personal trainers or pay inordinate sums to go to “Shangri-spa”. In our attitudes to sex and food we are much closer to the Romans than to those who lived in the Dark Ages or the Victorian era—or even the 1950s.
There has been a similar reversion in our mental attitudes. In the section on the mind Mr Mount draws some amusing, and generally convincing, comparisons. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher, was the first Darwinian. Lucretius is the Richard Dawkins of 55BC. Mithras and Mick Jagger are the god and demigod on the brink of satisfaction. Long before Jade Goody was famous for being famous the Romans were obsessed with celebrity, with the “Triumph” rather than “Big Brother” and Socratic dialogue in place of Jeremy Paxman’s “Newsnight”.
The return to the ways of ancient Rome “has closely paralleled the decline of Christianity”. The “art of religion” has been replaced by “the religion of art” and with that has come degeneracy. The fact that it has happened for a second time “suggests that we might be programmed that way”. Mr Mount mourns the fact that we live in a post-Christian society, and he excoriates the “anti-God-botherers” such as Mr Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, though he reveres Charles Darwin as the inventor of the age we live in. Richard Jefferies, a Victorian naturalist, and a German philosopher, Hans Vaihinger, are other heroes who provide grounds for optimism that a return to a concern for Mother Earth and adoption of an “as if” (the Christian religion were true) philosophy can enable us to rediscover Cicero’s vision of immortality, “Scipio’s Dream”.
Half a millennium separates the democracy of Athens, under the incorruptible Pericles, from the tyranny in Rome of the emperors Caligula and Nero; they were very different epochs and places. It is unsurprising therefore that Mr Mount has been able to select parallels between aspects of our society and some of those of the classical world, while ignoring others such as slavery (immigrant workers?) and gladiators (World Cup footballers?) that do not fit as well. However, his central premise is an arresting and disturbing one. What if our civilisation is followed by a second dark age? Will it last for 1,500 years or for ever?