August 17, 2009

Agricola's upbringing

Tacitus makes only the briefest of comments on Agricola's upbringing but what he says is interesting. He pauses to tell us that Agricola was brought up in Massilia, a place where 'Greek refinement and provincial puritanism are happily blended' (Agricola ed Mattingley 1970 para 4). And then he tells us something that might seem strange:

he would often tell us how in his early youth he was tempted to drink deeper of philosophy than was allowable of a Roman, and a future senator, but his mother, in her wisdom, damped the fire of his passion.

Philosophy is here the equivalent of a youthful dose of marujana. Tacitus's comment does deserve some thought because we see a life of scholarship as a preparation for life as a whole- in a sense we are as Victorian as our ancestors who believed that conjugating verbs in Jowett's Baliol was a fit preparation for ruling India. Tacitus obviously partly disagreed.

It is not that Tacitus saw philosophy as an unmixed evil- he tells us that it taught Agricola equanimity and plenty of ancient writers from Plato through to Boethius raphsodised on its merits for the ruler. But for Tacitus, using an Aristotelian metaphor the mean was everything and the extreme nothing. Notice that the metaphor that he uses for philosophy is that of alcohol- reasoning like wine could divert the Roman aristocrat and render him incapable of providing his basic service to the state. Philosophy is a diversion and one inappropriate to those too young to grasp its subtle doctrines. Perhaps there is also a hint here that philosophy is dangerous- perhaps a hint that it can seduce the young mind away from other more worthy matters and that bad philosophy may drive out good. Philosophy is also foreign- in the passage cited Tacitus associates it with Greece not Rome- with decadence and not provincial puritanism. For a historian and philosopher who looked back with envy on the early republic the position of his craft- a product of luxury and decadence- was always an ambiguous one. I think this passage concerning Agricola brings that aspect of Tacitus's thought out.


James Higham said...

We might ask Tacitus, just to check.