This week we gave a little speech at the Chateau d’Ermenonville, where Jean Jacques Rousseau is buried. Rome was our subject. The ‘perils of success’ was our theme. And a group of Americans embarking on the Grand Tour was our audience. Here, more or less, is what we said:
Our labors here at the Daily Reckoning can scarcely be called labor at all. Our role is nothing more than to point a finger and laugh. And our biggest challenge each week is merely to decide what to laugh at first. Clowns to the left of us…jokers to the right…and here we are.
This week, as always, we are spoiled for choice. Nothing is droller than watching people in a desperate race to get rich. They are like pioneers in a land rush, riding hell for leather across the Great Plains. They jettison anything that will slow them down…tossing off dignity, common sense and caution as if they were pianos being thrown off top-heavy wagons along the Oregon Trail.
Of course, when they finally get their stakes into the ground the whole romance of it fades fast. They actually have to sweat to turn the earth and make something out of the land they’ve claimed. No wonder they prefer the rich, flying hopes of the mad dash itself. It’s not the lure of the hard work and gritty production at the end that attracts them, but the heady illusion that they will somehow get rich without working at all…as if the land will fructify on its own, like the fabled Land of Milk and Honey that kept Moses wandering around the desert for 40 years.
Almost all of modern finance is based on similar propositions, propositions that couldn’t possibly be true. Of course, that is precisely what makes them endlessly appealing to so many people. The truth, on the other hand, is disappointing, like a bathing suit on an aging man. It is not at all what people want to look at. They’d much prefer to leave some things in the dark and imagine them as they wish they were – that they can get rich without saving…or that their economy can flourish without anyone actually making anything.
Everyone hopes to get something for nothing; and the worst thing that can happen to them is actually getting it.
But there were other sorts of travel – indulged in not by those racing to get rich, but by those who were already rich. The Grand Tour was a feature principally of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a kind of finishing school for the wealthy and the intellectually ambitious. Typically – as if it were possible to find a typical pattern – a young man or woman with a certain social standing would leave England or America in order to explore the continent.
At the beginning, this traveling was not only hard, it was dangerous. There were thieves and kidnappers all along the route…as well as rude inns, where travelers would likely get bitten by fleas…or come down with a serious illness. Many were the travelers who set off on the Grand Tour and never came back.
Why did they bother? Because they thought the past – particularly the classical period – had something to it that was worth learning. History may not repeat itself line for line, they realized, but the themes of the past tend to recur. Besides, if you are looking for a way to understand the present and guess about the future, what else do you have to go on other than the experience and lessons of the past?
Gradually, over the two centuries, conditions of travel had improved so much that towards the end of it – even into the early 20th century – young ladies from good American families made the trip with their maiden aunts or tutors and wrote romantic essays and novels about the travels.
One of the most important stops along the tour, for example, was the Coliseum, which for most of that time was a neglected ruin.
It is in the shadows of the Coliseum that a story by Edith Wharton, called “Roman Fever,” takes place – in which two American matrons, Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley, experience a little contretemps. The latter of the two conceives her lovely daughter, Barbara, in some moonlit corner of the ruin – with Mrs. Slade’s husband!
But the Grand Tour was more than an opportunity for hanky-panky. It was an opportunity to discover the roots of our western civilization. The theory is that by discovering the roots, we better understand the tree…and its fruits.
If Julius Caesar had not won the battle of Alesia against Vercingetorix, whom he brought back to Rome in chains, he probably never would have crossed the Rubicon or made himself emperor. Nor would he have subdued Gaul. And if he had not subdued Gaul, he could not have conquered England. And if England and France had not been conquered, Europe might never have been Romanized…and there would not have been a Dark Age…or a Renaissance. Which means that the culture that flourished in Western Europe…and was carried on the Mayflower to the New World…would never have developed. We don’t know what the world would be like without that, but it wouldn’t be the same world we have today.
Thank God the frogs lost, says Jacques Bainville, author of a history of France. But what Bainville forgets is that the patterns of history are only seen clearly in retrospect, and even then, people don’t learn much from them. Napoleon had the disastrous history of Sweden’s invasion of Russia by Gustavus Adolphus to teach him. But that didn’t stop him from making the same mistake.
This basic plot line was described best by Marcus Aurelius:
“Consider the time of Vespasian. You will see the same thing: men marrying, begetting children, being ill, dying, fighting wars, celebrating, trading, farming, death of others, grumbling at their present lot,…coveting a consulate, coveting a kingdom. Then, turn to the times of Trajan: again everything is the same, and that life too is dead…”
So even if, as people say, we Americans have no history…what of it? And then, while the typical American may not know much history, that doesn’t mean he has none. His country did not spring forth out of nothing; in fact, it has thousands of years of history, and its first and most celebrated citizens knew it.
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