Classics, Intellectuals, and Presidents in the News

Posted on November 17th, 2008 by

Classics references seem to be playing a different role in newspaper articles of late.  Instead of supplying analogies for misguided U.S. policies, classics now seems to be supplying a point of reference for the role of intellectualism in American political life and what that might look like under President Obama.  Check out these classics shout-outs in this column in the NYT!

Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.

An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and — President Bush, lend me your ears — that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.

As Mr. Obama prepares to take office, I wish I could say that smart people have a great record in power. They don’t. Just think of Emperor Nero, who was one of the most intellectual of ancient rulers — and who also killed his brother, his mother and his pregnant wife; then castrated and married a slave boy who resembled his wife; probably set fire to Rome; and turned Christians into human torches to light his gardens.

James Garfield could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other, Thomas Jefferson was a dazzling scholar and inventor, and John Adams typically carried a book of poetry. Yet all were outclassed by George Washington, who was among the least intellectual of our early presidents.

Yet as Mr. Obama goes to Washington, I’m hopeful that his fertile mind will set a new tone for our country. Maybe someday soon our leaders no longer will have to shuffle in shame when they’re caught with brains in their heads.

Tangentially related, the Telegraph observes that “Barack Obama Still Has Time for a Little Poetry”:

Three days after winning the presidential election, Barack Obama was spotted in Chicago carrying a book of poems by Derek Walcott, the West Indies Nobel laureate.

The Illinois senator was photographed holding the new-looking book, perhaps a gift he had just received, and reading a letter as he headed to his car with his wife, Michelle.

The 500-page volume, Collected Poems 1948-1984, is one of 20 collections by the poet, theatre director and playwright, who has also written more than 20 plays.

Walcott, who won the 1992 Nobel prize for Literature, is often described as the West Indies’ greatest writer and intellectual. He was born in St Lucia in 1930 and is best known for his epic poem Omeros, a reworking of the story of the Odyssey in a 20th century Caribbean setting.

Collected Poems 1948-1984 includes selections from all of Walcott’s previous seven books of verse, including the full text of Another Life, his 1974 autobiographical poem.

 

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