Classic Relevance

It was 1984. I was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin. There is a university there, from which I had graduated magna cum laude five years before. I had also become convinced that the man I thought I loved beyond all others was someone who could never really love me back. So I ran off with the bikers.

But this isn't a story about love affairs gone awry. It's a story about cultural relevance. About how the more things change, the more they stay the same. About why it's never a waste of time to read the classics.

The summer I was running with the Hellbounders was also the summer I read Thucydides' . You could say I was an unwitting early proponent of multiculturalism.

The Pelopennesian War took place in the 5th century BCE between the Pelopennesian League of Sparta and the Delian League of Athens.

The Hellbounders were, in 1984, in a state of, if not actual warfare, at least mutual irritation, with a rival group whose name I can't quite recall but who will be known for our present purposes as The Bad Guys. Since one of these guys actually showed up later on America's Most Wanted, I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb. The Hellbounders, as a group, were more lovers than fighters. Out for a good time. Fighting, most of them had come to know, was not as much fun as it was cracked up to be. Pain was generally not conducive to a good time. For the other guys, pain, especially inflicted pain, was the whole point.

So there was a good deal of sparring, jockeying for position, turf protection, chest beating, name calling, and occasional brawls, interspersed with rare but serious negotiations. There were also love triangles, internecine squabbles, power plays and betrayals. I told friends at the University that I was in it for the mythology. All the ancient myths were being played out right in front of me, every day. If they wanted to understand human history, I said, venture down to Uncle Ray's Bar some night. It's all there.

This point was hammered in for me by Thucydides. Back and forth the History went, as insult followed insult and bravado, bravado. Armies clashed and fell apart. Diplomacy won in theory and failed in practice. There were mutual unforgiveables. Audacious raids. Magnificent defeats. Pointless slaughter. Pointless suffering.

Oh, the Hellbounders and The Bad Guys didn't change the course of human history. No one was actually killed - not in the rare instances of physical violence, at any rate. But the paradigm was there. As I read the History, I kept seeing both Athens and Sparta as bikers. The rhetoric of the boys I knew that summer wasn't written down, not even by me. But it had its own eloquence. The passions were real. We were ancient, we were tribal. We were human.

I had a recent conversation with an old friend, one who graduated from the same University, one who knew me in those days. We were talking about the sorry state of education today. He said he didn't think higher education in anything but math and science were worth anything anymore. I said I wanted to bring back the classics.

"Make 'em read " I insisted. "In Latin. At least make them memorize the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English."

You can read in translation. I can't read ancient Greek either. But you'll see what I mean. Thucydides could go on Fareed Zakaria GPS this week. He'd know exactly what was going on. And he'd have something pertinent to say about it, too.