Pantheon is Quintus Curtius’ follow-up to Thirty Seven, where he continues historical and philosophical examinations of great men and lost ideas, bringing alive stories of hardship, survival, and masculinity. The book contains 38 essays.
Here are my favorite quotes from the book:
Whereas our ancestors had the strength of theological certainty, the modern man, following the star of his own caprice, is tormented by self-doubt and hesitation. Obviously, this certainty of medieval man came at a price. Yet we moderns multiple machines on top of machines, every generation more complex than the previous, with little apparent augmenting of wisdom or maturity.
The invisible eye
People need to feel that they are being watched by invisible eyes in order for them to truly believe a doctrine. The state cannot be everywhere at all times. And religion is that unsleeping sentinel. It is a simple matter to do the right thing when people are watching. Not so simple is it to do the right thing when no one is watching.
Doing the right thing (dying as a martyr) is not enough: for his action to be sanctified by God, it must be done in a spirit of true humility and submission to God, without thought of any personal benefit of glory. And in this sentiment, the key message of the play is made clear: it is not enough simply to do what is right. What is more important—what is more transcendent—is to do the right thing for the right reason.
Truth and uncertainty
Did it ever occur to you that what man wants—what he really craves—is the comfort of certainty, rather than the cold, harsh “truth”? What comfort has the “truth” of science brought man, when all is said and done? People now work more than slaves did during the Abbasid Dynasty, or serfs in France in medieval Europe. What can you offer such a man, except more pain and more uncertainty?
There are great men all around us, with the potential to influence contemporary events in profound ways. Yet without the appropriate conditions present to act as the kindling, the fires of change would sputter and fizzle into smoky impotence.
Marriage should by no means be based on erotic ecstasy. “I see no marriages fail sooner, or more troubled, than such as are concluded for beauty’s sake, or huddled up for amorous desires.” Most successful marriages eventually evolve into some form of non-erotic companionship with the passing of years.[…]
Any flaw a woman has becomes magnified over time. A small problem now will become a big one later. A man must test her and carefully observe her behavior when evaluating her character. He must not rationalize, excuse, or sugar-coat bad behavior. He must be ruthless and clear-headed when evaluating her character, knowing that a life decision like marriage is a deadly serious matter.
Pursuit of wealth
The excessive pursuit of wealth promotes effeminacy in men. Monetary pursuits are mostly sedentary and indoor, and an obsession with these types of activities causes the body to deteriorate, and the soul to atrophy. Wealth whets the appetite for delicacies, whether it be rich foods or sumptuous clothing.
…glory is the most useless, and indeed the most harmful. Like a summer shower, it falls suddenly, and evaporates quickly in the suns of circumstance, leaving us with a damp and hollow feeling. And this is why Roman generals in the republican period, when granted a triumph after a foreign campaign, were careful to have their slaves remind them that all glory was fleeting.
A woman’s yes
Between a woman’s yes and no I would not engage to put a pin’s point, so close are they to one another.
As Seneca the Elder says, quoting Diocles of Carystos: “There is one safeguard against Fortune: not to make an attempt of it too often.” This is true, perhaps. But can we even call this life? I for one cannot. I prefer my victories, however sparse, to be attended by a phalanx of failures, that they may taste sweeter still.
Democracy is the most difficult form of government because it requires an educated and engaged citizenry. As mouths multiple and education declines, so do democratic freedoms. Even modern democracy, as found in Western Europe and America, seems to be slowly reverting to authoritarian models, under the steady pressure of technological changes and the loss of privacy rights. What has been most surprising is the ease with which these rights and freedoms have been quietly appropriated in recent decades by many supposed “democratic” governments.
He who has never lusted after fame will never fear infamy; he who holds the enticements of wealth in slight contempt will never fear the onset of financial hardships
The wise man, the man of virtue, does not derive his satisfaction from external circumstances, but rather on the superlative qualities he has cultivated within himself through his virtuous pursuit of a moral purpose.
We will now consider internal exile, or that form of exile produced when a man remains in his country, but finds himself alienated from his immediate surroundings. Men similarly disposed and seeking the same ends tend to find each other; like frogs scattered about along the edge of a pond, or moths fluttering about a light, they inevitably congregate. Where the knowledge being sought is not favored by the mainstream, secret societies are the result.[…]
Exile, whether internal or external, cannot crush the spirit of the man of virtue. Maintaining his moral purpose, and secure in his mental redoubt, he finds ways of overcoming the barriers placed before him. The mind is a fortress, its casements arranged with stones hewn from the quarry of hard experience and relentless struggle. No assault can capture this citadel, or force entry into its sanctum.
Conflict magnifies things, making the insignificant, significant. We can try to control some of these elements, but complete control is never possible. The better way is to learn to use this “friction” to our advantage. We must embrace fluidity, friction, disorder, violence, and uncertainty, knowing that they are inescapable parts of the conflict dynamic.
Civilization is a veneer, a mask attached to the face of the clothed ape that is man; and when the mask falls off, the beast behind it is revealed in all his brutishness. Each generation must nurture the gift of civilization, and pass it on, this previous gift, to ensure that the face of barbarism remains safely hidden away. And when society fails in this task, consequences must be paid.
Pantheon, just like its predecessor, serves as a gateway book to many other great works. It gives you enough to sate your palate while leaving the door open for you to continue further study. My only complaint is the extended treatment of neo-Platonism, which was more abstract and dense than the other essays. This is a small complaint in an otherwise worthy book that educates, informs, and inspires. If you liked Thirty Seven then you will surely like Pantheon.
Read More: “Pantheon” on Amazon