And so we have arrived at that awkward time in Louisville between basketball and full-frontal Derby. Clearly, we need something exciting to celebrate during this gloomy expanse when there’s nothing much to do but pack our Cards lululemons into summer storage, break out our jorts and forlornly weep into our Mike’s Hard Lemonades. Might I suggest a celebration of the work of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus?
Cassiodorus was a prætorian prefect under Theodoric the Great, the leader of the Ostragoths who ruled from Ravenna in the smoldering remains of the Western Roman Empire. Cassiodorus lived from 490 until approximately 580 (nobody today knows for sure because anything that happened before Facebook is shrouded in mystery but it’s generally agreed he lived to be 90 years old). That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, by this point in history, the Western Roman Empire had pretty much gone to shit following the three sacks of Rome (specifically, the Ostragoths, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana). The ancient wisdom was quickly being lost to barbarians, and the once-great empire was constantly besieged by Vandals and Moors and Visigoths and terrorists and rednecks and Persians and corrupt lobbyists and distracted horseback riders. It was a militaristic, highly religious, sports-obsessed society in which books were not valued.
So it was nothing like our world.
So why should we get out our mead bongs and honor an obscure prætorian prefect from the early Middle Ages? Because Cassiodorus was a total badass of prescient wisdom.
According to historian Paul Freedman, Cassiodorus was one of the two smartest people of his time (Boethius, the other one, is also worthy of a festive, pants-off holiday – perhaps in September to break up the tedious monotony between Labor Day and Rocktoberfest). Most people were apparently super unsmart back in those days, perhaps not unlike Hoosier lawmakers today. But not Cassiodorus – he was a clever chap.
Freedman credits Cassiodorus with two achievements that changed the course of history. First, he conceived the idea to have monks transcribe ancient classic manuscripts in order to preserve centuries of Greco-Roman culture. Before Cassiodorus came along, monasteries were anti-intellectual. Monks prayed, sought visions, fasted and spent all their time trying to become ecstatic. Some reportedly were really into the jam-band scene.
But Cassiodorus gave these stoner monks – and generations of heroic Italian and Irish monks who followed them – new purpose, preserving for future generations the great ancient texts: Plato, Aristotle, Pliny, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and countless other manuscripts that we now can cherish for all eternity (unless we lose them in the iCloud).
According to Freedman, Cassiodorus was also the founder “or at least the transmitter to us,” of the liberal arts, that glorious notion of, to use a rough Latin translation, “knowledge for the fuck of it.”™ The liberal arts and humanities teach us how to think critically. These are the great ideas: ones that may not have immediate practical use but that illuminate the path to enlightenment.
Here’s Cassiodorus in his own words: “Grammar is the mistress of words, the embellisher of the human race; through the practice of the noble reading of ancient authors, she helps us, we know, by her counsels. The barbarian kings do not use her; as is well known, she remains unique to lawful rulers. For the tribes possess arms and the rest; rhetoric is found in sole obedience to the lords of the Romans.” One ancient manuscript claims he then “dropped the microphone” but that has been discredited because the microphone would not be invented for 1275 years.
So this week, uncork a bottle of mastic-and-raisin wine, rustle up some raw oysters or perhaps a few plump, juicy dormice, and drink a toast to Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus. And then maybe put your pants back on and snuggle up with some Ovid. We can’t be ecstatic all the time. •