by Paul Schaeffer
In elementary school I learned the story of Cincinnatus from the book Famous Men of Rome. When I try to recall the stories I learned that year, he is the first one to come to mind. Romulus and Remus came second, followed by Horatius. So I had to ask myself, “Why would Cincinnatus come even before the founders of Rome?”
The answer was simple: because Cincinnatus embodied all that was noble in Roman culture. He was a man of simple taste. Though he was from a noble family and a man of great renown, he lived on a small farm outside the city. When the Roman army found itself in dire need, the Senate thought it appropriate to name Cincinnatus dictator for a period of six months. They found him plowing in his field and asked him to take control of the situation. By the end of the day, Cincinnatus had raised a new army and marched to the rescue of the regular Roman soldiers. He immediately defeated Rome’s enemies and marched back in triumph.
This story sounds like all the other stories of Rome’s greatness, but what really stuck with me was what Cincinnatus did after coming back to Rome. He had the right to hold on to his dictatorship for six months. And yet, within a few days of returning home, he renounced his office, gave the power back to the Senate, and returned to his farm. I recall my teacher emphasizing this point: a noble, upright person should not have an inordinate desire for power, but serve his community in the office that they entrust to him. Since Cincinnatus had done his duty, it was right for him to give up his office once he returned home.
I tell this story to show how classical education can affect a student. After almost 20 years, I still remember that lesson about virtue. Not only do I remember it, but I also let it influence what I do. After all, isn’t classical education about teaching students how to think and what to do?
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