25 September, 2011


"Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous 
intersections in history: that of women and power."

By Stacy Schiff

I sometimes look at life today and think how wonderfully "advanced" it is compared to a couple thousand years ago... heck, even a couple hundred years ago. But then I read a quote like the one above (from Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life) and it reminds me of that old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The idea of Women + Power always seems to hold a degree of uncertainty and suspense in our culture. And it was the same over 2,000 years ago, in the B.C. time of Cleopatra.

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely amazing improvements in today's world. Among many other almost unbelievable inventions, we have the ability of flight - it takes us a mere 4 hours to hop on a plane and travel the 2,000 miles from New York City to Santa Fe. In the Hellenistic period, Schiff informs us: “Before her lay a trip of two thousand miles. At best she could expect to be at sea for a good month. At worst the passage was closer to 10 weeks.” Can you imagine? Most of us don't even get a month-long vacation during a normal year; let alone having to use that time just to travel from one place to another.

But the hunger with which we embrace these amazing technological improvements is quickly reduced to a loss of appetite when we turn our attentions to tolerance of people who are different than we are. Whether it's women in power, gays in the military, tea party activists, religious evangelists... we have a strong desire for everything (everyone) to be how we want them to be.

In Candide, Voltaire's sharp satire, the over-simplified mantra "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds" shines a harsh light on the idea that "the best" is maybe not always "the best". Or, perhaps more accurately, what your ideal "best" situation is may be different (or opposite, as is quite often the case) than what my ideal "best" of that same situation would be.  Schiff shares with us an Egyptian mantra under Cleopatra's rule that sounds eerily similar: “...nobody is allowed to do what he wishes, but everything is arranged for the best.” Without veering too far into the political realm, sometimes I feel that this is how America has been treating the world. That we are too full of hubris to recognize that our ideals may ultimately not work (spoiler alert!) for every other country and every other culture. Voltaire would have great material to work with for a Candide sequel were he around today. A little compassion and empathy can go a long way.

For more quotes collected from this book, visit Borrowing Wisdom. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of Stacy Schiff's CLEOPATRA: A LIFE to read and discuss as a member of the online book club From Left to Write. The thoughts and opinions expressed above are my own.  Click here to purchase your own copy of this book.


  1. Great quote to start off your post! I agree that many Americans suffer from the "we're better than everyone else" mentality. We were so used to being the world power and felt invincible until, sadly 9/11. I optimistic that tolerance will ultimately win.

  2. Schiff's line about women and power makes me stop and think, every time. And I wonder what is so scary about women and power?!

  3. Well said. My mother is a scholar of the Early Modern Period and she is particularly fascinated by the history of science. We believe that our science today tell us what the Truth is, but why are we so sure that we are right, when the ancient Egyptians were equally sure that they were right about what they knew. How do we know that in 2000 years, humans of the future won't find our culture primitive and ignorant? We don't.

  4. Your post causes me to pause and wonder how Cleopatra would view today's world in America. That would have been a great angle for my post, but alas, it's too late now. Great post, very thought provoking.