Matt Forney
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Pantheon: Adventures in History, Biography and the Mind by Quintus Curtius

Reading Pantheon, the sophomore effort from my Return of Kings colleague Quintus Curtius, is like drinking a fine wine. My impulse whenever I get a glass of alcohol in my hand is to shotgun it, and Pantheon goes down as easy as a shot of Tito’s; Quintus’ calm, erudite-yet-digestible prose made thumbing through the book a breeze.

But if you just guzzle this glass of Pinot noir, you’ll miss out on a ton of flavor.

Pantheon is a deceptively complex book, full of nuances and observations that require a close reading to notice. While it presents itself as a collection of loosely-linked essays, similarly to his previous book Thirty Seven, Pantheon shows Quintus continuing to develop as a writer and thinker, moving out of his comfort zone into uncharted waters. The book is absolutely worth buying if you enjoyed Thirty Seven; if you haven’t, it’s still just as sweet.

Pantheon is anchored by the historical-cum-philosophical essays that Quintus is best known for, with analyses on great men of history such as Douglas Mawson, Miguel de Cervantes, and Hans Tofte. What distinguishes this book from Thirty Seven is Quintus adding tales of his own life to the mix:

Marriages for companionship should be undertaken only when you have known her for a long time, and have investigated all aspects of her character. A written prenuptial agreement should be arranged. All legal aspects of what you are doing should be clear to you. Nothing will protect you completely, of course, but at least you can have some firewalls in place to put her on notice that you are aware of your rights. Nothing in life is risk-free. There are no guarantees of anything. At some point, one must do the best one can and trust to Fate.

The book opens with an anecdote from the life of Howard Carter, the British Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Quintus’ essays blend historical recitation with narrative intensity, akin to Steven Pressfield in Gates of Fire: even when he’s discussing obscure philosophy, there’s rarely a dull moment. Aside from a few sluggish moments, such as “The Heart of Plotinus,” a dissection of Neoplatonism and Plotinus’ Enneads, I found it near-impossible to put the book down.

Where Pantheon comes into its own is when Quintus inserts himself into the mix. His way of making his point without coming off as preachy or didactic is one of the book’s greatest assets, as his historical and philosophical analyses worm their way into your brain. More than once, I found myself doubling back to re-read essays, my eyes scanning my Kindle in search of all the hidden meanings:

You are sensitive to, and responsive to, her moods. Remember that you are not entitled to anything. As men, we often forget just how different the woman’s world is from ours. On a recent date, a girl chanced to show me as an amusement the avalanche of texts she had received from some recent Tinder matches. I was disgusted to see text after text of groveling obsequiousness, photos of genitalia, and inept attempts at conversation. The point is that attractive women are constantly beset by clumsy approaches in one form or another; and out of necessity, they need to hone their filtration systems in order to ensure that only the best candidates receive carnal admission.

It’s the combination of personal and historical anecdote that gives Pantheon much of its impact. Any egghead can bloviate about the giants of history, and any self-obsessed idiot can blather about himself: it takes a certain skill to meld the two into a compelling narrative. In particular, the chapter “Turning the Tables,” a brief tale about a friend of Quintus’, is moving and poignant:

“But the judge believed me. The judge gave him ninety days to serve in a juvenile detention center. But I never did get my phone back. But life is like that sometimes. But we turned the tables on them. We made them think twice about doing something like that again. Sometimes in life, even when you are going to lose, you have to do something. Anything.

There are two notable problems with Pantheon. The first is, once again, the organization. While not as seemingly random as Thirty Seven, Quintus’ essays don’t appear to be ordered in a logical fashion. Secondly, the essay format itself makes the book feel disconnected at points. It’s the difference between listening to a album versus a greatest hits compilation: the underlying structure isn’t as strong.

I’d love to see Quintus tackle a novel—or a unified philosophical tract—one of these days.

Ultimately, though, I’m just nitpicking. As a follow-up work, Pantheon is Quintus Curtius at his best. If you’ve enjoyed his previous work, you need to buy this book; if you haven’t, it’s a fine place to start.

Click here to buy Pantheon: Adventures in History, Biography and the Mind.

Read Next: Thirty Seven: Essays on Life, Wisdom and Masculinity by Quintus Curtius