Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.

Dave

*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

12th Grade: Wag the Dog

Greetings,

Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.

Why did Athens lose in Sicily?

Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative.  Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy.  But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history.  Ostensibly the building stands as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods and goddesses but of events in their own history.  Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.

What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy?  Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is.  If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind.  For in this situation the process counts, and not the result.  If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself.  With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it.  This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually.  If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff.  G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,

That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.  Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.”  Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, but not the god within.  Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but outwards. . . . The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner-Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

The problems with Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy.  Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it.  Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home.  They also could not stand each other.  Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily.  For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, and perhaps even the goal of the mission.  One wonders if they realized this.  With their heads down, I think not.  In my opinion, they thought that

  • We voted, just as always
  • We picked experienced people
  • We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision

Therefore, everything is fine!

Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process.  The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting.  The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all.  Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse.  In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,

The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.

Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime.  Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.

The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.”  We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control.  This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation.  The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.

Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks.  They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs.  We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of  several days.  Process trumped justice.  The tail wagged the dog.

Authenticity, Man

Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”

The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.

Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,

The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .

Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through wardrobe.

18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams

Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salavation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).

Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.

As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.

Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.

Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.

Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. For–the self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.

Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.

I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:

Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism

Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;

It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.

If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.

Dave

12th Grade: Only in a Democracy

This week we continued the Peloponnesian War by looking at the Peace of Nicias, and why it failed.

Like most things, not all peace treaties are created equal.  Throughout history some treaties have worked and many others have not.  Can we detect any patterns or similarities to their success or failure?

“Punic Peaces” (which refers to Rome’s complete obliteration of Carthage during the 3rd Punic War) always work because the enemy ceases to exist.  A lesser version of a Punic Peace might be what England did to Napoleon after Waterloo.  France technically could have continued to resist, as the bulk of their army remained intact, but the English put Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, which might as well have been the moon.  His continued resistance was impossible.

But in thinking of peace treaties, most of us would not want conflict to get to that point.  We prefer to avoid to save lives and avoid cataclysmic destruction if we can.  But it is these kinds of treaties, where both sides retain much of their original strength, that are so hard to devise and so hard to have succeed.

Why might this be?  The best treaties reflect reality as it really is, and not merely the whims or circumstances of the moment.  The best treaties factor in the reasons for the war starting, as well as how both sides fought.  They would also account for the current political dynamics in each country, as well as their psychological and emotional state.  Treaties are problematic because reality will not be caught so easily.

After 10 years of fighting both Athens and Sparta signed onto the “Peace of Nicias,” designed to last 50 years.  Alas, it never really took firm root in either society and lasted about six.  Even a cursory glance will tell us why the treaty failed.

  • If we follow the mantra of considering the beginning before deciding on an end, we should ask ourselves why the war started in the first place, and what each side fought for.  Indeed, the war lacked a defining physical cause.  One side did not invade the other.  Instead, the war seemed to be over honor and perception.
  • But the treaty shoved a couple of significant “dishonors” into the face of both sides.  Athens had abandoned Platea earlier in the war, a stain on their honor.  But now they could not get it back — the stain would be permanent.
  • Sparta had “liberated” Amphibolus from Athenian clutches, redeeming their embarrassing “no-show” in Mytilene.  Now, the treaty required them to give Amphibolus back to Athens.
  • Corinth, one of Sparta’s major allies, did not sign onto the treaty.  Naturally they would do much to try and undermine it.

At the core, the Peace of Nicias failed because it reflected temporary moods.  Neither side had expended even half of its strength in the fight so far.  Both sides smarted under the recent death of prominent generals (Cleon for Athens, Brasidas for Sparta).  Athenian failure at Delium helped the political rise to the “dove” Nicias, but democratic politics sways to and fro.  Facing dishonor, with more bullets left in the gun, both Athens and Sparta would likely begin fighting again.

We also began our look at the famous/infamous Alcibiades of Athens.Alcibiades

Only a democracy could produce someone like him.  He was. . .

  • Young
  • Rich
  • Handsome
  • Charismatic
  • Heedless of tradition
  • A man of “action”

In addition, no one could accuse him of being a dandy .  He fought in a few infantry engagements with some distinction.

I say that Alcibiades could exist only in a democracy because most other societies, especially aristocratic ones, value

  • The Elderly
  • Tradition
  • Stability

Political conservatives in the U.S. often talk about “returning to our Constitutional roots,” but have not had much success recently in presidential or senatorial elections.  o arguments like, “That’s the way the founders did it,” have any success?  I would tend to think not, and the reason might not be the willful ignorance or decadence of the electorate, but the pervading forward looking spirit of democratic cultures.

Blessings,

Dave

Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some years ago, and repost it now in conjunction with our senior Government class and, obviously, the recent impeachment.

The original post is below . . .

******************

Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems fair to say that in its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.

12th Grade: The Athenian Assembly

Greetings,

This week we looked at some debates in the Athenian Assembly, and discussed the merits of their democratic processes.

Athenian democracy certainly had some similarities to our own system, but most initial observers would I think be struck by the differences.  Anyone familiar with C-Span would report that Congressional sessions often devolve into a process few understand, with rigid rules.

Both the language used and the process itself probably lead in part to laws that no one can really understand.  Here for example, is an honest-to-goodness random page from the controversial health-care law, though any law would do. . .

‘‘(2)(A) For calendar quarters in 2014 and each year there-

after, the Federal medical assistance percentage otherwise

determined under subsection (b) for an expansion State

described in paragraph (3) with respect to medical assistance

for individuals described in section 1902(a)(10)(A)(i)(VIII) who

are nonpregnant childless adults with respect to whom the

State may require enrollment in benchmark coverage under

section 1937 shall be equal to the percent specified in subpara-

graph (B)(i) for such year.

‘‘(B)(i) The percent specified in this subparagraph for a

State for a year is equal to the Federal medical assistance

percentage (as defined in the first sentence of subsection (b))

for the State increased by a number of percentage points equal

to the transition percentage (specified in clause (ii) for the

year) of the number of percentage points by which—

‘‘(I) such Federal medical assistance percentage for

the State, is less than

‘‘(II) the percent specified in subsection (y)(1) for the year . . .

How can we debate what no one really understands?

As an aside, this has led to a pet theory of mine — if you would enjoy a rabbit hole click here.

Some practices that look foolish to us make more sense in this light.  The Athenians often insisted that proposed laws be voted on that same day.  This could lead to short-sightedness and lack of depth.  But I think one reason the Athenians did this was to keep the debates centered on one issue.  They had no ridiculous “riders” to bills.  It also meant that issues needed clarity and simplicity so that all could understand.  In the ancient world. laws could also be simpler because they didn’t write on paper.  Their laws had to fit on a single stone or clay tablet, which in itself limited their focus.

Athenian politics operated much more dynamically, probably because the main decision making body in Athens was comprised of whichever 5-7,000 citizens happened to show up for a particular session.  Votes were usually taken on the same day someone proposed a particular law or action, so the language had to be plain and direct.  We don’t need to assume word-for-word accuracy from Thucydides to rest comfortably with this assertion.  In fact, Thucydides probably “dressed up” the sessions a bit for his narrative.  If we think of British Parliament, we might get some idea of how the Athenians probably operated.

One student commented that, “They’re like a pack of monkeys!”  but we should not underestimate the strengths of this approach.  Some students noted that in the British system obfuscation behind elaborate formality might be much less of a problem.  The “common” approach to debate gives everyone a chance to participate.

Speakers at the Assembly took many more risks than any of our politicians.  In a number of Thucydides’ speeches, for example, speakers criticize the people, the “demos.”  No politician could ever get away with calling out the “American people” for our faults and survive, but in Athens some of their most respected politicians did this often.  Perhaps we have much thinner skin, or perhaps we worship democracy more than our ancient forebears.  We could partly attribute this to a strong aristocratic tradition in Athenian history which served as a silent, but often distant alternative to democracy, and again, we have no other tradition to use as an internal reference point for our policies.

If we find our political process frustrating we may find Athens a wonderful breath of fresh air.

However, the approach has its drawbacks.  The rollicking nature of the process could get out of hand.  In the discussion on whether or not to attack a Spartan contingent on the island of Pylos, the “dove” Nicias took a gamble and tried to bait the “hawk” Cleon, by urging Cleon to take command personally of the expedition if he wanted to fight the Spartans so much.  Cleon demurred, claiming correctly that he had no legal authority to command any expedition, but the crowd was into it, and did not buy that “excuse.”  Cleon had to assume command illegally or face shame forever, and he chose the former.

As fate would have it, he and Demosthenes led the Athenians to a shocking and crushing victory over Spartans, making him an instant hero.  All’s well that ends well? Perhaps.  For its strengths, the rough-and-tumble nature of the Assembly could lead to extra-legal actions such as these.  This time it worked out, but when something similar happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Arginusae years later, the results would bring disaster upon Athens.

For those interested, below is a famous debate in the Assembly about the fate of Mytilene, one their rebellious allies.

Blessings,

Dave

(36) When the captives arrived at Athens the Athenians instantly put Salaethus to death, although he made various offers, and among other things promised to procure the withdrawal of the Peloponnesians from Plataea which was still blockaded. Concerning the other captives a discussion was held, and in their indignation the Athenians determined to put to death not only the men then at Athens, but all the grown-up citizens of Mytilenè, and to enslave the women and children; the act of the Mytilenaeans appeared inexcusable, because they were not subjects like the other states which had revolted, but free. That Peloponnesian ships should have had the audacity to find their way to Ionia and assist the rebels contributed to increase their fury; and the action showed that the revolt was a long premeditated affair.17 So they sent a trireme to Paches announcing their determination, and bidding him put the Mytilenaeans to death at once. But on the following day a kind of remorse seized them; they began to reflect that a decree which doomed to destruction not only the guilty, but a whole city, was cruel and monstrous. The Mytilenaean envoys who were at Athens18 perceived the change of feeling, and they and the Athenians who were in their interest prevailed on the magistrates to bring the question again before the people; this they were the more willing to do, because they saw themselves that the majority of the citizens were anxious to have an opportunity given them of reconsidering their decision. An assembly was again summoned, and different opinions were expressed by different speakers. In the former assembly, Cleon the son of Cleaenetus had carried the decree condemning the Mytilenaeans to death. He was the most violent of the citizens, and at that time exercised by far the greatest influence over the people.19 And now he came forward a second time and spoke as follows:–

(37) ‘I have remarked again and again that a democracy cannot manage an empire, but never more than now, when I see you regretting your condemnation of the Mytilenaeans. Having no fear or suspicion of one another in daily life,20 you deal with your allies upon the same principle, and you do not consider that whenever you yield to them out of pity or are misled by their specious tales, you are guilty of a weakness dangerous to yourselves, and receive no thanks from them. You should remember that your empire is a despotism21 exercised over unwilling subjects, who are always conspiring against you; they do not obey in return for any kindness which you do them to your own injury, but in so far as you are their masters; they have no love of you, but they are held down by force. Besides, what can be more detestable than to be perpetually changing our minds? We forget that a state in which the laws, though imperfect, are inviolable, is better off than one in which the laws are good but ineffective.22 Dullness and modesty are a more useful combination than cleverness and licence; and the more simple sort generally make better citizens than the more astute. For the latter desire to be thought wiser than the laws;23 they want to be always getting their own way in public discussions; they think that they can nowhere have a finer opportunity of displaying their intelligence,24 and their folly generally ends in the ruin of their country; whereas the others, mistrusting their own capacity, admit that the laws are wiser than themselves: they do not pretend to criticise the arguments of a great speaker; and being impartial judges, not ambitious rivals, they hit the mark. That is the spirit in which we should act; not suffering ourselves to be so excited by our own cleverness in a war of wits as to advise the Athenian people contrary to our own better judgment.

(38) ‘I myself think as I did before, and I wonder at those who have brought forward the case of the Mytilenaeans again, thus interposing a delay which is in the interest of the evil-doer. For after a time the anger of the sufferer waxes dull, and he pursues the offender with less keenness; but the vengeance which follows closest upon the wrong is most adequate to it and exacts the fullest retribution. And again I wonder who will answer me, and whether he will attempt to show that the crimes of the Mytilenaeans are a benefit to us, or that when we suffer, our allies suffer with us. Clearly he must be some one who has such confidence in his powers of speech as to contend that you never adopted what was most certainly your resolution;25 or else he must be some one who, under the inspiration of a bribe, elaborates a sophistical speech in the hope of diverting you from the point. In such rhetorical contests the city gives away the prizes to others, while she takes the risk upon herself. And you are to blame, for you order these contests amiss. When speeches are to be heard, you are too fond of using your eyes, but, where actions are concerned, you trust your ears; you estimate the possibility of future enterprises from the eloquence of an orator, but as to accomplished facts, instead of accepting ocular demonstration, you believe only what ingenious critics tell you.26 No men are better dupes, sooner deceived by novel notions, or slower to follow approved advice. You despise what is familiar, while you are worshippers of every new extravagance. Not a man of you but would be an orator if he could; when he cannot, he will not yield the palm to a more successful rival: he would fain show that he does not let his wits come limping after, but that he can praise a sharp remark before it is well out of another’s mouth; he would like to be as quick in anticipating what is said, as he is slow in foreseeing its consequences. You are always hankering after an ideal state, but you do not give your minds even to what is straight before you. In a word, you are at the mercy of your own ears, and sit like spectators attending a performance of sophists, but very unlike counsellors of a state.

(39) ‘I want you to put aside this trifling, and therefore I say to you that no single city has ever injured us so deeply as Mytilenè. I can excuse those who find our rule too heavy to bear, or who have revolted because the enemy has compelled them. But islanders who had walls, and were unassailable by our enemies, except at sea, and on that element were sufficiently protected by a fleet of their own, who were independent and treated by us with the highest regard, when they act thus, they have not revolted (that word would imply that they were oppressed), but they have rebelled; and entering the ranks of our bitterest enemies have conspired with them to seek our ruin. And surely this is far more atrocious than if they had been led by motives of ambition to take up arms against us on their own account. They learned nothing from the misfortunes of their neighbours who had already revolted and been subdued by us, nor did the happiness of which they were in the enjoyment make them hesitate to court destruction. They trusted recklessly to the future, and cherishing hopes which, if less than their wishes, were greater than their powers, they went to war, preferring might to right. No sooner did they seem likely to win than they set upon us, although we were doing them no wrong. Too swift and sudden a rise is apt to make cities insolent and, in general, ordinary good-fortune is safer than extraordinary. Mankind apparently find it easier to drive away adversity than to retain prosperity. We should from the first have made no difference between the Mytilenaeans and the rest of our allies, and then their insolence would never have risen to such a height; for men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them. Yet it is not too late to punish them as their crimes deserve. And do not absolve the people while you throw the blame upon the nobles. For they were all of one mind when we were to be attacked. Had the people deserted the nobles and come over to us, they might at this moment have been reinstated in their city; but they considered that their safety lay in sharing the dangers of the oligarchy, and therefore they joined in the revolt. Reflect: if you impose the same penalty upon those of your allies who wilfully rebel and upon those who are constrained by the enemy, which of them will not revolt upon any pretext however trivial, seeing that, if he succeed, he will be free, and, if he fail, no irreparable evil will follow? We in the meantime shall have to risk our lives and our fortunes against every one in turn. When conquerors we shall recover only a ruined city, and, for the future, the revenues which are our strength will be lost to us.27 But if we fail, the number of our adversaries will be increased. And when we ought to be employed in repelling the enemies with whom we have to do, we shall be wasting time in fighting against our own allies.

(40) ‘Do not then hold out a hope, which eloquence can secure or money buy, that they are to be excused and that their error is to be deemed human and venial. Their attack was not unpremeditated; that might have been an excuse for them; but they knew what they were doing. This was my original contention, and I still maintain that you should abide by your former decision, and not be misled either by pity, or by the charm of words, or by a too forgiving temper. There are no three things more prejudicial to your power. Mercy should be reserved for the merciful, and not thrown away upon those who will have no compassion on us, and who must by the force of circumstances always be our enemies. And our charming orators will still have an arena,28 but one in which the questions at stake will not be so grave, and the city will not pay so dearly for her brief pleasure in listening to them, while they for a good speech get a good fee. Lastly, forgiveness is naturally shown to those who, being reconciled, will continue friends, and not to those who will always remain what they were, and will abate nothing of their enmity. In one word, if you do as I say, you will do what is just to the Mytilenaeans, and also what is expedient for yourselves; but, if you take the opposite course, they will not be grateful to you, and you will be self-condemned. For, if they were right in revolting, you must be wrong in maintaining your empire. But if, right or wrong, you are resolved to rule, then rightly or wrongly they must be chastised for your good. Otherwise you must give up your empire, and, when virtue is no longer dangerous, you may be as virtuous as you please. Punish them as they would have punished you; let not those who have escaped appear to have less feeling than those who conspired against them. Consider: what might not they have been expected to do if they had conquered?–especially since they were the aggressors. For those who wantonly attack others always rush into extremes, and sometimes, like these Mytilenaeans, to their own destruction. They know the fate which is reserved for them by an enemy who is spared: when a man is injured wantonly he is more dangerous if he escape than the enemy who has only suffered what he has inflicted.29 Be true then to yourselves, and recall as vividly as you can what you felt at the time; think how you would have given the world to crush your enemies, and now take your revenge. Do not be soft-hearted at the sight of their distress, but remember the danger which was once hanging over your heads. Chastise them as they deserve, and prove by an example to your other allies that rebellion will be punished with death. If this is made quite clear to them, your attention will no longer be diverted from your enemies by wars against your own allies.’

(41) Such were the words of Cleon; and after him Diodotus the son of Eucrates, who in the previous assembly had been the chief opponent of the decree which condemned the Mytilenaeans, came forward again and spoke as follows:

(42) ‘I am far from blaming those who invite us to reconsider our sentence upon the Mytilenaeans, nor do I approve of the censure which has been cast on the practice of deliberating more than once about matters so critical. In my opinion the two things most adverse to good counsel are haste and passion; the former is generally a mark of folly, the latter of vulgarity and narrowness of mind. When a man insists that words ought not to be our guides in action,30 he is either wanting in sense or wanting in honesty: he is wanting in sense if he does not see that there is no other way in which we can throw light on the unknown future; and he is not honest if, seeking to carry a discreditable measure, and knowing that he cannot speak well in a bad cause, he reflects that he can slander well and terrify his opponents and his audience by the audacity of his calumnies. Worst of all are those who, besides other topics of abuse, declare that their opponent is hired to make an eloquent speech. If they accused him of stupidity only, when he failed in producing an impression he might go his way having lost his reputation for sense but not for honesty; whereas he who is accused of dishonesty, even if he succeed, is viewed with suspicion, and, if he fail, is thought to be both fool and rogue. And so the city suffers; for she is robbed of her counsellors by fear. Happy would she be if such citizens could not speak at all, for then the people would not be misled. The good citizen should prove his superiority as a speaker, not by trying to intimidate those who are to follow him in debate, but by fair argument; and the wise city ought not to give increased honour to her best counsellor, any more than she will deprive him of that which he has; while he whose proposal is rejected not only ought to receive no punishment, but should be free from all reproach. Then he who succeeds will not say pleasant things contrary to his better judgment in order to gain a still higher place in popular favour, and he who fails will not be striving to attract the multitude to himself by like compliances.

(43) ‘But we take an opposite course; and still worse. Even when we know a man to be giving the wisest counsel, a suspicion of corruption is set on foot; and from a jealousy which is perhaps groundless we allow the state to lose an undeniable advantage. It has come to this, that the best advice when offered in plain terms is as much distrusted as the worst; and not only he who wishes to lead the multitude into the most dangerous courses must deceive them, but he who speaks in the cause of right must make himself believed by lying. In this city, and in this city only, to do good openly and without deception is impossible, because you are too clever; and, when a man confers an unmistakeable benefit on you, he is rewarded by a suspicion that, in some underhand manner, he gets more than he gives. But, whatever you may suspect,31 when great interests are at stake, we who advise ought to look further and weigh our words more carefully than you whose vision is limited. And you should remember that we are accountable for our advice to you, but you who listen are accountable to nobody. If he who gave and he who followed evil counsel suffered equally, you would be more reasonable in your ideas; but now, whenever you meet with a reverse, led away by the passion of the moment you punish the individual who is your adviser for his error of judgment, and your own error you condone, if the judgments of many concurred in it.

(44) ‘I do not come forward either as an advocate of the Mytilenaeans or as their accuser; the question for us rightly considered is not, what are their crimes? but, what is for our interest? If I prove them ever so guilty, I will not on that account bid you put them to death, unless it is expedient. Neither, if perchance there be some degree of excuse for them, would I have you spare them, unless it be clearly for the good of the state. For I conceive that we are now concerned, not with the present, but with the future. When Cleon insists that the infliction of death will be expedient and will secure you against revolt in time to come, I, like him taking the ground of future expediency, stoutly maintain the contrary position; and I would not have you be misled by the apparent fairness of his proposal, and reject the solid advantages of mine. You are angry with the Mytilenaeans, and the superior justice of his argument may for the moment attract you; but we are not at law with them, and do not want to be told what is just; we are considering a question of policy, and desire to know how we can turn them to account.

(45) ‘To many offences less than theirs states have affixed the punishment of death; nevertheless, excited by hope, men still risk their lives. No one when venturing on a perilous enterprise ever yet passed a sentence of failure on himself. And what city when entering on a revolt ever imagined that the power which she had, whether her own or obtained from her allies, did not justify the attempt? All are by nature prone to err both in public and in private life, and no law will prevent them. Men have gone through the whole catalogue of penalties in the hope that, by increasing their severity, they may suffer less at the hands of evil-doers. In early ages the punishments, even of the worst offences, would naturally be milder; but as time went on and mankind continued to transgress, they seldom stopped short of death. And still there are transgressors. Some greater terror then has yet to be discovered; certainly death is no deterrent. For poverty inspires necessity with daring; and wealth engenders avarice in pride and insolence; and the various conditions of human life, as they severally fall under the sway of some mighty and fatal power, lure men through their passions to destruction. Desire and hope are never wanting, the one leading, the other following, the one devising the enterprise, the other suggesting that fortune will be kind; and they are the most ruinous, for, being unseen, they far outweigh the dangers which are seen. Fortune too assists the illusion, for she often presents herself unexpectedly, and induces states as well as individuals to run into peril, however inadequate their means; and states even more than individuals, because they are throwing for a higher stake, freedom or empire, and because when a man has a whole people acting with him,32 he magnifies himself out of all reason. In a word then, it is impossible and simply absurd to suppose that human nature when bent upon some favourite project can be restrained either by the strength of law or by any other terror.

(46) ‘We ought not therefore to act hastily out of a mistaken reliance on the security which the penalty of death affords. Nor should we drive our rebellious subjects to despair; they must not think that there is no place for repentance, or that they may not at any moment give up their mistaken policy. Consider: at present, although a city may actually have revolted, when she becomes conscious of her weakness she will capitulate while still able to defray the cost of the war and to pay tribute for the future; but if we are too severe, will not the citizens make better preparations, and, when besieged, resist to the last, knowing that it is all the same whether they come to terms early or late? Shall not we ourselves suffer? For we shall waste our money by sitting down before a city which refuses to surrender; when the place is taken it will be a mere wreck, and we shall in future lose the revenues derived from it;33 and in these revenues lies our military strength. Do not then weigh offences with the severity of a judge, when you will only be injuring yourselves, but have an eye to the future; let the penalties which you impose on rebellious cities be moderate, and then their wealth will be undiminished and at your service. Do not hope to find a safeguard in the severity of your laws, but only in the vigilance of your administration. At present we do just the opposite; a free people under a strong government will always revolt in the hope of independence; and when we have put them down we think that they cannot be punished too severely. But instead of inflicting extreme penalties on free men who revolt, we should practise extreme vigilance before they revolt, and never allow such a thought to enter their minds. When however they have been once put down we ought to extenuate their crimes as much as possible.

(47) ‘Think of another great error into which you would fall if you listened to Cleon. At present the popular party are everywhere our friends; either they do not join with the oligarchs, or, if compelled to do so, they are always ready to turn against the authors of the revolt; and so in going to war with a rebellious state you have the multitude on your side. But, if you destroy the people of Mytilenè who took no part in the revolt, and who voluntarily surrendered the city as soon as they got arms into their hands; in the first place they were your benefactors, and to slay them would be a crime; in the second place you will play into the hands of the oligarchic parties, who henceforward, in fomenting a revolt, will at once have the people on their side; for you will have proclaimed to all that the innocent and the guilty will share the same fate. Even if they were guilty you should wink at their conduct, and not allow the only friends whom you have left to be converted into enemies. Far more conducive to the maintenance of our empire would it be to suffer wrong willingly, than for the sake of justice to put to death those whom we had better spare. Cleon may speak of a punishment which is just and also expedient, but you will find that, in any proposal like his, the two cannot be combined.

(48) ‘Assured then that what I advise is for the best, and yielding neither to pity nor to lenity, for I am as unwilling as Cleon can be that you should be influenced by any such motives, but simply weighing the arguments which I have urged, accede to my proposal: Pass sentence at your leisure on the Mytilenaeans whom Paches, deeming them guilty, has sent hither; but leave the rest of the inhabitants where they are. This will be good policy for the future, and will strike present terror into your enemies. For wise counsel is really more formidable to an enemy than the severity of unreasoning violence.’

(49) Thus spoke Diodotus, and such were the proposals on either side which most nearly represented the opposing parties. In spite of the reaction there was a struggle between the two opinions; the show of hands was very near, but the motion of Diodotus prevailed. The Athenians instantly despatched another trireme, hoping that, if the second could overtake the first,34 which had a start of about twenty-four hours, it might be in time to save the city. The Mytilenaean envoys provided wine and barley for the crew, and promised them great rewards if they arrived first. And such was their energy that they continued rowing whilst they ate their barley, kneaded with wine and oil, and slept and rowed by turns. Fortunately no adverse wind sprang up, and, the first of the two ships sailing in no great hurry on her untoward errand, and the second hastening as I have described, the one did indeed arrive sooner than the other, but not much sooner. Paches had read the decree and was about to put it into execution, when the second appeared and arrested the fate of the city.

So near was Mytilenè to destruction.

Song of Wrath

For years now I have wondered how many books actually get published.  In the Christian book world every year, for example, more books on prayer, grace, parenting, and so on tumble off the shelves.  Those I glance at sound almost exactly the same.  Of course it’s no business of mine, but nonetheless, I am surprised.

The same phenomena exists in the world of history as well, perhaps especially in ancient history. Here we deal with limited sources and unsure timelines, and so it seems that one can say only so much.  When dealing with the Peloponnesian War I thought that we had reached our limit.  The advent of archaeology and the concomitant renewed interest in the ancient world in the late 19th century begot groundbreaking history on ancient Greece. This all culminated, I thought, with Donald Kagan’s masterful four-volume work published in the 1960’s-70’s.  Having read portions of those books, I thought that the final word had been uttered.  Victor Davis Hanson’s disappointing A War Like No Other, and Nigel Bagnall’s  even more disappointing book on the conflict proved to me that indeed Kagan had the last word. Now saying anything else would put one in an awkward position . . .

Or so I thought.

After all, in any field we should encourage new books because we have to encourage new ways of thinking.  Maybe 90% of what gets published never need see the light of day but that 90% might be needed to get the 10% that shines new light just where it’s needed.

Enter J.E. Lendon, Virginia’s own spirited iconoclast, and his new book Song of Wrath.

Every student of the Peloponessian War rightly begins with Thucydides, and he impresses immediately with his penetrating analysis and fluid arguments.  He talks little about what would be for us, the curiosities of ancient life (commonplaces to them of course), and instead focuses on what moderns would tend to appreciate.  For Thucydides, practical power politics and universal psychological principles explained the war.  But Lendon points out that the very fact that Thucydides has to argue for his point of view shows that he departed from traditional ways the Greeks understood conflict.  He did not reflect, then, a typical Greek understanding of the war.  This does not mean he was wrong, but it means that we must wonder if this great authority spoke rightly.  In the end, Lendon admirably challenges some of Thucydides’ key beliefs and conclusions.

Lendon begins his work by discussing Achilles.  The Iliad begins with a seemingly petty dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles over who has the right to a captured slave-girl.  Agamemnon pulls rank on Achilles and takes Achilles’ woman which leads Achilles to withdraw from the fighting altogether.  Most every modern reader inevitably views Achilles as a total heel, a petulant jerk who would rather see his companions die than accept Agamemnon’s decision, however unfair it may be.  And yet Achilles, not Agamemnon or Odysseus, remained for centuries a revered hero of the Greeks, nearly worshipped by such luminaries as Alexander the Great.

How can this be?

Lendon uses this as a window into what the Greeks valued and how they structured their world.  Once we see the great value they placed on rank and honor, we understand the reasons for the war, and the reasons for certain strategies pursued by both sides much more clearly.  Achilles earned his reputation by sacrificing all to the Greek concept of honor.  We know that he sacrificed long life for glory in battle for starters, but he also willingly defies his king and his friends to preserve his honor.  He reenters the conflict not when his honor receives satisfaction, but when his friend Patroclus dies.  When Achilles fights  he does so not for Agamemnon, but to revenge Patroclus, another key Greek concept.  After slaying Hector, Achilles goes too far and succumbs to hybris.  He drags around Hector’s body and initially refuses burial.  For this, he suffers ignominious retribution in the form of an arrow from spineless Paris. But — he had a magnificent run before he ran aground, and that’s what mattered most.

If we understand honor, revenge, and hybris, Lendon argues, we will understand the Peloponnesian War.

Some might suppose this to be a mere gimmick, but I found this lens suddenly made sense of things that had always puzzled me.  Take the strategy of Athens’ star politician Pericles in the wars earliest days.  Thucydides records Pericles arguing that,

[Sparta’s] greatest difficulty will be want of money, which they can only provide slowly; delay will thus occur, and war waits for no man. Further, no fortified place which they can raise against us is to be feared any more than their navy. As to the first, even in time of peace it would be hard for them to build a city able to compete with Athens; and how much more so when they are in an enemy’s country, and our walls will be a menace to them quite as much as theirs to us! Or, again, if they simply raise a fort in our territory, they may do mischief to some part of our lands by sallies, and the slaves may desert to them; but that will not prevent us from sailing to the Peloponnese and there raising forts against them, and defending ourselves there by the help of our navy, which is our strong arm. For we have gained more experience of fighting on land from warfare at sea than they of naval affairs from warfare on land. And they will not easily acquire the art of seamanship; even you yourselves, who have been practising ever since the Persian War, are not yet perfect. How can they, who are not sailors, but tillers of the soil, do much? They will not even be permitted to practise, because a large fleet will constantly be lying in wait for them. If they were watched by a few ships only, they might run the risk, trusting to their numbers and forgetting their inexperience; but if they are kept off the sea by our superior strength, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times; it is jealous of any other pursuit which distracts the mind for an instant from itself.

The Athenians, Thucydides, and the ancients who commented on the war all approved of Pericles’ strategy, which the above quote outlines in bare detail.  Essentially Pericles wanted to make Athens an island by bringing the population within its walls and refusing to fight the Spartans on land.  Then, with their superior navy they could ravage the Peloponnesian coasts.  Most moderns, on the other hand (myself included) have thought little of his approach.  At best it appears a recipe to avoid losing rather than actually winning.  At worst, it’s a passive strategy guaranteed to give all the advantages to the other side.

Lendon argues that we misunderstand the strategy because we misunderstand the Athens’ war aims.  Athens did not care about imposing their will on Sparta, or finding their “center of gravity” (a la Clauswitz) so much as they desired equal rank with Sparta.  Sparta had the rank of “hegemon” in the Peloponnese, Athens sought hegemon status in Attica and thus, equal status with Sparta in the Greek world.  Sparta will ravage our lands, but we can ravage theirs as well.  We don’t need a “shock and awe” response because we strive not to prove our absolute superiority, but our equality.  Besides, the Athenians would wish to avoid the hybris of seeking something beyond their station. They contented themselves with equality, follow the unspoken rules of war, and avoid the wrath of the gods.*

Armed with this perspective, suddenly other aspects of the war made sense to me. Before I criticized Athenian coastal raids for wasting time and resources to achieve purely symbolic results. This led me to make broader conclusions about the vacillating nature of democracies at war.

Lendon argues of course, that honor and rank have everything to do with symbolism. The Athenian coastal raids had nothing to do with “imposing their will” or tactical advantage, and everything to do with displaying status.  So Lendon’s work not only entertained me, it has forced me to reconsider most of my lesson plans for teaching the war.  Grudgingly . . . I give Lendon my thanks.

Does any of this new analysis have a modern application in war?  Some have suggested that 3rd-world warfare resembles many of these “traditional” concepts of honor and symbolism, and that we must abandon all the Cold-War principles that guided our statecraft.  Some argue that acts of terrorism have a lot more to do with symbols of honor than tactical advantage.^ I cannot comment on this as I lack the knowledge to do so.  But I do think we see a lot of the same principles in our modern political scene.  Democrats and Republicans both press for legislation that will give them “honor” in their districts or with their national following, and often this legislation has mere symbolic value.  Both sides too can obstruct purely for reasons of status, or to refuse honor to the other side.  Some might argue that this is part and parcel of any democracy.  If so, we will need to redefine our definition of democracy, and accept that at least in its modern context, it has little to do with Christianity. It may bear much more direct similarity to our pagan democratic ancestors, and to the song of wrath sung in ancient times . . .

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

*In Kagan’s great work he comes close to understanding this.  He addresses the modern puzzlement over Pericles’ strategy by pointing out that the Athenians essentially voted for it on multiple occasions and kept it going even after a plague struck their city  In other words, he points out that the strategy surely made sense to them and they must have thought it effective for their purposes.  Lendon argues that after a few years, Athens could have made a legitimate argument that they had won and proved themselves.  The problem with such conflicts lie in that they need interpreted, and Sparta did not interpret events as the Athenians did.  So the war continued, and in time ended with defeat for Athens in a way no one could misconstrue.

^The tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo led to a massive and inspiring show of solidarity from the French public.  I applaud them, and to us it appears as a striking rebuke to terrorists.  Part of me wonders, however, if the terrorists derived a sense of satisfaction from it all, i.e. “Look at what we made them do!  Clearly we touched a nerve, which is what we really care about.”  Did they gain status and honor from such a demonstration?

I hope not.  But if the answer is “yes,” the show of solidarity for the side of freedom is worth it regardless of how it gets interpreted by radicals.

This response is also very exciting.