Skip to comments.Classics and War
Posted on 09/13/2002 11:27:20 PM PDT by Noumenon
Hey, Trev and Ev check this out. Dr. Hanson is one the few academics who do not promote an almost knee-jerk hatred of this country and principles upon which it was founded. In this lecture, he helps us to understand just how much we owe to our classical heritage the source and foundation of many of the ideas Americas founders used to create the most free and prosperous nation the world has ever seen. Hanson says,
In our ignorance, too many Americans have made the fatal mistake of assuming that our enemies are simply different from us, rather than far worse than us
This is a basic truth that is absolutely denied by the majority of the professors and academics in todays universities. The argument most often heard from the leftists, socialists, Marxist multiculturalists and communists that pretty much own our universities is that there is no moral difference between America and the most savage, brutal and murderous tyrannies the world has ever known. Its an argument used to accomplish two things at the same time: to destroy and otherwise devalue our heritage or liberty and at the same justify the utter nightmare of brutality, atrocity and mass murder committed by the enemies of human freedom in their pursuit of utopia. Historys very clear on this. There is no moral equivalence between the US and Castros Cuba, Saddam Husseins Iraq, Kim Jong-ils Stalinist North Korea and Jiang Zhemins Communist China. Know your history. Know your heritage. As I keep saying, you wont know where youre going if you dont know where youve been
Classics and War
Imprimis, Hillsdale College | February 2002 | Victor Davis Hanson
The following is an abridged version of Dr. Hanson's lecture at a seminar on "Liberal Education, Liberty, and Education Today," delivered in Phillips Auditorium at Hillsdale College on November 11, 2001.
The study of Classics -- of Greece and Rome -- can offer us moral lessons as well as a superb grounding in art, literature, history, and language. In our present crisis after September 11, it also offers practical guidance -- and the absence of familiarity with the foundations of Western culture in part may explain many of the disturbing reactions to the war that we have seen on American campuses.
If more in our universities really understood the Greeks and Romans and their legacy in the West, then they would not see this present conflict through either therapeutic or apologetic lenses. As Classics teaches us, war in classical antiquity -- and for most of the past 2,500 years of Western Civilization -- was seen as a tragedy innate to the human condition -- a time of human plague when, as the historian Herodotus said, fathers bury sons rather than sons, fathers. In others words, killing humans over disagreements should not happen among civilized people. But it does happen. So war, the poet Hesiod concluded, was "a curse from Zeus."
Tragically, the Greeks tell us, conflict will always break out -- and very frequently so -- because we are human and thus not always rational. War is "the father, the king of us all," the philosopher Heraclitus lamented. Even the utopian Plato agreed: "War is always existing by nature between every Greek city-state." How galling and hurtful to us moderns that Plato, of all people, once called peace, not war, the real "parenthesis" in human affairs. Warfare could be terrifying -- "a thing of fear," the poet Pindar summed up -- but not therein unnatural or necessarily evil.
No, the rub was particular wars, not war itself. While all tragic, wars could be good or evil depending on their cause, the nature of the fighting, and the ultimate costs and results. The Greek defense against Persian attack in 480 B.C., in the eyes of the playwright Aeschylus (who chose as his epigram mention of his service at the battle of Marathon, not his dramas), was "glorious." Yet the theme of Thucydides' history of the internecine Peloponnesian wars was folly and sometimes senseless butchery. Likewise, there is language of freedom and liberty associated with the Greeks' naval victory at Salamis, but not with the slaughter at the battle of Gaugamela -- Alexander the Great's destruction of the Persian army in Mesopotamia that wrecked Darius III's empire and replaced eastern despots with Macedonian autocrats.
The Roots of War
If war was innate, and its morality defined by particular circumstances, fighting was also not necessarily explained by prior exploitation or legitimate grievance. Nor did aggression have to arise from poverty or inequality. States, like people, the historian Thucydides tells us, can be envious -- and even rude and pushy. And if they can get away with things, they most surely will. Thucydides later says states battle out of "honor, fear, and self-interest." How odd to think that the Japanese and Germans were not starving in 1941, but rather were proud peoples who wanted those whom they deemed inferior and weak to serve them.
To the Greeks, such rotten peoples also fought mostly over tangible things -- more land, more subjects, more loot. Wars were a sort of acquisition, Aristotle said. Bullies, whether out of vanity or a desire for power and recognition, will take things from other people unless they are stopped. And if they are to be stopped, citizens -- among them good, kind and well-read men like Socrates, Sophocles, Thucydides, and Demosthenes -- must fight to protect their freedom and the save the innocent.
To a student of the Classics who trusts Thucydides or Plato more than Marx, Freud, or Michel Foucault, the present crisis, I think, looks something like this: The United States, being a strong and wealthy society, invites envy because of the success of its restless culture of freedom, constitutional democracy, self-critique, secular rationalism, and open markets that threaten both theocracy and autocracy alike. That we are often to be hated -- and periodically to be challenged by those who want our power, riches, or influence and yet simultaneously hate their own desire -- is to be often regretted, but always expected. Our past indulgence of Osama bin Laden did not bring us respect, much less sympathy. Rather, human nature being what it is, our forbearance invited ever more contempt and audacity on his part -- and more dead as the bitter wages of our self-righteous morality and tragic miscalculation.
The enemies of free speech and intolerance -- German Nazis, Italian fascists, Japanese militarists, Stalinist communists, or Islamic fundamentalists -- will always attack us for what we are, rather than what we have done, inasmuch as they must innately hate freedom and the liberality which is its twin. [liberality in the classic sense which meant the freedom to live according to ones own ideas and convictions. Not to be confused with modern American liberalism, which tends to resemble the Stalinist communists and the Islamic fundamentalists in terms of its adherents intolerance for dissent and their desire for control of every sphere of human thought and endeavor. Ward] Only our moral response -- not our status as belligerents per se -- determines whether our war is just and necessary. If, like the Athenians, we butcher neutral Melians for no good cause, then our battle against the innocent is evil and we may not win. But if we fight to preserve freedom like the Greeks at Thermopylae and the GIs on the beaches of Normandy, then war is the right and indeed the only thing we can do. Caught in such a tragedy, where efforts at reason and humanity fall on the deaf ears of killers, we must go to war for our survival and to prove to our enemies that their defeat will serve as a harsh teacher -- at least for a generation or two -- that it is wrong and very dangerous to use two kilotons of explosives to blow up 5,000 civilians in the streets of our cities.
The Modern View of War
This depressing view of human nature and conflict is rarely any longer with us. It was not the advent of Christianity that ended it; Christian philosophers and theologians long ago developed the doctrine of "just war," having realized that nonresistance meant suicide. More likely, the 20th Century and the horror of the two World Wars -- Verdun, the Somme, Hiroshima -- put an end to the tragic view of war. Yet out of such numbing losses -- and our arrogance -- we missed the lesson of the World Wars. The calamity of 60 million dead was not only because we went to war, but rather because we were naive and deemed weak by our enemies well before 1914 and 1939 -- at a time when real resolve could have stopped Prussian militarism and Nazism before millions of blameless perished.
The deviant offspring of the Enlightenment -- Marxists and Freudians -- gave birth to even more pernicious social sciences that sought to 'prove' to us that war was always evil and therefore -- with help from Ph.D.s -- surely preventable. Indeed, during the International Year of Peace in 1986, a global commission of experts concluded that war was unnatural and humans themselves unwarlike! Unfortunately, innocent people get killed because of that kind of thinking. Many, especially in our universities, now are convinced that war always results from real, rather than perceived, grievances, such as the poverty arising out of the usual list of sins: colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism. In response, dialogue and mediation have been elevated to the grand science of "conflict resolution theory," a sort of marriage counseling or small claims court taken to the global level.
Rich and conceited Westerners simply could not accept the idea that more people in the twentieth century were killed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao off the battlefield than on it. How depressing to suggest that the Khmer Rouge, the Hutus, and the Serbians went on killing when left alone -- and quit only when either satiated or stopped!
In the new moral calculus of the American university, bin Laden figures to be no Xerxes or Tojo. He is not even an inherently evil man who hates us for our clout and our influence. Far too few in the university understand that bin Laden wishes to strut over a united Middle Eastern caliphate under his brand of Medieval Islam, and to make decadent Westerners cower in fear. Instead, they insist that he is either confused (call in Freud) or has legitimate grievances (read Marx), and so we must find answers within us for what he does. Western importation of Arab oil? Stolen land from the Palestinians? Decadent democracy and capitalism? Jewish-American women walking in the land of Mecca? Puppet Arab governments? Take your pick -- bin Laden has cited them all.
To stop the evil of Islamic fundamentalism, the tragic Greeks would make ready the 101st Airborne and the Rangers, while too many in academia would rather that we chit-chat with him, fathom him, or accommodate him as did the Clinton State Department. Seeing war as "Zeus's curse" in this age of our greatest learning and wealth -- and pride -- is to descend into "savagery," when our sophisticated elite promise that prayer, talk, or money can yet prevail. But if we deem ourselves too smart, too moral, or too soft to stop killers, then -- as Socrates and Pericles alike remind us -- we have become real accomplices to evil through inaction. Generations slaughtered in Europe, incinerated Jews, massacred Russians and Chinese, and the bleached bones of Cambodians are proof enough of what the Greeks once warned us.
Finally, Classics teaches how unique the Greeks and Romans were among the peoples of the ancient world; theirs was an anti-Mediterranean culture whose approach to politics, culture, literature, and religion was antithetical to almost every state in Africa, Asia, and the tribal confines of northern Europe. In our ignorance, too many Americans have made the fatal mistake of assuming that our enemies are simply different from us, rather than far worse than us -- as if the current war in the Middle East is largely due to a misunderstanding among equals, rather than reflective of a vast fault line that goes back to the very origins of our civilization. Athens was a democracy; Sidon was not. Farmers owned their own property in Greece, voted, and formed the militia of the polis; not so in Persia and Egypt. Thucydides was able to criticize his mother country, Greece; Persian clerks who recorded Darius's res gestae on the walls of Persepolis were not. The Greek language and its European descendants have a rich vocabulary of words for "constitution," "citizen," "freedom," and "democracy"; this is true of neither old Persian nor modern Arabic. Such differences are not perceived, but real and critical, for they affect the manner in which people conduct their daily lives -- whether they live in fear or in safety, in want or in security.
If our students and professors today would study the Classics, they might rediscover the origins of their culture -- and in doing so learn that we are not even remotely akin to the Taliban or the Saudis, but are in fact profoundly different in the manner we craft our government, treat our women, earn our living, and set the parameters of our religion. Modern cultural anthropology, social linguistics, cross-cultural geography, sociology, and nearly any discipline with the suffix "studies" would lecture us that the Taliban's desecration of the graves of the infidel, clitorectomies of infants, torture of the accused, murder of the untried, and destruction of the non-Islamic is merely "different" or "problematic" -- almost anything other than "evil." Yet a world under the Taliban or its supporters, like the satrapy that Xerxes envisioned for a conquered Greece, would mean no free expression, no voting, no protection from arbitrary and coercive government, but instead theocracy, censorship, and brutality in every facet of daily life. Such were the stakes at Salamis, and so too is the contest now with the Islamic fundamentalists, who are as akin to ancient absolutists as we are to the Greeks.
Such ignorance of one's own past can weaken a powerful society such as ours that must project confidence, power, humanity -- and hope -- to those less fortunate abroad. This new species of upscale and pampered terrorist hates America for a variety of complex reasons. He despises, of course, his own attraction toward our ease and liberality. He recognizes that our freedom and affluence spur on his appetites more than Islam can repress them. But just as importantly, he realizes that there is an aristocratic guilt within many comfortable Americans, who are too often ashamed of, or apologetic about, their culture. And in this hesitance, our enemies sense not merely our ignorance of our own foundations, but also both our decadence and our weakness. Rather than appreciating Americans' self-confidence or simple manners when we accept rebuke so politely, our enemies despise us all the more, simply because they can -- and can so easily, and without rejoinder.
Classics, then, can teach us who we once were -- and thus who we are now in the present war. The ancients not only teach us that life is spirited and tragic, but also that what was created in and followed from Greece and Rome was, and is, man's last and greatest hope on earth.
If our students and professors today would study the Classics, they might rediscover the origins of their culture -- and in doing so learn that we are not even remotely akin to the Taliban or the Saudis, but are in fact profoundly different in the manner we craft our government, treat our women, earn our living, and set the parameters of our religion.
But they won't study the classics - and they can't admit that our civilization is and arguably more humane, free, prosperous, advanced and truly more worthy one than that of the hellish medieval culture of the Islamic states. They can't tell the truth about the Islamic states - despotisms, all. They can't admit that because they have one thing in common with the Islamic medievalists: they despise this country and everything for which it stands, and they are filled with hate for people like you and me - and they wish to destroy us.
Thucydides gave the following version of the ultimatum that the Athenian Empire gave to the small island city-state of Melos demanding its unconditional surrender to the Athenian Empire even though Melos had taken the utmost care to be Politically Correct and offend no belligerent during the Peloponnesian War:
We shall not trouble you with specious pretenses-either of how we have a right to our Empire because we overthrew the Persians or are now attacking you because of wrong you have done us and make long speeches that would not be believed In return, we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible .Since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The small, independent, idealistic, island city-state of Melos rejected the Athenian Empires ultimatum. The Athenians then promptly wiped Melos off the face of the Earth and the Melians simply ceased to exist.
Moral of the Story:
Idealistic, Kum-Bah-Yah, give-Peace-a-chance Liberals don't survive long in the Real World unless their society has a potent Army manned by un-Progressive, Politically Incorrect, war-mongering Conservatives to protect them.
The key word is "States".
In ancient Greece, a city and the surrounding farmland originally constituted a sovereign State.
Now that the geo-political units have enlarged, Greece consitutes a single "State" just like the Athenian Empire included several formerly-independent City-States in one political unit.
The closest "States" neighboring Greece today include Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia where war is a way of life.
We're watching the various leftist progeny of the Enlightenment duke it out for "Democratization", IMHO.
I don't think any classical scholar -- having the benefit of our scientific discovery -- could find some moral authority in a nation whose President speaks in terms of "Excess" human lives. They had a handle on essential human worth, unclouded by the accidents of personality ... even those by which certain cultural accidents clearly are inferior to others.
For the Christian, it is now man-to-man. There are no Christian nations left. I abhor this persistent positing of the struggle as a Holy War of some sort.
It's packaging. They're just selling the Faithful (social justice Christian, renewed militant Islam, victimized Jew) their triangulation of the People of the Book. It's simply an efficient way to polarize folks and organize hate.
You've said that the current state of affairs is now more of a man-to-man conflict, as there are no Christian nations left. There's a lot of truth in that statement, although I'd have to say that this struggle in which we're all engaged occurs in a much broader cultural and civilizational context. Belief in Christianity isn't necessarily the fault line along which this conflict is raging. The basic premises of our Western culture - the rights of the individual, the rule of law, private property - apply regardless of one's religious faith - or lack of it.
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I began the seminar with the first eight minutes of "2001" where the prehominids develope the bone as a tool, fight a war over a muddy waterhole, and in exultation the bone is hurled into the air where it becomes a satellite.
When the film clip finished I said that Clarke and Kubrick had condensed 1 MIllion years of tool building into 8 minutes.
I then explained that 2001 gave us a picture of the future where wants are met and space exploration can fulfill civilization's energies through exploration.
I have a degree in History with one of my Prof's being a world renowned Byzantine Scholar. The Illyad, Odessey, Troy, Greece, Athens, Sparta, Rome etc were all fascinating studies.
Thanks for bumping this fine VDH essay back to the top. A world of insight for those who choose to see it.