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Herodotus, “The History” I.163-169: The Story of the Phocaeans

Having put down a rebellion, Cyrus split his forces in order to take that much more beyond his empire. Harpagus was appointed general of one part of the army, and he warred against the Ionians. He alone conquered many cities, Cyrus conquering many more, but Herodotus spends quite a bit of time talking about the first conquest in Ionia, a city named Phocaea. The story which follows is peculiar, to say the least.


The Phocaeans were daring seafarers, going on long voyages to the ends of the Mediterranean. They found a king in a distant land who so valued their friendship that he offered to settle them anywhere in his kingdom. When they were worried about the Medes, this same king gave them all the money they needed to build immense and powerful fortifications.

When Persia invaded, the Phocaeans bought time to flee their city through a negotiation of sorts. Harpagus said that if they tore down just one part of the wall and consecrated a house, he would be content. The Phocaeans said they needed a day to think about this, in which time they put their children, women, and as many goods as they could carry to sea, including some images from the temples and sacrificial items. They sailed south, trying to buy some islands for settlement from another people, but were rebuffed.

They then decided to sail to Corsica, where before they had built a city on account of an oracle. Before they did this, they went back to Phocaea, murdered the Persians left guarding it, and sunk in the sea a bar of iron to pronounce a curse. No Phocaean was to linger behind on the relocation to Corsica, and only unless the bar surfaced would any Phocaean come back there. Despite this, half the citizens did sail back on the journey to Corsica, “seized with such homesickness and pity for their city,” breaking the oath they made (1.165).


If you’re wondering what we’re supposed to think of the Phocaeans after all that, join the club. The story only gets crazier. Those who sailed to Corsica did make it, joining with those who had founded the city before, setting up their shrines again. However, they decided to act like pirates and bandits toward the neighbors with their newfound strength. This brought the Etruscans and Carthaginians into common cause against them. They met in a naval battle, with the Phocaeans at least as strong as both the others combined. Technically, the Phocaeans won, but they had so many unusable ships after the battle that they had to flee their settlement in Corsica in the same way they fled Phocaea originally. They eventually settled in another country, founding a city with another name, twice removed from Phocaea. The city after Phocaea was Alalia, the city after that Hyele.

Herodotus adds that after the naval battle, the Carthaginians and Etruscans cast lots for the abandoned crews of wrecked Phocaean ships. The people of Agylla won many crews. Apparently, they were furious at the Phocaeans, or were just awful excuses for human beings, as they brought them ashore to stone them to death. This resulted in a curse:

After this, among these Agyllaeans, every living thing that passed the place where the Phocaeans were stoned and buried – every living thing, be it flocks and herds or beasts of burden or men – became alike twisted, crippled, or paralyzed. The people of Agylla sent to Delphi, wishful to heal their offense. The Pythia laid upon them the command that the Agyllaeans are still discharging to this day. For they have splendid religious celebrations for the dead Phocaeans and in their honor hold athletic contests and horse races. (1.167)

The curse of the place where the massacre occurred affected the beauty and motion of those who passed it. Hence, athletic spectacles in honor of the victims are an appropriate remedy. There is another detail of importance with which Herodotus ends this story. The Phocaeans eventually reinterpret the oracle that sent them to Corsica, as a local hero near their newest city had a name equivalent to Corsica.


I wonder what this whole story means. Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first of the Greeks to go on long sea voyages. He mentions that they use a specific sort of boat. One could speculate that technology caused them to be as daring as they were.

One might wonder about piety, too. The Phocaeans heeded an oracle that told them to go forth and settle, to do something they would do anyway. They do not fight to the death for their ancestral homeland, nor do they take special pains to relocate or hide the weightiest images in the temples.

For me right now, the Phocaeans are this consideration: What if a people were entirely heroic? They would be awesome friends. Kings would willingly want them at their court, to learn from them and bask in their natural glory. They would be adventurous, using even misfortune as an opportunity to do more and see more. They would be secure and conflicted in their identity. To insist on the absurdity of being more Phocaean for leaving Phocaea itself is the sort of thing characteristic of any given hero. And they are celebrated in funeral games, just like other figures in epic.

Joe Connole beautifully expanded on this thought, adding that it looks like they turn barbarian quickly, asserting themselves a bit too naturally. And their identity, the very thing they insisted upon so much initially, is lost because of their own actions. One might be tempted to say the city doesn’t need heroes. It needs strong formal institutions and a willingness to slowly and steadily progress. That does seem to be a hidden theme of a more thoughtful approach to our democratic age, as our heroes dunk basketballs, win American Idol, and once in a while discover something amazing (which they get money and fame from. Never forget the cash and interviews, otherwise you wouldn’t know how heroic they were).

But maybe the foundations of the city are a deeper problem. Maybe it is the case that political life depends on heroes, even asking us to become them. In which case, we are always in danger of transcending the city itself, losing our sense of justice because we need to feel powerful and free. Some commentators think that power simply corrupts, for if you have power, you’re always tempted to do something bad with it. To be frank, that’s pretty idiotic. It’s more like this: morality is clearest when you don’t have power. When you do have it, moral choices become a lot more difficult. Sometimes, such choices are directly dependent on whether you can effect or provide something. You’re stuck playing god, like it or not; people depend on you and weigh you with their expectations.

To be sure, the Phocaeans eventually settle down, both in spite of their heroism and because of it. They were right to flee in their crazy, bold, adventurous way. And it was inevitable that they would act unjustly and almost imperially for a time, worried that without power, they would be powerless against those who would take their home away.


Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Three Stories from Herodotus, “The History,” Book 1

Once again I have put together a piece of writing that sounds like a really ambitious 8th grader trying to have heady thoughts while distracted watching a League of Legends tournament. Below, you will find an attempt to grapple with why Herodotus puts the stories he tells in the order he does. I have done my best to reproduce those stories so you can make your own decisions, but I have added a heavy amount of commentary and editorializing because I’m trying to discover what I myself think. I do not think badly of the end result, clunky though it may be, because whoa that was an awesome combo to finish player Dr3dEnD0ll


Herodotus almost allows us to think Croesus, king of Lydia, a harmless fool. His haughty attitude in trying to be declared the happiest of all men indicates a tyrannical disposition, as his wealth and empire are simply so glorious. Attempts to test oracles and bribe the gods also fall under this category. Still, it is hard to see what he truly is. One has to remember why Herodotus brought him up in the first place. It seems to be said almost in passing that Croesus “was the first of the barbarians of whom we know who subdued some Greeks to the payment of tribute…. before Croesus’ rule all the Greeks were free” (1.6). That Croesus was the first to enslave Greeks is mentioned some 20 sections before his story begins in earnest. And a notable detail about how Croesus treated threats to his rule stands nearly an afterthought as Herodotus finishes his main narrative about him. A half-brother of his led a faction against him when he was to ascend the throne. For this, Croesus tortured him to death, “drawing him across a carding comb” (1.92). (1)

We do not hear much about the people building Lydia’s empire. For 14 years, Lydia is extremely formidable, poised to become even more powerful. We mostly hear of Croesus and Solon, Croesus and oracles, Croesus and Cyrus. He bumbles, stumbles, and finally is finished. The temptation is to think everyone around Lydia left and the Lydians occupied their territory, somehow also growing their numbers faster than humanly possible.

When Herodotus does speak about the Lydians, they are about to be destroyed. “There was at the time no people in all Asia who were braver or more valiant soldiers than the Lydians. Their fighting was from horseback, where they carried great lances, and they were themselves excellent horsemen” (1.79). This detail is given to us right before Cyrus finishes them. Cyrus, knowing horses are scared of the sight and smell of camels, used the train of camels he had transporting his provisions against the cavalry. Even though the cavalrymen should have completely broken, they joined the fight as best they could:

Indeed, as soon as the battle was joined, the very moment the horses smelled the camels and saw them, they bolted back; and down went all the hopes for Croesus. Not that, for the rest, the Lydians proved cowards; for as soon as they saw how it was, they jumped down from their horses and joined battle with the Persians on foot. (1.80)

The Lydians are routed, despite keeping discipline in the worst circumstance. They do not seem to be of the same cloth as Croesus. They are imperial, but not decadent; while tyrants over other peoples, they do exercise some virtue. They are not criminals looking to save their own skin, nor so desperate they rashly commit suicide.

Indeed, I hold this their silent rallying cry:  give me liberty, or give me death. Croesus’ puffery masks a story about how we value freedom. The experience of freedom as something good is how we know it to be good. Unfortunately, this almost always means injustice toward others. Someone else’s labor creates the conditions for our freedom. The Lydians are not shy about freedom entailing empire, and therefore fight not to be slaves of another.


The next ruler Herodotus speaks of at length is Deioces (1.96-101). Deioces was a Mede, a “clever man” who “had fallen in love with royal power.”  Grene’s translation of “royal power” isn’t quite correct; Benardete points out what he had as eros for tyrannidos (Benardete 24-25). The Medes at this time were quite a lawless people. Deioces thus “set himself to practice justice ever more and more keenly.” His village noticed and appointed him judge over them. People began flocking to him in greater and greater numbers, as he was judging “according to the rule of right” (1.96). When he realized how dependent everyone was on him, he refused to serve any longer, as he received no profit and his own affairs were neglected. Lawlessness grew more rampant in Media than before (1.97). The Medes met, agreeing with Deioces’ friends that they should set up a kingship, and Deioces should be king.

Deioces’ first demand was for kingly houses across the country and a bodyguard. These demands were met, enabling him to get more. A fortress upon a hill, with seven walls arranged in concentric circles. Complete privacy for the king except for messengers, shame upon anyone who laughed or spit in the royal presence. Spies and eavesdroppers everywhere, as people wrote their complaints about each other to Deioces, and he would send his decisions out. His justice was exact, and he seems to have united the Median nation (1.101).

Deioces, in effect, made himself a god. Invisible to his friends, those like him who might be as just and able. Invisible to all his people, who of necessity had to be in awe of him. The description of his fortress mirrors what was known about the cosmos at the time – seven walls for seven planets, except with himself at the center (Benardete 25). Benardete comments that what Deioces represents is the unjust basis of justice. Hence, the identification of justice and tyranny. Deioces could do whatever he liked behind those walls.

Benardete is right, but my concern centers on what Deioces achieved. In effect, he made an immoral people moral. We’re not looking at the mere establishment of law and security, as much as a recognition of necessity turned into morality itself. Deioces put himself in a perfect position to be thought a god after his death.


Herodotus’ cynicism about freedom and morality does not only disabuse us of more conventional opinions. He is openly wondering about how we create a world based on the experience of what is good for us. Both the Lydians and Medes embraced empire and tyranny because it resulted in goods for them, goods no less than freedom and justice. The worst abuses can come from the best intentions.

What about a more natural justice? Something more respectful of humanity as a whole? A later ruler of the Medes, Astyages, is warned through dreams and visions that a grandson of his will displace him (1.107). He orders his chief of staff, Harpagus, to kill the child; the chief of staff passes the duty to a shepherd, who through coincidence and contrivance is able to keep the child and raise him as his own. That child, Cyrus, does overthrow Astyages, but not before being discovered. As a result, well before his overthrow, Astyages has Harpagus’ son killed, dismembered, and fed to his own father.

Astyages is thoroughly despicable and disgusting. The Medes are united in their hatred toward him. Under the chief of staff’s plotting, they use Cyrus in Persia, the Persians being subject to the Medes, to effect a revolt and get rid of Astyages. The Medes are united in justice because of the gross injustice and tyranny of their king. They do not fight Cyrus’ Persian invasion for the most part, instead siding with it, capturing Astyages quickly (though Astyages finds what little time he has left ruling convenient for killing all his diviners).

The former chief of staff, Harpagus, confronts his old boss after all this, mocking him for becoming a slave. Astyages responds that Harpagus is the “stupidest and most unjust man alive:”

…stupidest, because you might have become king yourself, if the present circumstances are really of your making, and instead you turned over the power to someone else; most unjust if, because of that feast [where the son was eaten], you have made slaves of the Medes. If you had to confer the royal power on someone else rather than keep it to yourself, it would have been juster to grant that good to some Mede and not to a Persian. As it stands, the Medes, who were not guilty in your regard, have become slaves instead of masters, and the Persians, who were slaves, have become masters of the Medes.” (1.129)

Astyages is correct. From that point on, the Medes are subject to the Persians. Harpagus might have had power himself, or given it to a Mede, but instead he empowered Cyrus and the Persians. Moreover, the search for justice costs more than can be accounted for. The Medes as a whole pay for the wrong done to the chief of staff. Yet, being almost exactly right about these matters does not make Astyages wise, just, worthy to be a ruler, or remotely human.

Astyages indirectly explains the incentives that created the situation. The Medes, in order to maintain their preeminence, could not afford to turn on their own. To attack the king would be to divide the kingdom and invite their subjects to revolt.  They ruled the Persians, Assyrians, and a number of other Asian peoples (1.102-106). Their imperial power has not only been unjust, but founded on a false confidence. One might say Astyages’ brutality is only the honest expression of a subconscious fear, one coming from their very successes.

Still, I think it safer to say that the Medians acted justly in overthrowing Astyages. In certain ways, they acted prudently, as the plot was accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed. The problem of the Medes keeping their freedom is bigger than any just or unjust action they take, even bigger than the fact they had an empire. The Medes, in understanding how grossly unjust Astyages was, acted on a presumption of what is naturally just. No one except the craziest would call them incorrect, but the reasoning underlying one’s claims to justice can and do blind one to men being the worst of animals, even when one recognizes exactly that as the problem. A thread unites all three of the above stories, setting the stage for the rise of Persia in Herodotus’ narrative. Our political ideals are greater than us, and bestow upon us certain goods, experiences that make life worth living. Those same ideals test us, though, seeing how good we are. In the last analysis, we will be found wanting. “For of those [cities] that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” (1.5)


1. Croesus, as later advisor to Cyrus, saves the Lydians from being completely destroyed in his wrath. Croesus is a murderous scumbag, but still somewhat human. I think the point of Herodotus telling us this story is to highlight how brutal and wanton Cyrus was.


Benardete, Seth. Herodotean Inquries. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.

Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Briefly Noted: Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism”

Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism” (in Interpretation Vol. 26 No. 3 Spring 1999)

1. At first, the value of Strauss’ lecture seems to be that of a historical document. It is delivered in 1941 shortly after the fall of France and before it is clear the U.S. will enter war. Strauss, a German Jew, asserts that virtually no one in Germany liked the Weimar Republic; it was considered merely an Anglo-French imposition. He wonders to what degree one can consider the German youth that embraced Nazism nihilistic.

This last question creates an historical and theoretical discussion. The German youth come close to nihilism; they have a nihilism of a sort. To say they have no moral purpose is to ignore the will to sacrifice inherent in their militarism. Where they are nihilistic – they are certainly at a point which can be termed evil – is in their rejection of Enlightenment. They do think reason the enemy, as Western democracy and communism both came from Enlightenment thought. Their arguments are almost exclusively in terms of history: i.e., if you say a “natural law” exists which means their desire for self-preservation has reasonable bounds, they might argue that “natural law” was followed and therefore comprehended by early modern notions of the “law of nature.” This kind of thinking makes the use of reason itself a historical development. For them, there is a peculiarly German way that is neither Western democracy or communism. Heidegger speaks of it in “Introduction to Metaphysics” when he talks about Germany being between the West and Russia. Spengler talks about a “Faustic” science, asserting that there can be nationalist science.

That German way involves some all-too-powerful notions that concern morality. So much for concern with morality: in a way that casual observers  of hypocrisy can’t at all see, a more rigorous thinker must confront its leading to the most evil acts. In Germany’s case, the following seems to have happened. Their militarism wasn’t simply aggression. Cities go to war to preserve a way of life, to preserve their identity and virtue. Morality depends on what is more “closed” than “open.” Complete universality and tolerance must of necessity render morality obsolete. Western democracy certainly has pretensions to that universality and tolerance. Perhaps worse in their mindset is communism. Not that class and inequality aren’t problems, but full equality is not a solution as much as the end of history. Think of the dumbest, crudest person one knows satisfying all his base desires and that alone being the goal of society. There is no way to reprimand him or call him to something higher.

I do think Strauss’ discussion in this lecture needs to be supplemented with his later essay, the Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. Independent of its theoretical themes, i.e. whether Spinoza’s hope that a secular, enlightened Europe could be more peaceful and embrace Jews fully, the essay does an excellent job demonstrating how much hatred Germany had for the Jews over its history. It is hard to believe that any idea could have stopped that much hate. In “Daybreak,” Nietzsche hoped for the day all anti-Semites would be shot. For our purposes, the Preface helps further a convincing picture of pre-WWII Germany: a country with a lot of military power and aggression, humiliated, only able to “unite” on what it hates.

2. That’s the historical discussion, as far as I’m concerned. You probably think it is quite theoretical, but Strauss turns to what could have moderated or educated the young Germans who turned to Nazism. That’s where things get really, really interesting.

Strauss cites Churchill’s rhetoric, particularly the “Their Finest Hour” speech, as perhaps being able to save Germany from choosing Hitler. Trouble is, Churchill is British and this is well after the outbreak of war. The peculiar thing about Churchill’s speech is that it is delivered after the fall of France, after England was lucky to salvage its forces from the fighting there. In other words, Strauss is pointing to Churchill’s magnanimous, noble rhetoric as instructive as how one deals with defeat as a part of life. (For later: one of the amazing things about Churchill in this speech is how he levels with the UK about how many troops they have and how the fighting will go. Our politicians, by contrast, can’t even talk to us about the budget without fudging numbers. We are in dire need of statesmen.)

Strauss does not really dwell on the “noble.” Instead, he continues in the latter half of his lecture from a thread left hanging earlier. He had alluded to how the youth of Germany were only educated in history and progress and did not have more traditional, classical teachers who could work with the ambitious and potentially unscrupulous. But later, Strauss spends a lot of time talking about how while the Nazis may have a culture, they certainly do not have civilization. Civilization involves some respect for reason, not just an aesthetic pride. Not the fine arts, not creation or production, but the idea of discovery unites science and morals and puts them on a higher level. This is not to say there is a natural law. It is more to say that reason functions to work to the truly universal, emphasis on “work” and “truly.” There are trade-offs and the twin pillars of Western thought – Jerusalem and Athens – certainly collide and contradict each other, when not having some contradictory elements within themselves.

One might think Strauss’ moral rhetoric excellent, but wonder how it is theoretical. I actually think the basis for an investigation of nobility is being put forth. The trick is to see that Churchill’s rhetoric works for reasons a bit too close to the pride animating the Nazis. The real difference is that Churchill’s rhetoric has, as an end, grace and strength in defeat. Still, it is prone to some utterly inhuman perversions, such as the firebombing of Dresden or this crap that thankfully did not see the light of day during the war. I wonder about defeat – a limit on man, a lack of success – not merely as a moral guide but as the basis of anything theoretical. Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance was just that. Strauss ends his essay with a line from the Aeneid justifying imperium: “to spare the vanquished and crush the arrogant.” One might wonder about self-construction as a species, where mercy is extended by those aspiring to rule in what is hopefully a moment of self-recognition.

A Reputation for Justice: Plutarch, “Life of Aristides”

1. Aristides was an Athenian politician renowned for his justice during the Persian Wars. His main rival was Themistocles, who saved the people of Athens as the city burned. Themistocles was successful working in the name of expedience; his swift rebuilding of Athens’ walls set the stage for Athens’ imperial rise. What did Aristides achieve?

Immediately after telling us Aristides’ name, Plutarch inquires into his wealth. It is shocking how quickly the question emerges of how much money a man who might be the most just politician in history had. Even more interesting are names dropped during the discussion. A certain historian, whom Plutarch disagrees with, thought Aristides wealthy as well as Socrates. Plutarch refutes what is adduced regarding Aristides’ wealth; while doing this, he casually mentions that Plato, the philosopher, put on a magnificent show of dithyrambic singers with money given by a tyrant. An extremely convoluted sentence that has something to do with honor and friendship and base intentions apparently makes Plato’s deed fine.

Something I take for granted based on a few passages of Xenophon: Socrates’ wealth was the beings. There is a way you can say the philosopher is wealthy. Still, “beings” and “poetic displays” are a far cry from justice, and Plutarch’s repeated mentions of Socrates force us to reconstruct the implicit relation between philosopher and politician. They are not simply interchangeable, despite some strong parallels in the narrative.

And those parallels have a limit. Themistocles was not just a political rival of Aristides: both men yearned early on for the same lover. Socratic erotics in Xenophon do include a moment where Socrates tells Xenophon himself to stay away from someone he is thinking of hitting on (Memorabilia I.3). However, it is difficult to think of Socrates as a rival lover. If he wants someone, it seems like he simply wouldn’t compete, or would put himself in a situation where he would be the only option. I think Alcibiades’ testimony about Socrates’ playing hard-to-get at the end of Plato’s Symposium definitely testifies to the latter. The former – simply not competing – is not traceable to the dignity of philosophy, but rather its lack of dignity. We recognize something very utilitarian in what we might see as an obsessive, perverse, inhuman attachment to knowledge.

2. The limit on Aristides, for a time, was Themistocles. Themistocles was a man of the people, a genuinely democratic man. Plutarch’s words about him remind me of something vaguely Tocquevillian: “[Themistocles was] ready, adventurous, and subtle, engaging readily and eagerly in every thing.” I have a lot of trouble thinking of those in a democracy as “ready, adventurous, and subtle.” It took my area in Jersey forever to discover Asian food which wasn’t cheap Chinese existed. Even in Tocqueville, the nobility of democracy is hard to see. Tocqueville opens Democracy in America with the thought that equality of conditions is the most striking and important fact about America.

Aristides himself was of the aristocratic party. He was a good aristocrat, refusing to get involved in schemes whereby his fellow partisans could be easily enriched at public expense. Themistocles was notorious for dipping into the treasury and openly bragged about being able to favors for his friends. It may seem strange to us that democracy and populism so quickly grasp for insider status and privilege. But no one said equality necessarily accompanied any perception of a majority’s right.

3. Aristides’ justice made him an extremely effective commander, diplomat, check on Themistocles and ruler in his own right. I should not make it seem he played Robin to Themistocles’ Batman. A reputation for justice is most powerful. In the war, he was able to keep the allies united under Spartan command. When the Spartan generals proved to be corrupt, his reputation made Sparta recall their generals in shame. He was able to secure help at key moments from many allies and keep petty fights from breaking apart the army over nothing. He did stand guard over things captured, keeping them secure, and was at one point in charge of assessing how much every Greek city should be taxed for the sake of the war.

He was not imprudent. He showed tactical smarts and did not hold that justice had the final say in all decisions. He moved the allied fund for the war to Athens openly because of expediency. However, expedience did not allow him to sacrifice his sense of shame. Themistocles once told the assembly he had something which was very advantageous he wanted to do, but had to keep it secret. So the assembly told Aristides to hear the proposal and tell them whether it was worth doing. Themistocles told Aristides that he wanted to burn the arsenal of all the Greeks, which they could do as they were all allies and no one would expect such sabotage. Aristides told the assembly that, regarding what Themistocles wanted to do, “nothing would be more advantageous… and nothing more unjust.” The assembly declined the proposal.

The contrast between him and the others of his time is remarkable. Persians he captured intact he left intact. He sent some who were royalty to Themistocles; Themistocles promptly performed a human sacrifice in accordance with some oracle. Plutarch tells us a story of the Plataeans, who willingly ceded their land for the Greeks to fight on. It was a tremendous sacrifice, but when we hear of how the Plataeans perform an elaborate, monied ritual where only the “free” men of Plataea can participate, we realize the sacrifice of most governing is those of others. When one starts reading into Plutarch’s narrative conflicts between oligarchs, aristocrats and democrats, one realizes that these people are not simply grappling with each other out of pettiness. Nobility is hard to realize when one’s very civilization is at stake, when one’s own fellow Greeks can ally with Persia (as the Thebans did) or factions can accuse you of anything.

4. Aristides’ sacrifices were his own. Thrown into exile at least twice, the second time because of vicious accusations that turned his own reputation for justice and public service against him, he died penniless and away from Athens. Plutarch’s last thoughts on Aristides focus on his descendants, including a granddaughter who, also poor, may have lived with Socrates. A number of women are listed at the end of the narrative, all penniless and supported by the state for the service rendered by their ancestor.

It would be easy to say justice is womanliness or cowardice, a refusal to act or be better. Women are absent from much of Plutarch’s narrative. They only emerge at the end, in a most non-erotic context (save the Socrates story). The question is that of generation. Justice didn’t produce anything for Aristides himself. But it gave the city a chance to preserve something that might blossom, or be a blossoming itself. The city doesn’t know what it is doing in giving Aristides’ descendants money; it is honoring deeds done in a remote past. It is hard to say it is acting ignobly. In fact, what it is doing is the opposite of exiling/ostracizing others – it is preparing the ground for its true greatness, a greatness it probably will not appreciate.

Is Fiction Useful? Note on Jefferson’s Letter to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Aug. 3rd 1771

Jefferson honors a request to create a catalog of books for Skipwith’s library. We find him, strangely enough, defending the value of fiction:

A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

Fiction is “useful” and “pleasant,” apparently, but why exactly is such a defense necessary? Jefferson imagines a “reverend sage” who has a head full of “Greek and Roman reading” objecting to fiction’s utility.

I can imagine a more scholastic mindset dismissing any need for stories. If there is a natural law, look to nature, not what we make up. That mindset does not conflict with a certain Biblical literalism. The Bible is the truth; who cares if someone wrote something about a princess living in the woods? Still, it is difficult to understand what exactly Jefferson sees as his chief objection from the classics themselves. Perhaps he means the classics as giving us histories and treatises.

If he is talking about tragedies, dialogues, epics, of course, all that stuff is made up. The Republic, which on the surface advances a severe critique of poetry and imitation, is itself a philosophical drama (cf. Book X). For my part, I can imagine Plato and Xenophon saying fiction is useless for the same reasons we would (I am not saying this would be their last word on the subject. Far from it). It isn’t clear what such entertainment produces; the things a body politic needs to survive are material or involve power and order. Jefferson goes on to say fiction aids virtue:

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with it’s deformity, and conceive an abhorence [sic] of vice.

Um, no. We see and read acts of charity and gratitude, and therefore feel moved to do such things? If this was true, no preacher would have a job. Most of the time we feel better simply because we read or saw something that looked good; we get our moral “high” for the least reason. And when people read of atrocious deeds, no matter how much sarcasm, irony and tragedy might be involved, there’s always some idiot who wants to be a copycat.

I don’t think Jefferson’s reasoning is faulty. I think he’s up to something. The argument that virtue seen or imagined yields more virtue fails. This is not necessarily an indictment of fiction. This is an indictment of anyone who thinks leading by example alone will fix everything. Jefferson follows his comment that fiction helps “fix the principles and practices of virtue” with a causal relation between emotion, habit and action:

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously.

Jefferson knows Xenophon; he knows better than to argue emotions yield dispositions which yield habits and finally “thinking and acting virtuously.” Xenophon is blunt in the opening of the Memorabilia: one has to actually practice virtue, it’s that simple. One has to remember speeches concerning virtue and act on them and then do this over and over (Memorabilia I.2.23).

Again, though, it isn’t fiction which claims the right emotions create the right mindset which produces right action. That’s actually a claim about culture generally. For example, there are lots of people around me who’ve sworn off cursing and will not hang out with people who curse. One of these days I’ll list all the petty grievances, hatred, and drama these people have fostered. It’s beyond insane how much stupidity and cruelty accompanies illusions of moral purity.

Jefferson does insist on the writer being good at what he does, but I don’t think that’s a key consideration. After all, if he’s defending fiction as useful and pleasant, he has to defend the not-as-useful and not-as-pleasant works. Otherwise, his defense of fiction is only a defense of greatness. He can’t defend greatness, though. The most solid argument in his letter, the one I think he was building up to, is an implicit rejection of greatness:

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. [my emphasis]

If we work from history alone, we don’t get much to work with. For a man who would eventually build a republic, examples like Caesar aren’t particularly helpful. But he’s one of the biggest names in history. The issue isn’t so much that fiction is useful: it’s more that the alternatives are inadequate.

Jefferson in his letter shares examples of political and personal drama. What stands out is his mention of King Lear and the filial duty he feels it inspires. To be the person you want to be even in the minutest, most everyday sense, you may need to bear witness to someone like you. I think there’s not just an emphasis on the personal here, but on diversity. Not that fiction would call you to something higher, but that it would simply call to you.

Posts on Greek Drama and History

A bit of blog housekeeping is coming up – 500 a day hasn’t been hit yet, but I’m in shooting distance. Part of the strategy has to be to post a bit more, and get more links built to my older posts. Without further ado, here are some posts on Greek tragedy and history. I think the posts are very, very accessible – you don’t need to have read any of these works to get something out of them:








The Noble Life: On Plutarch’s “Pericles”

Quotes are from John Dryden’s translation, published by Modern Library but available online for free. The biography is about 30 pages long.

It seems strange to call Pericles noble, given that to become the leading man in Athens, he displaced the aristocracy and bullied the oligarchy that remained. Pericles’ legacy is undoubtedly one of unleashing populist forces, but given his skillful management of the people and (relatively) gentle treatment of political enemies, should we not call him noble? Ultimately, the distinction between Pericles and Cimon, the latter representing the height of aristocratic Athens, is that the former was noble simply, whereas the latter was noble and in a sense pious (cf. Strauss, “Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides’ Work”).

It may be easier to call Pericles immoderate: the populace thought him full of hubris, although he was continent. But this only leads to the obvious line of inquiry that Plutarch wants us to pursue. For apparently no reason, the name “Socrates” is dropped into the narrative, and key parts of the life of Pericles mirror that of Socrates.

1. Before we compare Pericles and Socrates, we should make the strongest case for why any of us might want to examine Pericles, or even be like Pericles. Plutarch speaks of his “mind and upright temper and demeanour, and… [the] capacity to bear the cross-grained humours of [his] fellow-citizens and colleagues in office, which made [him] both most useful and serviceable to the interests of [his] country.”

Now if we want to know where Pericles got his “mind and upright temper and demeanour” from, it came from a “lofty and, as they call it, up-in-the-air sort of thought.” He went beyond what was “natural,” getting

…elevation of purpose and dignity of language, raised far above the base and dishonest buffooneries of mob eloquence, but, besides this, a composure of countenance, and a serenity and calmness in all his movements, which no occurrence whilst he was speaking could disturb, a sustained and even tone of voice, and various other advantages of a similar kind, which produced the greatest effect on his hearers.

To not put a too-fine point on it, Plutarch offers the following story:

Once, after being reviled and ill-spoken of all day long in his own hearing by some vile and abandoned fellow in the open market-place, where he was engaged in the despatch of some urgent affair, he continued his business in perfect silence, and in the evening returned home composedly, the man still dogging him at the heels, and pelting him all the way with abuse and foul language; and stepping into his house, it being by this time dark, he ordered one of his servants to take a light, and to go along with the man and see him safe home.

So alright, his manners were perfect, so perfect that they translated into incredible patience, gentleness, and mesmerizing political rhetoric (of which we have nearly nothing left, save what Thucydides says his Funeral Oration “basically” said). So what? What did he do?

2. To obtain power, he sided with the people’s party against the oligarchic/aristocratic parties. Now the best of the aristocrats, Cimon, gave much to the poor, “inviting every day some one or other of the citizens that was in want to supper, and bestowing clothes on the aged people, and breaking down the hedges and enclosures of his grounds, that all that would might freely gather what fruit they pleased.”

Pericles had an idea to combat Cimon’s sharing of private wealth:

Aristotle states… [Pericles] turned to the distribution of the public moneys; and in a short time having bought the people over, what with moneys allowed for shows and for service on juries, and what with other forms of pay and largess, he made use of them against the council of Areopagus…

The Areopagus, to grossly oversimplify – the power and setup of all these institutions differ significantly – was regarded like the House of Lords; the Ecclesia, the full assembly of the male population, is how the House of Commons would be esteemed today, esp. after the Areopagus, not coincidentally in Pericles’ time, had been rendered toothless. From the Ecclesia we get all the fun stories of recalling generals to stand trial even while they’re in the middle of a campaign.

Having been generous with wealth that wasn’t his, and securing an entire city with it, Pericles embraced an ambitious imperial project. To do this, he turned allies into subjects. There was a common fund the allies had for their defense: Athens under Pericles took the money and said “they were in no way obliged to give any account of those moneys… so long as they maintained their [Athens and the allies] defence, and kept off the barbarians from attacking them.” Pericles sent Athenians as colonists, military aid and even provisional rulers to all the “allies,” while sending out large numbers of them out on galleys to learn seamanship for 8 months at a time. The money was going into building a powerful navy and an army that controlled strategic points, to be sure, and nascent democratic movements abroad were helped.

But the money also went into massive public works that gave employment to numerous Athenians in the arts, so they didn’t feel left out. The Parthenon, the chapel at Eleusis, the entrances to the Acropolis, tons of statuary and friezes and walls all were funded with other people’s money:

Pericles’ works are especially admired, as having been made quickly, to last long. For every particular piece of his work was immediately, even at that time, for its beauty and elegance, antique: and yet in its vigour and freshness looks to this day as if it were just executed. There is a sort of bloom of newness upon those works of his, preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had some perennial spirit and undying vitality mingled in the composition of them.

An ambitious imperial project has enormous costs, of course, but it isn’t clear that Athens ever really paid the price because of Pericles. In fact, under Pericles, there were plenty of successful campaigns, a consolidating of the empire, and some charges laid against the Spartans towards whom Pericles urged war were exactly correct. The charge that Sparta, then the leading power in Greece, wasn’t taking its role in keeping the Greeks united and free against the Persians seriously turned out to be exactly right. Sparta only won the war against Athens, long after Pericles died, with Persian help. Athens near the end also sought that help, but by that point had decayed severely. What is stunning about Pericles, Plutarch never fails to remind us, is how gracious he is compared to the run of the mill viciousness of Athenian politics.

3. We have made the case for Pericles simply, with some reservations. Now we will embark on another line of thought, presenting another side entirely. In our day and age, just getting someone to list reservations is considered “the other side.”

The most glaring non-reference to Socrates occurs in a discussion of Pericles’ education:

But he that saw most of Pericles, and furnished him most especially with a weight and grandeur of sense, superior to all arts of popularity, and in general gave him his elevation and sublimity of purpose and of character, was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; whom the men of those times called by the name of Nous, that is, mind, or intelligence, whether in admiration of the great and extraordinary gift he had displayed for the science of nature, or because that he was the first of the philosophers who did not refer the first ordering of the world to fortune or chance, nor to necessity or compulsion, but to a pure, unadulterated intelligence, which in all other existing mixed and compound things acts as a principle of discrimination, and of combination of like with like.

Anaxagoras is the philosopher Socrates mentions with his nearly last words in the Phaedo, when describing his “second sailing,” his rethinking that is the beginning of philosophy properly speaking. What Anaxgoras proposed is that mind is purely a differentiating power: Hobbes says something similar in the opening pages of Leviathan, when he says those who only notice similarities are not philosophers.

The trouble with saying “mind only differentiates” is quite obvious: doesn’t mind also combine? It surely combines more than “like with like:” that sort of union seems to be a consequence of discrimination. In the Phaedo, this problem hits crisis proportions – the truth is we don’t really have a way of combining body and soul simply that isn’t pure mythology. Yet the self most certainly exists, and does more than endure or assert itself: self-knowledge, the deepening of a relation between body and soul, is most certainly real.

Here, Anaxagoras gives Pericles the idea that “knowledge is power” rather than giving him questions. This helps create the calm, the graciousness, the ability to “steer” the ship of state: Pericles is the noblest and most impious of men, as he truly believes in the full power of knowledge. He believes man can master this world – his unleashing of the populace is not done cynically or only for his own power. He’s a genuine lover of humanity who believes the Enlightenment project entirely: his means resemble contemporary social democracy, his rule that of the Progressive notion of the President, who is in tune with the voice of the people and understands it fully. The only aversion people today have with him would be his going to war, but many who deplore the US as imperialistic because it is the hegemon would have the same sneering envy and resentment for Sparta.

So Pericles may represent the height of political rule: an intelligent “first among equals” who can govern naturally and in accordance with what the people desire. Only once is it implied that Pericles truly forced the agenda, regarding war with Sparta. But Athens still complied.

The contrast with Socrates is that Socrates broke from Anaxagoras, whereas Pericles took the logic to an extreme, not seeing that “fortune” and “divinity” may be obstacles that can be overcome, but not in a lifetime. “Divinity” especially cannot be neglected if one rules: reverence for one’s homeland, for those who rule, is part of piety. The basis of Periclean rule was never what he did alone, but what he evoked in people’s imaginations. He was even mocked as being like Zeus, having a head so big the state emerged from it.

While there are other points of comparison/contrast, I do want to skip to the last moments of Pericles’ life, after the plague had wrecked his own health and his attempt to secure victory in the War:

When he was now near his end, the best of the citizens and those of his friends who were left alive, sitting about him, were speaking of the greatness of his merit, and his power, and reckoning up his famous actions and the number of his victories; for there were no less than nine trophies, which, as their chief commander and conqueror of their enemies, he had set up for the honour of the city. They talked thus together among themselves, as though he were unable to understand or mind what they said but had now lost all his consciousness. He had listened, however, all the while and attended to all, and speaking out among them, said that he wondered they should commend and take notice of things which were as much owing to fortune as to anything else, and had happened to many other commanders, and, at the same time, should not speak or make mention of that which was the most excellent and greatest thing of all. “For,” said he,” “no Athenian, through my means, ever wore mourning.”

Pericles and Socrates had the same goal – how do we find happiness in life, despite fortune’s slings? Pericles went an Enlightenment/populist route: in seamanship, the people were educated, and Thucydides talks much of the technical marvels Periclean Athens achieved. Piety was rejected entirely, science embraced. The project succeeded insofar as Pericles was the greatest politician ever, nothing less.

But we note that Socrates’ final moments involved him asking and taking questions as well as relating a story from his own past for others’ sake. Happiness wasn’t given, as much as left for others to find for themselves. Freedom doesn’t lie entirely in asserting oneself against the world, but in discovering. Pericles ultimately had to burn other cities in order to keep Athens lavish and win a monumental legacy. One wonders if Socrates is a kid with a treasure map, telling his friends it might be fun to go out today and see what they can find.

Questions regarding the Lincoln Memorial

Following up on the last post about my time with Collegium, Christine and Bill in DC. Again, many thanks for their observations and thoughts, which are reflected below.

The Lincoln Memorial stands tall, as if out of reach. Wikipedia notes that the columns are Doric but doesn’t talk about the frontal access to the temple that Bill mentioned, nor the incredible height of this thing. The elements are Greek, Etruscan, Roman it seems (again, thank you Bill) – I’m not sure about this, I’d like someone to clarify.

When you get inside, you face Lincoln, who is staring out beyond you at the reflecting pool, which reflects the monument of the man he said we should worship in Lyceum. To his right (your left) is the Gettysburg Address, with a mural atop it. To his left is the Second Inaugural with a mural atop it. The murals are Egyptian in style, like the paintings inside the pyramids: they’re even made out of the same materials (a park ranger told me this. Encarta says the murals are oil on canvas. Another park ranger – I swear to God – told me that yes, indeed, the Memorial was “symbolic” when I asked specifically about Lincoln’s hands. I cannot repeat the language that I was screaming in my head here).

It is probably a good working assumption to say the words, the history (murals), and the man all are comments on the same theme.

Lincoln’s right hand being open and his stepping forward with his right foot probably are some kind of comment on Gettysburg. What could be characteristic of Gettysburg is the void after the carnage, the “formal feeling” “after great pain.” The only proper response would be to declare a “new birth of freedom:” nothing else could possibly be appropriate for the “honored dead,” nothing could come close to an honor they would want.

It remains for us to interpret the mural above the Gettysburg address. I have some complaints with this brochure the Park Service hands out as explanatory (warning: .pdf) – I really want to see them cite stuff, instead of just making assertions. I’m still going to write as if they know what they’re talking about, because I’ve been sitting on this project too long already.

There is an angel in the center of the Gettysburg Address mural, raising hands and causing shackles to drop. I am convinced the angel is different from the seated figures in the extreme left and right groups, inasmuch as they are crowned with laurels, and the angel needs no such crowning being a heavenly messenger.

The group all the way to the left of the Gettysburg Address mural represents justice. The seated figure has the sword of justice and a scroll, and is flanked by bodyguards. People are kneeling in front of the figure. The brochure says that both the central group and this group have two sibyls each. It makes sense why a divine group should have sibyls, but justice is earthly, wearing the crown of victory. What could those sibyls prophecy?

The group all the way to the right, as deep into the temple as one can go, is supposed to be immortality. But what is immortal? The seated figure is wearing a crown, and surrounded by the three theological virtues. There are no sibyls here, just a servant giving wine. Oil is in a vessel beside. We note that earlier generations had no problem picking up on Lincoln’s theological language in the Address, and didn’t go rifling through his personal papers to try and argue he was an atheist. It looks like the law and freedom together prophecy something that makes earthly republicanism divine.

The mural above Second Inaugural I have to rely on the brochure even more on: the central group is Unity (duh, there are two people holding hands and arts of various sorts abound), the left group is Fraternity (the abundance of the earth and family life are surrounded by the wine/oil vessels characteristic of immortal republicanism above), and the group to the extreme right is Charity. The interesting thing for all of us, as students of politics, is the emphasis on Unity centrally. We normally say that Fraternity and Charity are means to Unity. In doing so, we tend to forget what we assume when we approach another as a friend – why we make vows when we get married – why we pray even in the silence of our hearts.

Thoughts on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Shout-outs to begin: I was in the DC area this weekend with Collegium Cantorum and my friends Christine and Bill. We sang at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill at the 10:30 am Mass (6/1), and also at a Holy Hour on 5/30 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, VA.

A few of us went on a bus tour of Washington DC provided by Family First Transportation. Christine and Bill and I wondered aloud about a few of the monuments we saw, and the facts and thoughts they put forward are in the musings below. (The Lincoln Memorial will be written on later).

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: A fragmented memorial that represents our political fragmentation today – is something a memorial if we want it to be obvious and mean exactly what we think? Traditions and esoteric elements, which are within-yet-alienated from the memorial itself, seem to be a lot more tasteful, and a way to quietly guide reflection.

There is nothing quiet about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It starts quiet, as there are names on the wall. Then you walk down, and there are more names. And still more names. And still more names. It’s a gravesite, there’s no way around it (Josh has noted that the thing looks like a scar on the earth from above). The only respectable thing to do is pass in silence with one’s head bowed or cry. I don’t think either of those reactions are bad, because purposeful glorification can be very tacky. But something had to be said about the war itself to make it clear these deaths were not in vain, that this was noble in some way, whether one agrees or disagrees with the war.

The material the memorial is made of reflects the people and the area around the memorial. It is beautiful and powerful, but I don’t know that seeing yourself simply is a guided reflection; it is the beginning of reflection, but beginnings are not necessarily ends-in-themselves.

The more traditional aspect of the memorial is the three bronze statues, cast by Fredrick Hart, of soldiers just coming out of the jungle looking shocked. Tom Wolfe wrote an obituary for Hart in the New York Times some years ago, and that’s how I know this stuff – he did Catholic liturgical art (there’s a sculpture of his called “Ex Nihilo” that displays his virtuosity nicely) and was a bit removed from modern artists. The sculptor George Segal had created a method where a cast could be had from live human models. Lin, the designer of the major part of the memorial, asked Hart if the models he used screamed in pain when the cast was removed. Hart had no idea what she was talking about. I always wonder if the statues are shocked at the wall as where modern art has taken us, or, as is more fitting, shocked at the loss the wall demonstrates.

What stunned me looking at the wall was the sheer diversity in the types of names. One has to wonder whether modern democracy can only unite regarding the things it doesn’t want to do, i.e. “go to war.” One has to wonder where we have placed ourselves if we can’t fight battles by being exactly correct in not fighting battles. Is the unity of the three ethnicities of men depicted in the bronze a martial unity?

How Does One Determine Whether Old Books About Politics Are Applicable Today?

Politics seems to be too closely related to circumstance for any political decision to be grounded in something timeless. A commitment to a principle such as “our roads should be safe” has obvious practical overtones. When other decisions such as alliances with dictators are made, the practical overtones are plain and disturbing, but even a critique of such a decision is only based on how much of a threat the ally is ultimately. Note on that last point the Left’s embrace of Chavez and Castro: they cannot threaten the material well-being of their foreign supporters. Note also the Right’s embrace of China – there, the calculation is that our values will displace their tyranny. It isn’t working, but the feeling China’s values can’t threaten ours is enough to call China a “strategic partner” (I think that was President Clinton’s phrase).

However, once we make either the argument “Politics is about dealing with circumstance, hence it is entirely practical,” or “Politics is about practical matters, thus it is reducible to dealing with circumstances,” we can see something curious going on. If we say the importance of political decision-making concerns the practical, our subjectivity – our opinions and beliefs – can’t be entirely alien to politics. If we say the world is reducible to nothing but circumstance, then we have to be clear about why we have to confront circumstance. Once we say we want control over the “flux,” we’ve implied something greater is at stake.

At the very least, old books can critique our attitudes and force reflection on the way we feel about things. Circumstances then and now could be totally different, but a person confronting a great evil then is probably someone a person confronting a great evil now can relate to.

The links get stronger once we abandon relativism/historicism entirely and try to build analogies between previous time periods and ours. Analogy-building is a skeptical enterprise. One does not assume the literal details of a time correspond exactly to something done now unless the matter has been treated analogously at first. In other words, in arguing that British naval ascendancy in the 17th c. parallels Athenian naval ascendancy in the ancient world, one has to confront the fact that while the Anglo-Dutch wars over commercial interests may parallel the rise of the Athenian navy, the difference between Cromwell and Pericles in devising uses for the navy cannot be overstated. Analogies are never perfect: if the literal detail corresponded too well, there would be no need for them.

Nonetheless, analogies not only build bridges between times, but allow for moments in analysis where the literal detail of one period might be the exact same thing another period tries. i.e. Diocletian’s attempt to impose price caps in an inflationary environment; Hannibal at Cannae and the way the Battle of the Bulge was won.

What comes forth as a question now is how literal I want the term “literal detail” to be. We have all these sciences like archeology to try and reconstruct exactly things of the past were.

I want to say, however, that literal details are part of a subjective circle that extends from observers of the past to observers today. The observers of the past are writing for audiences in their time and beyond their time. This means in key descriptions of things they will look to generalize in a way which corresponds to the way we use abstract thought today. i.e. Thucydides description of the effects of plague, and how it seems awfully similar to the effects of revolution at Corcyra (I think that’s the city. It’s the one that’s mad at Corinth).

We use abstractions to point away from particular details, and to try to get fixed laws that govern things. Most of the writers of old books try to get us to look at details to see similarities and differences that fixed laws might find no use for. In the case of plague and revolution, there is something about the plague which is of a much greater magnitude than the tumult. There is something about the tumult which is more tragic.

Everything hinges on that concern for detail: it means we can read too much into old books and see our world exactly, and yet not be insane. Because they’re not positing fixed and final laws like we in the social sciences would like to posit, they’re really just musing on what it all could mean and drawing provisional conclusions (some of which are far too profound to ever be dismissed for any reason). To focus on the details they give is to look at the world around us anew, with eagle eyes.

Some of us say nothing ever changes because we have no imagination, and want to dismiss other opinions before they are even heard. Some of us say it because of a far too long acquaintance with things gone wrong, and firm knowledge of what could be better.

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