Monthly Archives: March 2015

Thucydides Book I: The Roots of War

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

After the introduction in Chapter 1, most of Thucydides first book is given over to examining the causes and events leading up to the war. While he describes several diplomatic incidents, Thucydides points out that,

The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth and power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still, it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of war.

The two Greek power blocks had essentially been fighting a cold war since shortly after the Persian conflict, and each had built up its military assets and financial reserves in anticipation of an eventual war. With both sides primed in this way, it didn’t require much to set them off. Despite this, the Spartans avoided declaring war as long as possible, even when pressed hard by their allies to do something about the Athenian situation. Thucydides blames this on the Spartan culture. As opposed to democratic Athens where risk-taking and quick decision were applauded, the Spartans are conservative and over-cautious. In 1:6 he puts this view in the mouth of a Corinthian envoy addressing the Spartan leaders,

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.

This is certainly one possible interpretation. However, it is hard criticize the Spartans for wanting to avoid war, or trying to avoid conflict with an aggressive power that had many times their own military budget. The fact is that in our Western literary tradition, particularly since the renaissance, we tend to be heavily biased towards the Athenians. Mostly, this is attributable to the number of works by Athenian authors which have made it into our official Western Cannon. As later writers have striven to make a case for democracy as the one best form of government, an implicit narrative has emerged where the democratic, freedom loving Athenian philosophers fought nobly against the ranks of faceless, fascist, uncultured Spartans. Our high school history texts dwell on the Academy of Athens, but the brutal training of young men in Sparta.

History, as a genre, is about narrative. It straddles the line between literary and non-fiction, because all historic writing tells a story, yet must still conform to known facts.

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

Ultimately, it was neither the Spartans nor the Athenians who struck the first blows in the war, but some of the second-tier powers to whom they were allied. Things began to get tense when Corinth, allied to Sparta, and Corcyra, a neutral state, went to war over Epidamnus, which each claimed as a daughter colony. Corcyra soon managed to ally herself with Athens, who sent ships to support them. Only the rather convoluted rules of engagement given to the Athenian captains, prohibiting them from engaging Corinthian units unless they tried to land at Corcyra, allowed them to preserve the letter of their treaty with the Peloponnesian League. Reading this section, I was reminded of current events in the paper. The president of Estonia recently published an editorial in the Washington Post about how thrilled he is to have gotten into NATO just before Russia began aggressive operations in nearby Ukraine, because he knows the US and EU are now treaty bound to defend his country. He seems to be right, judging by the recent maneuvers of the 2nd Cavalry a few weeks ago as they helped Estonia “celebrate Estonian Independence Day” 300 yards from the Russian border. We can safely assume that, like those long ago Athenian officers, the US commanders in Estonia have instructions to make a show of force while doing everything they can to avoid actually fighting Russians.

Soon after the Corcyran affair, the several Athenian-aligned cities along the Macedonian border declared independence. Corinth, still bitter over the war with Corcyra, reinforced them. When Athens attacked, Corinth finally had the leverage they needed to convince Sparta that the peace was completely broken. While a formal declaration of war was nearly a year off, there was no longer any possibility of stopping the Peloponnesian War.


John Lukacs on Intellectual Bureaucratization

I am currently reading historian John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age.  I only discovered Lukacs’ work fairly recently, after reading a review of one of his other books on David Withun’s blog.  He is an insightful and very readable author whose platform happens to match my own in several interesting ways; I’m sure I will be mentioning him again in the future.

John Lukacs speaking at Eastern University in 2009 (copyright by Eastern University.  fair use justification:  this is a low resolution still from a video, used for educational purposes.  No public domain substitute is available.  There is no foreseeable financial impact on Eastern University.)

John Lukacs speaking at Eastern University in 2009 (copyright by Eastern University)

I will probably do a full review of the book as soon as I finish it.  At the moment, however, I would like to respond to one of the ideas which he discusses multiple times in the first half of the book:  intellectual bureaucratization.  The main thesis of At the End of an Age is that the modern era of history, which began around the end of the fifteenth century, is now drawing to a close.  One of the main attributes that Lukacs points out as differentiating the modern era from previous eras is a the massive growth of bureaucracy in every area of human existence.  This trend is even evident–in fact especially evident–in the pursuit of knowledge.  Lukacs points to the increasing tendencies towards specialization, the need for credentials, and the drive to place intellectuals within some sort of larger organization.  He points out that the words “writer”, “scholar”, “philosopher”, and “intellectual” were once essentially synonyms but have not come to mean very different things.  The word “scientist”, meaning a philosopher who cultivates scientific knowledge, did not even appear in print until 1840.  Now “scientist” usually implies a practitioner of the natural sciences who has little or no connection with philosophy.

In many ways, this parallels an argument in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I reviewed in back in December.  Like Bloom, Lukacs infers a connection between the growth of Democracy and academic specialization.  Bloom, however, argued that the preeminence of Democracy was itself the result of the concerted efforts of philosophers from Machiavelli on to ensure their own comfort and survival. Lukacs, so far at least, has identified no such causal relationship.

Like Bloom, Lukacs points out that education is increasingly concerned with credentials such as specialized college degrees which are designed to fit students into particular pigeon holes in society and assign them a label (e.g. “physicist, business analyst, journalist”) that equate what they are with what they do.

Thinking on my own career, I realize that I have often chaffed against this phenomenon of intellectual bureaucratization.  My “official” academic specialty is operations research, the field which is concerned with using certain techniques of applied mathematics to find optimum solutions to problems in management and engineering.  I have succumbed to societal pressure and acquired certain credentials on this area, such as my MBA degree with a concentration in operations.  In my final terms in graduate school I was strongly urged by my adviser and others to continue to a PhD program so I could become a “real” operations researcher.

But I never wanted to label myself that way.  I don’t think of myself as an operations researcher.  I am an intellectual.  Operations research is a set of useful tools which I use to understand the world and create knowledge; it isn’t what I am.  Nor do I think of myself as a scientist, a philosopher, a scholar, or even a writer, though I do think that each of these are important facets of the intellectual life.  Even the label of “intellectual” is limiting.  If I am an intellectual, does that mean that I’m less of a worker, or an artist, or a homemaker, or any of a dozen other roles which I fill?

Society though, at least in this age, is very uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t wear a label.  If someone at a cocktail party asks me “What do you do?” they become flustered when I don’t have an easy answer.

At the beginning of the modern era a PhD, or “doctor of philosophy” degree was a general degree, because philosophy was the discipline that included all of the others.  A PhD was someone who had achieved a breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of philosophy sufficient to provide a liberal education to students.  Nowadays, though, PhDs are incredibly specialized.  The professors and PhD students I knew at school were entirely focused on publishing in the “hot” areas of their own disciplines, to the extent that they would refuse to consider or comment on questions in other fields.  Many operations PhDs will not even answer a student’s question about economics or finance, even though these are closely related disciplines.  Many of them teach the same two or three classes year after year and become offended when asked to take on a course which is outside their own research interests.  I enjoy both research and teaching, but was horrified at the idea of doing either at that level of specialization.  Lukacs is right:  an intellectual who is willing to be labeled and limited in such a way has become a bureaucrat, a cog in machine which is supposed to create knowledge, but mostly just produces citations and degrees.

For a few months now I have been reading my way through the Great Books and publishing my responses to them on this blog.  One of the things all of the authors of the Great Books have in common was that none of them allowed themselves to be cogs in a machine or limited themselves to considering one narrow area of study.  As a writer, there is only a slim chance that I will myself produce the next great book.  On the other hand, if devoted the rest of my life to being a professor in some narrow area of operations research, there is no chance I would write such a work at all.

Perhaps things will be different in the next era of history, and people will be able to just be people, without labels that fit them into a bureaucracy.  Perhaps Lukacs is right and that next era is coming soon.  I rather hope so.

Thucydides: Introduction

Today I leave behind my study of Greek tragedy and begin the second true history work of my Great Books project. Thucydides was a younger contemporary and sometime protégé of Herodotus. His book takes up roughly where Herodotus’ history leaves off, in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. His main focus is the Peloponnesian War, a long and bloody conflict which drew in the entire Greek world and ended the Golden Age of classical Greek Civilization.

Thucydides actually lived through the Peloponnesian War. As a young man in Athens he realized that the war was coming and, inspired by Herodotus and others, began gathering information for an eventual history. He served as a military officer in the early years of the war, eventually attaining the rank of strategos (general), but was cashiered and exiled when he failed to reach the important colony of Amphipolis in time to prevent its surrender. He spent most of the rest of his life observing the war from his country estate in Thrace. He finished the History shortly before his death in 395.

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Thucydides was a more rigorous scholar than Herodotus, and was much more careful about comparing multiple accounts and evaluating the credibility of his sources. He had the advantage over Herodotus of being able to gather information in real time and communicate with people involved while their memories were still fresh. He also seems to have had a more analytical mind, unlike Herodotus who couldn’t resist writing down a good story even if it seemed a bit too fantastic to be true. His career as an officer also gave him a much better grasp of tactics and strategy than Herodotus.

A good example of this is shown in the first chapter of the history, in which he gives an overview of former wars. He makes a very cogent argument that the reason it took Agamemnon ten years to capture Troy was that his supply lines were non-existent. Therefore, after winning the initial beachhead, the Greeks had to detach large portions of their force to forage and even farm, so they never had enough men actually on the spot at Troy to make up for the defensive advantage the Trojans enjoyed because of their fortifications.

At times he is almost prescient in his conclusions. For instance, while trying to estimate the forces that Mycenaean Greece could have mustered for the Trojan war, he points out that the size of the ancient cities cannot be estimated purely on the basis of their surviving ruins,

Now Mycenae may have been a small place, and many of the towns of that age may appear comparatively insignificant, but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition of the magnitude of the armament. For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is.

Though history, the Agora of Athens has contained some of the most impressive ruins in the world, while Sparta has been hardly worth the stop for most tourists. J.A. McClymont, writing a travel narrative of Greece in 1906, says of Sparta,

The site of the ancient city is for the most part covered over with olive-groves and corn-fields and other vegetation. Traces of a large theater have been found, and there is a massive stone structure which goes by the name of Leonidas’ tomb. There are a few other remains, but none of any great interest.

Sparta, of course, defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and ruled the entirety of Greece up to the time of the Macedonian conquest.

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Perhaps the most quoted line from Thucydides occurs in Book 1,

In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

He was right about this, as well. One of our criteria for a Great Book is that it is timeless and speaks to people of many different periods. It is interesting that so many histories are found on most great Books lists. After all, as skilled a writer as Thucydides was, do we really care about a blow-by-blow account of a war that happened in Greece two and a half millennia ago? We study history not for facts, dates, and names, but to find general principles. People don’t change, nor do politics, diplomacy, or war. At the start of the history, Athens is enjoying an era of prosperity where culture, art, learning and literature have been allowed to thrive for several decades. They have come out of one major war with a much stronger economy and bigger navy than most of their allies. They feel, with some justification, that they are the masters of their world, and are becoming more than a little arrogant.

Does that sound familiar? Exactly the same things can be said for the United States after World War II. It remains to be seen if a new Sparta will manage to drag us down, ending our dominance in our own civilization. Perhaps we would all be wise to read Thucydides closely.

A Note On Translations:

Several English translations of Thucydides exist. The first of these was by Thomas Hobbes, whom I will be writing about later in my Great Books project. His translation, written in 17th century English, might be hard work for many readers, although it would be good practice for reading Leviathan later. Project Gutenberg has Crawley’s 1876 translation, which was the standard for nearly a century and is still perfectly readable, despite some Victorian vocabulary (e.g. “40 sail” instead of “40 ships”). My favorite translation so far is Rex Warner’s 1954 work, published by Penguin. Warner’s language is thoroughly modern and he moves much of Thucydides parenthetical comments into footnotes, on the theory that Thucydides would have used them if they had been available. This makes for a text the reads more smoothly than many current non-fiction books.

Unless otherwise noted, all of my quotations will be taken from the Crawley translation, since all my readers have access to it through Project Gutenberg.

Greek Tragedy: The Bacchae of Euripides

Euripides wrote The Bacchae at the very end of his career and did not live long enough to see it produced.  In it he finally manages to achieve a happy balance between the classicism which bogged down the plots of some of his mid-career plays and the satire and social commentary that run through his earlier works.  The god in the play is an integral, developed character, not a stilted deus ex machina like Aphrodite in Hippolytus.

The Bacchae is fascinating partially because of its subject matter, Dionysus, whom Durant calls “the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify of all Greek gods.”  Most of us have a passing acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, gained mainly from pop culture tropes inherited from Victorian writers.  If we know Dionysus at all, we probably picture him as the fat, tipsy Bacchus in Disney’s Fantasia.  After all, he’s just the god of wine.  How important can be be compared to the other Olympians?

The answer is, “incredibly important”.  Even though he was the last deity to be formally admitted to the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus was a popular god in the Greek world from Mycenaean times right up until the Christian domination of the Roman Empire.  He was a fertility god and, at times, an almost messiah-like figure who promised rebirth in the afterlife.  Unlike the other Olympians, who had been brought to Greece by conquerors and always maintained their associations with the ruling class, Dionysus was a god of the working class, women, and counter-cultures.  The cult of Dionysius played a similar role to later religions that originally evolved among oppressed minorities, such as Voodoo, Rastafarianism, and Primitive Christianity.  The orthodox elites were never able to stamp out Dionysianism, but they accepted its presence only grudgingly.  While it existed, though, it provided an important social “safety valve” for people who would otherwise have had little hope.

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Many people have written about the parallels between the Dionysian cult (particularly its later off-shoot, the Cult of Orpheus) and Christianity.  Like Christ, Dionysus was the son of a father god (in this case Zeus) who had been killed and then rose from the dead.  Like Christians, Dionysians believed in a happy afterlife, in contrast to the usual Greek vision of a dim eternity as shades in Hades.  Much has been made of the importance of wine in both faiths, and of the superficial similarities between Dinonysus’ arrest and trial by Pentheus and Christ’s trial by Pilate.  All of these synchronicities are fairly cosmetic, however.  Christianity and Dionysianism had very different moral teachings and doctrines.  It is doubtful that Dionisianism influenced Christianity in any meaningful way.  They were simply two different faiths that occupied the same niche in different periods.  Many of the features that they have in common are also found in other mystery cults throughout the ecumene.

The primary mode of worship for the Dionysians was the bacchanal, in which groups of worshipers went into the country and made themselves incoherent with wild music and alcohol.  Usually, the climax of the bacchanal came when the bacchae tore a live animal apart with their bare hands, reenacting the god’s death at the hands of the Titans.  Usually the victim was a goat or bull, but it was not unknown for them to seize and kill innocent bystanders.

Euripides’ play is the story of Pentheus, king of Thebes.  Pentheus is worried about the growing influence of the Dionysian cult and has determined to suppress it.  He arrests a young man whom he believes to by a Dionysian rabble rouser, but who is actually an avatar of the god.  Dionysius has already determined to punish Pentheus for his impiety and make an example of him, thus removing any doubt about his god-head.  After giving Pentheus a chance to repent, Dionysius takes control of his mind, convincing him that it is a good idea to infiltrate the bacchae and spy on them, disguising himself as a maenad, or Dionysian priestess.

Dancing Maenad in a Roman relief [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikime

Dancing Maenad [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia]. The Maenadae were full-time priestesses of Dionysus who traveled the countryside leading bacchanalia.

Of course, the bacchae immediately notice Pentheus, helped by the fact that Dionysus has placed him in a tree for a better view.  They tear the tree down, then rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by Pentheus’ own mother, whom Dionysus has enchanted to believe she is fighting a wild animal.

The semiotics of this play are very rich, with each image connoting multiple levels of symbolism.  For example the scene where Dionysus helps Pentheus adjust his female clothing symbolizes not just how far he is in the God’s power, but probably also an inner jealousy of the bacchae and their freedom–on some level he wants to join in the bacchanal and forsake his kingly duties.  At the same time, it could be interpreted as Dionysus decorating and preparing a sacrifice.  It should also not be forgotten that the sacrifice in a bacchanal represents Dionysus himself.  On one level of meaning, he is helping Pentheus to be more Dionysus-like.  I’m sure you could find at least as many semiotic observations about the tree, the scene where Dionysus is bound and his hair is cut, the severed head of Pentheus, and many other symbols in the play.

When Euripides wrote The Bacchae, he was treating on a religious friction which still quite active in his day, even though the play is supposedly set in mythological times.  The cult of Dionysus was still quite active and making the ruling class uncomfortable.  Euripides was treading beyond the edge of political correctness to write a play about them, particularly one with such an ambiguous message.  Euripides, like most of the Athenian playwrights, was an educated man from an affluent citizen family.  If anything, we would expect him to denounce the cult.  He really doesn’t though.  What he does is create a work where the audience’s sympathies are divided between the two sides, and where the final message is open to multiple interpretations.  The Bacchae is “classic Euripides”, in every sense, the perfect play on which to end his career.

Greek Tragedy: Hippolytus of Euripides

I read Hippolytus and The Bacchae as part of a single volume, translated by Gilbert Murray, who also translated my copy of Medea.

Of the three plays, I found Hippolytus to be the most forgettable.  I’m not really sure what makes it a Great Book.  Phaedra, the young wife of Theseus, has fallen in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ bastard son.  She first attempts to stay loyal to Theseus but then gives up and tries to make advances to Hippolytus.  Hippolytus, who has chosen a life of voluntary celibacy, is horrified at the idea of an affair with his father’s wife and chastises her at length.  Phaedra then commits suicide, leaving  note that falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  The enraged Theseus banishes Hippolytus and calls down a curse on him which results in his death.  A plot with this much human interest would have been a fertile field for any tragedian, but Euripides’ efforts are underwhelming.

The two most important characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, are underdeveloped.  Phaedra only falls in love with Hippolytus through the powers of Aphrodite, which is convenient but adds much less plot interest than a less arbitrary romance would. There is no foreshadowing of Phaedra’s suicide note; none of her dialogue indicates that she blames him for the situation or wishes to punish him.  Until the point where she writes the note and hangs herself, she is a completely passive character, little more than a tool in the real conflict, which is between Aphrodite and Hippolytus.

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo byFinn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia]

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo by Finn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia]

As for Hippolytus, none of his motivations are developed.  Why is he celibate?  The only reason we are given is that he is a follower of Artemis, who was a patron goddess of virgins, but did not normally demand celibacy of her followers.  He would be a more interesting character if he showed that he was at least a little bit tempted by Phaedra, but he clearly isn’t.  Alternately, the author could have given him a back-story about why he is distrustful of women, or why he has chosen to worship Artemis in this particular way.  Again, there is no depth and the the character seems unresolved.

And speaking of Artemis, if Hippolytus is so devout, why can’t she protect him from Aphrodite?  Artemis’ explanation, when she finally does take the stage to comfort the dying Hippolytus, seems a bit weak:

...'Twas the will
  Of Cypris that these evil things should be,
  Sating her wrath. And this immutably
  Hath Zeus ordained in heaven: no God may thwart
  A God's fixed will; we grieve but stand apart.
  Else, but for fear of the Great Father's blame,
  Never had I to such extreme of shame
  Bowed me, be sure, as here to stand and see
  Slain him I loved best of mortality!

After all, Aphrodite is already interfering with Artemis. Why isn’t she standing up for herself or appealing to Zeus?

The device of using Aphrodite at all seems like lazy plotting. Granted, the core theme of Greek Tragedy is man’s final helplessness in the face of destiny. Aphrodite is used more as the embodiment of a universal force than a character. The characters are destined to be destroyed by Love, and there is no escape. But the script doesn’t quite work, and a playwright of Euripides’ stature should have found a way to fix it.

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

This play was written towards the middle of Euripides’ career.  Possibly, we are just seeing an example of mid-career burn-out.  Maybe he needed a play for the festival that year and didn’t have any good ideas, so he dusted off a script from the slush pile.  There is no way to know.

I don’t hate this play, but it doesn’t seem to belong with the other fifteen tragedies I’ve read so far in this project.  I suppose I’m probably missing something.  Hippolytus shows up on many Great Books lists, so others must have seen something in it that I don’t.

Luckily, I do not have the same objections to the next play on my list, The Bacchae.

Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides

This week in my Great Books project I read Euripides’ Medea.  As a child I read (and reread) several books about Greek mythology.  Even then I remember being disturbed by the story of Medea: the Colchian princess who falls in love with Jason and gives up everything to help him the Argonauts on their quest, only to be discarded by him as soon as they get back to Greece.  Now, reading Euripides’ treatment of the story, I have more context from Ancient Greek culture, not to mention my own adult love life, to apply to it.  The story still disturbs me.

As a play, Medea is rarely a crowd pleaser.  In its debut year it only took third place in the annual drama competition, losing out to SophoclesPhiloctetes and a play by Aeschylus.  I suspect the reason audiences have trouble with Medea is that Euripides did entirely too good a job capturing his themes:  betrayal, a painful break-up, madness, and vengeance that hurts the avenger as badly as their victim.  Great art is often disturbing on some level.  To the citizens of Athens, however, Medea would have been like one of those modern movies that are you think are brilliant but you never want to see again because they freak you out.

As it happens, the centuries immediately after the Golden Age were kinder to Euripides than they were to his rivals.  The reason that more of Euripides’ plays have been preserved than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles put together, and in better copies, is that learned Hellenes of the Seleucid era held them in high esteem and made them required reading in their schools.

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In Medea, Euripides takes a myth which was already ancient and casts it as a story which is as unfortunate as it is timeless:  an ambitious man sets aside the lover of his youth and mother of his children for a younger, better connected woman who is a better fit for his new career and lifestyle.  Jason isn’t a particularly evil or vindictive man.  He is happy to support Medea and her children, he just wants her out of Corinth before she embarrasses him with his new wife and father-in-law.  He tries to keep things amicable.  In his mind, he owes Medea nothing more than this.  He has already brought her to “civilized” Greece and made her famous, they have had some good times, and now she should be mature enough to step aside and let him live his life.

Have you ever been dumped by someone who liked you, but decided that you just didn’t fit into their career plans?  I have, and it hurts.  Anyone who remembers the pain of still being in love with someone who has fallen out of love with them can relate to Medea.  Even more, in a way, is the reminder of people I have broken up with who were truly in love with me, but with whom I saw no future.

Then Medea goes completely insane, murdering the other woman and her own children.  As atrocious as these acts are, they are also a bitter story of how strong the emotions of one-sided love can sometimes be–strong enough to push someone over the edge into madness.

Medea Abou to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

Medea About to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In our own culture, possibly in our own families, we have seen plenty of examples of ugly divorces in which a successful man leaves his “starter wife” for a new “trophy wife”, deciding that the alimony payments are worth it.  It would have been the same, if not worse, in Periclean Greece.  Foreign born women like Medea were not even legally allowed to marry Greek citizens, and so would have had none of the divorce rights of Greek women.  Even native women could be easily divorced by their husbands and had no claims to custody of their children or to property beyond their original dowry.  Concubinage was also common, and could hardly have been a comfortable situation for either the wife–replaced in bed by a younger woman–or the concubine who, in the words of Will Durant, “when her charms wear off, will become in effect a household slave, and that only the offspring of the first wife are accounted legitimate.”

We know that could and did attend the Athenian theater.  There must have been some rather tense households in Athens the night after Medea played.

Beyond this deeply personal and individual pathos, Medea symbolizes and older and larger conflict in Greek civilization.  The original societies of the Mediterranean, such as the Minoan Crete or Pelasgian Hellas, had been matriarchal.  Their religion had been much simpler and more shamanic, focusing on appeasing local fertility goddesses and earth spirits.  Many centuries before Euripides they had been conquered by the Dorians, a patriarchal Aryan people who worshiped the sky gods.  While is was dominated, the older culture was never completely destroyed.  Medea, a powerful barbarian shaman, symbolizes the old culture.  Jason, a “civilized” Greek aristocrat, is the new.  They are able to work together to achieve a common goal, but conflict is inevitable when the new culture turns on the old.

Medea is one of Euripides’ earlier plays.  I go now to read Hippolytus and Bacchae, from his middle and late periods, respectively.  I am curious to see how his style changed and whether he kept his disturbing artistic edge, or blunted it in an effort to win more popularity.

Six Major Social Trends for the Rest of the 21st Century

Tonight I think I will depart from my usual blogging style.  It’s a beautiful spring evening, and I’m in the mood to ponder big ideas.  I thought it would be fun to list a few of my personal predictions for major social trends that will happen over the course of the 21st century.  These are ideas that I’ve had kicking around my subconscious for a few years.  Ideas are all they are; in most cases I have done little or no research or theoretical work on them.  Actually, the only qualifications I have as a “futurist” are the thirty years I’ve spent reading and writing everything I could find and the years I was in college learning how to be a professional analyst and forecaster–which is less impressive than it sounds, since the educational system in this country rarely encourages students to think more than five years out.  In 85 years or so I’ll probably be dust, but maybe someone will dig up a copy of this post on whatever passes for an Internet by then and have a good laugh over how many of these came true.

All of these predictions apply only to Western Civilization, and then only if Western Civ. continues to be allowed to chart its own destiny, rather than being conquered or assimilated by some other culture.

1.  The End of Binary Gender

Few myths have dogged out society as persistently and perniciously as binary gender, the idea that people are either “men” or “women” and everything else is an aberration.  I firmly believe that gender is a complicated construct and that, in fact, it is unlikely that any two people are the same gender.  There are already many signs that our society is preparing to embrace a much wider interpretation of gender.  In another couple of generations, the gender of of another person will cease to matter unless someone is trying to decide whether to mate with them, and possibly not even then.

Once this happens, it will have two subsidiary effects, which are also already beginning to show themselves.

a.  The Redefinition of Marriage

As soon as society finally accepts that there are more than two genders, they will need to throw away the notion that marriage is between a “man” and a “woman”.  This will open the door for dozens, or hundreds of different forms of marriage and domestic partnership, with different combinations and numbers of partners, limited only by the participants ability to draft a valid contract.

b.  The End of Male Chauvinism and Privilege

Once we realize that “male” refers to a biological state, and it becomes increasingly easy to change that state, the old notions of male superiority will finally die.  This doesn’t mean that some genders will not enjoy a competitive advantage in certain times and places, however.  For instance, in Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, she actually argues that people with more feminine traits are now enjoying a relative advantage in modern workplaces.

2.  The Decline of the Middle Class

The bourgeoisie grew from being a tiny and relatively uninfluential segment of the population in the middle ages to being the dominant class in Western Civ. in the 20th century.  While most bourgeoisie believe that his represents some sort of divinely ordained natural state, the fact was that the new economies of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution required a large middle class to function.  That is no longer the case.  Now their numbers and political influence are steadily declining.  Expect most of them to be reabsorbed into the proletariat and the aristocracy/oligarchy by the end of the century.  This trend also has subsidiary effects,

a.  Temporary Ascendancy of the Intelligentsia

I use the word Intelligentsia in the same sense as historian Arnold Toynbee used it in his Study of Civilization:  a member of a different civilization that learns enough of the technology and external culture traits of the dominant civilization to function in it at some level, yet is never entirely a part of it.  As Western Civ.’s native middle class dwindles, we increasingly import professional and technical workers from other civilizations to make up for temporary shortages.  At the moment, the presence of large numbers of intelligentsia in our civilization make the middle class seem more robust than it is.  However, since very few will ever be assimilated and become full members of our culture, they don’t count.  Eventually we won’t need nearly as many of them and we will stop importing them.

b.  No Change or a Positive Change for the Intellectual/Creative Class

We will still be needed to educate and advise the aristocracy and to create culture for the whole society, so our relative numbers will stay about the same.  Once we again rely on the aristocracy for patronage, our job stability and renumeration may actually improve.  Of course, all the pseudo-intellectuals and poseur artists are actually members of the bourgeoisie in disguise, and will find they have no such protection.

3.  Decline of Democracy

Democracy has had its longest and most successful run so far, but it is on its way out, at least in the “one citizen, one vote” sense we know it in the United States.  As the middle class disappears the aristocracy will again find ways to disenfranchise the proletariat (assuming the proles are interested in voting at all).  This sounds like a bad thing, and it could be–particularly if it allows our culture to swing back towards facism.  On the other hand, it could allow people who actually know enough to make decisions start undoing some of the damage caused over the last hundred years by demagoguery and populism.  Whether it’s ultimately good or bad, though, this change is going to happen.  Democracy is just one of many possible political systems, and nothing stays the same forever.

4.  Reevaluation of Education

Our current educational focus has long been on educating the middle class.  Once most of them are gone, the educational system will once again split into a system of education for the aristocracy and a system of training for the proletariat.  This is already happening; just compare the programs at Harvard with those at University of Phoenix.

5.  Abandonment of Money

Money, in the sense we usually think of it, mostly matters to the middle class.  The proletariat never has much of it, whereas the aristocracy handles it only in an abstract sense.  The basic functions of money–a medium of exchange, a store of value, and unit of account–will be increasingly served by other media.  For instance, computers of the future will be able to immediately compare the relative values of labor and commodities and allow frictionless barter, removing the need to translate everything into currency as a unit of exchange.  Material goods in general will become far less important as most possessions become virtual and cheap 3D printers and similar technology allow anyone to manufacture anything for which they have a computer model, then recycle the material when they are done with it.  Energy and intellectual property will become the only stores of value that matter.  Energy will probably become the unit of account, because anything can be expressed in terms of energy.  Naturally, we will need to revise our entire concept of intellectual property.

6.  Changing Perceptions of Space and Distance

As telepresence becomes “as good as being there” and most property is either virtual or manufacturable on demand, there will be less and less reason to travel.  Few people, even the very rich, will have any incentive to ever go more than a couple kilometers from their homes.  The physical world will become much smaller, while the virtual world becomes much bigger.

What form these homes take depends on our ability to control overpopulation.  With a reasonable population density everyone, even the poorest of the proletariat, will be able to live in idyllic villages.  A more likely scenario is for most people to live in massive arcologies or other high density mega cities, where technology races constantly to ensure the survival of people for the minimum possible resource cost.

The Two “Wild Cards”

Looking at the list I just typed, I actually feel like my predictions are all throughly plausible.  There are two factors so powerful that no one can account for their effects, though.  The first, which will almost certainly be negative, is climate change.  If the changing climate damages our biosphere too badly, it is possible that we will see a significant portion of our population killed off, while the remainder have to abandon all technology and culture that doesn’t directly contribute to survival.  If that happens, the survivors could become the futuristic equivalent of Greenland Inuits or Saharan nomads.  In that case, all bets are off.  The other factor, which will probably be positive, is space travel.  We are entering an age when commercial space travel will become viable.  Potentially, the ability to harvest energy and materials from the rest of the solar system, combined with the new cultures that will develop among space travelers, will change our society in was that no one could predict.

Herodotus and History

This week I am reading the work of Herodotus. Herodotus was, if not the world’s first true historian, then the first who’s work has come down to us. Because of this, any discussion of Herodotus must begin with the deceptively simple question, “What is history?”.

Earlier in my Great Books project I wrote about Homer’s Iliad which is a history, in a sense, of final year the Trojan War. I also wrote about the Deuteronomistic History, the seven books of the Hebrew Bible which tell the national story of the Hebrews from the time they arrived in Canaan to their conquest by Babylon. However, neither of these works are histories in the purest sense. Both were written to advance cultural and theological agendas, so their was no attempt, or even concept of, objectivity. More importantly, neither makes any attempt to explain why events happened as they did, which is the fundamental question of history. The self evident answer was that things happened because God, or the gods willed it.

We don’t know much about Herodotus’ life. It seems that he was a relatively affluent merchant from the Greek city of Halicarnassus, which was part of the Persian empire. Herodotus became fascinated with the Persian-Greek war, and event about as far removed in time for him as World War II is for us. Because his business dealings often took him to Athens and other Greek cities he had plenty of chances to listen to oral accounts of the war and interview survivors from the period. Using these sources he wrote a book which not only describes the events, as he understood them, but tried to give the context and reasons they occurred.

A Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via wikimedia]

Reproduction of a Persian-War Trireme [public domain via Wikimedia]

Many encyclopedia articles and other writings about Herodotus are critical of his methods. They say that he lacked objectivity and took too many accounts at face value without cross checking them, or that he failed to develop a coherent theory of the causes of the war. These criticisms would be more valid if we here talking about someone’s modern PhD History dissertation. When applied to Herodotus they fail to give him enough credit. He was not a trained historian because there were no previous historians who could have trained him. The sources he had were a mixture of hearsay and recollections by old people who would have been quite young during the war. Despite these limitations he managed to write a book which is still read, as a history text, almost sixteen centuries later.

I am particularly impressed because I am currently writing a book which includes quite a bit of history from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thanks to the Internet I have access to many newspaper clippings, court records, and government documents from the era–none of which would have been available to Herodotus. Even so, there are gaping holes in my understanding of some of the events. Like Herodotus, I have been interviewing people who lived during that time, or even their children and grandchildren if I can find them. I find that even when the witnesses memories seem clear, they often didn’t pay attention to or never knew about things which seem critical to me. From these sources I must develop hypotheses about causes and effects and present my findings in a readable form, yet avoid opening myself to criticism for lack of objectivity or failure to meet a burden of proof. Even with all my modern technology and training as a researcher, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do as fine a job as Herodotus. Hopefully, though, studying him and the other historians on my Great Books list will inspire me to succeed.

A Note About Editions:

Herodotus only wrote one work, The History, which is made up of nine books. A fairly good English translation is available from Project Gutenberg. The first four books contain background on the Persian Empire, Egypt, and other areas of the known world. The parts which deal with Egypt, while interesting, are not considered to be very accurate. There is some question whether Herodotus ever actually went there himself. Books five through nine are the actual history of the Persian War. For college courses books five through nine are often bound together in an edition called Herodotus: The Persian War which is very readable and includes explanatory comments, but omits some passages that are not directly related to the war. I have both, and have found myself flipping back and forth as I read.

Dessication and Civilization

Rain is necessary; for water is the medium of life, more important even than the light of the sun; the unintelligible whim of the elements may condemn to dessication regions which once flourished with empire and industry, like Nineveh or Babylon, or may help to swift strength and wealth cities apparently off the main line of transport and communication, like those of Great Britain or Puget Sound. – Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

Years ago, when I was still an engineering undergraduate, my Hydrology professor predicted that World War III would be fought not over oil or ideology but over fresh water. That was back in the 1990’s and global warming was only an academic theory, barely mentioned in the mainstream media. Usable water, though, was already running out. Throughout the 20th century technology had allowed exponential population growth in many of the most arid regions of the world, such as North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the American Southwest.

Now accelerating climate change, along with an additional two decades of population growth, is making the situation much worse. The other day I read an article in the Irish Times  that reported on the current drought in the Southwestern region of the the US–the worst in a thousand years. The issue affects me deeply and personally since I live in Southern California. I have only to drive up Interstate 5 so see miles and miles of dry wasteland in an area once famous for its groves of nut trees. I will not attempt to explain the Byzantine world of California water politics. Suffice it to say that without enough water to go around, most of it has been allocated to Los Angeles and other municipalities. Farmers have been forced to cut down groves of trees that took years to establish.

I spent my last few days off tearing out the dead brown grass of our front yard and replacing it with stones, a project many of our neighbors have already completed. I capped off most of my sprinklers, leaving only a couple of heads to drip water on small beds of desert plants at the corners. As watering restrictions become more Draconian, I may not even be allowed to run those.

A Natural Southern California Landscape with an Aqueduct Visible in the Distance

A Natural Southern California Landscape with an Aqueduct Visible in the Distance

Drought is a major problem. Like most problems, however, it is far from new. In fact, cycles of climate change and dessication have always played a critical role in the history of civilization. As students of history and the Great Books, we have the advantage of being able to apply historical perspective to contemporary issues.

Historian Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, wrote that dessication was probably the primary factor in the development of civilization. Having survived the ice age, our species encountered a period of mild climate and spread prolifically until climate started to change again.  As some regions became drier different cultures responded to the challenge in different ways. Some migrated away from the dry areas and continued their primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Others became nomads, adopting very specialized and complex culture complexes which allowed them to live in regions which were uninhabitable by generalized hunter gatherers. Nomad cultures develop high levels of technology that allow them to survive in harsh environments, along with strict and complex systems of taboo and custom designed to reinforce survival behaviors and prevent individuals from endangering the group. But on the road to civilization, nomadism is a blind alley. Nomads live so close to the edge that they have no time or energy to be anything but nomads. The same taboos that help them survive discourage or forbid experimentation with new lifestyles or social organization. The size of the tribe must be limited to avoid exhausting water or graze. The rule of the family patriarch, a leader who is expert in survival skills, must be absolute.

Nomad Camp on the Central Asian Plain

Nomad Camp on the Central Asian Plain

The third group of people chose to remain where they were and develop a different set of technologies to survive. These were the cultures who learned to dig aqueducts and cisterns and wells to access water and bring it where they needed it, to build solid structures of brick and stone to protect themselves from the environment, and to practice intensive agriculture in their newly irrigated fields. These endeavors require far more organization and manpower than a hunter-gatherer band or nomad clan could ever muster. In fact, they require civilization.

Echoes of this decision read us in the Book of Genesis, which describes mans expulsion from Eden.  Man couldn’t go back to Eden because it no longer existed.  It dried out and became Mesopotamia.  Adam’s sons Cain and Able each had to choose which survival strategy they would follow.  Abel chose to become a nomadic shepherd while Cain became a sedentary farmer.  There was trouble between them almost immediately, culminating in the Bible’s first homicide.

Conflict between civilization and nomadism is one of the major recurring themes in history, mainly because nomads can use land which is too dry for farmers.  A minor shift in climate allows the forces of civilization to take land away from the nomads and plant it.  This happened in the US in the late 19th century during the years when “the rain followed the plow”.  Civilized farmers, with their superior population and production base, conquered the Great Plains, killing off the Plains Indians or forcing them onto particularly arid, undesirable land.

When climate shifts the other way, however, nomads come back into their own.  Throughout my lifetime the Sahara desert has been growing steadily.  Land that was once productive for farming is now useful only to Bedouins.  Similarly, the land at the periphery of China has changed hands many times between nomads and farmers as conditions changed.

In many ways California and the rest of the Southwest have more in common with the first Mesopotamian civilizations than with any society since.  Both exist in arid country that becomes extremely fertile only with constant irrigation.  In Los Angeles, as in Ur or Babylon,  imported water allows a high population density and enough surplus to support a high culture and a prolific artistic class.

But the water is running out.   The desert is getting closer.

No, I don’t necessarily believe that Southern California will be over run by nomads, even though that would be entirely consistent with history (and Mad Max movies).  But it’s hard to believe that the current society will be sustainable for more than a couple more decades.  To survive, we will need to consider the same three options as neolithic Mesopotamians.  We can try to move somewhere else and continue the same lifestyle.  We can adopt a highly specialized lifestyle adapted to the arid conditions.  Or we can try to become even more organized and civilized and use the power of civilization to leverage generalized technologies–possibly by moving into arcologies or dome cities or something of that sort.

It would be nice to have a fourth choice, but in the last 10,000 years no one has come up with one.

Arcosanti, a Real-Life Attempt to Explore Arcology Technology in the American Southwest [photo by Chris Ohlinger, General Manager of Cosanti Originals, Inc]

Arcosanti, a Real-Life Attempt to Explore Arcology Technology in the American Southwest [photo by Chris Ohlinger, General Manager of Cosanti Originals, Inc]