Blog Archives

Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.

Advertisements

Xenophon’s Anabasis

The Anabasis is Xenophon’s best known work. Besides being the first known work of what later became as popular literary type–the account of a military expedition cast int he form of a novel–it is often studied by beginning students of Ancient Greek because of Xenophon’s simple and direct, yet vivid, prose. He was the Hemingway of Attic Greek.

The name “Anabasis” means “Going Up” but came to connote a march or military expedition “up country”. After Xenophon numerous Anabasi were written in imitation, The most famous is the Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian of Nicomedia. The title of Xenophon’s Anabasis plays a role in a humorous sketch provided by John Henry Newman, in his The Idea of a University, in which a young student, seeking admission to a university, has asked to be examined on the works of Xenophon,

Tutor. Mr. Brown, I believe? sit down.

Candidate. Yes.

T. What are the Latin and Greek books you propose to be examined in?

C. Homer, Lucian, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Virgil, Horace, Statius, Juvenal, Cicero, Analecta, and Matthiæ.

T. No; I mean what are the books I am to examine you in?

C. is silent.

T. The two books, one Latin and one Greek: don’t flurry yourself.

C. Oh, … Xenophon and Virgil.

T. Xenophon and Virgil. Very well; what part of Xenophon?

C. is silent.

T. What work of Xenophon?

C. Xenophon.

T. Xenophon wrote many works. Do you know the names of any of them?

C. I … Xenophon … Xenophon.

T. Is it the Anabasis you take up?

C. (with surprise) O yes; the Anabasis.

T. Well, Xenophon’s Anabasis; now what is the meaning of the word anabasis?

C. is silent.

T. You know very well; take your time, and don’t be alarmed. Anabasis means …

C. An ascent.

T. Very right; it means an ascent. Now how comes it to mean an ascent? What is it derived from?

C. It comes from … (a pause). Anabasis … it is the nominative.

T. Quite right: but what part of speech is it?

C. A noun,—a noun substantive.

T. Very well; a noun substantive, now what is the verb that anabasis is derived from?

C. is silent.

T. From the verb ἀναβαίνω, isn’t it? from ἀναβαίνω.

C. Yes.

T. Just so. Now, what does ἀναβαίνω mean?

C. To go up, to ascend.

T. Very well; and which part of the word means to go, and which part up?

C. ἀνά is up, and βαίνω go.

T. βαίνω to go, yes; now, βάσις? What does βάσις mean?

C. A going.

T. That is right; and ἀνά-βασις?

C. A going up.

T. Well, now you say Anabasis means an ascent. Who ascended?

C. The Greeks, Xenophon.

T. Very well: Xenophon and the Greeks; the Greeks ascended. To what did they ascend?

C. Against the Persian king: they ascended to fight the Persian king.

T. That is right … an ascent; but I thought we called it a descent when a foreign army carried war into a country?

C. is silent.

Etc.

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading the Anabasis would not know what it was about, since it is a very engaging book in any language. An army of around 10,000 Greek mercenaries, recruited from throughout the Hellenic world are hired by Cyrus the younger, a Persian prince, ostensibly for use in a local brush war. Soon after the men are gathered, however, it becomes clear that Cyrus actually intends to use the army to attack his older brother and place himself on the throne. With some misgivings the 10,000 agree to follow Cyrus. Unfortunately in the first real battle, a nominal victory for Cyrus’ army, Cyrus himself is killed. After multiple disastrous attempts to parlay with the Great King the mercenaries realize that he absolutely can’t be trusted. Accordingly, they set off to march and fight their way across the breath of the Persian Empire and Armenia to reach the Black Sea where Greek cities offer the chance of taking ship for home.

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon's Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon’s Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

The Anabasis more or less introduces the literary trope of the “wandering mercenary company”, which has since been used by numerous authors. It is easy to draw parallels with the free company in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company, for instance. The trope is a mainstay of military sci-fi: David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers was one of the most successful series of the 1980’s. A somewhat more recent example is David Weber’s and John Ringo’s March Upcountry tetralogy, the name of which is itself a nod to the Anabasis. In fantasy the exploits of the mercenary companies in Glen Cook’s long running Black Company series and Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk trilogy are utterly unforgettable. More recently, “sell sword” companies play a recurring role in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series Of course, there have been plenty of historical mercenary units since the time of Xenophon. Yet his way of writing about life in a mercenary army seems to have set the pattern for all later authors.

One of the interesting things that differentiates Xenophon’s 10,000 from many other armies, particularly the Persian forces that they fought, is that it never has unity of command. There are rarely less than five generals in command at any given time. Towards the end of the book Xenophon himself, who has accepted a generalship to replace a man killed by Persian treachery, is increasingly able to dominate the other four. He is never able to ignore their wishes completely, though. When he tries to simply override them they take their own men and do what they want. Still less are the generals able to ignore the will of the common soldiers. The generals command in the heat of battle but all other decisions are put to a vote. And if a general becomes too unpopular he faces a real chance of getting lynched by his own men.

Another interesting feature of Xenophon’s account is that he is the first military author I am aware of who actually mentions camp followers. In most armies in history the number of actual armed “effectives” was dwarfed by the hostlers, merchants, mistresses, prostitutes, servants, and others who traveled with them. In the ancient world, when slaves were an important type of individual wealth, a successful army was usually further swelled by numerous captives bound for sale in the first slave market the army came to. This is why it is interesting that historians like Thucydides and Herodotus never mention any of these people. In Xenophon, however, the need to protect the camp followers is mentioned as a recurring tactical consideration. While he doesn’t attempt to count them, it is clear that they are numerous and are regarded as bona fide stakeholders in the overall venture.

It is also interesting that Xenophon mentions the presence of “comrade-women”,

As soon as the victims were favourable, all the soldiers began singing the battle hymn, and with the notes of the paean mingled the shouting of the men accompanied by the shriller chant of the women, for there were many comrade-women in the camp.

It is hard to say whether these women were primarily prostitutes, mistresses, or adventurers in their own right. They certainly weren’t wives–he mentions several times how eager the men were to return to their families back in Hellas. It certainly seems though, that while they could not have been expected to have fought in the hopelite battle line, these “comrade-women” were present and played a role in battle. This is yet another of the tantalizing mentions of women that we find in various works that is so at odds with the accepted view of women in the Greek world as a secluded and disenpowered class that was rarely allowed out of the women’s part of the house.

Overall, Xenophon was an important literary innovator whose books are still accessible and interesting to the modern reader. While they do not always make their way onto the various published Great Books lists, I still would recommend them. And if you only read one of his books, the Anabasis is probably the one you should pick.

Note: The Penguin Group’s popular translation of the Anabasis is sold as The Persian Expedition. I personally read Dakyns’ translation, which is also quite good and is available from Project Gutenberg.

The Untold History of the United States (Book Review)

Cover photo of The Untold History of the United States, young readers editionLast week I wrote about free speech in a democracy and  how Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War may have been a revisionist attempt aimed at changing the dominant historical interpretation at the time.  Just now I finished reading another exercise of free political speech, Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which also attacks a dominant historical narrative.  The authors tell a story in which 20th century  United States followed a relentless course towards imperialism, dominated by right leaning plutocrats, as opposed to the “history in the textbooks” which frames the US as the heroes, struggling against Nazis, Communists, Islamic terrorists, and other evil bogey-men.

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I read the “young readers” edition of the book, mainly because the original edition was checked out when I went to the library.  While I obviously wasn’t able to compare, it seems that the total page count is about the same, but the young readers version is broken into two volumes and does away with footnotes in favor of additional illustrations.

The book is just as biased as one might expect, given the nature of the project and who the identities of the authors.  Oliver Stone is well known both in and out of Hollywood for his leftist tendencies and fondness for conspiracy theories.  Kuznick is a history professor whose main areas of study are the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cold War.  He is so heavily involved in anti-nuclear activism that it must be hard for him to remain objective when he publishes on these matters.  Still, wishing to avoid succumbing to an intentional fallacy, I tried to clear my mind and judge the book on its own merits, even though it was clearly written to support the authors’ previously developed platforms, rather than in a spirit of true scholarly inquiry.

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Untold History is actually a fairly interesting read.  Other reviewers have pointed out a lack of academic rigor and over-reliance on secondary sources.  I was unable to find any major misstatements of fact, however.  I also think that it is appropriate for a book of such broad scope to draw from secondary sources, especially if it is intended as some sort of “anti-textbook”.  No one does archive research to write a history textbook.  Rather, they synthesize each chapter from several well regarded books by previous authors.

Still, there is no question that the authors picked out the facts that happened to justify their positions.  They also repeatedly ascribe thoughts and motivations to various people which they could not possibly know for certain, one of the classic “tells” of the revisionist.  And they were rather more blatant about it all than Thucydides, for example.  Then again, some of the facts are rather telling, even when picked out in isolation.  Did you know that Henry Ford published an antisemitic newspaper and used to have antisemitic literature translated and shipped to Germany, that most of the army trucks used in the Blitzkrieg were supplied by Ford and GM, or that Hitler kept a picture of Ford in his office?  Did you know that the Japanese were ready to surrender before the US dropped the bomb, provided only that they were given a guarantee of the emperor’s personal safety?  Things to think about, to be sure.

The book was exactly as advertised, and is rather entertaining.    For us writers, it stands as a good example of how not to write history if we want to be taken seriously in the scholarly community.  If, on the other hand, our goal is the sell a documentary series to Showtime, along with a companion book and other merchandising tie-ins, then this is apparently precisely how to do it.  It worked for Stone and Kuznick, anyway.

Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.

From History to Speculative Fiction: How to Write a Peloponnesian War Story

In recent weeks I have been blogging about The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides as part of my ongoing Great Books project to improve my writing.  For non-fiction writing the value of the History is obvious; Not only is it one of our most important primary sources  about the ancient Mediterranean world, but Thucydides’ political and diplomatic analysis is also applicable to many other periods and his methods represent a watershed moment in the evolution of the discipline of history itself.  As writers, though, we should never read a history book without asking ourselves what we could take from it and how we could adapt it to create fiction.

History itself is a literary genre; the History and the Novel are first cousins.  In this post, however, I am writing mainly about adaptations of history into genre fiction.  The two modern genres that do this most obviously are historical fiction and alternate history, both of which, fall under the general umbrella of speculative fiction in the currently fashionable nomenclature.

The Peloponnesian War has fueled the creative flames of of many a speculative fiction author.  Not only is it a dynamic and interesting period, but it has the advantage that good primary sources exist, yet not so many of them that a writer can not read all of the important works over the course of a few weeks.  Two modern writers who have handled the period effectively are Rosemary Sutcliff and Harry Turtledove, both prolific writers and acknowledged masters of their respective genres.  Both chose to focus their narrative around the life and career of Alcibiades who, as I wrote last week, is an intriguing character for a number of reasons.

Sutcliff’s work, The Flowers of Adonis (1969), is a full-length adult historical novel which follows Alcibiades from the start of the Sicilian expedition to his death.  She draws material mainly from Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenica, and Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades.  Sutcliff’s most characteristic style, seen in most of her young adult novels, is to tell the story through the first person point of view of a single main character, usually a young person who is a minor participant in a historical event.  This technique works well in YA fiction because it makes it easier for readers to relate to the character and immerse themselves in the time and place.  In The Flowers of Adonis, however, Sutcliff abandons this style and tells the story through the first person viewpoints of numerous supporting characters, often switching characters several times in a chapter.  The one character whose point of view and inner thoughts we never see is Alcibiades.  This is an incredibly effective structure because it allows the reader to see how Alcibiades is perceived by his friends, lovers, enemies, and the common people in the city of Athens and the Athenian fleet, yet the reader must draw their own conclusions about the man’s thoughts and motivation.  By not showing any of Alcibiades’ internal dialogue, Sutcliff avoids conveying an over-familiarity which might undermine the “larger than life” aspect which is such an enduring part of the character’s mystique.

IMG_2409

Turtledove’s work, The Daimon (2002), is an alternate history novella which was written for the anthology Worlds that Weren’t and has since appeared in other collections.  Like Sutcliff, he draws heavily from Thucydides and Plutarch.  He also introduces material from Aristophanes‘ plays and Plato‘s dialogues.  Like Sutcliff, he starts his story in Athens as Alcibiades and his forces are preparing to depart on their invasion of Sicily.  This is an alternate history, though.  The point of departure from actual history is when Socrates, despite being a bit too old for such adventures, decides to volunteer for the expedition.   This means that when the assembly sends a ship to recall Alcibiades to stand trial for blasphemy Socrates is on hand to advise him to ignore the summons and stay in the field.  Under Alcibiades’ leadership the Athenians win the Sicilian campaign instead of suffering the crushing defeat which was the turning point of the actual Peloponnesian War.  This allows Alcibiades to force a Spartan surrender and return home victorious to install himself as a tyrant, changing the entire course of world history.

The Daimon differs from The Flowers of Adonis in several important ways.  Being a novella, it covers a single plot arc, in contrast to The Flowers of Adonis which, like most novels, has several secondary plot lines.  Unlike Sutcliff, Turtledove uses a limited third person point of view which follows both major and minor characters.  Besides being typical of his own style, this makes it easy for him to insert narrative details of the historical period, and vivid details are the key to creating believable worlds in speculative fiction.  The most important difference, though, lies in the fundamental question that each story strives to answer.  You can’t have speculative fiction without speculating.  The Daimon, while it is certainly character driven, is primarily concerned with causation.  Did the defeat in Sicily cause Athens to loose the war?  Did Alcibiades’ absence cause the defeat?  Did the Athenian defeat shape later history?   The Flowers of Adonis, on the other hand, is effectively a 383 page character study of one person.  What did Alcibiades want?  What made him the way he was?  Why did he do the things he did?

Of course historical fiction does tend to be rather concerned with character, while exploration of causation could be considered the purpose of alternate history.  In this case, however, I think the difference flows just as much from the authors’ interests and their decision about the kind of story they wanted to tell.

These two works are only two examples, drawn from only two genres, of the sort of fiction an author can create from a historical event like the Peloponnesian War.  The ancient historical works we have about the period provide enough background for an infinite number of stories, told in an infinite number of ways.  Perhaps the next will be written by you or me.

Thucydides Book V: Enter Alcibiades

Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war.  Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted.  Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty.  None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift.  Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.

Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history.  “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics.  He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids.  Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human.  He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich.  The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles.  Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander.  When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death.  There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,

[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern.  Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics.   He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,

“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “

Many are unconvinced.  For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.

We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often.  From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica.  He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.

One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is.  The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society.  Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis.  Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere.  Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war.  He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born.  Alcibiades served only Alcibiades.  He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them.  In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.

One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished.  Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble.  He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently.  But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings.  Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, c. 1781 [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Thucydides Book IV: The Boethian Flamethrower

Military history is a see-saw between fixed defensive technology and mobile offensive technology. Sometimes offensive technology leaps ahead, as at the close of the middle ages when improved cannons suddenly rendered every castle in Europe obsolete. At other time defenses gain the advantage, such as on the Western Front of the Great War, when armies became deadlocked for years in their trenches. Reading Thucydides, there can be no doubt that in the era of the Peloponnesian War defensive technology was ascendant. A fourth century Greek army had little chance of storming the stone walls of a fortified city, even with a significant advantage in numbers. The main land force of the Peloponnesian League, with the best infantry in the world, was afraid to directly attack the Long Walls of Athens. We read of lesser cities withstanding sieges for months or years, before finally yielding through starvation or treachery. In the years leading up to the war, a city deciding to build fortifications was considered a reasonable pretense for declaring war, to preemptively attack before the walls made them impregnable.

Thucydides alludes several times to “engines” used to attack walls, but these seem to have been simple battering rams which had to be pushed right up to the wall to work. An alert garrison was often able to destroy them before they could do damage. During the siege of Platea, for example, the defenders were able to break apart a Spartan ram with lassos and logs. Other siege engineering techniques were even cruder, such as piling earthen ramps against the walls or trying to light fires.

In Book IV, however, we read about a new device: the first recorded flamethrower. First used by the Boethians at the siege of Delium, this device could incinerate wooden walls and gates and even crack stones. Like the first tanks deployed at the Somme, this device signaled that the balance between defense and offense was about to shift again.

Thucydides gives a fairly detailed description of the Boetian flamethrower,

Meanwhile the Boeotians … marched against Delium, and attacked the fort, and after divers efforts finally succeeded in taking it by an engine of the following description. They sawed in two and scooped out a great beam from end to end, and fitting it nicely together again like a pipe, hung by chains a cauldron at one extremity, with which communicated an iron tube projecting from the beam, which was itself in great part plated with iron. This they brought up from a distance upon carts to the part of the wall principally composed of vines and timber, and when it was near, inserted huge bellows into their end of the beam and blew with them. The blast passing closely confined into the cauldron, which was filled with lighted coals, sulphur and pitch, made a great blaze, and set fire to the wall, which soon became untenable for its defenders, who left it and fled; and in this way the fort was taken. Of the garrison some were killed and two hundred made prisoners; most of the rest got on board their ships and returned home.

For all we know, he may also have included a drawing. If so, though, it has long since been lost to history. A quick search on the web yields many modern day artists’ conceptions, but I couldn’t resist sketching my own.

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

There is debate about what substance was burned in the “cauldron” at the end. A number of flammable substances were available in the ancient world, including naphtha, animal fat, and various vegetable oils. I’m inclined to believe that actual pitch–a simple wood tar–was used. Wood tar is easy to make and was already used by the Greeks to waterproof their ships, buckets, ropes, and other items. The besieging army might well have brought a supply with them for general maintenance. Wood tar is sticky and flammable. While it is possible to put it out with water, it takes a great deal of water to do it. Furthermore, since it is only mildly water soluble, water tends to spread the burning pitch, which makes it even harder to put out.

Sulfur from several locations around the Mediterranean and was a common household item for the Greeks, used to fumigate buildings and as a component of medical preparations. Sulfur has particular characteristics which make it useful in incendiaries: it lights easily and fast, yet burns long enough to light other things. The first matches were chips of wood soaked in sulfur that could be lit with a flint and steel then used to light fires. Modern military manuals still include several sulfur based recipes for “igniters” that can be used to set off hard to light compounds. The sulfur added to the pitch in the Boethian flamethrower would have helped insure that most of the pitch caught fire when the air blast hit it, instead of just being squirted out of the cauldron.  Burning sulfur also produces nasty fumes which would have further hampered fire fighting efforts.

How well would this have worked? Lets assume that the “kettle” held about five gallons of burning pitch, about the size of a large paint bucket. Wood tar contains several chemical compounds but the most common and representative is a ketone with the formula C19H22N2O2. Based on its entry in the database PubChem, five gallons of it would mass about 43.3 lbs. The Boethians didn’t know modern chemical stoichiometry (for that matter, it has been a decade and a half since I took a chemistry class) but lets assume that, through trial and error, they made the bellows big enough to fully combust the pitch in one puff. The net combustion equation for C19H22N2O2 is probably something like:

C19H22N2O2 + O2 –> CO2 + N2 + H2O + HEAT

It would therefore take 0.07 lbs of Oxygen to fully combust the pitch. This would require a bellows that held 34.3 gallons of air at one atmosphere, plus as much more as would be required to oxidize the sulfur. A 50 gallon bellows would probably be safe, erring on the side of extra oxygen. How much heat would be released by this setup?

The combustion properties of wood products have long been of some interest to the US Forest Service, and they have released a number of pamphlets on the subject. Using the heat of combustion of pine tar from one of the tables from this study, 12,195 BTU/lb I calculate that each puff would release about 528,044 BTUs of heat energy on the enemy’s walls. Not too shabby.

The flash point of dry oak is about 900degF and its specific heat is 0.48 BTU/lb*degF. Assuming a paltry 20% efficiency, this would be enough heat in one shot to instantly ignite 244 lbs of wood, and the flames would spread rapidly. While this is scarcely as destructive as a modern napalm bomb, it is still probably no accident that wooden fortifications fell out of favor rather rapidly around this time.

Thucydides Book 2: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Thucydides Book II: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Book Review: At The End of An Age

Lukacs, At The End of An Age, cover picture

At the End of an Age is a small book, and John Lukacs’ elegant yet simple prose could easily lull you into thinking it is an easy read.  It doesn’t take many pages, though, to realize that every paragraph in this book (or rather, book-length essay) is laden with complex ideas and meaning.  I found myself rereading whole pages to make sure I understood, and I suspect that I would need to read the whole book two or three times to pick up on all of his points.  That being said, the book is worth it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ostensible thesis of the book is that the modern age, which Lukacs calls the “bourgeoisie age” is nearing its end.  He offers cogent arguments and examples in support and, in general, makes a strong case.  As it happens, I agree with him; I wrote something very similar on this blog a couple weeks ago, before I had ever read Lukacs.  I think that anyone with some level of historical awareness can see that our civilization is gearing up for a drastic change.  Other historians I have read would have spent the entire book (or 12, in the case of Toynbee) expanding on their particular theory.  Lukacs, having laid out his arguments, then moves up to a higher, more meta-historical level.  Lukacs is interested not just in how history works, but in the epistemology and metaphysics of history and its relationship to the other sciences.  These are deep waters indeed.  Only Lukac’s strong voice and skill as a writer keep the reader from sinking.  Since I lack his mastery, I will not attempt to explain his points here, but will merely mention a couple of his main themes.

Lukacs believes that in history, as in quantum physics, the phenomena is ultimately inseparable from the observer.  The historian does not just record history but, in the act of writing it, actually influences and creates it.  This means that true objectivity is impossible for the historian, and that a purely deterministic conception of history is as obsolete as deterministic physics was after Heisenberg.  This matches up with comments I have occasionally made about history as a narrative.  History is based on fact but, ultimately, is a literary discipline.  This historian doesn’t just tell the story, he creates it.

Another major theme in the book is the role of the human mind in creating history.  Lukacs asserts that “the inclinations of men’s minds” and their beliefs are more important than their competence or any material factor.  “Mind” in this sense means consciousness or soul, separate from brain and body.  Lukacs believes in the power of the mind to influence reality and manifest different potentialities.  Comparative metaphysics is far from my specialty.  However, this sounds very similar to the writings of various New Thought philosophers,  particularly Earnest Holmes and his Science of Mind disciples.  I wonder to what extent the young John Lukacs was influenced by these metaphysical systems.  Regardless, the take away is that if a historian wants to understand a person or group he needs to go beyond studying their situation and strive to understand their minds.

Overall, I found many ideas in this book which I could agree with, or at least try on for size.  There were a few arguments, however, with which I did take minor issue.  In an early section of the book, as part of an overview of various ways the social structures of the current age are breaking down, he discusses the trend towards women’s equality in the workplace and announces that,

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions  of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.  The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate–thus the decline of the so-called “nuclear” family–were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes.  They included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. (pp. 23-24)

He offers no support for this complex, arguable, and potentially inflammatory claim.  This is not the sort of paragraph you just casually slip into a book without offering evidence to back it up.  This is the sort of thing which would have caused me, when I was still a teaching assistant grading papers, to circle the whole paragraph with red pen and write “BURDEN OF PROOF” in the margin.

Lukacs is also universally deprecatory of post-modernism in all of its forms, seeing it as a basically vague and degenerate direction for scholarship and culture.  That is a legitimate, if somewhat reactionary stance.  However, Lukacs, who escaped communist Hungary as a young man, is also blatantly anti-Marxist.  Since, as a historian, Lukacs could not help but be aware of the many contributions that Marxism has made to post-modern analysis and art, I have to question whether he might not be biased on the whole subject of post-modernism.

Finally, Lukacs is dismissive of any value in mathematics for the study of history.  As a “quant”, I feel compelled to respond.  As evidence, he cites his own non-deterministic, non-objectivist view of history as well as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which say that 1) Any non-trivial mathematical system contains some postulates which can not be proven without going beyond the system.  2) No mathematical system is capable of proving its own consistency.  Personally, I have been fascinated by Gödel’s theorems since I first studied them in an Abstract Algebra class that I took as a college junior.   As an illustration of what they mean, consider Euclid’s geometrical system, as set down in the Elements.  Euclid begins “A point is that which has position but no dimension.”  The entire system doesn’t work without this axiom, yet there is no way to prove that a point has no dimension using only Euclidean geometry.  You would need to introduce propositions from topology and/or calculus–which are themselves systems which contain propositions which can not be proven without introducing even more complex systems of mathematics.

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

And yet, geometry works quite well enough for most purposes, as do topology and calculus.  Granted, the incompleteness theorems seem to imply that a grand-unified theory of history, in the sense of of a closed form solution (plug all the variables into the equation, predict what will happen next) is impossible.  But applied math and statistics are about approximations, empirical formulas, noisy data, and models that work “well enough”, with a quantifiable margin of error.  The incredible advances over the past fifty years in fields like data mining, complexity theory, machine learning, and signal processing have paved the way for a useful discipline of mathematical history, probably within our own lifetimes.  Such a system will only be one more tool for the historian to use, and the results must not be allowed to dominate the historical narrative itself.  But to dismiss all mathematical history out of hand because it will not be an internally provable system seems like a major error.  Even in a non-deterministic universe, mathematical modeling can still provide startling and useful insights.

Despite these minor qualms, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  Overall, in fact, it is the kind of book I would like to write myself some day.  I will absolutely be reading (and probably reviewing) more of Lukacs’ works in the future.