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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]

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Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.

The Closing of the American Mind (Book Review)

I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books.   Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order.  Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program.  Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.

The Closing of the American Mind cover picture.

I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom.  Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare.  The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society.  He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.

Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers.  Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus.  However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc.  This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization.  Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.

Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.”  However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs.  He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.

I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom.  Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument.  If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males.  On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well.  Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage.  On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history.  There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.

One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293).  The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand.  Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler.  In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution.  I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church.  Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:

In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it.  Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)

However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme:  Enlightenment.  This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it.  By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy.  Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.

Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university.  Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.

For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan.  If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on.  To where?  I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.