The Plight of the Homeless, Conclusion

Every civilized society goes through a phase of “enlightenment,“ and some, if they are lucky, survive it.  The sophists of the Fifth Century taught their students that man was the measure of all things, that values are conventional and not rooted in nature, that we know nothing of the gods, that might makes right.  Socrates, although a genuinely irritating man in many respects, saw the problem being created by atheism and moral relativism, but neither he nor his best student Plato understood the danger inherent in their own tendency to treat political and social life in abstract and universal terms.  Plato’s Republic might just as well have been called Utopia.  Aristotle, fortunately, has provided the permanent corrective to the Socratic moral heresies, but it was not the students of Aristotle that dominated the later Greek approach to politics, but the Epicureans, who taught men to feign interest but cultivate indifference to their local community, and the Stoics, who preached the doctrine of world citizenship.  Although both schools were to have pernicious effects during the Enlightenment, the Romans converted Stoicism into a pragmatic, albeit austere, creed of duty.  The Emperor Marcus, who divided himself into, on the one hand, universal man, and on the other, a particular Roman born into a certain family, is a long way from the Phoenician confidence man who founded the school.

Good character and good intentions can partially convert a philosophical sow’s ear into a silk purse.  Look how Jefferson sidestepped his own nonsensical theory of natural rights, when it was a question of defending Virginia.  The Enlightenment that infected Jefferson, like the sophistic movement in 5th century Greece, entailed a rejection of the particular and local in favor of the universal, of the sacred and mysterious in favor of the secular and rational.  Demystification, like so many other bright ideas, sounds better in the morning than it does in the dead of night.  If my poor human life cannot be given meaning by tradition and ritual, then I will carve out my own destiny, like Robespierre or Napoleon, Lincoln or Mussolini, and if nations will not obey me, there is the heroic road taken by the fictional Raskolnikov or the all-too real serial killers who have cut such a swathe through our post-Christian world.

Most Americans, hell-bent on success, do not dream of conquering nations or murdering our neighbors.  Our vast ambitions are defined by bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger blonds.  In John Huston’s Key Largo, when Rocco the gangster (Edward G. Robinson) is asked what he wants, he does not know how to answer until Humphrey Bogart tells him, “I know what you want.  You want more.”  More is the creed of a lost people.  “He who dies with the most toys wins,” reads a sign I used to see in expensive tackle shops.  Like children piling up stuffed animals on the bed, we think our toys can shield us from the great emptiness we really believe in, and even if we go to church, it is neither a great cathedral built to the greater glory of God nor a humble chapel where the faithful pray.  No, our churches must have big screen TVs, youth choirs waving their arms as they bellow loud commercial music that might be used to advertise the bogus beer we drink.  Some of us demand song-and-dance numbers more appropriate to the midway of a county fair, and we expect to be told our Christian duty by wavy-haired, tooth-capped preacherboys who could fill in for one of the Chippendales—anything to distract us from the thought that we are going to die alone, and no matter how pretty the plot we have chosen in the “memorial garden,” our corpse is one plant that is not going to come up again in the Spring.  In thinking that pagan thought we have already made our existence Hell, but we have not even the pagan comfort of thinking that our flimsy afterlife will be consoled, once or twice a year, by ritual prayer and feeding administered by descendants who are both pious and a little bit afraid.

I am saying nothing that has not been said before by the Agrarians, and by Pound and Eliot.

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Dante’s vision of Hell has become Eliot’s London.  Eliot was going mad as he wrote The Wasteland.  He found some sanity in joining the Church of England and in becoming a kind of English patriot as the local references in the Four Quartets suggest.

For many of us, who have spent our lives moving and traveling, it is too late to put down deep roots in the soil of California—or of Illinois, on whose people and identity Edgar Lee Masters long ago pronounced the eulogy.  We can do our best, however, to love the places in which we find ourselves or to move to places we can learn to love, knowing that all such particular and partial loves are preparation for the full love we shall only know when we finally make our way home to where we belong.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Kurt Kronfuss says:

    I thank G-d and my father for bringing your writings into my life.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    What can be said after reading this? Perhaps only that we are living in the aftermath of a tidal wave of universalism that has washed our civilization and everything worth living for away, and deposited us like driftwood on a distant, empty, alien wasteland.

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr Fleming,

    There exists a popular slang usage of the word, “Nice.” The word has a lengthy etymology from Latin to French to English. But after reading your conclusion, I mean it in the sense of a little neat, slice of heaven, similar to an excellent poem as when one can pauses after a delightful passage and says to himself, that is right, that is nice and is enough.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks to all. I wrote this, as I noted, back in 2004. Most things I write go out of my head within three months, not because of senility but because my mind is focussed on whatever I am working on now. Some of the old pieces, upon rereading, need snipping and revising, but in this one I think I added one word.

  5. Ben says:

    After reading this, it’s “nice” to know that I possess hard copies of every single published issue (up to a couple of years ago) of the publication in which this piece first appeared.

  6. Raymond Olson says:

    A piece well worth revival and very much complementary to the book I’m reading for review, a popular (scholarly informed, however) history of Western character from the Greeks to the Renaissance, written by Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini’s other daughter, Ingrid. I fear that it could be better written, though I must assume that the flaws I see will be corrected by scrupulous final copyediting.

  7. Konstantin Solodov says:

    “… and some, if they are lucky, survive it” Who could survive, Mr. Fleming?

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There have been many cultural revivals after periods of “enlightenment,” which are often nothing more than alien conquests. I cited the example of the Greeks. Now, like anyone with any taste, I prefer Sophocles to Euripides, and Euripides to Apollonius and Callimachus, but it would be foolish to try to deny the reality of Hellenism from, say, 400 BC to 600 AD–and beyond. In the long run, as Keynes famously observed, we are all dead, but it’s not a bad idea to prolong the agony of dying. English history is divided sharply by the Civil War, and I prefer Shakespeare to Dryden, but there is no point in deriding the reality of their restoration or of what the French managed to do between the fall of Napoleon and WW II. There is a strong flavor of reaction in writers like Balzac and Baudelaire, and French Catholic writers of the early 20th Century almost make the Revolution seem a felix culpa. I suppose the prime example are the Jews, who went through many cultural phases marked by cynicism, adoption of alien religious traditions (including child-murder) but, on the view of the prophets, the periods of exile and desolation (Egypt, Babylon) were followed by revivals. Nothing stays the same, and strong cultural traditions–such as those of the Greeks–are always forcing their way back. In the classical age, they looked back to Homer and Hesiod, in the Alexandrian period they looked back to the classical age, and in Constantinople they looked back to all of them. For me the archetypal Greek writer is Cavafy, who writes as if he is spiritually home in any period of Hellenism.

  9. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Every civilized society goes through a phase of “enlightenment” to another phase. The next phases after Classical period in Antic culture are Hellenism and Roman Empire, Hyksos period and New Kingdom in Egypt, Abbasid’s period and Seljuk Empire in Middle East, Warring States period and Han Empire in China. Even you can see Cesar and Qin Shi Huang.

    But the mentioned cultures did not survive. Your gods are others. The west culture can take Arabic trigonometry but it does not mean that old culture arises again. Finally, the west culture took that in order to implement in integral and differential calculus. It has its own religion, arts, science etc.

    Are Xi Jinping, president for life and military parade a la russe are great for Trump? The west culture is in the right way.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am finding it difficult either to follow Mr. Solodov’s argument or even to understand his purpose. Statements of universal history are like the theories of Marx, Freud, and Spengler. One may or may not be interested in them, but they cannot be proved, and, since they cannot be proved, nothing can be deduced from them. I thought I made it quite plain that societies evolve, develop, and change, but not all such changes constitute a revolutionary overthrow of all their traditions. Putting names like “classical” and “Hellenistic” on periods can be a useful shorthand but it becomes dangerous, if anyone mistakes the names for reality. Historians of fifth century Greece naturally pay most attention to the great city-states–Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, etc.–but at the very same period many Greeks lived in pre-classical kingdoms or confederations. The Thessalians are the most obvious example. Thucydides, who had traveled a bit and observed his fellow-Greeks, observed that once upon a time the Greeks went armed, but, he notes, even in his day there are parts of Greece where they have not give up this practice. During the Alexandrian period, there were many out-of-the-way parts of the Greek world that remained relatively unchanged. Simply because the historical focus shifts from the Greek mainland to Egypt and Syria does not mean that the Peloponnesus became Syrianized.

    Different gods? The Greeks were always adding new gods, borrowing them from the people they dealt with, but they continued to worship the Olympians in the old way, to read and revere the texts of Homer and Hesiod, to build temples wherever they went. Speculative theories and textbook histories miss all the grit and grime of other cultures. I would not know how to begin to instruct someone who wanted to understand the Greek historical experience, except to learn their language, read and reread Homer and the others, and take each city and region and study it for itself and not as some character in Thomas Hardy, doomed to fulfill some destiny.

    Just to illustrate the mistake he is making, consider the case of the Egyptians. Mr. Solodov seems to be arguing that the period in which the Hyksos dominated Egypt represents a deep chasm. In fact, what do we know about the “shepherd kings”? Not much. These pastoral nomads were probably mostly Semitic, though there is some evidence that has been interpreted in a way that might link them to a non-Semitic warrior class. The invading force probably included Hebrews, who probably incurred hostility after the Hyksos power was overthrown. They probably conquered all of Egypt in stages, but held only a part of it, while on the upper Nile the Egyptians preserved their traditions and gradually pushed back. Does any Egyptian historian think that Egyptian culture was radically transformed by these primitive nomads? I don’t know of one, though I am only an amateur in Egyptian history and do not know the language.

    In the case of the Greeks, however, I am in a fairly good position to form a fair estimate of both the continuities and the breaks. It is a cliche that the Greek historians who wrote of the last days of Constantinople were doing a pretty fair imitation of Attic Greek. That does not mean that in the 1000 years of the Eastern Empire they had not undergone profound changes, but it does suggest that there are powerful cultural traditions that manage to survive and reassert themselves, often in strange ways.

    Of course, none of this has the slightest bit to do with the argument of this piece.

  11. Konstantin Solodov says:

    Mr. Fleming, my purpose is to understand your interpretation (model) of history.

    I try to understand: what is behind of idea: “societies evolve, develop, and change”. What does “classic” mean in your interpretation.

    Universal history models:
    1. Prehistory – Antic period – Medieval period – Modern period
    2. Spengler’s model which is cycle model with limited life for each culture.

    I understand, you are not apologist of second model.

    But I am not sure about first one. It seems, you just claim the Modern Period or liberal & pantheistic doctrines which were developed in this period.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am advancing no theories of history whatsoever. I have no interest in Spengler’s speculations: When I want to indulge in fantasies, I have plenty of my own. I have as little interest in textbook divisions of history that often do more to mask than to reveal historical movements.

    In this informal essay, I am speaking of the sense of local attachment that used to be taken for granted. In a sentence or two I alluded in very general terms to the results of tedious study of the Liberal tradition. I am not aware of having used the term “pantheist” and certainly would not so characterize the representatives of the Liberal Enlightenment who did their best to undermine not only the sense of place but all understanding of human nature.

    My views on these subjects were developed in several books and in dozens and dozens of essays, articles, and reviews, a few of which are being posted on this website. I have written nothing particularly original on any theory of history, though my research on Greek music and lyric poetry was useful in debunking the cultural chasm–a preposterous Dark Age– that had been posited between the the classical period and the Hellenistic period. I am very much afraid that you will find nothing, in anything I have written, that is of any relevance for theories of history, though I did once work out a speculative line of reasoning on the recurrent development of classic art and literature, defined by me as a tension between abstraction and realism. But, since I never got far with that work–though it did drive me into studying Homeric and archaic conceptions of the human person–there is not much to say about it.

    I should underscore what I wrote above in response to your comment, that in every age people live on different mental and cultural levels, I do not refer exclusively to reactionaries like Aristoxenos who preferred classical music to the music of his own time, but to the mental primitives who today especially are predominant in a society that until recently prided itself on objectivity, rationalism, detachment. The anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard once defended Levy-Bruhl’s theory of primitive of mentality, but offered the corrective that even in highly civilized ages many people–I should say most people–are as primitive in their thinking as the savage who gathers up his hair and nail clippings and smooths out his bed, lest an enemy use these parts and images of himself as vehicle for laying a curse. An interesting parallel is the genetic history of a people like, say, the English. If one reads standard accounts, the original inhabitants–a round-headed Basque-like people–were displaced by Celts, conquered by Romans, overrun by Anglo-Saxons, and subjugated by Norman French. Genetic studies, however, seem to indicate that the bottom-line of the English stock is still those old Basques. I might go further and suggest that only a tiny proportion of the human race seems to have outdistanced Homo erectus, and in some places ages I wonder how far we have got from Australopithecus. Yes, Modernity enjoys innumerable inventions that resulted from mathematical break-throughs, but the average American can barely add and subtract, and that same average American–despite the overwhelming evidence around him–believes that men and women are virtually the same and that racial and ethnic differences hardly exist. He also thinks that his life, uplifted by technologies he does not understand, is superior to the lives of people in earlier generations. These superstitions should astound anyone who has any knowledge of logic, history, or science. But there we are.