“Which Clash, What Civilization?” Conclusion

This is the meaning behind Herodotus’ still famous tale of Solon and Croesus.  The Greek philosopher was visiting the fabulously wealthy Lydian king, who asked him to name the happiest man on earth.  Solon tells him of an Athenian who lived well, produced a good family, and died fighting for his people.  When Croesus, a little crest-fallen, asks him if there is a close second, Solon tells him the true story of Cleobis and Biton, who, when they could not find the oxen to yoke to the cart, died after pulling their mother to a festival of Argive Hera.  “Well, what about me?” Croesus complains, and Solon delivers his homily on the vicissitudes of human life.  Wealth is of course a blessing to a man, especially if he also has good health and fine children.  Such a man might be regarded as happy, but until he dies, he can only be described as fortunate.  Croesus is taught the truth of Solon’s wisdom, when his one son who might succeed him (the other is a mute) is accidentally killed and when, later, he is conquered by the Persians.  Herodotus’ conception of happiness--a convention among the Greeks--is familial and communal, not individualistic.

The Greeks themselves eventually fell into decay, and some of them began to embrace weird universalist creeds, such as  Stoicism and Epicureanism, which taught them to despise the lesser attachments that had been the basis of their civilization.  Even as the dwindled, though, they were capable of producing great architects, engineers, and writers.  They also passed on their cultural legacy to the Romans and to us, the heirs of both Greeks and Romans.  When to this day we refer to Christendom, it is to that essentially Greek civilization that was disciplined by Roman law and leavened with the Holy Spirit that Our Lord sent to comfort us and teach us to comfort one another.

The Greeks were capable of great kindness, but in settling their colonies or attacking their neighbors they could be as ruthless as any gang of pirates or medieval war lords.  Their strong fiber was put to the test during the Persian Wars, and even earlier when the Persians were advancing into the Aegean.  

Of all the Greeks that went in search of colonies, trade, and plunder, none were bolder or more fiercely independent than the people of Phocaea, the northernmost of the Ionian cities on Asia Minor.  Herodotus says they were the first Greeks to undertake long voyages, and Phocaean merchants strung out a series of trading posts across the Mediterranean, founding Masillia (Marseilles) on the way to Spain.  In 540, hopelessly outnumbered by the Persian army, the Phocaeans asked for a truce of one day to consider the surrender terms.  Within 24 hours, they managed to sail away with their wives and children to Chios.  Forced to move, they stopped back in Phocaea before setting out for Corsica and put the entire Persian garrison to the sword.  Half the Phocaeans chose to remain behind in their native city, but these timid souls were to distinguish themselves later in the Ionian Revolt against Persia. In Corsica, they took up the lucrative career of piracy, but driven from Corsica by the Etruscans and Carthaginians, they settled in southern Italy, where they founded Elea, a city that was to become famous for philosophy.  

Parmenides and Zeno, the descendants of warriors and pirates, taught Western man the essential law of all his logic and philosophy, that things were what they were and could not be what they were not.  Aristotle was to formulate it as the law of non-contradiction, and if this does not make sense to you, go live in Arabia or China, where they have never figured it out.

“America, love it or leave it,” is the answer usually given to critics, whether they come from the left or the right, but the dichotomy is not so straightforward.  The Phocaeans loved their city, and because they loved it, they knew they had to leave.  The Athenians, 140 years later, to defend themselves from the same enemy in the East, sent their wives and children away for safe-keeping, and took to their ships to face the Persian fleet at Salamis.  Greeks against Persians, Romans against Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, Italians and Spaniards against the Turks at Lepanto--these were phases in a real “clash of civilization,” but without a civilization, what is the clash?

North America (with the possible exception of a few places in  Mexico) is no longer a civilized place.  Any doubts on that score have been settled year after year by the strutting, boasting, drooling “patriots” who are rushing forward to burn whatever shreds of liberty and fig leaves of decency they had upon the altar of national security. 

In transforming the United States into an empire, the rulers of this country have accepted the logic that if localism, restraint, and self-government are Hellenic, then it is time to side with the barbarians, not with the wholesome redblooded barbarians of Northern Europe, but with the Babylonians and Assyrians.  When our leaders talk to the press, the language is that of Xerxes, not Leonidas and Themistocles.  We’re better because we’re bigger; we see farther; we’ve transcended all those petty loyalties of blood and soil, and we’re building a global order.  

A Greek at Salamis was fighting for “the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.”  When the battle was over, he hoped to return to his little hamlet in Attica and grow old with his one wife, taking care of his vines and olive trees as if they were invalid children.  He knew every inch of his property, and the boundaries of his world were defined by his local deme and--at its broadest--by the territory of Attica, hardly bigger than an American county.  Xerxes thought in bigger terms: a harem filled with enough women to content a Hollywood producer or enough boys to satisfy a US congressman for several years, a multi-cultural empire that included all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.  To signal his contempt for the traditional distinction between East and West, he built a bridge across the Hellespont, and though Persians revered water as divine, he scourged the Hellespont for having the presumption to destroy the bridge even though his lord and master had done the sea no harm.

Now we are the multi-cultural empire with troops stationed around the world, ruled by a promiscuous elite class that looks upon all religions with equal contempt and refuses to listen, when the grumbling masses of the East complain against the masters who have bridged not just the Hellespont but every sea and ocean of the globe.  Where does this leave us Hellenes?

I recall a conversation I had, not so many years ago, with an Italian political intellectual who had always supported the United States as a bulwark of freedom and Christianity against the Evil Empire.  After the Gulf War and the cowardly attack on Yugoslavia, he was changing his mind, and he wanted to know how I felt as a conservative and patriotic American.  Imagine, I told him, that you had married your high school sweetheart.  The marriage was happy, if not perfect, and everything seemed wonderful until one day you discovered that the mother of your children was earning millions of dollars as a prostitute and madam.  Does the husband stay at home and try to reform a wife, who spends her time in Hollywood “playing with the stars”?  Or does he take the kids and leave?

So we find ourselves, more than one generation of Americans, lost in the supermarket in what used to be home town and finding relief in the TV coverage of our unending wars to relieve other people of the burden of being themselves, our nightly  “cheap holiday in other people’s misery.” 

Should we stay or should we go?


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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

4 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    If I were twenty years younger I might go to Patagonia. Simply abjuring the realm may not work, and secession seems laughable at this point unless collapse of the center forces it on the states. The Benedict option is ridiculous, as is founding separate rural communities. That leaves moving to remote parts of the world, or remaining where we are and trying to pass something on. For most of us the latter is the only viable option.

    I would go if I could.

  2. George Bagby says:

    The ashes of my fathers are desecrated and despised in every riot, but the temple of my God is full of infants and children. Good living and good conversation are still possible. The downside of other lands, though they frequently have better architecture, is that I would sing Dixie alone, and I could not read the literature. I’ll volunteer to stay and die.

  3. Robert Peters says:

    Like the good Mr. Bagby, I will stay and die, to hopefully rest with my ancestors in Madden Cemetery until that day when all things are made new.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    This is quite beautiful. Thanks for posting this, Tom.