“Which Clash, What Civilization?” Part One of Two


Should I stay or should I go?

…If I go there will be trouble.

An’ if I stay there will be double.

So come on and let me know.

Should I stay or should I go?

One of the minor annoyances of growing old is the uncomfortable feeling that that less time we have left, the faster it seems to be going by.  In a dying civilization the annoyance is aggravated by the constant awareness of how rapidly downhill everything is headed.  Even the conversation about civilizations, their rise and fall, their conflicts, has become steadily more stupid.  In my grandfather’s days, intellectuals were talking about Nietzsche and Spengler; now we are reduced to Benjamin Barber and Samuel Huntingdon or worse--Francis Fukuyama.  Even as a raving maniac, Nietzsche was a product of "our civilization"--I put the phrase within quotation marks because I haven’t yet said what I mean by it.  What is Mr. Huntingdon but George F. Babbit with a Ph.D.?  One in that long series of American “exceptionalist” gurus whose wisdom consists of saying what everyone has already been taught to believe.

We all learned the story from fifth grade world history and ninth grade civics.  In the beginning all was darkness, except for some little pockets of organized life in China, India, and the eastern Mediterranean.  Then light broke upon the Aegean Sea, and the Greeks discovered democracy:  the worth of the individual and the sham of religion.  The light was almost extinguished by Christian superstition, but began to shine all the brighter in the Renaissance and Reformation,  bursting into flame during the Enlightenment, whose culmination was the American and French Revolutions, and since then Americans (and their European followers) have marched unswervingly in their progress toward Huntington’s “liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, rule of law, private enterprise,” to say nothing of free abortions, jacuzzis in every Holiday Inn, international human rights, gourmet food you can heat up in the microwave, fresh Mexican fruit from a market run by illegal Korean aliens, freedom from religions that claim to possess the truth…

  brekekekex koax koax

Once upon a time Gilbert's Major General was joined by every schoolboy who knew "the croaking chorus of the Frogs of Aristophanes."

There is obviously some element of truth in the American self-congratulatory and ethnocentric view of history, but there is a good deal less truth than, say, in the belief that Frenchmen make the best lovers or that “the Irish saved civilization.”  If you want to suck up more of this pap, read John Dewey, watch Jim Lehrer or Wolf Blitzer, subscribe to Foreign Affairs or the Public Interest, but throw this essay away and delete the file.  The rest may ponder the more interesting question posed by the real Clash: “Should I cool or should I blow?” 

Herodotus, who is the first writer (at least extant writer) to have taken up the conflict between the two civilizations of the Mediterranean, did decide “to blow,” and he spent a fair amount of time hopping from island to island and roaming through Egypt.  The results of his casual investigations (or “histories” as he called them) form the most entertaining (and perhaps even the most honest) work of history every written.  As a Greek, Herodotus had no doubts about the superiority of his own civilization, but he had grown up cheek-by-jowl with Carian barbaroi, and he was fully aware of the splendid virtues of the Persians and of the cultural antiquity of the Egyptians.  His opennness to alien cultures went to the point of gullibility, since he appears to have accepted uncritically nearly every preposterous story told to him by Egyptian priests.

Greek history, according to Herotodus, is the story of conflicts between East and West.  Making the best sense he can of myths and legends, he concludes that women are at the bottom of the East-West feud.  Phoenicians began the struggle by stealing the King of Argos’ daughter; Greeks later retaliated by abducting Europa and compounded the crime when the Argonauts ran off with Medea.  Priam’s son Alexander (or “Paris”) was only seeking revenge, when he seduced Helen and started the Trojan War.  This is the Persian view, he assures us, and the Persians in attacking Greeks are only retaliating against earlier aggressions.

Even in the silly preface to his work--parodied brilliantly by Aristophanes--Herodotus reveals what he is about.  Although his theme is the triumph of the Greeks in the wars against Persia, he insists upon listening to the Persian version, which puts the blame on the Greeks.  Although he understands the importance of trade and commerce--that is what, after all, these Greeks, Phoenicians, and Trojans were doing when they were not stealing each others’ women--he is also aware of the significance of irrational attachments, both sexual passion and national myths.

Herodotus is no multi-culturalist, but he finds barbarians fascinating, whether they are Scythians, who get stoned in a tent filled with the fumes of hemp steaming on hot rocks and "get so delighted they shout for joy, or Egyptian princesses working as temple prostitutes, or power-crazed Persian tyrants like Cambyses, who killed the priests of Apis when a sacrifice went wrong and went on to murder his brother and sister, and Xerxes, who, when a bridge collapsed in a storm, killed the architects and scourged the sea for interfering in the Great King’s plans.  

The Greeks he portrays are not necessarily braver or nobler than the Persian aristocracy, but they are different.  Though Greeks may spend their lives scheming for power, they either display restraint and a sense of limit (like the King of Sparta who thought the Persians were too far away to worry about) or else they suffer the consequences of their arrogance.  When Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, is advised by the King of Egypt to sacrifice something of value in order to limit his dangerous run of good luck, he casts a valuable golden ring  into the sea.  When the ring is found in the belly of a fish presented to Polycrates as a gift, we know that his number is up, and that he will die a miserable death.

Although Greek political leaders might dream of expanding their territory, they rarely succeeded, and down to Herodotus’ death and after, Greeks remained intensely local and provincial, even during the period (the fourth century) that their culture was conquering the known world.  Herodotus paints the contrast between the barbarian’s universal empire and the Greeks in vivid colors.  Xerxes’ vast expedition includes virtually every subject race, and when the Greeks block them at the pass of the Thermopylae, the Spartans dismiss most of their allies and die to the last man.  Xerxes is at first contemptuous of the little Spartan band, but he is told that these are men who put everything into athletic competitions where the prize is a worthless crown of leaves.  

The Persians themselves are brave soldiers, but no Persian is free except the Great King himself; soldiers from subject nations are whipped into battles to extend the power and glory of the empire; Greeks (in Aeschylus’s first-hand description of Salamis) go to meet death to save their families and their temples. Since the Enlightenment, ancient Greeks have been portrayed as abstract philosophers forever meditating on universal truths.  In fact, they were not only intensely local: They were almost completely wrapped up in the ties of kinshp and local community.  Aristotle wondered if a man could be said to be happy, if he had lived a successful life and died with his family and city flourishing but, after his death, his family and city were ruined.  It might seem reasonable to call such a man happy, but Aristotle thought it went against common sense.

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.

To be concluded...

A form of this piece appeared originally in 2002



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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