The Decline of the American Empire: Recessional, Part II
First, a Digression on What The Greeks Mean To Us
The ancient Greeks are among are most significant ancestors or, at least, godfathers. They are one of those mirrors we hold up in order to contemplate our own faces, which we inevitably confuse with theirs. Christians have often read their own darkest impulses into Greek mythology and "idolatry." (A passing thought: Did St. Paul or St. Jerome really believe educated Greeks worshipped statues made by human hands?) Romantic poets found the dynamic imagination they were trying to cultivate, and since Nietzsche some have found justification for their own chaotic passions in the Dionysian aspects of Greek literature and religion.
In general terms, though, the mainstream of interpretation has followed the same path. Since the Enlightenment, ancient Greeks have been portrayed as abstract and universalistic philosophers forever meditating on universal truths. Liberated from the ties of blood and religion, Athenians of Sophocles' time were well on their way to proclaiming themselves, with Zeno the Phoenician founder of Stoicism, "citizens of the world."
There is a germ of truth in this interpretation. Some Greeks did come to the conclusion that one mark of their own superiority was their respect for the human race, and they contrasted their own philanthropy with the narrow-minded bigotry of other peoples such as the Jews. Nonetheless, throughout ancient history, Greeks were were not only intensely local: They were almost completely wrapped up in the ties of kinship 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.
The Greeks themselves eventually fell into decay, and some of them began to embrace weird universalist creeds like Stoicism and Epicureanism that taught them to despise the lesser attachments that had been the basis of their civilization, but they passed on their cultural legacy to the Romans and to us, the heirs of both Greeks and Romans. When over the years I have referred rather too casually to “Christendom,” I have been referring 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. Christendom for 1,300 years has been in conflict with the Islamic world that is the successor to the ancient Assyrians and Persians, but today it is a one-sided war: Samuel Huntingdon wrote glibly of a “clash of civilizations”—a title that always reminded me of Ray Harryhausen’s wonderfully trashy movie, Clash of The Titans--but a fictional narrative based loosely on Greek mythology contained more usable truth than anything written by a Harvard social scientist or anything published in Foreign Affairs. Let us face reality: Without a civilization, how can there be a clash?
Sad Story of the Death of Empires
North America (with the possible exception of parts of Mexico) is no longer a civilized place. Any doubts on that score have been settled over the past decade 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 the wholesome red-blooded barbarians of Northern Europe, but 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, and Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” of a young democracy has been translated into imperial boasting that threatens the world with war on three fronts.
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word-
Thy Mercy on thy People, Lord!
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 (or on Aegina) 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 US politician or Hollywood producer for several years or 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. And we think that we are not only the first, but the last, that our power never ends.
Kipling the imperialist knew better. The only conceivable justification for empire is the benefits that are conferred upon the subjects. The Romans could make this claim, and so could the British in North America. British India, which Kipling knew and loved, was a more doubtful case, though even there, at least by Kipling’s time, many sober and industrious British officials were doing their duty under difficult circumstances. But for imperial nations that put their trust in reeking missile launchers and cluster-bombs enriched with depleted uranium, as Kipling prophesied, the same fate awaits them as overtook the barbarian empires of the East.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
Lest we forget.