Political Realism: A Greek Primer

A version of this was published in 2001

My second law of presidential elections is that the best liar wins (usually).  This law goes a long way toward explaining why it took so long for the result of the 2000 election to be declared: Both parties were working round the clock, not only in the lower courts but also in the ultimate TV court of appeal, to spin flax into flannel. "We wuz robbed-- the perennial cry of the poor sport--doesn't work for anyone except politicians, and no one expects them to be in touch with reality.  Hillary Clinton was foolish enough to try  the same trick, but by 2016 the wheeze had gone stale.     

In this never-ending period of what everyone seems to be calling a political crisis, no one is willing to talk about the underlying problems which have nothing to do with the electoral college or voting machines but with the basic legitimacy--or rather the lack thereof--of the American regime.

American reticence on political questions was noted by Tocqueville, but, in the period between the Frenchman’s celebrated visit to America and our own time, the national reticence degenerated into cowardice and  into an engrained habit of dissimulation that prevents most of us (apart from a few radicals and reactionaries) from being candid about our history or our institutions.  We lie about everything, and the more important an issue is, the less likely we are to tell the truth, even to ourselves. 

That is one reason (among many) why there is so little point in teaching history (or literature or philosophy or theology or anything but business administration and computer science) in the United States.  If American students study with “conservatives” (who reflect the propaganda of the 50’s), they will learn all about how this great democracy of ours was founded by probably the best darn bunch of people who have ever crawled out of the European slime, and if they have a mainstream (i.e., Marxist-feminist-vegetarian) professor, they will be given the new official version of American history as the saga of wife-beating, Negro-lynching, Indian-massacring patriarchs.  Even in the early 19th century, Mr. Jefferson was regarded either as a great “democrat” (which he manifestly was not) or as a dishonest machine politician who fathered illegitimate mulatto children (though he was not and did not).  Perhaps Americans of Tocqueville’s day were right not to discuss politics with the nosy foreigner, perhaps they knew they would only have to tell one lie or another.  

This national characteristic may also help to explain why we can never learn from our mistakes.  To learn from a mistake, the learner has to admit it; to correct a problem,  the corrector has to be in touch with reality, which means--as the Confucians would say--learning to call things by their right names.  Instead, here in America, Communists are called leftists, Marxian socialists are liberals, liberal are conservatives, and so on.  We live in  a democracy, we tell ourselves every day, the greatest democracy in the history of the world, but we do not have the least knowledge of what democracy is, and because we are incorrigible liars, we do not care.

We have eyes but we do not use them to see with.  Perhaps it takes a blind person to tell by touch that all our emperors are naked.  Helen Keller was afflicted with socialism, pacifism, and just about every other "ism" of the 20th century, but, in a famous letter of 1911, she showed that she could distinguish between the world she wanted and the world she actually lived in.

We, the people, are not free. Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means we choose between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. We elect expensive masters to do our work for us, and then blame them because they work for themselves and for their class.

Nothing has changed except for one obvious development:  In the past 100 years, the rich have become richer and more powerful, while the rest of us have been entirely dependent upon a government that serves the interest only of the rich and powerful and the slaves who keep them in power.  This is a country where Bernie Sanders can make a significant number of people believe that he is just an ordinary guy who cares about the plight of the working man.

We cannot learn from our present, because we refuse to look at reality (for example, the reality that elections are determined far more by a race gap than by any gender gap), and we  cannot learn from the past because our historians and teachers are among the biggest liars in this empire of lies.  I conclude from this that we shall have to take our medicines, however bitter, from the histories of other more candid peoples.

There are two compelling reasons for studying the Greeks (and the Greek language).  The first is the obvious reason that they invented most of the cultural forms in which our civilization is expressed--history, formal philosophy, tragedy, epic, oratory--and they reached a peak of excellence that may occasionally be equaled (by a few Romans and Italians and even a stray German or Englishman) but has never been surpassed. 

The second reason gives me the pretext for writing this essay, that although the Greeks were among the most accomplished liars and swindlers of the ancient world, they could be remarkably candid about their passions and their motives, even their vices.  Like the patrons of a restaurant in Athens, who expect to examine the fish the proprietor assures them is fresh, the ancients assumed everyone was crooked.  That is why the Athenians insisted upon large juries, because it would cost too much to buy them, and that is why, during the Athenian democracy, everyone holding a major office underwent a scrutiny, when he laid down his office.  He was presumed guilty of corruption unless he could demonstrate his innocence.   Athenians lied to each other, as most men do, but they were honest with themselves.

The brutal candor of Homer and Hesiod, to take only two writers at the beginning of the Greek literary tradition, is matched (in my limited reading) only by the best of Icelandic writing.  I remember the shock experienced by some of my fellow-students in a seminar on early Greek poetry, when in the midst of a discussion of Solon’s magisterial and dignified poetry on his political reforms, we were confronted with the evidence of his pederasty verse.  The professor (Douglas Young), looking alternatively merry and stern, observed that you always had to be on guard against the Greeks.  They would, on occasion, talk about anything.  

This alarming candor shocked many Romans, though it has given degenerate moderns an excuse for dipping into the bad recent translations of Greek literature.  Greek writers could be particularly straightforward about the reality of power.  Read Hesiod’s attempts to justify the ways of gods to men and you will come across the story of the nightingale crying out to the hawk that has captured her.  

Oh what a fool to cry of right and wrong,

A weakling in the clutches of the strong;   

The moral, that only fools struggle with those who are stronger, is something that goes against the Horatio Alger grain of the American character.  

The historian Thucydides is often interpreted as a precursor of Machiavelli.  There is truth in this characterization, though there is another side to his character.  In describing the rise and fall of the Athenian democracy, he was also a pious and patriotic citizen trying to tell the truth about the age he had lived through. He admired  Pericles, the so-called champion of democracy,  but he also says, “They called it democracy but it was really the rule of one man.”

They were skeptical without being cynical, idealistic without being hypocrites.  Themistocles, the Athenian statesman who prepared his city in advance for the second Persian invasion, was much admired even in Sparta, where parleyed Spartan admiration into a series of delays that permitted the Athenians to build their defensive walls.  And yet, he was a bribe-taker, who had to take refuge with the Persians.  He was among the greatest men of his time, but he was, after all, only a man.  Knowing the ancient Greeks is like rediscovering the realities of human nature.

His description of the argument between the Athenians and the people of Melos (to whom Athens had given the choice, desert the Spartans and join us--or die) is the sort of narrative that no prominent American could write in connection with, say, Madeline Albright at Rambouillet or Harry Truman about to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

A typical modern American is someone like the Bill O'Reilly character on television.  I say "character" because, like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and the incredible Glen Beck, no one knows what, if anything, he actually believes.  He pretends to be a hard-headed and impartial observer, when he is just a naive and ignorant high school teacher spouting off platitudes to his virtual class.  I can imagine the ad for his next book: "I'm not a journalist, but I play one on TV."

Perhaps the great exemplar is the late Andy Rooney, who (in a memoir) said he was converted from pacifism by the sight of Buchenwald.  Mr. Rooney, who had made a good living by ignoring real problems and whining about trifles (“Look at all this junk they put in direct mail envelopes…”), said that he wished he could have taken his pacifist professor through the camp to see why America had to enter the war.  Even a journalist who had worked so long for CBS ought to have been able to ask himself this simple question: If WWII were really a war to save 6 million European Jews (which it was not in any sense), would saving those 6 million have justified the death of about 40 million American, English, French, Polish, Russian, German, Belgian, Japanese et al. soldiers and civilians?  

The question, as Mr. Rooney and his generation of America-boosters put it, is absurd.  A war to preserve the moral conscience of Europe would have been a fine thing, though it would also justify any Christian country in attacking the infanticidal United States.  There were, in fact, sound practical reasons for going to war, few of them on a higher moral plane than the Athenian motives in turning their alliance into an empire of exploited and subjugated peoples.  When Mr. Buchanan attempted to develop this line of argument, he was roundly condemned as a German-loving anti-Semite, because in modern America, it is apparently impossible to love your country and loathe Nazism (both for their evil principles and their evil deeds) without regarding the mid-century bloodbath as on the whole a good idea.  (I am expecting the usual badly typed postcard from a German-American madwoman in North Carolina saying the Nazis never did no one no wrong.)

Though countless millions of people suffered terribly in two world wars, some people did very well out of both of them, and if there is one thing we Americans take seriously, it is money  But even on that most vital subject, we cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth.  The Greeks, by contrast, were very straightforward and regarded money as on the whole an unmixed blessing.  With money you can pursue your passion for power and sex--for anything you want.  “To be wealthy,” sang honest Pindar in an ode celebrating a rich patron, “when fate brings wisdom with it, is the best thing there is.” 

Though many aristocrats complained that money wasn’t everything (“Wealth, wealth makes the man,” as one cynical proverb went), none of them including their greatest moral philosopher (Aristotle) would try to pretend to rise above all such material questions.  In America, the Yellow Rich all claim to have gone beyond such sordid interests.  They chase after money  all the way into the years of senility not to get richer--no, they would never say that, but only for the thrill of the game or for all the good they can do.  

The pieties of Bezos and Zuckerberg, Gates, Buffet,  and Musk would have driven the Athenian assembly into hysterical laughter.  Here in poor benighted Rockford, investors in a Hard Rock Casino project are all claiming their only interest is to bring jobs to the community.  From Rockford's newspaper of record comes this amazing paragraph:

Although he declined to say how much money he agreed to invest or what percentage of ownership he obtained, Dr. William Cunningham Jr., a Rockford obstetrician and gynecologist associated with SwedishAmerican Hospital, said he tapped his retirement savings to invest in the project. Cunningham said he sees the investment as a way to contribute to the Rockford community. He was willing to risk the money on the venture because it will benefit the city, creating an estimated 1,200 Rockford-area construction jobs and 1,000 permanent casino jobs.

Why, this man's  another Doctor Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, selflessly risking his retirement savings for the sake of his unemployed fellow townsmen!

There is a school of economic thought known as public choice theory.  In politics, their great contribution to our understanding of government is the simple insight that politicians and bureaucrats--like everyone else on the planet--act largely in their own, rather than in the public's interest.  I am not at all suggesting that their economic analysis is trivial--far from it--but if one had explained the basic principle to a crowd of Greeks, they would have said something like, "And the sun rises in the East, doesn't it?"

Avatar photo

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

7 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Today’s lying propaganda becomes tomorrow’s textbook history and big-budget movie, further corrupting our character with each passing generation. This fact is incomprehensible to most Americans, and would be rejected by almost all those who did comprehend.

    This explains why books with titles such as “The 48 Laws of Power” (imagine Machiavelli on crack), and “Snakes in Suits” are published mostly for niche markets. People prefer their delusions.

    When I was fourteen, I bought a little booklet entitled, “50 Ways to See Thru People”. I was too young then to do anything but reject most of what was written in it, and was shocked by much of it. After getting older and a little wiser, I bought some more by the same author, with titles like, “Expose Human Sharks 100 Ways”, and “Women: 50 Ways to See Thru Men (For Men Too)”, and “1500 Ways to Escape the Human Jungle”. While these titles may seem silly, the booklets were packed with important insights into how people really are. The author didn’t stop there, however, because in other books he told his readers to turn these insights in upon themselves and see where they themselves come up short. And that, my friends, is why that writer was never a famous guru with millions of followers.

    Now Dr Fleming has brought all this full circle, at least for me. It appears that the writers of the titles mentioned above were merely rediscovering what the ancients knew and modern ideologically minded people forgot. Had the author of those booklets been Greek, he would have been mainstream, at least until he told people to look at themselves. It is amazing that the Greeks were so open about such things, wrote about them, and those ancient writers were widely read and became part of the literary canon. That may well go a long way toward explaining why they were so great, and why we have lost what greatness we had after ditching the classics, because it seems that when we ditched the classics (and Christianity), we ditched our understanding of human nature, and therefore of ourselves.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Right on every count. Here, for example, was Thucydides’ take on Pericles, the champion of democracy. The historian knew he was a great man in many respects and paid tribute to him, but he also says, “They called it democracy but it was really the rule of one man.” They were skeptical without being cynical, idealistic without being hypocrites. Knowing the ancient Greeks is like rediscovering the realities of human nature.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Who wrote those panphlets?

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    They were written by a man named Vernon Howard. Be aware, however, that his full-size books usually had weird occult sounding titles, such as “The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power”. That wasn’t his fault, it was the fault of his publishers, who came up with such titles in order to target certain audiences. In short, his books would never sell in most markets, so the publishers tried to sell them in the self-help and occultist markets, because they couldn’t think of any other audience to market them to. He himself, though somewhat of a spiritualist or even amateur philosopher, would have been the first to warn anyone against occultism in general or the New Age movement, and he was in fact very traditionalist in his views on society, though not outspoken on them. He was the one gem who might be found among all the chaff of late twentieth century pop-psychology, self help, and pop-spiritual authors, because he wasn’t one of them at all. I can’t think of another writer to compare him to. Perhaps we could think of him as a secular, not overtly religious version of a Christian mystic, if that makes any sense. Think of “The Cloud of Unknowing”, and other such Christian spiritual writings.

    My favorite quote from Howard is (concerning the welfare state): “The government is destroying society by turning us all into panhandlers”.

    I’m being so long winded about this because most sensible people will be put off by the silly, often occult sounding titles of most of his books, which is a shame.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Mr. Wilson- Howard drew on many esoteric teachings. One that I am familiar with is Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. One of the main teachings is to be more self-aware and less mechanical. This is one of the objectives of meditation, to live in the moment or present. It is called self remembering. Two books I like are by Red Hawk: Self Observation and Self Remembering.

    One thing to remember is that the only person you can change is yourself. You have to know yourself before you can change yourself. Self control involves controlling your emotions. In this regard, no one but you can make you angry. With proper training you can react without anger to situations that you do not like.

    Another useful guide is the Philokalia.

  6. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Van Sant, you are right about that, but of course it is very hard to do. Your mentioning of the Philokalia brought something else to mind, which I’ll get to shortly, and hopefully it will tie this back into the main theme of Dr Flemings discussion.

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    What is a genuine mystic? Someone who hears the logos in some form, usually in a way in which few can. These true mystics must be distinguished from heretics, nutjobs, charlatans looking for followers, occultists, etc. Once upon a time, the church, both in the east as well as the west, and later even some of the early protestant sects, knew how to tell the difference. They knew how to deal with the fruits, nuts, occultists, etc., but they also knew how to accommodate true mystics so as to incorporate them into the church, so that, on the one hand, benefit could be gained from their insights, and on the other hand, any potential harm which might come from misunderstanding of their teachings could be nipped in the bud. This last point is important, since true mystics are very likely to be misunderstood even by students, and those misunderstandings could lead to the founding of entire movements, cults, etc., which can be dangerous to their adherents, to people around them, even to society as a whole, and can even endanger civilization it in the long term.

    Before Christinaity, the Greeks had some way of accommodating true mystics, through mystery cults, etc., and the Church, founded by the greatest of all true mystics (because if he didn’t have a handle on logos then who did?), continued in that vein, sometimes with new methods. One way of accommodating true mystics is, of course, the monastery and the convent, but there are others.

    As we have degenerated, as our society has degenerated, and as Christianity has degenerated along with it, we have, I propose, lost much or most of our connection with logos itself, thus we have lost all appreciation for the true mystic, and also the ability to distinguish between true mystics and nuts, charlatans, cult leaders, etc. Imagine how an atheist or agnostic would take a mystic talking about God. How would he know the difference, or even care? How would most televangelized church goers be any different? This is why a true mystic like Vernon Howard wound up without any institution into which he could be integrated, and had to write books with odd titles using wierd terminology in order to try to get his message through to miseducated semi-literate people with no real understanding of much of anything. He was wise and knew how to get rid of cultist types, camp followers, people looking for something to believe in so they could go out and make converts, etc.

    This degeneration and loss of appreciation for true mystics, and the loss of ability to integrate them into the church, along with the loss of abiliity to tell true mystic from occultist and charlatan, has run concurrently with the loss of the classics, traditional philosophy, orthodox theology, etc., and in fact what I have written here about mystics can perhaps be applied to philosophers as well.

    I’m trying to make a connection with what Dr Fleming has said about the decline of political realism and of the understanding of human nature which we have suffered, because I know very well that there is a connection here, but somehow I’m failing to make it, though I think it is the understanding of human nature, both of ourselves and others, that is the key that connects what he said with what I’m trying to say.

    We have lost the understanding that knowledge of language, logic, rhetoric, and philosophy bring. We have lost the understanding that study of the classics brings. Thus, we have lost the intellectual heart of our civilization. We have lost the understanding that the bible and theology bring, we have lost the understanding that can be gotten from true mystics with connection to logos. Therefore we have lost both the intellectual and spiritual heart of our civilization. The connection between these two hearts is knowledge of ourselves, both as persons and as societies.

    And then, along came self-help, pop-psychology, cults, and ideologies.

    That’s the best I can do with this.