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?"