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12.23.2003

Interesting piece that I got via Instapundit by Michael Novak.


Many people have noted the influence of Greece on American architecture and early culture . . . The United States is self-consciously a child of the ancient civilization of Greece and Rome.

Well, yes . . . and no. To understand America's Founding Fathers, it is indeed crucial to know that they did study such authors as Polybius and Thucydides, and that some of the ideas of these authors were heavily influential on the FF. The notion of a *written* consitution, for example, is Greek. However, much of the political thought of the Greeks is contradictory. If you look at what the Greeks DID rather than what a bunch of airy-fairy armchair philosophers WROTE, you see that the Greek notion of freedom is a flexible concept. Greek poleis, or city-states, were almost constantly at war with each other. The Greeks thought that war was as a natural state of existence for humankind as peace; Heraclitus, a Presocratic philosopher, talks about this in the 6th century BC.

It would be more accurate to say that the American FF took *some* Greek political ideas and ignored others in an attempt to make a cogent constitution.

It's also sort of weird to say that American has a "Spartan" side and an "Athenian" side. These two city-states' qualities are vastly different from those of the United States. They were additionally quite different from each other, and atypical of the hundreds of city states that existed. One major difference is the role religion played in Greek politics: they were explicity intermingled and before major political decisions were made the auspices had to be consulted. (An aside: There are modern equivalents of these divines, and I tend to think that the internet and blogs may play a similar role.) Anyway, whatever the influence of Greek political philosophy on the constitution's writers, the influence of Greek modes of living on American popular culture seem to me to be about zero. Aristotle's golden mean and Plato's virtue are not to be found on the streets of LA -- or anywhere else in this country . . . moderation, a key strain of thought in Greek philosophy, is a word that isn't typically used as praise here. Americans tend to be extreme -- or think that they are -- and view individualism and self-expression as rights to be used, loudly. Americans also tend to be thoughtless, as my prior post indicates. What was she thinking? Well, she just wasn't. Americans have turned a celebration of individualism into a cult of narcissism. This is why you see fat girls wearing midriff-baring shirts. They know it's the the style, and dammit, they're gonna wear the style, NO MATTER HOW BAD IT LOOKS. And who wants to see a fat girl's gut? No-one, that's who. Any more than I want to se a fat man's gut. Zeus above.

Anyway, Novak's piece is a nice one but the whole Athens-Sparta thing doesn't work for me at all. he goes on to write:

If one examines the many places in which American armies became engaged after 1941, one is likely to find today the most prosperous, freest, most democratic nations in the history of the world. When Americans go to war, the first domestic urgency is to win quickly, and the second urgent priority is just as quickly to find "an exit strategy." Americans do not want to stay. They do not want empire. They want to go home.

Novak is correct that Americans don't want an empire, but he might have said that we don't want another empire. We have an empire. It's here. It's called "America." We just need any more land, really. Stole this one from the indians and spanish fair and square, thanks! Anyway, American and Americans go to war for the same three reasons that Thucydides elucidated in his work about a war between Athens and Sparta, some 2500 years ago: honor, fear, and interest, in different measures at different times. Novak asserts that slavery required a war to end but fails to note that slavery was ended in Europe without recourse to war. What was different about America? (On a snarky aside, I wonder whether Novak knows that the Greeks had little or no moral difficulty with slavery.) The riches of Athens came from silver mines worked by slaves in appalling conditions.

If you want to compare America to an ancient state, try Rome. Rome ruled the known world in a similar way that American does now. ""civis romanus sum" or, "I am a Roman citizen," was something which people wanted to say, and desire for Roman citizenship became nearly universal throughout the Roman world, as American citizenship appeals to many throughout the world. But even those comparisons only go so far: Rome morphed from a teensy little city-state into a massive empire, and its rulers struggled governing an empire using the laws of a teensy little city-state. Consolidation of power ensued, and the Republic became an Empire. America was conceived as a democracy and has stayed one for two hundred plus years now. That's what's impressive about the American achievement to date.

One more thing: Novak also doesn't show all his cards on the influence of the ancients on the FFs. Many Greek political philosophers, especially Plato, were massively contemptuous of democracy -- for good cause, the Athenian democracy having voted to kill Plato's beloved mentor, Socrates -- and some of the safeguards written into the U.S. Constitution are there to curb some of the dangerous tendencies of democratic excesses . . . that being said, I wonder to what extent which of the founding fathers shared Plato's contempt for the democratic rabble. Having been around for 36 years now, and having met a wide variety of Americans, I'm glad some of them did.



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