Choose your historical examples carefully

περιήνεγκεν εἰς ἑαυτὸν τὰς ᾿Αθήνας καὶ τὰ τῶν ᾿Αθηναίων
ἐξηρτημένα πράγματα, φόρους καὶ στρατεύματα καὶ τριήρεις
καὶ νήσους καὶ θάλασσαν καὶ πολλὴν μὲν δι’ ῾Ελλήνων …
ἥκουσαν ἰσχὺν καὶ ἡγεμονίαν …

He [viz. Pericles] brought under his control Athens and the affairs
that depended on the Athenians:  tributes, armies, navies, islands,
sea, the vast power and leadership for which the Greeks were the
source …

Plutarch Pericles 15
[revised  2011; first written 1992]

In an untypically gushy article in The New York Times (Nov. 30, 1992, page A8, cols.1-2), President Clinton’s new “communications director” George Stephanopoulos, a Greek-American, was described as “the modern embodiment of the Periclean ideal.”  Well, given his closeness to Clinton, for the sake of all of us Americans – and especially our allies – I certainly hope not!

It is not my intention to denigrate the very real achievements of Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.) nor ahistorically to take him to task for being a man of his times who did and was what he thought his times demanded – presiding over the “golden age” of Athenian hegemony among the Greeks, promoting the literary and visual arts, exercising his own mental vigor in association with leading intellectuals of the day, and exhibiting an undeniable forcefulness as a political and military leader.  But closer inspection does dim somewhat the full luster of his accomplishments — more than just a little.

For example, a certain xenophobia is seen in legislation he sponsored in 451-450 B.C., the thrust of which was a restrictive immigration policy designed to keep Athens more Athenian and obviate the growing demand of foreigners for state welfare payments (sounds ‘kinda’ vaguely familiar this 2012 campaigning season, doesn’t it?).  His attitude towards women is succinctly stated in the funeral oration he delivered at the end of the first year of the great war:  as for the wives who have been widowed, he said, “for you women not to fail to live up to your natural condition is your great glory, and hers is the greatest glory whose reputation for either good or bad the men [in the city] talk about the least” (Thucydides 2.45.2).  Non-people?

Initially a professed “democrat,” he tried to ram a version of Athenian democracy and control down the gagging throats of resentful allies in the Delian League with his “cleruchies” (Athenians garrisoned throughout the Aegean for political and military purposes – ‘kinda’ like our military ‘advisors’ scattered all over throughout the world?) at the same time that he would use military force to exact monetary contributions to the League Treasury.

In 454/453 B.C. Pericles decided to move that Treasury from the island of Delos to Athens, where its funds were shamelessly converted to Athenian rather than League use (‘kinda’ sound like our foreign aid in reverse?). These monies helped to pay not only for Pericles’ ambitious program of beautifying Athens and increasing state welfare payments to the poorer citizens, but also for a local policy of increased shipbuilding.  A powerful navy was the hammer necessary for forging submission from recalcitrant city-states and beating out of them an increasingly confiscatory cash tribute.  And even though the League’s overt purpose of providing for a mutual defense alliance against Persian attack on Greece had been rendered moot by the Peace of Callias (448 B.C.), Athenian bullying became even more bold and intolerable.  Not to draw invidious and admittedly imperfect comparisons, but it does make one at least think of contemporary ‘monetary leagues and alliances’ in a currently troubled region of the world.

And a more specific modern analogy does come to mind.  It is as though (I am not saying that this is the case) once Russia collapsed, America were to promote a continuation of NATO by using its military as enforcer of its demands that NATO members continue paying taxes to Washington to support NATO, and then were to use those monies for America’s own military and pressing domestic needs.

Pericles himself finally dropped the public fiction that Athens was just one equal member of many in the alliance and observed rather bluntly that what the Athenians really had in their empire was, in the final analysis, a tyranny (Thucydides 2.63.3) – a tyranny the Athenians may well have thought it was unjust to have acquired, but which was now too risky to let go.

His crowning achievement (which, again, has a ‘kinda’ modern ring to it) was in talking his fellow citizens into waging one of the more disastrous wars in recorded history, the so-called Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.).  Pericles became convinced that the Athenians could vanquish the Spartans, exemplifying with a horrible irony the hubris of the many tragic protagonists he had seen parade across the dripping stages of Athenian tragedy during his own lifetime, protagonists once mighty and imperious, then reduced to ruin, personal as well as communal.

The kind of facile and distorting shorthand about antiquity invoked at the start of this essay is in my view an abuse of historical example.1  For it is doubtful that reasonable Americans (or American allies) find many ideals noted above that they think are worthy of emulation or should drive the policies of the new Clinton  administration, or any subsequent one either, for that matter.

A passion too enthusiastic, in love as in matters of a nation’s polity, perilously indulges all too often a selective and exculpating blindness to the unsavory features of its object of desire – until it is too late.

Note 1
A fine example of just this kind of abuse is a recent [2011] book (All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age) foolishly idealizing aspects of Greek antiquity.  It is taken to the woodshed by Professor James Seaton in a review partially available here.

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2 Responses to Choose your historical examples carefully

  1. These times here in Europe seem to be similar in many ways to those times.

  2. Pingback: Can you afford not to study some classics? | laohutiger

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