Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Classical Metaphors

Lee T. Pearcy has written a fine little review of Robin Waterfield's recent Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), said review appearing in the online Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews (2007.07.41). He begins with some observations about the intersection between classical scholarship and contemporary culture:
This is a time to be reading and teaching Xenophon, and not simply because of a recent wave of scholarly interest. Xenophon and the rest of the Greeks in the pretender Cyrus's army formed their ranks for the Battle of Cunaxa somewhere near the present location of Baghdad International Airport. Early plans for the current administration's invasion of Iraq included a program of infiltration with the code name "Anabasis." (What on earth were they thinking?) As America and Europe go over old ground in our struggle to keep and clarify core values in conflict with the Islamic world, it is worth remembering that, as Robin Waterfield reminds us, "Orientalism . . . is the child of panhellenism" (p. 198). The Anabasis is a good place to begin understanding the Greek and thus Western way of inventing the East and
defining ourselves through contrast, and sometimes conflict, with it.
The temptation to "compare and contrast", as they say on undergraduate essay exams, the present crisis with troubles from antiquity is very strong. I'm not altogether sure it is a good thing, however, but I suppose it will continue to tempt us because classical antiquity offers us both a mirror in which to see a pale reflection of the values and institutions to which we pay lip service and, more often than not, a harsh light in which to see clearly, if we are willing, how little we have progressed in 2300 years:
Somewhere in the mountains of eastern Turkey, the Cyreans, as Waterfield likes to call them, find their passage opposed by the local inhabitants, who hold a pass against them. Cheirisophus, commanding the van, can see no way through except the obvious road strongly defended by the natives. "Wait," says Xenophon, "I have two prisoners, which we captured for this very purpose!" (Anab. IV.1,22.) They interrogate the prisoners. One refuses to give any useful information, despite every kind of threat. When it becomes clear that he will not talk, he is killed in front of the other (Anab. IV.1,23). The second man then agrees to show the Cyreans a passable track around the pass. He adds that the first man kept silence because he had a daughter living in the direction that the army had to take. Xenophon does not need to spell out what the man feared would happen to his daughter.

It is a nasty story, as Waterfield says--"a barbaric act carried out not by barbarians, but by the Greeks themselves" (p. 133). "Xenophon's dead-pan style," he adds, "which permits no editorial comment, leaves his readers not just to imagine the details, but to appreciate the gap that too often exists between military necessity and moral virtue" (p. 134).
I was struck by this because anyone who reads The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times knows that precisely this scenario was used to illustrate the "usefulness" of certain sorts of torture during times of conflict with unprincipled, morally depraved terrorists. The irony of turning into terrorists ourselves in our dealings with terrorists appears to be lost on some persons, but it is interesting, if not downright amusing, to find that things have changed so little over the centuries, and we ought to find it instructive that our cultural and institutional heroes, the Greeks, were every bit as nasty as we are when they needed to be. We are, perhaps, more like them than even we ourselves would care to admit.

If there is to be anything like "moral progress" in human affairs, it will come only when we see "winning" in a different light, a non-utilitarian light in which to become like our enemies is a worse fate than to be defeated by our enemies. I'm with Socrates on this one--he's that other Greek, who argued that it is worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong. Not a politic point of view these days, but it just might be a Christian one.

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