If drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” address was a remarkable performance in many ways: It simultaneously marked the zenith of American triumphalism and the nadir, not only of presidential speechwriting, but of U.S. pronouncements on foreign policy.  That otherwise intelligent men in the Cabinet allowed this farce to be performed is a very disturbing indication of the depths of cynicism to which our leaders have descended.  I had thought Albright and Clinton had reached rock bottom, but I was wrong.

One of the minor annoyances of growing old in a dying civilization is that we are constantly aware of how rapidly downhill everything is headed.  Even the conversation about civilizations and empires, their rise and fall, their conflicts, has become steadily more stupid.  In our grandfathers’ days, people were talking about Nietzsche and Spengler, and taking up the white man’s burden was the theme of speeches by Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and poems by Rudyard Kipling; now we are reduced to Benjamin Barber and Samuel Huntington and the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal.  Even as a raving maniac, Nietzsche was a product of [our civilization] (I put it in brackets because I have not yet said what I mean by it).  What is Mr. Huntington but George F. Babbit with a Ph.D.?  He is but one in that long series of American “exceptionalist” gurus whose wisdom consists of saying what everyone has already been taught to believe.

We all learned the story from fifth-grade world history and ninth-grade civics.  In the beginning, all was darkness, except for some little pockets of organized life in China, India, and the eastern Mediterranean.  Then light broke upon the Aegean Sea, and the Greeks discovered democracy and the worth of the individual.  The light was almost extinguished by Christian superstition but began to shine all the brighter in the Renaissance and Reformation, bursting into flame during the Enlightenment, which culminated in the American and French Revolutions, and, since then, Americans (and their European followers) have marched unswervingly in their progress toward Huntington’s “liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, rule of law, private enterprise”—to say nothing of free abortions, jacuzzis in every Holiday Inn, international human rights, gourmet food you can heat up in the microwave, fresh Mexican fruit from a market run by illegal Korean aliens, freedom from religions that claim to possess the truth . . .

Brekekekex ko-ax ko-ax

If you want to suck up more of this pap, read John Dewey, watch Jim Lehrer or Wolf Blitzer, subscribe to Foreign Affairs or the Public Interest, but throw this magazine away.  We did not invent civilization; we inherited it.  And, so far from improving upon our inheritance, we have proved ourselves unworthy of it.  Civilization, and hence the clash of civilizations, began with the Greeks.

As curious as they were about other cultures, the Greeks divided the world between Greeks and “the others,” whom they referred to as barbaroi, a word that may be an onomatopoetic rendering of foreign babble.  Although the term “barbarian” certainly included such wild peoples of the North as Illyrians and Scyths, it was more typically applied to the degenerate subjects of the great empires of the East, especially the Persians.

Herodotus, who was the first extant writer to have taken up the conflict between the two civilizations of the Mediterranean, spent a fair amount of time hopping from island to island, roaming through Egypt, and living among the barbarians.  The results of his casual investigations (or “histories,” as he called them) form the most entertaining (and perhaps even the most honest) work of history every written.  As a Greek, Herodotus had no doubts about the superiority of his own civilization, but he had grown up cheek-by-jowl with Carian barbaroi, and he was fully aware of the splendid virtues of the Persians and of the cultural antiquity of the Egyptians.  His openness to alien cultures extended to the point of gullibility, since he appears to have uncritically accepted nearly every preposterous story told to him by Egyptian priests.

Greek history, according to Herod-
otus, is the story of conflicts between East and West.  Making the best sense he can of myths and legends, he concludes that women are at the bottom of the East-West feud.  Phoenicians began the struggle by stealing the king of Argos’ daughter; Greeks later retaliated by abducting Europa and compounded the crime when the Argonauts ran off with Medea.  Priam’s son Alexander (Paris) was only seeking revenge when he seduced Helen and started the Trojan War.  This is the Persian view, he assures us, and the Persians, in attacking the Greeks, were only retaliating against earlier aggressions.

Even in this silly preface to his work—parodied brilliantly by Aristophanes—Herodotus reveals what he is all about.  Although his theme is the triumph of the Greeks in the wars against Persia, he insists upon listening to the Persian version, which puts the blame on the Greeks.  Although he understands the importance of trade and commerce—that is what, after all, these Greeks, Phoenicians, and Trojans were doing when they were not stealing each others’ women—he is also aware of the significance of irrational attachments, both sexual passion and national myths.

Herodotus is no multiculturalist, but he finds barbarians fascinating, whether they are Scythians, who get stoned dancing around a bonfire of hemp plants; or Egyptian princesses working as temple prostitutes; or power-crazed Persian tyrants like Cambyses, who killed the priests of Apis when a sacrifice went wrong and went on to murder his brother and sister; or Xerxes, who, when a bridge collapsed in a storm, killed the architects and scourged the sea for interfering in the Great King’s plans.

The Greeks he portrays are not necessarily braver or nobler than the Persian aristocracy, but they are different.  Greeks had the normal human desire for wealth and fear of poverty, but in their private lives, they lived in modesty and restraint, fearful of the envy both of their neighbors and of their gods.  We can see how they spent their wealth by going to the British Museum or wandering through the ruins of even a remote colonial town like Paestum.  Barbarians, on the other hand, whether wild like the Scyths or degenerate like the Persians, were ostentatious in their gaudy displays.  If they had it, they flaunted it—the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the dishes they ate off.  Greeks were not immune to the temptation, as the career of Alcibiades makes clear, but making a display of yourself was not the best route to popularity.  A passionate and headstrong people, Greeks prized—above all—the virtue of sophrosyne, which means something like temperance and self-restraint, the ability to keep your wits about you and resist the temptation to go too far.

Though Greeks may spend their lives scheming for power, they either display restraint (like the king of Sparta, who thought the Persians were too far away to worry about) or suffer the consequences of their arrogance.  Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, spent far too much time intriguing with barbarians.  At the height of his power and wealth, he was advised by the king of Egypt to sacrifice something of value in order to limit his dangerous run of good luck.  As a Greek, Polycrates understood the power of what they called “divine envy” and cast a valuable golden ring into the sea.  When the ring is found in the belly of a fish presented to Polycrates as a gift, the reader knows that his number is up, and that he will die a miserable death.

Although Greek political leaders might dream of expanding their territory, they rarely succeeded, and down to Herodotus’ death and after, Greeks remained intensely local and provincial, even during the period (the fourth century) when their culture was conquering the known world.  Herodotus paints the contrast between the barbarians, with their universal empire, and the Greeks in vivid colors.  Xerxes’ vast expedition includes virtually every subject race, and when the Greeks block them at the pass of the Thermopylae, the Spartans dismiss most of their allies and die to the last man.  At first, Xerxes is contemptuous of the little Spartan band, but he is told that these are men who put everything into athletic competitions where the prize is a worthless crown of leaves.

The Persians themselves are brave soldiers, but no Persian is free except the Great King himself; soldiers from subject nations are whipped into battles to extend the power and glory of the empire; Greeks (in Aeschylus’s firsthand description of Salamis) go to meet death to save their families and the temples of their gods.  When the Persians did seize Athens, they burnt the temples on the Acropolis.  It is not that Greeks never burnt temples—or never robbed or murdered—but they knew it was terribly wrong.  Aeschylus’ Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and burns temples, and in the mind of the poet, the two crimes are related.

Since the Enlightenment, the ancient Greeks have been portrayed as abstract philosophers forever meditating on universal truths.  In fact, they were almost completely wrapped up in the ties of kinship and local community.  Aristotle wondered if a man could be said to be happy if he had lived a successful life and died with his family and city flourishing but, after his death, his family and city were ruined.  It might seem reasonable to call such a man happy, but Aristotle thought it went against common sense.

This is the meaning behind Herodotus’ still-famous tale of Solon and Croesus.  The Greek philosopher was visiting the fabulously wealthy Lydian king, who asked him to name the happiest man on earth.  Solon tells him of an Athenian who lived well, produced a good family, and died fighting for his people.  When Croesus, a little crestfallen, asks him if there is a close second, Solon tells him the true story of Cleobis and Biton, who, when they could not find the oxen to yoke to the cart, died after pulling their mother to a festival of Argive Hera.  “Well, what about me?” Croesus complains, and Solon delivers his homily on the vicissitudes of human life.  Wealth is, of course, a blessing to a man, especially if he also has good health and fine children.  Such a man might be regarded as happy, but until he dies, he can only be described as fortunate.  Croesus learns the truth of Solon’s wisdom when his one son who might succeed him (the other is a mute) is accidentally killed and when, later, he is conquered by the Persians.  Herodotus’ conception of happiness—a convention among the Greeks—is familial and communal, not individualistic.

The Greeks themselves eventually fell into decay, and some of them began to embrace weird universalist creeds, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, that taught them to despise the lesser attachments that had been the basis of their civilization; but they passed on their cultural legacy to the Romans and to us, the heirs of both the Greeks and Romans.  When, in the pages of this magazine, we refer to “Christendom,” it is to that essentially Greek civilization that was disciplined by Roman law and leavened with the Holy Spirit that Our Lord sent to comfort us and teach us to comfort one another.  Christendom, for 1,300 years, has been in conflict with the Islamic world, which is the successor to the ancient Assyrians and Persians, but today it is a one-sided war: Without a civilization, how can there be a clash?

North America (with the possible exception of parts of Mexico) is no longer a civilized place.  Any doubts on that score have been settled over the past six months by the strutting, boasting, drooling “patriots” who are rushing forward to burn whatever shreds of liberty and fig leaves of decency they had upon the altar of national security.

In transforming the United States into an empire, the rulers of this country have accepted the logic that, if localism, restraint, and self-government are Hellenic, then it is time to side with the barbarians—not the wholesome, red-blooded barbarians of Northern Europe, but the Babylonians and Assyrians.  When our leaders talk to the press, the language is that of Xerxes, not Leonidas and Themistocles.  We are better because we are bigger; we see farther; we have transcended all those petty loyalties of blood and soil; we are building a global order, and Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” of a young democracy has been translated into imperial boasting that threatens the world with war on three fronts.

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard—

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

And guarding, calls not Thee to guard.

For frantic boast and foolish word—

Thy Mercy on thy People, Lord!

A Greek at Salamis was fighting for “the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.”  When the battle was over, he hoped to return to his little hamlet in Attica and grow old with his one wife, taking care of his vines and olive trees as if they were invalid children.  He knew every inch of his property, and the boundaries of his world were defined by his local deme and—at its broadest—by the territory of Attica, hardly bigger than an American county.  Xerxes thought in bigger terms: a harem filled with enough women to content a U.S. congressman for several years, a multicultural empire that included all the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.  To signal his contempt for the traditional distinction between East and West, he built a bridge across the Hellespont, and though Persians revered water as divine, he scourged the Hellespont for having the presumption to destroy the bridge even though his lord and master had done the sea no harm.

We have become the multicultural empire with troops stationed around the world, ruled by a promiscuous elite class that looks upon all religions with equal contempt and refuses to listen when the grumbling masses of the East complain against the masters who have bridged not just the Hellespont but every sea and ocean of the globe.  And we think that we are not only the first, but the last—that our power never ends.  

Kipling the imperialist knew better.  The only conceivable justification for empire is the benefits that are conferred upon the subjects.  The Romans could make this claim, and so could the British in North America.  British India, which Kipling knew and loved, was a more doubtful case, though even there, at least by Kipling’s time, many sober and industrious British officials were doing their duty under difficult circumstances.  But imperial nations that put their trust in reeking missile launchers and cluster-bombs enriched with depleted uranium, Kipling prophesied, await the same fate that overtook the barbarian empires of the East.

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire;

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Lest we forget . . .