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17 July 2014

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505thPIR

"Perhaps Thucydides’ most important point is that such collapse of Athens was not unique to Greece “but will recur as long as humanity remains the same.”

Indeed! And humanity will always remain the same in my humble opinion. They woke up with bad breath back then like you and I and as we witness today, our passions across this globe of ours are no less moderated. We are not evolving along any historical trajectory except for technology in all of its forms. Our species it would seem has become more instantaneous and lethal is all.

One parallel among many in Mr. Sale's essay:

Senate, House of Representatives, Executive Branch and now Supreme Court (Corporations are People!)


"Thucydides examined another key problem, the use and function of words. The Greeks were infatuated by words. They were captives of the most outrages harebrained exclamations, fatuous exaggerations and venomous attacks. Unfortunately, the adoption of new political and self-aggrandizing aims resulted in a complete change in the meaning and use of words. Words had long been used to characterize the country’s highest virtues, but when war came, words found an entirely new function – they were now used to describe contemptible way of thinking and acting, and a complete perversion of the meaning of words occurred. Words that were once used to express blame were transformed into words of praise. “Senseless audacity was made equal to loyal courage and far-sighted deliberation was now taken to be a species of cowardice. Prudence was a cloak for weakness, and thorough calculations were seen as recipes for inaction. Mad impulsiveness was the mark of the true man, and care in plotting was seen as shirking difficulty,” Jaeger said. Blind impulse replaced consideration and Trust between one man and another disappeared. “The louder a man protested the sound he was thought to be.” The man who did without intrigues was seen as lacking espirit de corps and vigor and it was a sign that he feared his rivals, The collapse of dignity on the political scene signified the collapse of individual character and ties of blood became weaker than party affiliations, (just like America.) Oaths that bound friends together were powerful, sacred bonds, but was morale decayed they were replaced – men were no longer friends but accomplices."

William R. Cumming

Thanks for this brilliant post-Richard. "SAILING THE WINE DARK SEA-What the Greeks gave Western Civilization" might be of interest!

Haralambos

Dear Mr. Sale,
I commend you for this magisterial post on the ancient Greek decay from its apogee to its decline, and I thank Col. Lang for hosting your posts. Although I am not that familiar with Burckhardt, I am quite familiar with Jaeger’s trilogy, which is monumental. At the risk of offending those who find Plato objectionable due to his political philosophy, I would point out my experiences in reading Plato as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student in philosophy. Forty-five years ago when I first studied Plato, the emphasis was on paraphrasing the translations into a form that could be formalized using propositional logic and the predicate calculus. I only realized the travesty of the pedagogy later when I learned to read many of the Socratic dialogues as dialogues that were situated within the events of the day.
Socrates’ interlocutors, as presented by Plato, were living individuals who asked him for advice or to settle their disputes, such as how to educate their sons, and the dialogues usually ended at an impasse with Socrates agreeing to continue the dialogue indicating that it was the fathers that were in need of education or at least a life more fully examined. The dialogic form and the drama had been eviscerated in my early “training.”
Over the past many years, I have returned to them and the tragedies particularly to The Philoctetes, a Sophoclean tragedy written late his (Sophocles’) life (at 89 I think). There are so many lessons in this play, which has been extensively studied in recent years. The play is interesting on many levels: the only surviving tragedy of the three tragedians dealing with the play, the only tragedy that has only three male characters, and a presentation of the several forms of “persuasion” available in the world of Aristotle, a generation or more later.
The three characters are Philoctetes (an ancient warrior marooned by the Achaeans on their way to Troy after his bite by a holy snake leaving a suppurating wound causing incredible pain and making his presence insufferable to hearers both due to the pain and the odor), Odysseus (the man of many devices and wise counsels, a generation younger than Philoctetes, and Neoptolemos (a young warrior and the son of Achilles).
There had been a prophesy foretelling that the Achaeans could only take Troy once they had brought Philoctetes and his divine bow and its ineluctable arrows to Troy. Odysseus and Neoptolemos were dispatched to Limnos to get Philoctetes and the bow back to Troy. Neoptolemos suggests force (the virtue of his warrior heritage); Odysseus says something to the effect “Give yourself to me for one day of shame for immortal fame” (fraud). Neoptolemos agrees, befriends Philoctetes and gains his confidence and custody of the bow as Philoctetes loses consciousness due to his pain. Later, witnessing the pain, Neoptolemos suffers what might be called “pangs of conscience,” something that we deem proto-guilt, if not full-fledged guilt in contrast to shame.
Neoptolemos tries to persuade Philoctetes to go to Troy (reason), returns the bow, and promises to return him to his father after Philoctetes’ refusal. Odysseus threatens them, but Philoctetes points out the powers of his bow and threatens Odysseus. At this point persuasion has not worked. The resolution is only achieved by a deus ex machina (god in the machine) as Heracles appears and reminds him of his destiny and the obligation of the bow, which Philoctetes has been using to kill birds to feed himself.
Among the lessons of The Philoctetes that might interest modern readers is the importance of moral exemplars that can bring lost individuals or souls back to their moral compass and the changes in the moral compass in western thought. I lament the degradation of the humanities in recent years as the discipline has been turned into an “easy option” used to fulfill general education requirements.
The best translation to my knowledge of the play is that of R. G. Usscher with opposing pages of the ancient Greek and his translation. Usscher renders Philoctetes’ response as “I shall not disregard your words,” but I prefer “I shall not disoblige you.” Both of these seem preferable to me rather than renditions that turn this into “obedience.”

Andrew

You do weave the most wonderful essays Mr. Sale. Thank you

Seamus Padraig

"Thucydides examined another key problem, the use and function of words. The Greeks were infatuated by words. They were captives of the most outrages harebrained exclamations, fatuous exaggerations and venomous attacks. Unfortunately, the adoption of new political and self-aggrandizing aims resulted in a complete change in the meaning and use of words. Words had long been used to characterize the country’s highest virtues, but when war came, words found an entirely new function – they were now used to describe contemptible way of thinking and acting, and a complete perversion of the meaning of words occurred."

Orwell's Newspeak!

Seamus Padraig

Thanks for posting this, pl. Read Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War many years ago. So many times when I read/watch the news these days, one of his acid, pithy observations springs to mind. Human nature never changes...

MRW

The death of America scenario? Excellent post.

shepherd

Years ago, I had a fellowship to study Jaegar in Germany. He was a remarkable man, really the last of a long line of scholars who were both brilliant and also men of the world (the average classicist now may be brilliant but few are socially adept). His experience more or less convinced me to leave the university and live the much more interesting life I have.

Paideia should not merely be seen as a commentary on Greece. It is an argument that has to be understood in a particular German intellectual context. I’ll try to summarize a fairly complicated subject. At one point, classics (and Greek in particular) had been at the center not just of German education, but its entire intellectual and to some degree social life. A professor of Greek could be a figure of major importance in German political circles. And humanity benefited. Much is owned to the generations of extraordinarily intelligent Germans who sacrificed themselves to editing and publishing the works of lesser known ancient writers (Jaegar himself did an edition of Gregory of Nyssa). But eventually, the Germans began to wonder why such bright minds were not doing things of more value to the state, such as engineering and science. Kaiser Wilhelm was among them.

As the classics began to lose their grip, men like Jaegar developed arguments that sought to restore it. In particular, he saw the problems of contemporary life as a consequence of the loss of Hellenic education. In other words, Jaegar is not just a scholar, he is a man playing a role in a broader world, using a venerated subject (in his country) as a rhetorical tool to make a recommendation to the politicians and public of his day. His contemporaries certainly would have understood this (he wrote it during Weimar and Hitler's rule).

Jaegar often did this. His book on Demosthenes, for example, was an obvious attack on Hitler, even though it might not seem so to anyone reading it today.

Anyway, I hope that provides a little extra perspective… it doesn't, of course, mean Jaegar is right or wrong.

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