A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.

 

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Socratic Example

The figure of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher who was unjustly executed, became a fixation in the mind of the young Plato who, it might be said, never got over the lesson he learned from his mentor. Socrates was a citizen of the Athenian democracy — through he preferred to distance himself from political life and focus, rather, on tending his soul in dialogue with the brightest and best young men around him. He could be found almost any day at the Piraeus deep in discussion with those young men about the nature of justice, wisdom, and courage. The young Plato was among those men.

During the height of the Peloponnesian War the Athenian democracy was dissolved and violently replaced by an oligarchy, the rule of fifty-one men, headed by thirty tyrants, who sought to determine the course of the war and dictate the political policies of the day. That oligarchic government determined to involve Socrates in their violence toward those who sympathized with the democratic government they had overthrown. Socrates refused and the oligarchy was itself overthrown not long after by the democratic government. The democrats then — seemingly resenting the fact that Socrates had shown himself to be above political machinations — decided to bring bogus charges against the man and tried him for “impiety and corrupting the young.”

The evidence against Socrates was thin at best — resting as it did on the facts that he insisted that a man couldn’t engage in politics and retain his integrity and that one or two of the corrupt men who had participated in the abortive experiment in oligarchy had been known to consort with Socrates. In any event he was tried and found guilty. He was given his choice of punishment and many thought he would simply exile himself from the city-state and they would be done with him. But he chose to drink hemlock which would end his life.

In the days leading up to his execution his friends, several of whom were wealthy and influential, sought to help him escape. But Socrates refused and in the end drank the cup and died quietly among his closest and dearest friends. In defending his actions he insisted that as a citizen of Athens he was bound by their laws — despite the fact that he knew in his case the laws were not justly interpreted: he was convicted on bogus charges by a jury of his peers who were resentful of the fact that he seemed aloof and somehow superior to them. In any event, his friends’ arguments were dismissed by Socrates and his determination to comply with the court’s decision is often used as an example of the necessity to obey laws despite the fact that those laws are unjust.

But this misses the point. which was that Socrates saw his membership in the political body as making demands upon him in the form of duties that he, who had enjoyed the privileges of citizenship all his life, was bound to obey — including the decision of the court. At his trial he had told the jury that if they insisted that he stop “teaching” as a condition of his being let off he would ignore the condition and continue to converse with young men (which he did not regard as teaching). He had no argument with the courts or with the law as such. His argument was against the misinterpretation of those laws and the actions of the court, the people who thought they were correctly applying the laws. But his quarrel with his accusers was not, in his view, sufficient to make him break the laws of his chosen home.

How different was this man from the president-elect we are about to see sworn into the highest office of this land! The man who insisted that if he lost the election he would raise Hell and refuse to acknowledge his opponent’s legitimacy. He would play the political game, but only if he was allowed to make the rules.

But, sadly, many of the more than 66 million voters who voted against him and who now regret the ascension into that high office of a man who is clearly unfit also want to refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy. There are tee shirts available that say “Trump is not my president.” But he is. We played the game and with the example of Socrates in front of us (and not the example of Donald Trump) we are bound by the rules of that game and must acknowledge his legitimacy, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote and almost certainly cheated in the process. Our system is designed to make the Electoral College the final court of appeal in the election of a president and, like it or not, the College duly cast their votes for a man many of us regard as the antithesis of what a president of this country should be. We need not embrace the man; but we must acknowledge him. My only hope is that he is not long in that office.

I am aware, of course, that there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the election, including the probable role of Russia in determining who our president would be, but until those questions have been answered (if indeed they are ever allowed to be answered) we must accept the fact that Donald Trump is the president of this democracy, until further notice. Bitter though the taste might be, we must bite the bullet. It is preferable, I would hope, to having to drink Hemlock!

 

History Lessons

After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.

Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.

Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.

The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.

In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.