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.



When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.


You have almost certainly heard about the brew-ha-ha surrounding Michael Sam, the large football player from the University of Missouri who “came out of the closet” last Spring to the delight of talking heads around the country. He was recently drafted by the St. Louis Rams and gave his partner a large kiss on the mouth moments after breaking down in tears upon receiving word that he had been drafted. The moment was doubly shocking to many because Sam is black and his partner is white: not only homosexuality, but inter-racial homosexuality! The emotions of the two men were very real and the ensuing discussion by the talking heads rather intense. . . . and certainly ongoing.

To their credit both the NFL and ESPN, which have supported Sam in their coverage of the events surrounding his announcement and subsequent draft status, aired the film of the kiss repeatedly ( I say again, repeatedly) as if to say: we fully support homosexuality in sports and if you don’t like it that’s your problem. The networks love to show raw emotion as a rule, but the kiss between a man and his male partner broke new ground and it was praised on one side and condemned on the other. Some have likened this event to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. This was a historical event, to be sure, and the emotions of many people have been stirred: reverberations will be heard for many months to come, I dare say. I suspect that many folks in TV land sprained their thumbs tweeting hate mail regarding Sam to their friends. The man has made a bed that I suspect he will find very hard to lie in. But I sincerely wish him well. He showed great courage given the temper of the times; homosexuality is simply a fact of life and it is time we grew up, recognized it and came to accept it.

After all, the Greeks, especially the Thebans and Spartans who were reputed to be some of the most fearless warriors the world has known, were unashamedly homosexual. They admired the male body, wrestled in the nude (as did their Athenian neighbors) and simply accepted the fact that men could love one another and even have sex with no social stigma attached. Socrates was supposed to have had a sexual relationship with Alcibiades while, at the same time, he was married and had several children. Homosexual practices in Greece, usually involving an older man and a younger one, go back at least to Homer who suggested the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. There were, as well, homosexual relationships between women as depicted by the poet Sappho. These relationships were not regarded as the least bit unusual, which leads me to surmise that 2000 years ago they were more sophisticated and mature than we are! What happened in the meantime, of course, was organized Christianity in all its myriad forms (especially Puritanism) and the attendant taboos against all sorts of sexual conduct, not the least of which were homosexual activities, and even simple nudity.

Anthony Burgess wrote a novel years ago titled The Wanting Seed in which he envisioned a time when the earth had started to dry up and stop producing food to feed its burgeoning human populations. The expanding numbers of hungry humans led the leaders of his world to embrace homosexuality and hold it up as a paradigm for human conduct. It was one way to reduce the exploding populations of humans: after all, there cannot be any progeny as a result of sexual intercourse between consenting, same-sex, partners! He may have been on to something. It might be that after the dust has settled from Michael Sam’s passionate embrace and kiss on national television — and that will take some time — we will come to not only accept homosexuality as a fact of life, but regard it as exemplary behavior to be emulated. In a word, we may eventually grow up, which is a good thing. And as a bonus, as Burgess suggested, it may be a way of reducing the growing number of humans who seem determined to destroy the planet while they express their mindless outrage at what they regard as bizarre sexual behavior.