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.




How often have we witnessed the following scenario in sports? Our team is on a winning streak and have been playing well, winning seven out of the last nine games. They are starting to believe in themselves and their confidence is high. Today they play a team with a losing record they have beaten five times already this year.  No sweat! This is a piece of cake. We have our “ace” pitcher going for us, he is pitching well, and he has beaten this team three times already this year. In addition, the opposing pitcher is known to give up home runs and our team has been hitting homers at a record pace. As I said. Piece of cake.

Only the cake is spoiled by the fact that the other team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning by a “walk-off” single scoring a man from second base for the winning run. Our team hit only one home run and our ace pitcher had a bad day. Another one got away.

The gods on Mount Olympus are watching with broad grins on their collective faces. This is, for them, just another example of humans’ over-confidence. The Greeks called it “hubris,” but the name is less important than the fact that another sports team has been hoist by its own petard. The team that should have had a cake-walk fell on its face and slinks to the locker room to shower, make excuses, and forget the loss over a beer or two. Or three.

This scene is not all fiction, of course, though the team will not be mentioned in order not to embarrass the Minnesota Twins. But the point is that this sort of thing happens on a regular basis in sports and yet we fail to see the broader implications. I am here to point them out.

They have to do with the smug self-assurance that seems to infect those “winners” in power who see only success in imagining conflict with other nations they regard as their inferiors. After all, we have the weapons, including nuclear weapons, and armed forces around the globe waiting for orders to attack. No one is as sure of themselves as we are and the swagger is visible as is the sound of the bloat and rhetoric that spews from the mouths of our leader(s) as swords are rattled and chests puffed out.

The Athenians had the same sort of swagger when they sent the major part of their remaining forces to do battle with Sparta and her allies in Sicily toward the end of the very long, protracted Peloponnesian war. Thucydides described it for us in detail, as he lived through it, and he saw it as a tragedy, just like the tragedies the Greeks loved to sit and watch and agonize over in the theaters. One more example of hubris, one more victim of over-confidence, or excessive pride. But, surely, tragedies happen on the stage and in books. Not in real life? Right? Wrong.

We see it every day in our sports teams, and the results are predictable. In fact when I was watching the hype prior to the game described above I sensed that my team was about to lose. And they did. “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs. And yet we ignore this truth when we look around outside the sports arenas because, perhaps, we lack critical acumen and are ourselves caught up in the hype and fail to realize that the swagger on the international stage by those in power can only result in one thing: tragedy. Losing a baseball game is no big deal. War is a very big deal. And given today’s advanced technology and the stupidity of those who push the buttons, no one will win the next one.

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.

Moira Revisited

A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.

The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.

Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.

All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.

Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones)  are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all.  Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.


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.