Freedom and Duty: Pericles and Our Times

March 1, 2002 Topic: Society Regions: Southern EuropeEurope Tags: IslamismTory

Freedom and Duty: Pericles and Our Times

Mini Teaser: A democracy cannot fight a long war successfully unless it affirms its virtues and values. After two and a half millenia, Pericles still makes sense.

by Author(s): Roger Kimball

Midway through the long article on Afghanistan in the eleventh edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, one comes across this description of the inhabitants of that ancient mountain country:

The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner. Nowhere is crime committed on such trifling grounds, or with such general impunity, though when it is punished the punishment is atrocious. Among themselves the Afghans are quarrelsome, intriguing and distrustful; estrangements and affrays are of constant occurrence.

This refreshingly frank passage, by Colonel Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, was published in 1910. I was put in mind of Sir Thomas's commentary just before Christmas, when the New York Times took its quote of the day from one Faqir Muhammad, an officer in one of the many squabbling anti-Taliban armies: "This is what Afghanistan is", he said. "We kill each other." Indeed. And not only each other, so the American and British troops now enjoying the hospitality of the Afghans would do well to acquaint themselves with this travel advisory. It is as pertinent today as it was a century ago.

Sir Thomas's remarks are valuable not only because of their contemporaneity but also because they help us set today's issues in historical context. "The farther backward you can look", Winston Churchill once observed, "the farther forward you are likely to see", and, indeed, as the shock of September 11 gives way to the reality of America at war, it is particularly useful to ponder Churchill's remark. The pressure of contemporary events crowds us into the impatient confines of the present, rendering us insensible to the lessons of history-not least the lesson that tomorrow's dramas are typically unforeseen in the scripts we abide by today. Indeed, language itself conspires to keep us in the dark.

Consider that marvelous phrase "the foreseeable future." With what cheery abandon we employ it! Yet what a nugget of unfounded optimism those three words encompass. How much of the future, really, do we foresee? A month? A day? A minute? "In a minute", as T. S. Eliot said in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", "there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." So much of life is a juggling with probabilities, a conjuring with uncertainties, that we often forget upon what stupendous acts of faith even the prudent conduct of life depends. On September 10, 2001, none of us imagined that New York's twin towers would not continue standing for "the foreseeable future." Yet today, the events of September 11 can seem almost inevitable. Reasons have been furnished for every detail. Pundits have rehearsed knowing genealogies for all the actors. Plausible itineraries have been repeated until they seem like predictions. A look at the literature shows that all of those reasons and explanations were available on September 10; indeed, some had been propounded for years, but they lacked the traction that events give to hindsight. They were not part of the foreseeable future until that future, unforeseen, overtook us.

Such homely incapacities can provide a kind of signpost for us all. Even the extraordinary circumstance of wartime begets its anesthetizing versions of the ordinary. Our complacency exposed us to surprise on September 11; but new complacencies now compete for our allegiance. In part, this results from the pressure of familiarity. Sooner or later, a state of permanent emergency comes to seem like a normal state of affairs. Ceaseless vigilance by nature ceases to be vigilant. But there are other ingredients involved in the return of complacency. Already one senses impatience on the part of the media. From the very beginning of this conflict, President Bush warned that the struggle against terrorism would be measured in years, not weeks or months, but a protracted battle does not accord well with a 24-hour news cycle, with its demand for screaming headlines, new developments, clear victories.

While there is no single antidote to these liabilities, Churchill was right about history providing the best corrective to our myopia. We need to look backward if we are to relax the constrictions of the present. The "relevance" sought for the present time is best acquired from guideposts that have outlived the hectoring gabble of contemporary fashion. We are often asked if our "values" have kept pace, have "evolved", with the dramatic changes our political and social reality has seen in the past several decades. But values do not so much "evolve" as change keys. Our underlying humanity-with its essential moral needs and aspirations-remains constant, which is why, for example, the emotional and psychological taxonomy that Aristotle provides in his Ethics and Rhetoric is as fresh to humanity today as it was two and a half millennia ago.

A Funeral's Inspiration

Which brings me to Pericles. Early in the Peloponnesian War, a plague swept through Athens, killing thousands and demoralizing the survivors. In a rallying speech, Pericles (himself soon to die) noted that, "When things happen suddenly, unexpectedly, and against all calculation, it takes the heart out of a man." Against the temptations of apathy and acquiescence, Pericles urged his listeners to recall the greatness of Athens, to face calamity with an "unclouded mind and react quickly against it." It sounds grand, but what lessons does the great Greek statesman have for us today as we embark on what promises to be a long struggle with an often faceless foe? To answer this question, one first wants to know what it is that Pericles stood for. To what sort of society was he pointing, and what way of life, what vision of the human good, did he propound?

In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the public funeral oration that Pericles, as commander of the army and first citizen of Athens, delivered to commemorate those fallen after the first year-the first of 27-of war with Sparta. The short speech is deservedly one of the most famous in history. It outlines the advantages of Athenian democracy, a bold new system of government that was not simply a political arrangement but a way of life. There were two keynotes to that way of life: freedom and tolerance, on the one hand; responsible behavior and attention to duty on the other. The two, Pericles insisted, go together: We Athenians are "free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law"-including, he added in an important proviso, "those unwritten laws"-the lawlike commands of taste, manners and morals-"which it is an acknowledged shame to break." Freedom and tolerance, Pericles suggested, are blossoms supported by roots that reach deep into the soil of duty.

Athens had become the envy of the world, partly because of its wealth, partly because of its splendor, partly because of the freedom enjoyed by its citizens. Athens' navy was unrivaled, its empire unparalleled, its civic and cultural institutions unequalled. The city was "open to the world", a cosmopolitan center; political life was "free and open", as was private life: "We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor", Pericles said, "if he enjoys himself in his own way."

Of course, from the perspective of 21st-century America, democracy in Athens seems limited and imperfect. Women were entirely excluded from citizenship and a large slave class underwrote the material freedom of Athens' citizens. These things must be acknowledged, but must they be apologized for? Whenever 5th-century BCE Athens is mentioned these days, it seems that what is stressed are the limitations rather than the achievements of Athenian democracy. But concentrating on these limitations is like complaining that the Wright brothers neglected to provide transatlantic service with their airplanes. The extraordinary achievement of Athens was to formulate the ideal of equality before the law. To be sure, that ideal was not perfectly instantiated in Athens; perhaps it will never be perfectly instantiated anywhere, it being in the nature of ideals to inspire emulation but also to exceed it.

Nevertheless, the new ideal of equality before the law and the cultivation of an open, tolerant society made Athens the model of democracy for all the republics that sought to follow the path of freedom-just as America is the model of freedom today. Pericles was right to boast: "Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now." In Athens, then, after innumerable trials elsewhere, democracy finally managed to get off the ground and stay aloft. In Periclean Athens what mattered in assuming public responsibility, as Pericles said, was "not membership in a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses." To an extraordinary extent, within the limits of its franchise, Athens lived up to that ideal.

Life in Athens was not only free but also full. When the day's work was done, Pericles boasted, Athenians turned not simply to private pleasure but also to ennobling recreation "of all kinds for our spirits." For the Age of Pericles was also the age of the great dramatists, the age of Socrates, the great artist Phidias, and others. Freedom, skill and ambition conspired to make Athens a cultural as well as a political paragon.

A recurrent theme of the funeral oration is the importance of sound judgment, what Aristotle codified as the virtue of prudence. The blessing of freedom requires the ballast of duty, and informed judgment is the indispensable handmaiden of duty. A free society is one that nurtures the existential slack that tolerance and openness generate. Chaos and anarchy are forestalled by the intervention of politics in the highest sense of the term: deliberation and decision about securing the good life. When it comes to cultural activities, Pericles said, Athenians had learned to love beauty with moderation-the Greek word is euteleiaV, "without extravagance"-and to pursue philosophy and the life of the mind "without effeminacy", aneu malakiaV. Culture and the life of the mind were to be ennoblements of life, not an escape from its burdens, not decadent pastimes.

The exercise of sound judgment was required in other spheres as well. In their conduct of policy, Athenians strove to be bold, but prudent; i.e., effective. "We are", Pericles wrote, "capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them beforehand." The exercise of sound judgment was not simply an intellectual accomplishment; it was the tithe of citizenship. "We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business", Pericles observed, "we say that he has no business here at all." He did not mean that every citizen had to be a politician, but that all citizens had a common stake in the commonwealth, and that this common stake brought with it responsibilities as well as privileges. In our own time, a time when everyone is clamoring for his or her "rights"-when new "rights" pop up like mushrooms-it is worth remembering that every right carries with it a corresponding duty. Some rights may be inalienable, but none is without price.

Something similar can be said about democracy. Today, the word "democracy" and its cognates are often used as fancy synonyms for mediocrity. Plans to "democratize" education or the arts or athletics are plans to eviscerate those activities, to lower standards and to pursue them as instruments of racial or sexual redress or some other form of social engineering. Tocqueville was right to warn about the dangers of generalizing the principle of equality that underlies democracy. Universalized, the principle of equality leads to egalitarianism, the ideology of equality, which threatens to overwhelm the impulse to achieve and to excel-"always to be best and to rise above others", as Homer put it in a classic expression of the agonistic spirit. Radical egalitarianism-egalitarianism uncorrected by the aspirations of excellence-would have us pretend that there are no important distinctions among people; where the pretense is impossible, it would have us enact compensatory programs to minimize, or at least to paper over, the differences. The results are a vast increase in self-deception, cultural degradation and bureaucratic meddlesomeness.

Pericles reminds us, however, that a passion for democracy need not entail the pursuit of mediocrity. Democracy is a high-maintenance form of government. Freedom requires the disciplines of restraint and circumspection if it is to flourish. Athenian democracy was animated by freedom-above all, the freedom to excel-and it inspired in citizens both a healthy competitive spirit and "shame", as Pericles said, at the prospect of "falling below a certain standard." In all this, Pericles noted, Athens was "an education to Greece", a model for its neighbors.

At the moment he spoke, near the beginning of a long and ultimately disastrous war, Pericles' words must have carried special resonance. In celebrating what the Athenians had achieved, he reminded them of all they stood to lose. His funeral oration was therefore not only an elegy but also a plea for resoluteness and a call to arms. Pericles was right: The open society depends upon the interdiction of forces calculated to destroy it. "We who remain behind", he said, "may hope to be spared the fate [of the fallen], but must resolve to keep the same daring spirit against the foe."

The view of society and individual responsibility that Pericles put forward was rooted in tradition but oriented toward the future. He did not think much of the custom of public funeral orations, he said, but he felt bound to observe it: "This institution was set up and approved by our forefathers, and it is my duty to follow the tradition." At the same time, Pericles reminds us of the claims of the future by stressing the future's main emissaries: the children of Athens. "It is impossible", he suggests, "for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not . . . children whose lives are at stake."

Pericles' funeral oration has exercised a permanent fascination on the political imagination of the West. Modified by time and circumstance, his vision has proven peculiarly powerful. It was absorbed by Christendom in the 18th century and helped to inform the democratic principles that undergird British and American democracy. Although occasionally forgotten since, it has always returned to inspire apostles of freedom and tolerance. That is fortunate, for the view of society that Pericles described is not inevitable. It represents a choice that must constantly be renewed. It is one version of the good life for man. There are other, competing versions that we might find distinctly less attractive, but that, nevertheless, are capable of inspiring strong allegiance. This was true when Pericles spoke-his speech presupposes the contrast between the Athenian way of life and others inimical to it-and continues to be true. The spectacle of radical Islamists dancing joyfully in the street following news of the September 11 attacks should remind us of that fact.

Three Illusions

Pericles' vision of the good society as one alternative among others was dramatically sharpened by the events of September 11. That attack was not simply an attack on symbols of American capitalism and military might, nor was it simply a terrorist attack on American citizens. It was all those things but more. It was an attack on the idea of America as a liberal democratic society; it was an attack on an idea of society grounded in the ideals enunciated by Pericles. It was, as Benyamin Netanyahu put it, a furious salvo in "a war to reverse the triumph of the West." Netanyahu's words should be constantly borne in mind lest the emollient tide of rationalization blunt the angry reality of those attacks. Rationalization would rescue some of our illusions that we are better off without.

Indeed, many illusions were challenged on September 11. One concerns the fantasies of academic multiculturalists, so-called-"so-called" because what falls under the name of multiculturalism in our colleges and universities today is really a polysyllabic form of mono-culturalism fueled by ideological hatred. Genuine multiculturalism involves a great deal of work, beginning with the arduous task of learning other languages, something most of those who call themselves multiculturalists are conspicuously loath to do. Think of the fatuous attack on "dead white European males" that stands at the center of the academic multiculturalist enterprise. As a specimen of that maligned species, one could hardly do better than Pericles. Not only is he a dead white European male, but he is one who embodied in his life and aspirations an ideal of humanity completely at odds with academic multiculturalism. He was patriarchal, militarist, elitist and Eurocentric-indeed, Hellenocentric, which is even worse.

The good news is that Pericles survived September 11. The spurious brand of multiculturalism that encourages us to repudiate "dead white European males" and insists that all cultures are of equal worth may finally be entering a terminal stage. Figures like Edward Said and Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter and Noam Chomsky continue to bay about the iniquity of America, the depredations of capitalism and so on, but their voices have been falling on increasingly deaf ears.

The liberal media, too, began by wringing its hands and wondering whether the coalition would hold, whether we were fair to "moderate" members of the Taliban, whether the Afghans were too wily for Americans, whether the United States was acting in too "unilateral" a fashion. On Christmas Eve, in a masterpiece of understatement, the Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline "In War's Early Phase, News Media Showed a Tendency to Misfire." "This war is in trouble", quoth Daniel Schorr on NPR. At the end of October, R.W. Apple warned readers of the New York Times that "signs of progress are sparse." Every piece of possible bad news was-and still is-touted as evidence that we may have entered a "quagmire", that we are "overextended", "arrogant", "unresponsive" to the needs and desires of indigenes. It is too soon to say which way the rhetorical chips will ultimately fall. But, as of this writing, a constant string of victories has the liberal pundits baffled. They had been waiting for a repeat of Vietnam, and the Bush Administration disobliged by giving them a conflict in which America was in the right and was winning.

The hollowness of the left-liberal wisdom about the war suggests another illusion challenged by the events of 9/11: that the world is basically a benevolent, freedom-loving place, and that if only other people had enough education, safe sex, and access to National Public Radio they would become pacific celebrants of democracy and tolerance. This is the temptation of utopia-Greek for "nowhere"-and it must be acknowledged that America's fortunate geographical position in the world has long encouraged certain versions of this temptation. The extraordinary growth of America's wealth and military power in the 20th century-like Athens' great wealth and power in the 5th century BCE-has kept the wolf from the door and the marauder from our throats. It has also abetted the illusion of invulnerability. But increased international mobility and the widespread dissemination of technological know-how have conspired to neutralize, or at least attenuate, those advantages. September 11 made it abundantly clear that we have implacable enemies, enemies we cannot hide from, effectively appease or negotiate with, enemies that will struggle to the death to destroy us. "Allahu Akbar!", shouted a group of Taliban prisoners, just before they set about detonating hand grenades, killing themselves and their guards. The supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, put it with all possible clarity when he said that, for him and his followers, "The real matter is the extinction of America, and God willing, it will fall to the ground."

A third illusion challenged on September 11 concerns the morality of power. It has been fashionable among trendy academics, CNN commentators and other armchair utopians to pretend that the use of power by the powerful is by definition evil. Violence on the part of anyone claiming to be a victim, however, is excused as the product of "frustration" or "rage"-emotions that for mysterious reasons are held to be exonerating for the dispossessed but incriminating when exhibited by legitimate authority. Hence the ponderous scramble to uncover "root causes"; that is, the search for sociological alibis that might absolve the perpetrators of evil from the inconveniences of guilt. The French writer Charles Péguy was right: "Surrender is essentially an operation by means of which we set about explaining instead of acting."

This favorite liberal pastime has not been abandoned, but it looks increasingly forlorn. As Jonathan Rauch wittily put it shortly after the terrorist attacks, the cause of terrorism is terrorists. September 11 reminded us that with power comes responsibility. Power without resolution is perceived as weakness, and weakness is always dangerously provocative. In the aftermath of September 11, we in the West have been cautioned against exciting Islamic rage. Perhaps; but is it not salutary for our allies and our enemies alike to understand that American rage, too, is an unpleasant thing? Pericles commended the Athenians on their "adventurous" spirit that had "forced an entry into every sea and into every land." Everywhere, he noted, Athens "left behind . . . everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies."

Since the 1970s, we have tended to flinch from such frank talk; we shy away from talk of forcing anyone to do anything; we seem ashamed of acknowledging that we have enemies, let alone acknowledging that we wish them ill; we are embarrassed alike by the perquisites and the obligations of power. Such squeamishness is part of the "effeminacy" against which Pericles warned. We Americans desperately wish to be liked, but often forget that true affection depends upon respect.

At least since the end of the Vietnam conflict, the United States has vacillated in discharging its responsibilities to power. As Conrad Black put it recently in these pages, the terrorists of September 11 added to a pattern of mostly unrequited damage done to the United States. Vietnam, Iran-Contra, Beirut, Saddam Hussein's survival of the Gulf War, Somalia, the bombing of the Saudi barracks, East African embassies, and the U.S.S. Cole, and Kosovo's incitement of the irresponsible notion of a cause worth killing but not dying for-all of this confirmed in their views those who want to believe that the United States is a paper tiger.

In the wake of September 11, it appears that this policy of bellicose vacillation has finally changed. But one still hears plenty of voices urging, not caution, but abdication. The left-liberal establishment cannot long bear to see a strong America regnant. It was chastened by disaster but incited by the prospect of losing hold of its illusions. Yet there are also encouraging signs, not least President Bush's January 29 State of the Union address, that America is prepared to follow through on its promise to eradicate terrorism and hold responsible those states that sponsor, finance or abet it. In this it is reclaiming a central part of Pericles' vision. "Make up your minds", Pericles said toward the end of his great oration, "that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous. Let there be no relaxation in the face of the perils of the war."

Among the neglected masterpieces of Victorian political thought is Walter Bagehot's Physics and Politics. Published in 1872, it outlines the requirements for the survival and advance of civilization. Bagehot's ideal civilization was the civilization that he himself inhabited: the liberal democratic polity of 19th-century Britain, where most disputes were settled in law courts and politics was pursued through discussion, not force of arms. But Bagehot was canny enough-one might say adult enough-to understand that such a polity had been made possible in the first instance by force, and that it could be maintained in the long run only through the distillates of force that economic might and military prowess represent. "History", Bagehot wrote, "is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it."

Bagehot's observation more than a century ago echoes Pericles' funeral oration, and for all we know may have been inspired by it. Does Pericles point the way for us in the 21st century? He had better: the alternative is cultural suicide.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion. A longer version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of 9/11 (Hoover Institution Press).

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