Thursday, June 19, 2008


Isocrates, complaining and relevant

The Seventh Oration of Isocrates, the Areopagiticus, is one of the great explications of classical ideas about ideal republican government. It's interesting to see, though, how he sets up the interest of his audience at the beginning, in ways that are eerily familiar to the modern ear.
Many of you are wondering, I suppose, what in the world my purpose is in coming forward to address you on The Public Safety, as if Athens were in danger or her affairs on an uncertain footing, when in fact she possesses more than two hundred ships-of-war, enjoys peace throughout her territory, maintains her empire on the sea, and has, furthermore, many allies who, in case of any need, will readily come to her aid, and many more allies who are paying their contributions and obeying her commands. With these resources, one might argue that we have every reason to feel secure, as being far removed from danger, while our enemies may well be anxious and take thought for their own safety.

Now you, I know, following this reasoning, disdain my coming forward, and are confident that with this power you will hold all Hellas under your control. But as for myself, it is because of these very things that I am anxious; for I observe that those cities which think they are in the best circumstances are wont to adopt the worst policies, and that those which feel the most secure are most often involved in danger. The cause of this is that nothing of either good or of evil visits mankind unmixed, but that riches and power are attended and followed by folly, and folly in turn by license; whereas poverty and lowliness are attended by sobriety and great moderation; so that it is hard to decide which of these lots one should prefer to bequeath to one's own children. For we shall find that from a lot which seems to be inferior men's fortunes generally advance to a better condition, whereas from one which appears to be superior they are wont to change to a worse.…

I am in doubt whether to suppose that you care nothing for the public welfare or that you are concerned about it, but have become so obtuse that you fail to see into what utter confusion our city has fallen. For you resemble men in that state of mind -- you who have lost all the cities in Thrace, squandered to no purpose more than a thousand talents on mercenary troops, provoked the ill-will of the Hellenes and the hostility of the barbarians, and, as if this were not enough, have been compelled to save the friends of the Thebans at the cost of losing our own allies; and yet to celebrate the good news of such accomplishments we have twice now offered grateful sacrifices to the gods, and we deliberate about our affairs more complaisantly than men whose actions leave nothing to be desired!

And it is to be expected that acting as we do we should fare as we do; for nothing can turn out well for those who neglect to adopt a sound policy for the conduct of their government as a whole. On the contrary, even if they do succeed in their enterprises now and then, either through chance or through the genius of some man, they soon after find themselves in the same difficulties as before, as anyone may see from what happened in our own history.…

And yet we are quite indifferent to the fact that our polity has been corrupted, nor do we even consider how we may redeem it. It is true that we sit around in our shops denouncing the present order and complaining that never under a democracy have we been worse governed, but in our actions and in the sentiments which we hold regarding it we show that we are better satisfied with our present democracy than with that which was handed down to us by our forefathers.…

And yet how can we praise or tolerate a government which has in the past been the cause of so many evils and which is now year by year ever drifting on from bad to worse? And how can we escape the fear that if we continue to progress after this fashion we may finally run aground on rocks more perilous than those which at that time loomed before us?
These excerpts are from the Speeches and Letters, sections 7.1-5,9-11,15,18; edited by George Norlin and posted by the Perseus Project at Tufts University.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The War on Terror, as seen in 1952

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952):
A democracy can not, of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.

The power of such a temptation to a nation, long accustomed to expanding possibilities and only recently subjected to frustration, is enhanced by the spiritual aberrations which arise in a situation of intense enmity. The certainty of the foe’s continued intransigence seems to be the only fixed fact in an uncertain future. Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe. Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddies every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminate judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor.


Milestones for Iraq, set 200 years ago

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), chapter 1, paragraph 13:
I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate, insulated, private men; but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions they have little or no experience, and in situations, where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The Pursuit of Happiness

I thought I'd share this painful section of Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History, originally published in 1952 (so you may feel free to substitute Iraq for Korea).
Happiness is desired by all men; and moments of it are probably attained by most men. Only moments of it can be attained because happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent. There is no simple harmony between our ambitions and achievements because all ambitions tend to outrun achievements. There is no neat harmony between the conscious ends of life and the physical instruments for its attainment; for the health of the body is frail and uncertain…. There is no neat harmony between personal desires and ambitions and the ends of human societies no matter how frantically we insist with the eighteenth century that communities are created only for the individual. Communities, cultures and civilizations are subject to perils which must be warded off by individuals who may lose their life in the process. There are many young American men in Korea today who have been promised the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. But the possession of the right brings them no simple happiness. Such happiness as they achieve is curiously mixed with pain, anxiety and sorrow. It is in fact not happiness at all. If it is anything, it may be what Lincoln called ‘the solemn joy that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.’

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