Cicero’s De Officiis (“Tully’s Offices,” as it used to be called) was a late addition to my summer reading.  I dipped into it thinking that a work written in 44 B.C. and called “On Obligations” (or, as Andrew Dyck suggests in his magnificent 1996 commentary, “On Appropriate Actions”) might have some relevance to a problem that I’m now thinking about, moral agency in the Aeneid.  I found in addition a book that is helping me think in a new way about some of our current political dynamics.

Writing as he did before Christianity and before Kant, Cicero assumes that being good—being just, honorable, or humane—is not solely a matter of the choices that we make as individuals.  Humans in his world are not autonomous agents acting on the basis of individual will and intellect.  For Cicero, our moral agency, and in fact our very humanity, is in part created by other people through our connections with them, and being good and human in turn depends on our participation in those connections:

But because, as has been brilliantly written by Plato, we are born not only for ourselves, but our country claims one share in our upbringing, and our friends claim another. Moreover, as the Stoics like to say, all things which the earth bears are created for the use of humans, but humans are created for the sake of humans, so that they themselves can be of benefit to one another. In this matter we ought to take nature as our guide, contribute our part to the common good, and by the exchange of obligations, by giving and receiving, now by arts, now by labor, now by talents, bind tight the social union of human with human. (De Officiis 1.7,22)

That takes me to a recent article in the Philadelphia papers (the Inquirer and Daily News, both owned by the same company, share a web site). Helen Ubinas writes about a controversy over signs–not semiotics or the feminist journal, but actual signs, which people have been putting in their yards.  We’ve all seen the “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, with a stars-and-striped heart and the same message in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and other languages used by immigrants to America.  They sprang up in the aftermath of President Trump’s first immigration order (or Muslim ban), and there are still a lot of them around, at least in my neighborhood.

It doesn’t take much political savvy to conclude that the people with HHNHH signs probably aren’t Trump supporters, and so a Republican commissioner in Springfield Township has come up with an alternative sign, which Ubinas calls “a not-so-subtle, right-leaning, middle finger directed at those inclusive messages”–meaning the HHNHH signs. The alternative or Republican sign reads, “Love Lives Here. Love of God, Family, Friends, Country, Community & the U.S. Constitution.”

I want to use Cicero to suggest that these two signs show why Republicans, despite their unfailing fondness for ignoring economic reality, slashing social services, making abortion illegal, and blundering into wars in the Middle East, still manage to get people to vote for them in numbers sufficient to control the current Congress and send an ignorant, vulgar, misogynist liar to the White House. The fact is, Republicans are better at framing their message in a way that appeals to voters, as George Lakoff has been arguing for almost 40 years. “Love Lives Here” will win more votes than “Hate Has No Home.”

For a person who agrees with Cicero that being a moral human being means being involved in communities, families, and networks of mutual obligations, “Love Lives Here” is a better sign than “Hate Has No Home.” Helen Ubinas valiantly tries to invoke the inclusivity trope by proclaiming HHNHH “inclusive” and suggesting that mentioning God somehow amounts to “cutting out people who might believe in someone or something else,” but that seems a counsel of desperation. Ignore the messages, implied or not, in the two signs and look at their vocabulary, syntax, and rhetoric. One sign features a negative sentence (“has no”) about hate. The other has an affirmative sentence about love. Both signs exploit alliteration, but one pants feebly (H … H …N… H…H…), like an out-of-shape jogger, while the other piles it on: three Ls, two Fs, and a concluding series of Cs. One doesn’t just hint at the interlocking communities that make up human life, but talks about them. Given a choice between family, friends, country, and community, and maybe even God on the one hand, and merely excluding hate on the other, which would you pick? I know which I would choose, and I think Cicero would agree.

–Lee T. Pearcy


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Michelle Francl, my Bryn Mawr colleague and chemistry professor, has a new post on her Quantum Theology blog (highly recommended) about summer reading. My memories of summer childhoods have much in common with hers, even though mine are from the 1950s, not the 1960s, from urban Little Rock, Arkansas, not rural Illinois, and don’t involve much cooking.  But we do have one thing in common: lots of reading, and a public library that made it possible.  In Little Rock it was the old Carnegie building, columned and classicizing, with its entrance on Louisiana Street.  The children’s section was in the basement, with its own entrance off Seventh Street–the doorway was one of the rectangular openings on the lower level, just behind the automobile in this picture.

By way of a thank-you for Professor Francl’s offering, here’s my stack for the summer, in no order except how they happen to be at hand:

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. This one has come across my radar too many times to ignore–and there’s no point in reading only books that you think you’ll agree with.
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America.*
Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.
Eleanor Dickey, An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek Prose.  One consequence of retiring from teaching Latin three or four times a day and Greek once, as I did for nearly 30 years at the Episcopal Academy, is that one needs to have a plan for keeping up the languages.  Doing a little of this a day is mine.
Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter.
Cicero, De Officiis (On Moral Duties):  A late addition to the list–I dipped into it thinking it might have some relevance for a book about the Aeneid that I’m writing, and can’t put it down.

-Lee Pearcy

*Follow-up 7/1: This may be the scariest book that I’ve ever read. Especially now.

Two articles in the on-line journal Eidolon this month take on the so-called “Alt-Right” and its misuse of Greco-Roman civilization to justify the doctrine of white supremacy. Both of them get an important point wrong.

In “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues that “As long as Classics justifies itself by claiming to be the foundation of Western Civilization, . . . it will continue to find itself uncomfortably at the contested center of the continuing culture wars.” She goes on to urge classicists—by which she seems to mean professors of classics—to abandon the “myth” of the “Greek Miracle,” the “supposedly unique flowering of arts, philosophy, and science between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and western Anatolia.” She calls for increased critical engagement with the ugly realities of Greek civilization: slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, and exploitation.

Johanna Hanink, in her rather more interesting “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception,” likewise takes classicists to task for desperately “insisting on the genius, exceptionalism, and ‘miracles’ of ancient Greece and Rome.” Her alternative is “critical classical reception,” founded on three pillars: an openly “activist” agenda, use of the “personal voice,” and acknowledging that “Greek and Roman antiquity have played a major role in constructing and authorizing racism, colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, Western-centrism, body normativity, and other entrenched, violent societal structures.”

No one—or at least no one I know, or hope to know—will disagree with Kennedy and Hanink that some White supremacists and their politer enablers misunderstand the classical world. If David Duke, or for that matter either of the Steves, King or Bannon, could be transported back into fifth-century Athens or first-century Rome, they would find themselves in a world without much that they could recognize as white, European, or civilized. Western civilization—if it exists at all—is a problematic concept, and its relationship to Greece and Rome is not straightforward or a simple matter of foundation or creation.

On the other hand (and one of the things that we have learned from the Greeks called “Sophists” is that there is always another hand), Kennedy and Hanink underestimate the force of the classical world in the present. Greece is not important because of the origins of democracy or drama, or because of Pericles and the Parthenon, or even because it gave rise to all the -isms that some classicists love to hate. It is important because without what happened in Ionia during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, we would not know how to think. Kennedy and Hanink would not know how to write the kind of essay that they have contributed to Eidolon.

This is a bold claim, and I don’t have space to defend it here. I’d like to suggest, though, two things: first, that intellectual and cultural developments in western Anatolia in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and in Athens a bit later, marked the beginnings of what we now call science and philosophy; and second, that no miracle was involved.

When I look at the surviving fragments of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, all active in sixth-century Miletus, I see a new kind of explanation emerging. These early thinkers—it begs a question to call them either “philosophers” or “scientists”—offer explanations of physis, roughly “the way things grow,” and in so doing they create a new kind of thought. Their explanations build on one another, and together they create three assumptions:

  • Explanation of physis will depend on abstract qualities: for Thales, “the moist”; for Anaximander, “the limitless”; for Anaximenes, “air.”
  • Explanations of physis will be continuous; that is, whatever explains phenomena in the parts of the world that we experience will also explain phenomena inaccessible to our experience, like celestial bodies or events. There will be no need to appeal to supernatural forces or beings.
  • Explanations of physis will be progressive; that is, any explanation can be replaced by a better explanation—one that offers a more plausible or convincing account of phenomena. Persuasive argument and disagreement are essential to explanation.

There is no need to invoke miracles to explain this new way of thinking. It’s about what one would expect from a place and time with access to a radically new information technology—alphabetic literacy; with a new economic tool that encouraged abstraction of value from physical objects—coinage; with a need to think about how to create societies from scratch—colonization; and with easy access to older, richer cultures in Egypt and the Near East.

There is more to it, of course. All three Ionians depend on mythological frames of reference and draw on Near Eastern and Egyptian cosmology and astronomy. Other cultures, notably China, developed important ways of explaining how things are. But the Ionians’ abstract, continuous, progressive way of thinking opens the door that leads to modern science, to philosophy, to academic argument, and to Kennedy and Hanink’s articles. When Kennedy and Hanink assume, without needing to give it much thought, that they can state a position and give reasons for it, that someone may respond to it or disagree, and that the stated positions will be judged by the quality of the arguments on both sides, they are following the track first trod by Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. And by no one else.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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A few days after the election, the New York Times published two maps based on county-level voting data. One map showed red America, counties that went for Donald Trump: an inland nation occupying most of the land area of the United States. The other map showed blue America: a scattered archipelago consisting of the coastal corridors and inland cities that voted for Hillary Clinton. I thought of Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War, and a couple of grocery stores.

The Peloponnesian War pitted two ancient Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta, each with its allies, in a war that lasted from 431 BC until Athens’ defeat in 404. Sparta was an inland power and depended on its unmatched hoplite soldiers and its power over the central Greek land mass. Athens controlled an empire of islands and relied on its navy and a steady stream of tribute from its allies. Because Thucydides, the historian of that war, wrote a classic study of geopolitical rivalry that is still studied at the United States Naval War College and elsewhere, it’s easy to think of Athens and Sparta as different nations, like the United States and China; in fact, two separate articles about China in the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic are far from the first to invoke the “Thucydides trap” to describe the way that a rising power inevitably comes into conflict with one that is already established.

Thucydides himself, though, makes it clear that understanding the war between Athens and Sparta meant understanding not only national interests and anxieties, but also different forms of a common Greek culture. Athenians and Spartans were both Greek: they spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, shared a national literature and a foundational text, Homer, and met at common festivals. In the negotiations leading up to the war, Thucydides has a third party, a Corinthian ambassador, describe for the Spartans the ways in which their character and world view differ from the Athenians’. Those differences had as much to do with the war as Spartan anxieties about Athenian power or Athenian need for a maritime empire.

Thucydides makes me want to ask, are we one country? One polis, as the Greeks might have put it? One culture, as the Athenians and Spartans were? Trump voters are not Spartans, and Clinton supporters are a long way from being Athenians. As President Obama among others likes to remind us, we are all Americans, just as the Athenians and Spartans were all Hellenes. We speak versions of a common language and enjoy common festivals (thank you, Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday). But in the 2016 election, Trump won 76 percent of the counties that have a Cracker Barrel and only 22 percent of those that have a Whole Foods. The gap in political views between organic shoppers and nostalgia seekers has grown steadily since 1992, according to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, and it hit 54% this year.

That food fight may reflect a more significant statistic: as the Brookings Institution reported, the roughly 500 counties that Clinton won accounted for 64 percent of U.S. economic activity in 2015, while the more than 2,600 that Trump won accounted for only 36 percent. This disparity is only one example of fractures in a common culture that is beginning to divide along lines drawn by income, education, and zip code. At the end of the first book of his history, Thucydides reports a speech by Pericles to the Athenian people. The coming war, he explains, will be decided by money: the Athenians’ wealth, and the Spartans’ lack of it.

I don’t see war between the people of the coasts and the people of the mountains and plains in America’s future—but like Athens and Sparta, we are growing farther apart as our interests diverge, and our common civic culture is in danger. We can and should be a diverse nation in which many cultures co-exist, but ironically, diversity only works if people can talk with one another; if, that is, they have some overarching civic culture in common. Otherwise it’s divergence, not diversity. It is not enough to share the same Constitution and laws. It’s time to read the same books. The first book of Thucydides might be a place to start—it analyzes the way in which Athens and Sparta went from close allies joined in a common cause to open enemies in the space of fifty years. Maybe it’s also time to sit down for a meal catered jointly by Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel.

9/11 and 11/9


On September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the towers, my school’s Director of Computer Operations walked down the hall and into my office. He has two degrees in classics, and so as we watched events unfold on my computer screen, we talked about Augustine’s City of God. Augustine wrote this immense treatise sometime after A.D. 410 because he wanted to understand what the sack of Rome by barbarians meant. Like Al Qaeda’s assault on New York, Alaric’s raid on Rome didn’t immediately destroy city or empire: the Visigoths broke things, took some stuff, and left after a few days. But when Augustine looked at the event through the lens of early Christianity, he saw that Rome, the city of man, was finished. It was time to think about the world in a different way.

On November 9, 2016, when it became clear that we had elected Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States, I picked up Aristotle’s Politics. Once again I wanted to know not what an ancient author had said on any particular topic—Aristotle’s opinions on some things, like slavery, fall somewhere between repugnant and obsolete—but how to think about and beyond Trump’s election. Aristotle discusses different kinds of government—monarchy, aristocracy, democracy—and the ways in which they change and decline. One thing he makes clear is that thinking about government means thinking about citizenship, and that thinking about citizenship means having an understanding of goodness: both what it is to be good at something, like being a citizen or a senator or a president, and what it means to be a good person.

Aristotle’s idea made me look at the election of 2016 in a different way. Maybe what we had seen was not a failure of politics—a matter of clueless media, FBI meddling, or midnight messages on Twitter, of getting out the vote or suppressing it—but a failure of goodness, and of education for goodness. Perhaps we, no matter who we voted for, hadn’t been very good at being citizens: at understanding each other, at looking beyond our own interests or identity, and at thinking critically and acting morally. Perhaps our educational system had failed to encourage us to do these things. Whether we voted for Clinton or Trump, we got the President that we deserve, because the candidates’ flaws and failings, their self-absorption and appeals to identity politics, are ours.

In 2001 my colleague and I weren’t much interested in Augustine’s specific ideas or his Christian analysis. We wanted to know how to think about an event like 9/11. In 2016, Aristotle’s Politics helped me think about another turning point. Americans in all periods of our history and on all sides of the political divide, from Jefferson and Adams to Noam Chomsky, who once called Aristotle “that dangerous radical,” have done the same for a long time. Perhaps a place to start in reviving what Cornel West has called “democratic soulcraft” is with continuing that long conversation that we Americans have had with Greece and Rome.

–Lee T. Pearcy



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