Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Strategy, the Byzantine Empire, Socrates and Thucydides

Thanks to Hermes for drawing attention to this interesting video featuring Edward Luttwak, in which he discusses his recently published book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

Luttwak makes some fascinating insights into the nature of Byzantium; the many reasons for its longevity – which, for him, comes down to a culture of strategy; and the policy lessons contemporary strategists could learn from the Eastern Roman Empire, asserting, for example, that America should become more like Byzantium.

Coincidentally, I've been thinking quite a bit about 'strategy' recently, how the philosophy of strategy is far more effective in describing and navigating the intricacies of human affairs than traditional moral and ethical philosophy.

These thoughts have come to me as I've been reading Pierre Hadot's book,
What is Ancient Philosophy? which asserts that philosophy is no more and no less than a way of life, a means, through permanent struggle, criticism and self-criticism, to find some kind of spiritual peace, involving a pursuit of 'wisdom without ever achieving it'.

Hadot's book – which I haven't finished yet – is interesting and focuses, as you can imagine, a great deal on the figure of Socrates.

Now, Socrates, and his methodology, is someone I've always had trouble with: I've never been convinced, for example, that you can cure ignorance by merely pointing out to an ignorant person that they are, in fact, deluded, deranged, ill-informed or misguided. Ignorant people have a habit of insisting on their ignorance, otherwise they would not be ignorant in the first place. Anyway, my point is really this: reading Hadot's book has confirmed my feeling that when it comes to describing and navigating the intricacies of human affairs, I find Thucydides – the greatest theorist of Grand Strategy – far more illuminating than Socrates.


Hermes said...

Although Luttwak has done a reasonably good job in highlighting the grand strategy of Byzantium (we had a long discussion on the dearth of modern translations into Greek of the plethora of Byzantine military manuals - Greek academics largely prefer to focus on rubbish like Gellner and Hobsbawm than their own thinkers) he does make some fundamental historical errors. Then again he admits the book is not wholly a history. Also, he really does not say much more than George T Dennis and John Haldon said on Byzantine strategy, diplomacy and foreign policy. All in all a good effort.

John Akritas, I am with you in regards to Thucydides over Socrates. Actually, I think that Greek thought up until today can be divided along three broad lines. Although, we must be aware of all of them, the one that I find that has most resonance for me is the Democritus-Thucydides-Aristotle-Xenophon (in the Education of Cyrus)-Epicurus-Maurice-Machiavelli-maybe Venizelos-Kaklamanis-Kondylis. I include non-Greeks because they too picked up this thread. Essentially, this line of thinking attempts to understand the world as it is and find ways to navigate within it.

By the way Koliopoulos and Platias have recently released their book specifically on Thucydides and strategy.


Hermes said...

Also, the entry of Panagiotis Kondylis in wikipedia has been extensively updated. It is really worth a read. It also contains several references to Thucydides.

John Akritas said...

The book looks good – there is a dearth of good secondary literature on Thucydides – and that Wikipedia entry is very useful. Apart from the extracts on the 'Kondylis in English' website – which does not seem to have been added to for a while – I still don't see any translations of Kondylis' books into English, which is a pity. Still, it's not so much Greeks in the diaspora that need to be reading Kondylis as Greeks in Greece, especially those who think the European Union represents some kind of 'end of history', in which problems with all Greece's neighbours will be forever solved.

lastgreek said...

Currently reading . . .

Warren Treadgold's [i]A History of the Byzantine State and Society[/i]

On the upcomming-reads shelf . . .

[i]Maurice's Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy[/i]

Hermes said...

John, I have not read the Hadot book you mention (I have read his book on Plotinus) but I will be interested on your thoughts when you have read the latter part of the book when he deals with Christianity. The interaction between "pagan" thought and Christian thought or religion still fascinates; particularly as one gets to know philosophy and Christianity (Orthodoxy specifically) better. I recently read George Finlay's (fought with Byron) book on Greeks during the Roman era. The similarities and differences between Christianity and "pagan" philosophy are profound and even then they are not polarities stable in time and space. Some modern Greek writers such as Yannaras, Ziakas and Kontogiorgis have some really interesting things to say and in most cases they remain honest and objective; although, Yannaras tends to tilt towards Christian apologetics more than the other two.

John Akritas said...

It's interesting what you say, H, about Greek and Christian thought. I've always been prejudiced against Christian thought and thinkers, and yet the early fathers had to address and come to terms with the prevailing intellectual climate, which was Greek. A little while ago I started Pelikan's book, Christianity and Classical Culture, but stopped quite early on, repelled by the Cappadocians, if I'm honest.

Anonymous said...

John, using terms like Greek and Christian is problematic because the large majority of the Greek Fathers were Greeks who were taught in Greek schools (teaching philosophy, grammer, rhetoric, literature etc); although, they presupposed that Jesus was God incarnated. Origen or Basil probably had more Greek education than the vast majority of pagan Greeks who just followed religious ritual without understanding any deeper metaphysical or philosophical significance. Let's also not forget that even some Greek pagans were outright against Greek learning.

Hermes said...

The last comment was from Hermes.

lastgreek said...


John, using terms like Greek and Christian is problematic because the large majority of the Greek Fathers were Greeks who were taught in Greek schools-

. . . including St John Chrysostom, educated by Libanios himself.

Hermes said...

lastgreek, Basil and Gregory also probably heard the lectures of that great rhetorician, Libanios in Constantinople.

We have to be careful we do not allow Western analytical frameworks, more to do with the Enlightenment and misunderstandings of Greek thought, to colour our understanding of Greek history. This is especially important on this Feast Day of Markos Evgenikos, the defender of Orthodoxy against the vile Franks.

Hermes said...

I would advise everyone read the book, Hellenism in Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis. His method depends on treating Hellenic identity, "as a historically discursively constructed entity, not a stable "essence" and therefore as always being reimagined and contested". Of course, this method does suggest some concession to repulsive multi-cultural post-modern "soup mixing". It suggests that we should not take Classical Greece, defined as the period between the Battle of Marathon to the victory of Alexander or perhaps even more narrowly, freeze dry it at the behest of our Frankish (today: European Union) overlords, and use that as the template of "real" Greekness throughout time and space, no matter how attractive it is. Further, Greek identity is not some formless entity which is manufactured in Hollywood movie studios or in Brussels by some lesbian Scandinavian technocrat or by an uneducated social psychologist conveniantly placed in the Greek Ministry of Education by external and internal enemies of the ethnos.

Greek identity can only be contested by honest well meaning Greeks who have the best interests of all the patriotic dead and living Greeks.

Anonymous said...

J -- an update on something that was discussed on your blog in the past.



John Akritas said...

Regarding Hellenism and Christianity; my knowledge of the period we're talking about is not great, but flicking through the book I referred to previously – Jaroslav Pelikan's Christianity and Classical Culture – it is full of quotes from the Cappadocians expressing their repulsion and contempt for Homer, tragedy, Greek mythology, Aristotle and so on; essentially sharing and promoting the Jewish criticism of Hellenism. Ultimately, it's all very well being versed in Greek paideia, but surely we have to judge the Cappadocians according to what they did with their Greek learning – and what they did was use it to make propaganda for Jesus and the Jewish tradition in general. I accept that Christianity is not a complete break with Hellenism, but it is a pretty sharp deviation. I don't even accept that Christianity is where Hellenistic intellectual culture was heading or that Christianity has its roots in classical Greek culture. Christianity is more an outgrowth of Judaism than it is of Hellenism. I will need a lot of convincing to the contrary.

Hermes said...

John, unfortunately it is not so simple. If the Cappodocians hated Hellenic culture so much why did they advocate it being included in the curriculum. Later, in middle Byzantium, Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides and others were obligatory in a person's education. Also, why did some Byzantine chronicles include Troy and so on in Roman history rather than focusing exclusively on Jewish history. In addition, the Byzantines hardly defended Jewish tradition. If they did they would have not tried to convert Jews - at times rather violently. They only defended Jewish tradition when it came to what it meant for the coming of Jesus and everything was unecessary.

Like you, I do not accept some common opinions i.e. the "miracle" of Christianity, Hellenism was heading to Christianity or Christianity has its roots in Hellenism etc. Anyone who believes this should seek a phsychiatrist.

But this issue is far more complex and requires further study. However, more importantly, what can we learn from this issue as the modern Greek state disintegrates?

John Akritas said...

I don't say the Cappadocians hated Hellenic culture, but I do say that they were only interested in it in as much as it could prove the Ultimate Truth for them, which was not contained in Greek texts – Hellenism doesn't deal in Ultimate Truths – but in the Jewish texts of the Old Testament and the Gospels. Any Greek text that contradicted the Truths of the Old Testament and the Gospels were regarded as inferior and unworthy. Despite, then, the Cappadocians asserting that Christianity is a middle way between Hellenism and Judaism, ultimately Christianity gives priority to the latter over the former, gives priority to Moses over Solon; to David over Leonidas, and so on.

As for the way the Byzantines used Greek paideia: it seems to me that they took from it only that which did not challenge or contradict their Christian worldview and the moment they saw what Hellenism – which is above all a culture of freedom of thought and unremitting criticism – really entailed, they abandoned it or condemned it. Thus the way the Byzantines adopted Hellenism is not that different to how the Muslims took on board Greek texts. They took that which suited them and regarded as irrelevant or ignorant that which they believed contradicted the Truths contained in the koran.

Having said all this, I admit I'm not up to speed with the interaction between Classical Hellenism and Byzantine Hellenism – and Kaldellis' book looks interesting – so my remarks are fairly preliminary.

Anonymous said...

Helenism died, blotted out from Byzantium during the catastrophe, Smyrna catastrophe signalled the end of a historical era, never to return, in the near future. Maybe in the long distant future. Classical Hellenism and Byzantine Hellenism belong in the burial chambers of labyrinthine libraries. It is, regretably, not a contributing building bloc for any revival, now or in the future.

Hermes said...

John, to state that Hellenism does not deal in ultimate truth is inaccurate. From Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus to Damascius, they all dealt with the Ultimate Truth, the Absolute, the First Cause, the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover or God - whatever one wants to call it.

The Cappodocians also rejected a large part of the Jewish tradition i.e. God-Man, the Trinity, dietary laws, figurative depiction of the divine and so on. Christianity, and more specifically Orthodoxy, was both an old and new world, the creation of a new way of life.

Also, I am not so sure that Hellenism is about "freedom and unremitting criticism". I suspect that is post-Enlightenment thought projected back into Antiquity. Hellenism was bound by place, time and tradition; and in most cases, was acutely aware of prevailing social norms.

Regarding the reception of Hellenism into Islam and Christianity the differences are significant. The Muslims hardly studied Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides or Lucian whereas they were a core component of the Byzantine curriculum.

John Akritas said...

I don't really mean Absolute Truths in the sense you have described: what I mean is there was nothing off limits to Greek intellectual enquiry, there was no point reached where a scientist/philosopher/poet would have to turn back because he was transgressing some divine truth or immutable law – they could, with few exceptions, go as far as they liked in questioning/dissecting/lambasting society – its laws, its traditions, its norms, its religion – even imagining a time when the religion they were following would be replaced with another religion, a time when the gods they worshipped would become irrelevant and die. The differences between how the Greeks perceived their society and culture – as transient, in flux, constantly changing and open to change, never far from collapse and even passing away – and how the Jews, Christians and Muslims perceive theirs is startling.

It's true, of course, that the Cappadocians rejected great chunks of Judaism; but this shouldn't detract from their utter contempt for and total rejection of the Greek gods and Greek religious practices – a catastrophic reverse for Greek culture since, as it's been pointed out (by, among others, Mary Lefkowitz in Bring Back the Greek Gods), it can't be overestimated how Greek theology itself was set up to permit societies open to discussion and inquiry.

On whether Hellenism is about 'unremitting criticism and a culture of freedom'. Yes, point taken; I guess this is what Hellenism, at its best, in Athenian democracy, is for me. One could hardly argue that Sparta – another great example of Hellenism – constituted a culture of criticism and freedom.

I accept there were differences in how Byzantium and Islam received classical Greek learning; but the point remains that both societies and intellectual elites restricted themselves to certain texts – the Cappadocians, for example, were fascinated by the Timaeus because they thought it proved monotheism, but had less interest in The Republic or discussing the possibility that states and societies were anything other than divinely instituted. In comparison to Byzantium and its emperors 'chosen by god', states and societies in the classical Greek world rarely believed themselves to be anything other than man-made. The consequences of this difference, not just for politics but for all levels of society, are obviously enormous.

And how did Byzantine intellectuals use Homer? Did they love the Iliad and the Odyssey as works of great literature – with some ethical appeal thrown in – or did they see them, as the classical Greeks saw them, as explanations of their society, history and culture, the key source of their worldview? Clearly, the former. To explain their society, history, culture and worldview, the Byzantines would have relied on the Bible – both its Jewish and Greek components. And who did the Byzantines turn to for their cosmology – Hesiod or the Book of Genesis?

Hermes said...

John, the Greeks became increasingly dualistic over time. I agree that they perceived society as everchanging but they increasingly understood the Divine (absolute truth, unmoved mover etc) as stable. The difference with Christianity was that their understanding of the Divine was comprehended via logical argumentation and the apophatic method. There was little revealed truth other than from allegorical readings of well known texts such as the Iliad. Christianity also relied on logical argumentation and the apophatic method but they also relied to a large degree on the revealed truth of the Gospels and Patristic writings. Christians also argued about the nature of the Divine, as did the Greeks, as witnessed by their unumerable councils and later Palamite controversy; but, because the State was more centralised, and the revelatory nature of Christianity, there was a greater need for dogmatic uniformity.

I detect a strong influence of Castoriadis in your understanding of ancient Greece and Byzantium. Castoriadis was a great political philosopher and social theorist but he was not a historian despite his contacts with Vernant. His understanding of Athens, the rest of classical Greece, the Hellenistic kingdoms and Byzantium betrays a selective use of data to legitimise his theories.

Regarding the Cappadocian's selective use of Greek texts, this was not restricted to the Cappadocians. The pagan Greeks of Late Antiquity also hardly read The Republic because it had little relevance in a multi-ethnic empire such as Rome which had at its head the Emperor, chosen by the Divine to rule.

Perhaps, our misunderstanding results from confusing different periods of Greek history i.e. the Greeks of the Classical Age were probably further from pagan Greeks of Late Antiquity than pagan Greeks of Late Antiquity were from Byzantine Greeks despite both not being Christians. The Greek world had changed significantly in a political, social and cultural sense.

Having said all that, what intrigues me the most is why Christian and pagan Greeks began to covet barbarian "wisdom" such as so much given their own achievements? What were the social and political factors that contributed to this loss of belief in their own people's ideas?

Also, what is also interesting is that contemporary Greeks are much the same. Why?

lastgreek said...

What intrigues me is the whereabouts of Antipodean over at antipodes-antipodean.blogspot.com.

Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

I do wish that IR theorists would stop cherrypicking from Thucydides and others,trying to reinvent them to suit their own political realism/powerpolitical 'theories'.Thucydides was not so much advocating the strong over the weak, as bewailing it, and he was more of a historian than a strategist. The only bacademics properly qualified to interpret Thucydides are classsdicists and historians,such ass Haruo Konishi, not mickey Mouse Ir pseudo-theorists.