Saturday, 29 September 2012

Why I like Castoriadis: politics and philosophy from ancient Greece to our age of ‘insignificance’

Postscript on Insignificance is a useful addition to the Cornelius Castoriadis oeuvre available in English, consisting of a series of interviews in which the Greek philosopher introduces us to some of his main intellectual preoccupations  – in ontology, political theory, art, psychoanalysis, mathematics, the philosophy of science, the state of modern society, and so on.

Here are some of the ideas that you will find in the book and are most attractive to me:

Castoriadis’ assertion that ‘being is creation’ amounts to a fundamental
rejection of any kind of determinism (religious, historical, scientific) and places politics – collective activity aimed at establishing the rules of society – at the heart of human endeavour and, indeed, of human existence, which is always social. ‘Being is creation’ provides flesh to the bones of Protagoras’ ‘man is the measure of all things’ and Aristotle’s ‘man is a political animal’, as well as his, ‘he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god’.

Even if we accept that societies always create themselves, this does not necessarily tell us anything about the form this creation will take; if, indeed, a society will overcome the pretense that extrinsic forces (gods, tradition, physis, etc) are responsible for shaping its laws and precepts. In fact, most human societies are what Castoriadis calls ‘heteronomous’, enthral and reliant on extrasocial explanations and sources for their laws and rules. Very few societies in human history have made the breakthrough that allows them to recognise that their laws and rules can be made and re-made by themselves.

The first societies that consciously took over from the gods, physis and so on, the role of instituting  laws and social precepts, were in classical Greece, and it is no coincidence that this is where philosophy and politics emerge.

Politics and philosophy go hand in hand. If philosophy is about questioning the existing representation of the world; then politics is about questioning and altering the existing representation of society. When philosophy challenges religious and other heteronomous explanations of the cosmos, when it removes the artificial limits on what is thinkable, it reveals a vacuum that, in terms of the ordering of society, politics steps in to try and fill.

If religion and the supernatural cannot explain the cosmos, then they cannot explain society or purport to be the foundation for its laws either. In this scenario, laws are not immutable, the impeccable will of the gods or of a God, to apply for all time and in all circumstances, never to be challenged or changed; but the responsibility of humans, who now must judge and choose for themselves the laws by which to govern their relations in society.

The more a society understands that it and it alone can affect its laws and rules, deciding what is a good and bad law; the more a society interrogates itself and overcomes heteronomous restrictions on what it can and cannot say and do about itself; the more implicated citizens are in shaping their society’s laws; the more citizens feel ownership of their society’s laws; then the more Castoriadis is inclined to identify such a society as ‘autonomous’. The creation of autonomous society is the project that Castoriadis, the radical social and political theorist, seeks to explain and is committed to.

However, this project of autonomy begun 2,500 years ago in Greece (revived in the ‘first Renaissance’ in 11th century Europe and, again, in 17th century England, followed by the American and French revolutions, the Enlightenment, the workers’ movement and by Modernism and the avant-garde, which prevailed in Europe from the 1870s to the 1950s) is now in crisis. And this is not because contemporary society is threatened by a return to a belief in gods and tradition, or the veneration of nature (although there has been a growth in religious fundamentalism, regressive forms of nationalism and anti-modern, back-to-nature ideologies – as in aspects of the Green movement); but, more profoundly, the project of autonomy is under threat from trends that want to transform citizens into consumers; that induce apathy and conformism; and reduce politics from a democratic endeavour of the many to a preserve and activity of the few, a liberal elite, comprised of professional politicians and pseudo political experts.

For Castoriadis, the term that captures this nihilistic spirit in contemporary politics, art and philosophy is ‘insignificance’; and, indeed, even if Castoriadis was describing the world as he saw it in the 1980s and 1990s (Castoriadis died in 1997), the lacklustre, ineffectual response to the post-2008 crisis from radical politics – we’re thinking of the feeble occupy and indignant movements – shows there is nothing to suggest that such a pessimistic characterisation would not be applicable to today’s politics and society.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Greek crisis and its possible resolutions: perspectives from London

Above is the recording of an event held here in London on 11 September at the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory on The Greek Crisis and its Possible Resolutions. Mostly, in the UK, when Greek academics and intellectuals have been asked to speak on whats happening in Greece, weve been regaled by Marxist and other leftist interpretations of the country’s demise, from the likes of Yanis Varoufakis and Costas Lapavitsas. So, what we have above is a take on the crisis essentially offering liberal and market diagnoses and solutions.

There is also a consensus among these UK-based and influenced Greeks that Greece’s political culture has significantly contributed to the crisis, particularly an antiquated nationalism and populism that has dominated political discourse.

The speakers are Pavlos Eleftheriadis (professor of law), Apostolos Doxiadis (writer), Andreas Koutras (city banker) and Giorgos Prokopakis. (former academic, now management consultant). The event is in Greek. I’ve translated into English below the essence of what the first speaker, Pavlos Eleftheriadis, the law professor, had to say, since it reasonably captures the thrust of the arguments of all four speakers:

To listen to the debate as a podcast, download mp3 file here.

Eleftheriadis traces the origins of the crisis back to Greece’s entry to the EEC in 1981 and the operation of the European single market in 1992, when Greece ceased to have control over the import and export of products, services and labour; while in 2001 Greece abandoned its own currency in favour of joining a single European currency.

Greece’s economy, Eleftheriadis says, became subject to globalisation.

However, he goes on, what the crisis has shown is that this globalisation of the Greek economy and society was only partial. Greeks may have bought goods and taken out loans from outside the country, but they sold their products only within Greece. In other words, Greece lost the opportunity to develop a domestic economy compatible with the requirements of globalisation and the strictures imposed on it by the EEC, the European single market and then the single currency.

How did Greece miss this opportunity? Eleftheriadis says since 1981 [when PASOK assumed power], the state started to award grants and public contracts on the basis of party political affiliation. Greek products and services were geared towards satisfying the demands and practices of the Greek state rather than finding markets internationally.

The party politicisation of the Greek state and economy not only meant that Greek products and services were not in a position to compete internationally, but also that within the Greek market itself there was a distinct lack of competition. Political intervention, a disregard for law and the prevalence of cartels prohibited healthy competition developing within the Greek internal market. As for public works, Greece suffered from ‘institutionalised protectionism’ in which foreign companies were excluded from bidding and taking on public works in the country.

Eleftheriadis adds that Greece’s ‘relative isolation’ was not only economic, i.e. it wasn’t only Greece’s economy that suffered from protectionism; but there has also existed an issue with Greece’s ‘political isolation’ and isolation in the realm of ideas.

Greece’s political discourse, Eleftheriadis says, is unusually nationalistic and protectionist. For example, Eleftheriadis suggests, Greece was out of step with the rest of Europe when it came to the wars in Yugoslavia, where Greek public opinion had a completely different perception of the conflict than public opinion elsewhere on the continent.

Eleftheriadis argues that since 1981, Greece, rather than converging with Europe has, in fact, distanced itself from the European mainstream. He attributes this to the collapse, round about 1986-87, amid a series of scandals, of the post-1974 consensus. This lead to intensified political conflict and the replacement of post-1974 optimism and idealism with cynicism and mistrust. This fraying of the post-1974 system coincided with a massive influx of European grants into Greece, which, in a society increasingly wracked by party political polarisation, were open to misuse.

By the late 1980s, Eleftheriadis stresses, Greek political discourse was also coarsened by media liberalisation, particularly in the television industry. Greek TV expanded without regulation or the official granting of licenses. Numerous pirate TV stations sprang up, run by whoever had the economic muscle to initiate such operations. By 1993, the government issued temporary licenses to TV stations; temporary licenses which, in fact, still govern the Greek television industry; an industry that operates without supervision, competition or transparency. The populism and lack of ethics that characterise Greek television has become an integral part of Greek political life. News and current affairs programmes are not governed by normal journalistic standards, but are a conduit for powerful station owners to express their opinions and defend their interests.

In general, Eleftheriadis says, from 1988 onwards, Greece entered a phase of ‘smash and grab parasitism’ (αρπακτικού παρασιτισμού). The theory that Greece is the victim of capitalism gone wrong is completely false. Greece’s economic and political system is totally different to that which exists in the rest of Europe. The solution for Greece isn’t to move further away from an overbearing Europe, but to move closer to European standards and values. These European values and standards can be encapsulated by the term ‘democratic equality’, which does not mean equality as a Marxist would understand it; but equality of opportunity, which requires the rule of law and fair and open competition. Indeed, this is the same rule of law and fair and open competition that the Greek economy has been lacking and must acquire. If the rule of law and fair competition does not apply at the economic level, then it cannot apply at political or social levels and vice versa.

Eleftheriadis then identifies four articles of faith that, according to him, came to characterise Greek political discourse after 1974 and which are all false and must be discarded:

1. Greece belongs to the Greeks (Η Ελλάδα Ανήκει στους Έλληνες). FALSE. Greece doesn’t belong to anyone. There is no ‘subject’ Greeks, and no ‘object’ Greece. Rather, Greece is an open European society, which welcomes all so long as they abide by the laws.

2. Workers rights determine what is lawful (Νόμος είναι το Δίκιο του Εργάτη). FALSE. In an open European society, labour is not a victim.

3. Cops, pigs, murderers (Μπάτσοι, Γουρούνια, Δολοφόνοι). FALSE. The police are there to protect us from organised interests, public and private.

4. EEC, NATO, all part of the same gang (ΕΟΚ και ΝΑΤΟ, το ίδιο Συνδικάτο). Many Greeks still believe this, even if the EU is now the most advanced force for peace and social justice in the world.

To stress the importance of restoring the rule of law to Greece and inculcating within Greeks a renewed awe of the law, Eleftheriadis invites us to consider the following anecdote involving one of the pre-eminent heroes of the Greek War of Independence, Ioannis Makriyiannis.

When the political leaders of the Greek revolution offerred him payment to mediate in the civil war that had broken out in the Peloponnese in 1824, the freedom fighter retorted:

‘I’ll go, but I want to prove to you that I’m not a merchant who buys and sells his country for money. To support my country and its laws, that’s what I’m prepared to die for, not for anything else. Even if Gypsies were in charge of the government, I’d submit to their will.’

(Θα πάγω, αλλά θέλω να σας αποδείξω ότι εγώ δεν είμαι πραματευτής να κάνω πραμάτεια την πατρίδα μου δια χρήματα... Δια την στερέωση της πατρίδος μου και νόμους, δια κείνο πεθαίνω, όχι διά άλλο. Και οι Γύφτοι νάχουν την Κυβέρνησιν, εγώ υποτάζωμαι).

Monday, 24 September 2012

‘For the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl’… or the insults that caused the Greco-Persian wars

In a previous post, I mentioned that the mechanism of revenge is a key concept helping us understand the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war and Greek culture generally. Conflicts and enmities often began as a result of perceived insults, affronts to honour, which could only be redeemed or expiated through vengeance.

In fact, if we read Herodotus, we can see how, for the Greek mind, this mechanism of revenge didn’t just apply to recent events, but could stretch far back into history, and even into myth.

Thus, Herodotus begins his Histories by stating his intention to reveal the aetiology of the wars between Greece and Persia in the fifth century BC and suggesting that they were the culmination of a series of insults and reprisals between Europeans and Asiatics going back centuries and, indeed, into the mists of time.

Herodotus says that the ‘feud’ between Greece and Persia, or Europe and Asia, was initiated by the Phoenicians. These quintessential Mediterranean traders had come on their ships to Argos, hawking goods from Egypt and Assyria, and at the end of their mission, having sold most of their wares, they kidnapped a number of Greek women, including Io (daughter of the Argive king, Inachus) who had come to the beach to make purchases.

Responding to this outrage, Greeks (Minoans) sailed to Phoenician Tyre and abducted King Agenor’s daughter, Europa, taking her to Crete with them. Now, whereas Herodotus asserts that this kidnapping of Europa could be regarded as legitimate retaliation for Io’s abduction, the next offense in this cycle – the kidnapping by Greeks of Medea, the daughter of the king of Colchis – amounted to an unjustified and disproportionate escalation of this Greek-Asian vendetta, particularly when Colchian pleas to return Medea or at least compensate the king for his humiliation were rejected by the Greeks (on the grounds that Io had not been returned and no compensation paid for her abduction).

Thus, in the next generation, Paris, the Trojan prince, as revenge for Greek outrages against Tyre and Colchis, seized Helen, queen of Sparta, and carried her off to Asia. When the Greeks demanded her return and the payment of reparations for the insult Paris had committed, the Trojans said that since Medea had not been returned to her native land and no reparations offered for her kidnap, then the Greeks would receive none for the abduction of Helen.

The events that followed Helen’s kidnap and the refusal of the Trojans to give her up, i.e. the Greek invasion and sacking of Troy, informed, according to Herodotus, abiding Persian hostility towards the Greeks. Not only, for the Persians, did Greek ire at the abduction of Helen amount to a gross over-reaction – more often than not, according to the Persians, these ‘abducted’ women willingly went with their ‘kidnappers’ – but by crossing with an army from Europe into Asia, the Greeks had turned a ridiculous dispute over a woman into an unforgivable violation of the symbolic boundary separating the Greek (and European) from the Persian (and Asian) worlds; the Persians regarding Asia as inherently their domain.

Or, as Herodotus’ puts it:
‘The Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam. Henceforth they [the Persians] ever looked upon the Greeks as their open enemies. For Asia, with all the various tribes of barbarians that inhabit it, is regarded by the Persians as their own; but Europe and the Greek race they look on as distinct and separate.’

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Who are the men wanted for the killings of Tassos Isaac and Solomos Solomou?

The arrest and (inevitable) release by Kirghiz authorities of Erhan Arikli, wanted on an Interpol warrant for his involvement in the murder of Tassos Isaac, has reminded us not only of the savagery of the 1996 Green Line killings (which included the shooting of Solomos Solomou) but also the nature of the regime in occupied Cyprus, the thugs who created and sustain it.

Arikli’s biography tells us he was born in 1962 in Ardahan, a provincial city (formerly populated by Greeks and Armenians) in northeastern Turkey, close to the Georgian border. Along with his family, Arikli came to Cyprus aged 14 and settled in the occupied Greek village of Lapithos, in the Kyrenia district. At the time of the Isaac murder, Arikli was president in the occupied areas of the student wing of the fanatical pan-Turanian organisation, Turk-Bir. For the last 14 years, he has been living in Kirghizstan, travelling between that Turkic republic, Turkey and occupied Cyprus on a so-called ‘diplomatic passport’ issued by the ‘TRNC’. Arikli’s job in Kirghizstan has been to promote tourism and business opportunities in the Turkish-occupied part of Cyprus. His brother, Guven Arikli, is a senior member of the occupation regime, acting as director of ‘prime minister’ Irsen Kucuk’s office.

Below are the names and details of the other suspects wanted by Cypriot authorities for the murders of Isaac and Solomou.

In relation to the Isaac lynching, as well as Erhan Arikli, Interpol warrants are outstanding for:
  • Hasim Yilmaz, a Turkish settler, former member of Turkey’s secret service, now running a coffee shop in occupied Kyrenia;
  • Mustafa Ergun, a Turkish settler and ‘police officer’ in the occupation regime;
  • Polat Fikret Koreli, a Turkish Cypriot from Famagusta;
  • Fikret Veli Koreli, a Turkish Cypriot bicycle workshop owner from Famagusta; and
  • Mehmet Mustafa Arslan, a Turkish settler and leader of the ultranationalist Grey Wolves in the Turkish-occupied areas.
As for the shooting of Solomou, the following persons are being sought for the killing:
  • Kenan Akin, at the time of the murder, ‘minister’ for agriculture in the occupation regime;
  • Erdal Emanet, who was head of special services in the occupation regime’s ‘police force;
  • Attila Sav, former chief of ‘police’ in the ‘TRNC’;
  • Lt. Gen. Hasan Kundakci, then head of the Turkish Cypriot ‘armed forces’; and
  • Maj. Gen. Mehmet Karli, former head of the Turkish occupation forces in Cyprus.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Socrates on how to reverse the decline of Athens

I mentioned in a previous post how, for classical Greeks, identity, self-perception and psychology were significantly configured by a mix of history and myth.

In fact, I came across a good illustration of this when reading Xenophon’s account of a conversation between Socrates and Pericles the Younger, on the subject of how to revive a declining Athens.

The dialogue would have taken place towards the end of the Peloponnesian war, when Athens was staring defeat in the face, and, obviously, before 406 BC when the aforementioned Pericles the Younger (son of Aspasia and the outstanding statesman of Athens’ Golden Age, Pericles) was tried and executed, along with five other generals in charge of Athenian forces at the naval Battle of Arginusae (406 BC).

The battle was brilliantly and surprisingly won by Athens, but the commanders, after they had allegedly neglected to rescue shipwrecked Athenian sailors and retrieve the Athenian dead from the sea, were charged with dereliction of duty. The kangaroo court and subsequent execution of the six amounted to another in a long line of shameful and self-destructive decisions by the Athenian citizenry during the Peloponnesian war, (a decision which, again, in true Athenian style, the Athenians were to repent… at leisure. Indeed, both men in Xenophon’s dialogue – Socrates and Pericles the Younger – were unjustly executed, via hemlock, victims of the degenerative tendency of Athenian democracy).

Anyway, as I said, what interested me in the exchange is that Socrates’ remedy for reversing Athenian decline – which is, essentially, a conservative, nationalist remedy (let’s assume it’s not the ultra-conservative Xenophon putting words into the philosopher’s mouth) – is based on an appeal to Athenians’ historical and mythical past. Socrates not only stresses the lessons to be learned from Athenian heroism in the Persian wars, fought only two to three generations previously; but also recommends for mimesis the great deeds of legendary figures such as Erechtheus and Theseus. The conversation, an extract of which is below, gives us a strong sense of the discourses at work in formulating Greek identity.

SOCRATES: Since we wish them [the Athenians] to strive to be the first in virtue, we must then show them that it is their special inheritance from olden days, and that by striving for this they may become superior to all men.

PERICLES: How can we teach them this?

SOCRATES: By reminding them, I think, that their earliest ancestors of whom tradition tells, were really as great as they have heard.

PERICLES: Do you refer to the judgment of the gods which Cecrops and his men pronounced because of their virtue?

SOCRATES: I mean also the birth and childhood of Erecthheus, and the war he waged against the men from all the adjacent lands, and the war of the sons of Heracles against the inhabitants of the Peloponnese. I refer, also, to all the wars waged in Theseus’ time, in all of which our ancestors proved clearly that they were better than their enemies. If you wish, I mean what their descendants did later, a little before our time: by themselves, they fought against the masters of all Asia and Europe as far as Macedonia, against men who possessed the greatest power and wealth the world had ever seen and who had performed the most daring deeds…

For more discussion emanating from JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, go here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The remarkable Salaethus and the siege of Mytilene

I mentioned in my previous post how, three years into the Peloponnesian war (i.e. in 428 BC), taking advantage of Athenian setbacks – plague, the death of Pericles, diminishing resources – the oligarchic regime in Mytilene saw an opportunity to fulfill its long-held aims of expanding its authority over the whole of Lesvos and removing the island from the Athenian empire.

In this revolt, Sparta, inevitably, offered backing and encouragement, while the Mytileneans promised that a united Lesvos under their hegemony would attach itself to the Peloponnesian alliance.

Outraged by Mytilenean duplicity and impudence, and defying the repeated blows it had recently endured, the Athenians summoned all their fiscal and materiel resources to despatch a task force to put down the Mytilene rebellion. After skirmishing and an inconclusive battle, the Mytileneans retreated behind their city walls and prepared to hold out against Athens until Spartan relief arrived.

JE Lendon, in his Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, describes the increasing desperation of the Mytileneans after six months of siege:
‘A winter’s day in embattled Mytilene. The hungry guards looked out from the walls at the Athenian stockade surrounding the city; the cold Athenians on the stockade gazed resentfully at the city walls topped with cozy towers. All the long winter, Mytilene has been blockaded by darting ships upon the deep and by soldiers from the landward side: food was running short, and once again there was talk of begging Athens for terms. But suddenly a knock on a postern or a low cry from no-man’s land revealed the impossible: someone wanted to get into the city.

‘Opening a gate in the city wall, the astonished guards admitted a drenched figure whose long hair and red cloak – and no doubt his chilly equanimity at having crept through the Athenian lines – revealed him as a Spartan. Salaethus was his name, and in a trireme he had crossed the stormful February Aegean to land at one of Mytilene’s small allies on Lesvos; then on foot to Mytilene he had come, slipping under the Athenian fortifications by crawling up the bed of a torrent. Now, having rattled the ice out of his beard, he spoke his message to the besieged. The Peloponnesians were coming!’
Despite the heroic Salaethus’ confidence, the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies, encumbered by hesitation and misjudgment, did not come and the demoralised Mytileneans were soon compelled to surrender their city to Athens. Then there follows one of the most celebrated episodes in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, in which the Athenian assembly debates what punishment to mete out to defeated Mytilene.

Mytilenean ambassadors pled their city’s case, only for the appalling (to Thucydides) Cleon to demand that Mytilene be made an example of to deter any other potential defectors from the Athenian empire. And, indeed, his proposal for the wholesale destruction of Mytilene, the slaughter of its male population and the selling into slavery of the city’s women and children, is passed and a ship with the grim order is despatched to the Athenian garrison stationed on the island.

However, the following day, having reflected on the harsh punishment they had decided to inflict on the Mytileneans, the Athenians conduct a new debate and vote, which rescinds the original order in favour of a more moderate one, targetting only the rebellion’s ringleaders.

Now, in a race against time, to prevent the first order from being carried out, a second ship is sent to Lesvos. It arrives in the nick of time, just as the Athenian commander Paches is preparing Mytilene’s annihilation.

As for the remarkable Salaethus, having failed to convince the Mytileneans to attempt a break out rather than surrender and having escaped from Mytilene before the Athenians entered the city, finding sanctuary in an allied town on Lesvos, he is eventually captured, sent to Athens and executed, along with 1,000 Mytileneans, supporters of the rebellion.

For more discussion on issues emanating from JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, see here.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Insult, wrath and retribution in the Peloponnesian war: yet more thoughts on JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath

As I’ve said in my last two posts on Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, JE Lendon is keen to stress the role that revenge plays in that conflict and, indeed, in all conflicts.

The mechanism of revenge, Lendon says, starts with an insult (ὕβρις/hybris) – amounting to a calculated attempt to demean and cause an affront to honour (τιμή, timē) – which induces an ‘overpowering wrath’ and necessitates vengeance.

Only when revenge is accomplished is wrath ameliorated and honour restored. But, as Lendon points out, and demonstrates with examples from Homer and tragedy, this pattern – from humiliating insult to wrath to revenge to restoration of honour – is not a redemptive process. Rather, it is a process (directed by the Furies) involving chaos, frenzy and self-destruction. Such a process – of chaos, frenzy and self-destruction – is what ultimately characterises the Peloponnesian war.

Revenge not only defines the conduct of the Peloponnesian war but also goes to the heart of the dispute between Athens and Sparta, which is a dispute, according to Lendon (stressing the importance of Homeric ethics in classical Greece) about rank – about Sparta’s determination to retain its ascendant position in Hellas and Athens’ attempt to compel Sparta to accept its burgeoning status.

Shaming is the weapon of choice to undermine, reinforce or elevate rank in the classical Greek world and, as such, the Peloponnesian war begins with punitive Spartan raids into Attica, looting, ravaging and wasting of land, which are reciprocated not by full-scale hostilities but by similarly pernicious Athenian raids into Laconia and against Sparta’s Peloponnesian allies.

Attacking your enemy’s allies is a crucial tactic in this war of reputation, retribution and shaming because it aims to prove that you are incapable of defending your subordinate confederates and are unworthy of your hegemonic position.

Thus, in the first years of the war, Athens moves on from raids against Elis and Messinea in the Peloponnese and expands its theatre of operations to Halkidiki in northeastern Greece where, in an attempt to prove the limitations of Sparta’s reach and power, Athens attacks and seizes pro-Spartan Potidaea.

Sparta responds to this humiliation by attacking an Athenian protectorate, Plataea, in Boeotia; but when Plataea holds out, Sparta seeks to undermine Athenian prestige and restore its own by encouraging the Mytelineans to break free from the Athenian sphere of influence (and fulfill Myteline’s long-term ambition to exert authority over the whole of Lesvos). Athens crushes the Mytelinean revolt, prompting the Peloponnesians to try a similar shaming maneuver in Corcyra. Here, they sponsor a pro-Spartan oligarchic coup, triggering years of strife and carnage on the island, which comes to epitomise the loathing and vindictiveness of this Greek civil war.

For all posts discussing issues emanating from JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian begins, see here.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

History, myth and self-destruction among the Greeks: more thoughts on JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath

More reflections emerging from reading Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, in which JE Lendon stresses the role of status and prestige in that particular conflict and, indeed, in all conflicts.

Lendon makes clear that for the classical Greeks, imbued with Homeric culture, identity and rank were shaped not only by the historical but also the mythical past. Thus, we note that at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian war and the defeat of Athens (404 BC) – and despite the urgings of its allies – Sparta declined to destroy Athens because of the city’s role decades earlier in the service of Hellas during the Persian wars.

For the same reasons, Alexander the Great was lenient towards Athens despite its overt hostility towards Macedonia – its part in the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) and the revolt of Thebes (335 BC) – although the Macedonians had no such compunction when it came to Thebes itself, which was razed and its population sold into slavery, and not just because in resisting Macedonia, the Thebans had lobbied for assistance from the Persian king, but because this treachery was part of an inherited pattern of betrayal, in Alexander’s eyes, in which Thebes had also sided with the Persian invaders more than a century before.

More illustrative, perhaps, of the way the past informed Greek self-perception, we note that Sparta’s perennial Peloponnesian rival Argos, after being defeated in the Battle of Champions (546 BC) and the Battle of Sepeia (494 BC), never reconciled itself to its diminished status and Sparta's hegemony in the peninsular and in Hellas; the Argives justifying their obsessive enmity towards Sparta on the grounds that in the legendary war that, essentially, established the Greeks as a nation, i.e. the Trojan war (1250 BC), it was Argos (under King Agamemnon) that led the pan-Hellenic expedition in Asia, while Sparta (and its cuckolded king, Menelaus) was a bit-part player.

 As Lendon puts it:
‘On the basis of Argos’ standing in myth, Argos could claim the highest rank of any Greek state. And the Argives were anxious to vindicate their rank in every succeeding generation.’
This vicious irreconcilable rivalry meant that from the fifth century onwards, Argos’ main foreign policy objective was to undermine Sparta and this it did by allying itself with whichever state happened to be fighting the Lacedaemonians – with Athens during the Peloponnesian war; with Thebes, Athens and Corinth in the Corinthian war; with Thebes, under Epaminondas, who took on and dealt a shattering blow to Spartan leadership and power, most notably at the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC); with Macedonia, as it sought to establish and maintain hegemony in Greece; and, finally, with Greece’s Roman overlords.

Indeed, Argos’ interminable feud with Sparta is typical of inter-Greek state relations – in fact, such abiding antipathies could be found as much within Greek states as between them – in which destroying yourself seemed a price worth paying so long as you took your rival down with you. No surprise, therefore, that Greeks inspired the concepts of the Cadmean as well as the Pyrrhic victory.

For more discussion emanating from Song of Wrath, go here.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Homer against realpolitik. On JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins

JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins is an excellent account, elegantly written, of the first 10 years of the Peloponnesian war (431-421 BC), which questions Thucydides’ renowned assertion that the ‘truest cause of the war between Athens and Sparta was the growing greatness of the Athenians and the fear that this inspired, which compelled the Lacedaemonians to go to war’.

Thucydides’ ‘realpolitik’ Lendon points out, has informed analyses of conflict for centuries and has held particular sway over modern American strategists and international relations gurus.

However, Lendon believes that in order to understand the causes and conduct of the Peloponnesian war it is necessary to go beyond ‘realist’ doctrines and insist on the centrality of Homeric values to the motivations of fifth century Greeks – with the emphasis on rank, honour, prestige, competitiveness, vengeance and shaming.

Reasserting Homer not only presents us with a more compelling portrait of classical Greek culture, self-perception and psychology, but also provides us with a valuable paradigm for appreciating the motivations behind all wars and conflict.

Wars are often fought, if we follow Lendon (and Homer), not for pragmatic reasons, in struggles over power, resources or conflicting interests, but for the sake of reputation, national self-esteem, pride and out of wrath and revenge, the latter for perceived injustices that may have been inflicted decades or even centuries ago.

Furthermore, by rescuing the Peloponnesian war from ‘realist’American scholars, who regard the conflict as a ‘power struggle’ between democratic Athens and totalitarian Sparta – and want, in the process, to identify dynamic, open American society with Athens and depict its enemies as embodying grim and stolid Sparta – Lendon asks us to reconsider the modern tendency to extol the virtues of Athens and denigrate or caricature the Lacedaemonian way of life.

For Lendon, the Peloponnesian war was a conflict the Spartans were reluctant to fight and sought to resolve at every opportunity, while charges of war-mongering, brutality, hubris and arrogance stick more to Athens. The noblest and most sympathetic character of the period was not the paradigmatically democratic Athenian leader Pericles but the moderate king of Sparta, Archidamus.

Above is a podcast of JE Lendon in conversation with Bill Buschel ( regarding Song of Wrath. The show was first broadcast on Hellenic Public Radio in New York in 2011.

And for more discussion emanating from Song of Wrath, go here.