Sunday, January 21, 2007

Plutarch and Pogo

Every night, for the past couple weeks, I've ended the day reading Plutarch's Lives. I returned from vacation with a couple musty cardboard boxes filled with the complete Collier's 1908 edition of The Harvard Classics. I inherited these elegant leatherbound volumes from my now deceased step-dad, Andy Frantz. His father purchased the collection shortly after returning from the Great War, marrying and setting up the home that Andy grew up and ultimately ended his days in. Andy was a former Army para-trooper and salt-of-the-earth Pennsylvania Dutchman. Judging from their condition these books were probably placed on their shelves sometime in the early 1920s and never troubled again until I boxed them up in December '06. Andy was famous for a vast library of corny jokes, but not for comments even remotely footnoted to Plutarch's Lives, let alone anything else in The Harvard Classics. Andy was no Charlie Tuna.

It was only by pure chance that the first volume I pulled out was #12, Plutarch's Lives. As of last night, thanks to the absence of any interferring romantic life, I finished reading all the Greek lives. As mentioned several times in earlier postings, I'm a BIG fan of Victor Davis Hanson. As a practicing academic Professor Hanson is a world authority on the Greeks. Very early in the War on Terrorism he penned more than one cautionary article referenced to the Peloponnesian Wars on the propensity of democracys to eat their young, and at the end of the day be their own worst enemy.

Reading Plutarch's accounts of four Greek Athenian leaders was sometimes difficult.....even in English. But one thing was very clear, these leaders were often in dammed if you do and dammed if you don't situations. Time and again these Athenian leaders found themselves succeeding in some far off battlefield while simultaneously the object of naysaying and convoluted conspiracy theories back at home. They would either return from a decisive campaign to a judicial process resulting in a death sentence or a ten year ostracism, or having gotten wind of pending proceedings, fleeing to safer shores. And just as predictably the Athenians, when faced with some new evolving threat, would recall them from exile to be followed by still another cycle of conspiracy theories, accusations, ostracism and exile. The net result, judging by the final outcome of Phase 5 of the Peloponnesian war in 404 BC, was not good for the Athenians. Pogo, a cartoon character speaking a couple millennia later in 1970 probably summed it up in his famous quote, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The last of the four historical accounts is that of Alcibiades. With this tale the final drama of the Peloponnesian War is acted out. Alcibiades has been recalled from one of his exiles and finds himself at the head of a mighty Athenian armada. Yet again, no sooner is he back at the helm of Athenian forces and far afield that political machinations at home set in motion another, and as it turns out, final irreversible and disasterous undermining of Alcibiades' leadership.
Here's the quote from Plutarch's narrative that signals the downward spiral to defeat for Athenian democracy:
They fancied, every day, that they should hear news of the reduction of Chios, and of the rest of Ionia, and grew impatient that things were not effected as fast and as rapidly as they could wish for them. They never considered how extremely money was wanting, and that, having to carry on war with an enemy who had supplies of all things from a great king, he was often forced to quit his armament, in order to procure money and provisions for the subsistence of his soldiers.
In short, the Athenians had unrealistic expectations and little or no awareness of the reality of the situation in the field. This next quote is the gist of the spin Alcibiades' political enemies, capitalizing on disenchantment at home, promoted about the state of the war under his command:
Addressing the people, he represented that Alcibiades had ruined their affairs and lost their ships by mere self-conceited neglect of his duties, committing the government of the army, in his absence, to men who gained his favor by drinking and scurrilous talking, whilst he wandered up and down at pleasure to raise money, giving himself up to every sort of luxury and excess amongst the courtesans of Abydos and Ionia, at a time when the enemy’s navy were on the watch close at hand. It was also objected to him, that he had fortified a castle near Bisanthe in Thrace, for a safe retreat for himself, as one that either could not, or would not, live in his own country. The Athenians gave credit to these informations, and showed the resentment and displeasure which they had conceived against him, by choosing other generals.
Despite his removal from power Alcibiades attempted to advise and warn the new leadership about the coming battle, only to be rebuffed and rebuked:
He advised them to remove the fleet to Sestos. But the admirals not only disregarded what he said, but Tydeus, with insulting expressions; commanded him to be gone, saying, that now not he, but others, had the command of the forces. Alcibiades, suspecting something of treachery in them, departed, and told his friends, who accompanied him out of the camp, that if the generals had not used him with such insupportable contempt, he would within a few days have forced the Lacedæmonians, however unwilling, either to have fought the Athenians at sea, or to have deserted their ships.
Alcibiades' expertise is rejected and his prescience ignored. Athenian defeat is utterly complete. Hindsight for the now humiliated Athenians is 20/20, as this final quote reveals, with the all to late realization they had met the ultimate enemy, themselves.
The Athenians, in the meantime, were miserably afflicted at their loss of empire, but when they were deprived of liberty also, and Lysander set up thirty despotic rulers in the city, in their ruin now they began to turn to those thoughts which, while safety was yet possible, they would not entertain; they acknowledged and bewailed their former errors and follies, and judged this second ill-usage of Alcibiades to be of all the most inexcusable. For he was rejected, without any fault committed by himself; and only because they were incensed against his subordinate for having shamefully lost a few ships, they much more shamefully deprived the commonwealth of its most valiant and accomplished general.

I find myself thinking in particular of Winston Churchill. I imagine that feisty curmudgeon in all his jowly glory with a cigar stub in one V for victory hand and a Thompson submachine gun at the ready in the other. He, like Alcibiades, was the kind of guy you'd find in glass case with the words "Break Open in Time of War" stenciled in big bright blood red red letters on the front. I have a pretty good idea Winston read Plutarch's Lives. Ole "W"'s probably no match for Churchill, but he's as close as we're going to get this time around.

Here at the end of another day, contemplating further reading of Plutarch (the Romans come next), I can't help but wonder which I should entertain more hope for, my love life or the political will and resolve of my beloved country. In at least one of these I'm perhaps my own worse enemy. Which one? That I leave to you dear reader.


Anonymous said...

hey Michael...i happened upon your blog through the "next blog" button....just thought i would comment that i bought a 1910 set of Harvard Classic for my niece for her 18th birthday; i'm sure they weren't in the wonderful conidtion your set seems to be.

I've browsed your blog a bit; love the art work...and your thoughts...

i'll be interested in hearing more about your museum show.


Anonymous said...

I have an edition of that set, too. The Founding Fathers didn't-- they were busy writing it, so to speak.

They saw what you saw about the dangers of mass democracy.

That's why they chose for us a republic.


Grimmy said...

Well said Sir, and a good reminder.

When it came to the Greeks, our founding fathers took more from Sparta than from Athens.

And when considering "the ancients" in general, they took more from Rome than from Greece.

Lil Toni said...

YOU needa love-life?! What a co-inqidink! *grin*
I've missed your postin' sugah.

Laurie said...

With all that is going on as outlined in previous post, and you have time to read ancient Greek history?

It's All Good Now said...

Take the book, go to your local Starbucks/coffee shop/bar/lake, etc.. and read. You never know who will see you, express interest, and strike up a conversation that may lead to bigger and better things.

countrygirl said...

"Never, never, never give up!"

Gunny H said...

Hmmm...first time I've ever seen Alcibiades portrayed as a good guy. I have always thought him an opportunistic, duplicitous bastard.

Gunny H

Joyce from NJ said...

Churchill probably had to struggle thru Plutarch in the original Greek! As for the "disconnect" in the prior entry, check out the most recent letter (of support) from Ben Stein. It's terrific. I don't have the original link but it was posted at on Jan 23. I've sent copies via emails to several servicemembers and would like to send it to every service person everywhere.

Flag Gazer said...

Love this post -
Recently was given a set of Mark Twain from the 30's and have been reading those... something about those old musty, dusty books that makes them even more special...

Kristopher Battles said...

You, sir, are truly a Renaissance man, as well as a gloriously refreshing anachronism!

This is one of the reasons I was recruited successfully into the Combat Art Program-- I thought, "with folks like that, it's got to be a great Program!"

I can't wait to see the show you're working on putting up...

Oorah and Semper Fi

Anonymous said...

I have that edition also from my grandparents - with the red covers..right. Anyway , I red the Penguin version of the Lives while in college. Safe bet every leader from the Medicis to Churchill read them. Today, obviously not so much. If your presented with a choice, choose folly and love over books.
Should you want to read a real parallel, see the Anabasis - for the part that describes tribal conflicts and duplicity - it hasnt changed in 2500 years.. ..and inspired the coming of Alexander.

And carry on !


Ozguc said...

Yes, "W" seems very much like Alcibiades. Alcibiades was an adventurer, traitor, and an aristocrat. Could the fact that he did not learn anything from Socrates be also true for "W"?

I do like your art and respect your service though...I just don't see how the love of democracy is compatible with the love of great men.

Jado Americano said...

I am a graduating college student who is currently applying for the Marine Corps' Officer JAG program. In my final semester I chose to take a class on Plutarch's Lives. After seeing that you and other Marines have read this incredible work, I am reaffirmed in my decision in joining this branch of the military. Every Marine I've known is a gentleman, a scholar and a man of great virtue--a man Plutarch would have written about.

Thank you for your inspiration and sacrifice.

Hopefully soon to be one of your own,
Jado Americano

Bruce C said...

Remember to read historical records particularly critically, rather than taking them at face value. Many ancient and medieval biographies were either panegyrics or vitriolic slander, often written by friends, lovers, descendants, or enemies. Often the histories would be written down decades or centuries later, with few or no contemporary written sources.

Another thing to remember is that the Athenians were rightly afraid of powerful military leaders, because they had a tendency to become tyrants rather quickly. The Greeks lacked a role model like George Washington...