Will our classics be classics in the future as values continue to evolve? The open society described in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and the examples of the ancient Greek and Roman democracies, inspired the Founding Fathers and the British, American, and French revolutions; but they are questioned even today, and not only by non-Western countries. Will the old Mediterranean classics speak to the condition of the year 2100 or 2200? What if nobody at that time reads Greek or Latin? To what extent will an evolved Christianity provide alternatives to pagan classical values?
Does Pericles Point the Way?
We study the past not only for antiquarian interests, but to inform ourselves about future alternatives. We learn how tyranny masquerades as virtue and inhumanity cloaks itself in righteousness. Teaching us about our current situation, the past tells us how to deal with the future. I would like to focus on two issues. The first is the issue of novelty in history. The second is whether Pericles does provide a guide for the future.
I am struck by the amount of optimism that language intrudes into our scholarly efforts. A center dedicated to the study of the longer-range future is necessarily an institution conceived in hope and dedicated to a relatively cheerful view of mankind’s destiny. Such hope insinuates itself into our plans and projects. What a nugget of optimism is contained in “the foreseeable future.” We often forget how even the most prudent ways of conducting our life require stupendous acts of faith. Had I been asked on September 10 if the Twin Towers would continue standing for “the foreseeable future,” I would have answered yes. Foresight cannot accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities, an event. We continue to make plans and lay contingencies, but find ourselves constantly surprised by historical events. On September 10 it seemed unlikely that a band of murderous fanatics could fundamentally alter the political landscape of the world.
In endowing the unlikely with a pedigree of explanation, we attempt to neutralize novelty and extract the unexpected from what actually did occur. Today we are now finding the events of September 11 almost inevitable. We had plausible explanations and warnings then, but they lacked the traction that events give to hindsight. We did not consider them part of the foreseeable future until the future overtook us. Will our classics continue to function as classics even as our values continue to evolve?
If classics cease to be classics, we will have changed for the worse beyond recognition. In my view, however, values do not change in themselves so much as they change keys. Our underlying humanity, with its needs and aspirations, remains constant. Before we ask whether Pericles points the way, we first need to know what Pericles stood for. His deservedly famous speech commemorating those who fell in the first of 27 years of the Peloponnesian War celebrates Athenian democracy, which was not merely a political arrangement, but a way of life. It required two keystones—both freedom and tolerance, and responsible behavior and attention to duties.
Pericles said, “We Athenians are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in our public affairs we keep to the law... including those unwritten laws... of taste, manners and morals, which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” A society where manners continue to be central and important is healthier than one in which manners have broken down and which requires the intervention of the law to preserve order. From the perspective of modern America, democracy in Athens seems limited and imperfect in the way it excluded women from citizenship and maintained a large slave class, but Athens did formulate an ideal of equality before the law, where membership in a particular class did not matter as much as men’s actual abilities.
Life in Athens was free and full. Pericles often stresses the importance of sound judgment and moral balance. Culture and the life of the mind were the ennoblements of life, not an escape from its burdens or a mere decadent pastime. The common stake that all citizens had in the commonwealth of the city brought responsibilities with it as well as privileges.
When everyone is clamoring for his or her rights, it is worth remembering that every right carries a corresponding duty. Today, the word democracy is often used as a synonym for mediocrity. For Pericles, democracy did not necessarily entangle people in mediocrity. Athenian freedom was, above all, the freedom to excel, a view of society and the individual, which, though rooted in tradition, was oriented toward the future.
Athenian ideals of freedom and tolerance were not inevitable developments, but the results of choice. They have proven peculiarly powerful in the West when they were absorbed by Christendom in the eighteenth century and helped to inform the democratic principles that undergirt British and American democracy. We must, however, remember that alternative visions are capable of inspiring allegiance. September 11 was an attack on the idea of a liberal, democratic society. Many illusions were shattered, including the fantasies of academic multiculturalists. Pericles, a dead, white male if ever there was one, embodied in his life and aspirations an ideal of humanity completely at odds with academic multiculturalists, who insist that all cultures are of equal worth.
Another illusion that was shattered is the feeling that the world is basically a benevolent, freedom-loving place, if only people had enough education, safe sex, and National Public Radio. This utopian vision was encouraged by America’s fortunate geographical position and our extraordinary growth of wealth and military power. But increased international mobility and the dissemination of technological know-how have conspired to neutralize these advantages. We now have enemies we cannot hide from, placate, or negotiate with.
A third shattered illusion concerns the morality of power. Trendy academics, CNN commentators, and other armchair utopians pretend that the exercise of power by the powerful is evil by definition, while violence on the part of anyone else is attributed to the frustration and rage directed against the unjust exercise of power. We learned in Somalia and in attacks on the US throughout the Middle East that power unsupported by resolution will be perceived as weakness, and that weakness will provoke a challenge.
All this changed with September 11, but we are already hearing voices not of caution, but of weariness, impatience, and insularity. These voices must be resisted if freedom is to continue to thrive. A liberal democratic polity is based on the force provided by economic might and military prowess. Bagehot wrote that “History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world give a chance for it.” This sounds like Pericles, who does point the way into the future. The question is whether we will follow him.
Many of today’s arguments raged in the eighties and nineties. We have a long way to go before we will understand exactly what happened on September 11. I do not believe that it was an attack on the idea of America as a liberal society. The people who carried out this attack had very specific goals in mind. They see the American presence in the Gulf as propping up regimes with whom they have strong cultural, ideological, and political quarrels. They subsequently located weaknesses in these regimes and American society. The historical overview offered in some of the papers today gives a remarkably selective view of that period’s history. The present crisis does not begin with Somalia, but with Lebanon in 1983, or the famous retreat from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy. Saddam Hussein famously said that Americans are not willing to lose ten thousand dead in combat. The remark sounded ridiculous then, but it does not any longer. Why have the historical accounts we have heard today not begun that far back?
Today’s discussion is not merely an argument among intellectuals, but says something profound about American society and its willingness to act in the world. It involves the ability and willingness of American leaders to use political capital to build up, support, and take military action in countries when they believe the situation requires it. That is a deeply rooted historical and political issue that involves both political parties. When bin Laden and his type try to persuade the American people that it is too expensive to stay in the Gulf and support certain regimes, they perceive in us a lack of forbearance.
The problems we must confront are deeper than most people suggest. The illusions that were supposedly shattered by September 11 were in many ways mere wishful thinking. The problem here is not with Susan Sontag or Edward Said and other commentators from the left. The main attacks on American policy in the Gulf so far have come from the right. There is no dialogue with the left. The government itself fears that it will not have the strength, forbearance, and will to make the electorate understand what the war is about and to support protracted and large losses. Dead white European males and multiculturalism are provocative, but they do not have much to do with September 11.
In his account of Periclean Athens, Thucydides stressed moderation and the risks of overextension, showing how certain domestic values contradict themselves when they are applied in an imperium. This has been a problem in the US, especially since the Truman Doctrine of 1947. Thinking about Pericles lets us see the contradictions of a democracy acting like an empire. We see this in Saudi Arabia, where the stakes are very high.
The playwright David Mamet is interested in con games, especially in the moment when the mark realizes he is being taken. He turns for help to the authorities, but finds that they have been part of the con all along. Since September 11, the country has been laboring under the illusion that it is reacting appropriately. But as the war continues, risks in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia point to contradictions in our own political culture. Pericles would have recognized them, but his message would have been different from what we are hearing today.
Reply by Roger Kimball
These problems go back further than September 11. We should have responded more strongly to the first attacks on American installations, but the past few administrations did not undertake a response. I agree that the multiculturalist claim that all cultures are equal is a pernicious idea that has been shaken by September 11. The conviction that the world is a benevolent place is also an illusion, but of a different order.
There was no recent political support for staying in Somalia, Haiti, or Rwanda. All important voices ridiculed the idea as a desperate attempt on the part of Clinton to stay in office after the details of the Lewinsky scandal became public. The political constellation that urges the use of force has changed dramatically. The far left has been marginalized.
This is a chapter from Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference).
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