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Can We Be Humane In the Face of Horror?
What is needed to stop violent cycles?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Our driver swerved to the side of the road, stopped the car, and jumped out. Running into the vast rocky Jordanian desert, he joined two elderly men and two young boys as they continued the chase. Swiftly picking up the many rocks that were close at hand, they pelted with all their might again and again.
Bewildered, confused and not a little shocked, inside the car we three squinted to identify their victim.
Then our driver returned, gleefully with eyes shining like a kid who's just caught his first fish, he proudly displayed their conquest: A Palestine Viper.
My young daughter, a self proclaimed ophiophilist, was horrified at the bloody mangled snake... she couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just leave it alone.
Trying to explain to an 8 year old the cultural differences in the middle east is not an easy task. From the visible gender expectations of clothing and men walking around with three wives to the long hard history of learned violence.
It was not our first time to the region, mind you... In fact, my husband and I lived in the United Arab Emirates in the mid 2000s and have had the fortune of a wide breadth of both amazing and illuminating experiences. I’ve run a press conference from the top of Burj Al Arab...we’ve eaten Iftar in Kuwait with a female CEO and firefighter...we’ve driven along the majestic fjords of Oman and explored the historic cisterns in Istanbul. Whether it was the cool Riads in Morocco, the chaotic roads in Cairo or the Russian filled seasides in Tunisia... we’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of MENA.
And yet, this last trip included my first time ever to visit Israel.
I won’t lie, I had a lot of expectations... Being of Jewish ancestry, I had been told a lot about the place and expected it to be very different from its neighbors. What surprised me, to be honest, was all the ways in which it wasn’t.
Of course there were some critical differences... especially in Tel Aviv where rainbow pride flags fly across town and young women rollerblade in sports bras past Brutalist architecture. And yes... it was lovely to order a bottle of wine to go with my sushi after crossing back into Eilat.
The markets, however, are just as thronged with treasures and bustling shoppers. The Falafel ready and delicious. The underlying tension and threat of violence always palpable.
I suppose it was a clear reminder that war has been waging in that region for time immemorial and that war between neighbors is the worst.
Sadly, it’s not a rare occurrence, neither in place nor in time.
And of course the most difficult thing about it is the cycle it creates... violence is always justified by previous violence. What is, after all, the appropriate response to murder, rape and kidnapping?
To this I think of Athens and Sparta. Tensions between the two city states came to their greatest head during the Peloponnesian War. Lasting from 431–404 BC, the conflict reshaped the ancient world. It included bloody battles, long sieges, disastrous expeditions as well as deadly plagues. Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war's beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjugation.
What always amazed me though was... despite the fact that Sparta has been known throughout history as a vicious military might, a people of discipline and unrelenting purpose... they were considerably humane at the end of it all.
Athens surrendered in 404 BC after facing prolonged starvation and disease and was therefore eligible to have its walls stripped, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions commandeered. Fellow city-states Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be completely destroyed and all its citizens enslaved. Not an uncommon request at the time... However, the Spartans refused.
How could they eradicate a place that had produced such works as those by Sophocles? A people who had at one time risen to their aid?
It was concluded that (according to Xenophon) Athens was "to have the same friends and enemies" as Sparta. Athens remained... and remains to this day.
So how was Sparta - of all places - able to respond with kindness after so much bloodshed and violence? How did they break this cycle? How did they maintain their humanity, even in the face of the horror of war?
And how can we summon this ability today? Is it possible to find the humane amongst horror? Can we counter the evil acts of men with civility? Or is violence always justified? And what if each party is playing by different rules? Can conversations be had when value systems are so different... when it may be impossible to compromise?
Is it possible to break the vicious cycle? To ensure we see everyone as humans?
Of course such a serious topic does require more questions than answers... and so I have to ask just a few more, that of our ability to discuss it in the first place... How different would our answers be if the horror was personal? Is it possible to understand and rationalize when we - our children - our families and friends - are safe?
As always, you can reply to this email or write to me directly at email@example.com
One gentle reminder (and one that fortunately is not usually necessary in this lovely community) that the first step when dealing with such hot button topics and the corresponding emotions they inspire is civil and rational discourse. We don’t need to delve into the specifics of current events... as this question applies to places all around the world, to both individuals and groups.
What can we say to the issue... philosophically?
All the best,
Founder and Director
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Anya: Your recent email (How Can We Separate History from Myth?) placed a spotlight on "historical fiction" with some discussion about accuracy.
I have recently become aware that thinking about historical accuracy, may be a distraction from the enduring meaning that survives in these writings. This survival endures through language translation, cultural, as well as religious biases, etc.
We gain value from these writings, mostly because of the inherent lessons that are illustrated by the behaviour and thoughts of the characters. I liken this to our Current Era "historical authors": (Shakespeare, Milton, Dante. etc) and wonder if they are not comparable to the ancients (Herodotus, Homer, etc).
ps: note the above usage of the figurative "spotlight", just for fun.
The word today is "The Narrative". Who controls The Narrative. It is a grueling process to become a published writer in any field, historians get special vetting and write generally accepted principles to save tenure. Caesar wrote his own histories but even he had his point of view. Look for good writing(rare) and enjoy the story, but keep an open mind.
In time and space, history and myth are inseparable. They are distinct but, yet, at the same time, connected to one another. That means history as a discipline in which the historian must explain/describe a given case as it is without his/her subjective interests allaying its true characters. Of course this given explanation/description will at another time be a myth yet to be revealed, analyzed synchronically with people of particular time and space. One must not forget that on this issue we are directly confronted with the philosophical issue of distinction between objectivity and subjectivity in doing research. By revealing the mythological tropes and verses of antiquity with the appropriate method of analysis, today’s generations are then able to learn and understand their time and space of existence.
In my novel Journey into Antiquity, before embarking on their "virtual" journey into the worlds of Greek and Roman mythology and history, the grandfather and his grandson discuss the difference between the two. We know that the Greek word "myth" (muthos) meant story. Today we speak of "true stories" and "made-up" stories. One could ask what the "made-up" stories were based on. Parts of my novel are fiction "playing with" history. And we know that the Greek word "historia" (or "historie" for the Ionian Herodotus, who seems to have coined the word) meant investigation, inquiry/enquiry. Herodotus probably made a bit of coin for his History of the Persian Wars, as he read it to interested audiences. The grandson in my novel makes the interesting observation that the word "history" contains the word "story", and Herodotus' history did sometimes "play with" fiction.
All that to say, you can't always tell the difference, but I believe we should always strive to do so!
I love your Classical Wisdom emails. I’m a retired h.s. teacher currently on a three-month tour in Europe. I started in Turkey (Troy and Ephesus, inter alia) and now I’m in Crete. Knossos tomorrow.
As for the question, it’s apples and oranges, really. Let me quote a paragraph from a novel I’m writing:
The first historians Herodotus and Thucydides began their works with an apologia explaining their biases and outlining the parameters of their subsequent scribbling. Whereas Thucydides pledged only facts confirmed by two sources, the chatty Herodotus threw every salacious tidbit into his work with a wink and caveat lector as he related what he believed to be true. If Herodotus is the father of history, then Thucydides is the father of journalism, but if I am to tell my tale correctly, I must take the former as my guide. What follows is a chronicle of events that happened two decades ago but which burn in my heart each and every day. I will give the facts, but I have to include a lot of ancillary anecdotes if I want to tell the whole truth. I warn the reader in advance that facts and the truth are not always the same thing.
My 2¢. Keep up the good work.
Winning what? Which battle? Historians were not soldiers.
Both had merits and demerits. They were human, not super beings.
For my money it’s Thucydides for the win! I just dragged myself through the Landmark Herodotus. I found him a rambling mess. When I thought a footnote would clear him up I was disappointed much of the time. His reticence to speak about religion was particularly maddening.
I do find this question rather strange for me in that I never applied the term "win" to studies and learning. It is kind of like those cooking shows with that English fellow always yelling, making many of the participants cry while making a few feel egotistically good, reflective of his own gigantic ego.
As far as history goes, I follow the saying that "Histories are truths that eventually become lies whereas myths are lies that eventually become truths." For one to get a good picture of the ancient world, both Thucydides and Herodotus need to be read. Herodotus is light hearted with much play in his writing whereas Thucydides is rather no-nonsense. I think we need both energies and one does not win over the other.
Herman. H --San Francisco