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Why Herodotus Matters

During the cold war, one of the common mistakes foreign policy wonks and Sovietologists made was to filter the adversary's thinking through their own cultural matrix. This was termed "mirror-imaging." It was comprehensible, according to this flawed logic, that the … Read More

By / January 15, 2007

During the cold war, one of the common mistakes foreign policy wonks and Sovietologists made was to filter the adversary's thinking through their own cultural matrix. This was termed "mirror-imaging." It was comprehensible, according to this flawed logic, that the Russians could be so steeped in the dogma of Marxism-Leninism that they might act in ways we ourselves would not given the identical vantage point or set of circumstances. A lot of revisionist spadework has been performed since the Berlin Wall came down suggesting that the beetle-browed comrades in the Kremlin were cool-headed pragmatists after all, simply keeping up appearances with that tough talk about international revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet there was Andrei Gromyko and Eduard Shevardnadze, years later, maintaining that, actually, Communist expansion was always on the agenda. The paranoia that the Reds were coming may have been hysterically exploited, but at bottom there was something perfectly legitimate about it. It was only when the Soviet state became unaffordable, and one of the few cool-headed pragmatists became its premier, that doctrine took the flame before reality and World War III was narrowly averted.

If this seems like an oblique way to introduce an ancient Greek historian, you might read Robert Kagan in this month's Atlantic on the enduring value of Herodotus. Herodotus also argued against mirror-imaging — when done by the Athenians to apprehend the motives and moves of the Persians. To understand the enemy, be it in war or in a world-historical struggle, one must appreciate the subtle differences in his approach toward death and mythology:

Writing about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, D. H. Lawrence suggests that the story is deeper than metaphysics or ordinary symbolism. The same goes for many of Herodotus’s accounts. The Persian army that disappears in an Ethiopian sandstorm. The lions that kill all the camels in a Persian encampment, leaving the other animals and human beings alone. A prisoner’s chopped-off hands, left clinging to the gates of the Temple of Demeter the Lawgiver on the island of Aegina. Here are images and cultural revelations in brushstrokes of the most glittering oils. The Trausi, a Thracian tribe, who surround a newborn baby and lament for it, for all the ill it must endure, even as they bury their dead with “joy and delight.” The blind Egyptian pharaoh, who is told by an oracle that he will be cured by washing his eyes with the urine of a woman who has known only her husband: after trying the piss of one of his wives after another, he is cured only by that of his last wife; and he kills them all except for her. The Babylonian women, who must go to the temple of Aphrodite “and sit there and be lain with by a strange man”; beautiful women depart the temple quickly enough, but the ugly ones sometimes wait years, veritable prisoners of the temple, before a man agrees to lie with them.

It would be naive to think that our world is not, in its own way, just as fantastic, just as unreasonable. Given the adversaries we have fought, and are likely to fight still; given the mirages that cloud our own judgment about distant places about which we think we know much, but in fact know little; given all of that, the dreamlike delusions and psychoses revealed in the stories of Herodotus provide a richer insight into what we are up against than does much contemporary analysis. Coping with the world of the coming decades will require an arresting imagination. Leaders who cannot mentally escape their own narrow slots of existence will fail. Herodotus will be as valuable as Thucydides.

How nice that the exemplars of Western civilization teach us all over again how to save it.

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