Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Introduction to Ancient Greek History with Donald Kagan: My Thoughts

So, I imagine someone out there is probably indigently exclaiming: "What!  It's 2016!  Are you telling me you are just now discovering Yale Open Courses?"

Well, no, of course not.  I've been dipping in and out of them for years now. Although I never wrote anything at the time, I used to listen to some of the courses when I was in Japan  (specifically France Since 1871, and European Civilization 1648-1945).

I also wrote about the Yale lectures on the Old Testament and the New Testament , and then made -reference to thecontent of - these - lectures - several - times - since.

But this particular lecture is new to me.  I've never gotten around to listening to Donald Kagan's class on ancient Greece.
In an effort to keep my brain from turning to mush from watching too much TV, I've decided to try to play these history lecture courses instead.
I've discovered I need something going on in my apartment when I'm getting up in the morning, or getting ready for work.  The sound of silence just depresses me.  This past year I've given in to the temptation to just turn on the TV a little bit too much, so I'm trying to use these Youtube lecture series as a substitute for TV.  Having them on in the background helps ween me off of my TV addiction.

And, I figure as I watch these history lectures, I'll jot down some notes on my thoughts:

Notes (In No Particular Order)
* I've been vaguely familiar with Donald Kagan as an expert on the Peloponnesian War ever since I read this favorable review of his book by Blogging the Canon.  (A blog I sometimes lurk on.)  And Donald Kagan does not disappoint in this lecture series.  He really gives fascinating expert account of all the causes leading up to the Peloponnesian War.

* That being said, as I was listening to these lectures, I thought I began to detect a rather right-wing view of history being presented.  Even before I went to Wikipedia to check out Donald Kagan's political alliances, I was pretty sure he was going to be a staunch conservative.  And sure enough, he is (W).
So, even as I praise Donald Kagan's ability to as an entertaining story-teller, I want to distance myself somewhat from his politics.
There are all sorts of little side-swipes that Kagan makes along the way, but my primary objection is that Kagan believes Democracy is a Western invention, and that it would never have arisen in the East if it hadn't been exported there by Western thinkers.
As a result of this thinking, Kagan believes that the Greek/Persian Wars were the central turning point of world history.  If the Persians had won the war, the idea of democracy would have been extinguished, and we would never have had free representative governments in the modern era.
This is, to be fair, a very widespread view among historians.  (My high school history teacher also had this view).
There is a counterview, however, held by political thinkers like Chomsky and others, which is that people don't need to be taught about democracy.  The lower classes have always wanted some sort of control over their government and also some sort of control over their workplace.  Historical circumstances have prevented them from obtaining this control for long periods of recorded history, but given the right set of favorable circumstances, this will always be their objective, no matter what their cultural background is.
So, according to this other view of thinking, even if the Persian Empire had completely wiped out the Greek States and conquered the world, the idea of democracy would not have gone away.  Perhaps someday there might have been a democratic revolution within the Persian Empire instead.

* Kagan's contempt of pacifism would be my second major objection to his philosophy.  Although I'm not sure he presents a coherent enough argument to refute.  He praises the results of fighting when it defeated the Persian invasion, but he knows all too well that the Pelopponesian Wars were disastrous, and should be studied as a lesson in how to avoid unnecessary wars.
The problem with this view, however, is that it's only possible to untangle necessary wars from unnecessary wars with hindsight.  (Remember how enthusiastic all of Europe was at the beginning of World War I?)
The other problem with this view is that the Just War theory has been outdated ever since the invention of the hydrogen bomb.  Who cares if you're fighting for a just cause when the end result of any war between two nuclear armed powers will be the end of the world?

* All those objections being stated, however, I do think Donald Kagan did an excellent job of highlighting the intense ideological fighting among the Greeks over the concept of Democracy.  (Democracy was not just handed down to the Greeks on a silver platter from the gods.  The establishment of it, and maintenance of it, was a result of long struggles against the forces of oligarchy).   Kagan also does a good job of highlight many of the class struggles in ancient Athens.  I think he correctly uses the French Revolution as an analogy to describe much of what is happening in Athens during the Democratic Revolution.

* By the way, to tie this into a book review I did several years ago, the absence of all of this was one of my chief frustrations with A People's History of the World by Chris Harman.  The ancient sources have left us very rich details about these ideological and class battles, and Harman completely ignores all of it.

* Another point I think that Kagan makes very well is that the word "Democracy" has become so abused in the modern world as to become meaningless.  Every government calls itself a "Democracy", but, as Kagan points out, it's questionable how many of them actually qualify for the term.  Even the United States.
In modern America, the President makes the decisions, and the public is only informed of what happened after the fact.  (Kagan uses the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the classic example from his generation--Kennedy and his cabinet just made all the decisions, and once everything was a fait accompli, only then did they bother to inform the public.)
This Kagan contrasts with ancient Athens, in which the citizens actually gathered and deliberated on every state decision.
I've told this story once already, but I'm reminded again of a debate I once witnessed between Republican Party delegates and a group of anarchists.  The Republican delegates were asking why these kids didn't respect democracy.  The kids answered back that America wasn't a democracy--ancient Greece was a democracy.  The Republican delegate threw up his hands and said, "Oh come on!  You're not going to bring Ancient Greece into this?"  I still remember how much contempt was in his voice.
America has never been a democracy, which makes it all the more egregious when Americans keep abusing the term, or using the word Democracy as synonymous with the American Government itself.  At best, America is a republic, but in practice it's more of an elected monarchy.  Once every four years, we get to choose our King, but other than that, our participation in our government is minimal.

* Another Point: In the documentary: Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky addresses a question often put to him: How can the United States Government be doing harm in the world when Americans have so much freedom and liberty at home?
Chomsky points out that historically there is often no correlation between the degree of freedom that the citizens of a country have, and whether or not that nation acts imperialistically in its foreign policy.  Chomsky uses republican Rome and democratic Athens as examples.
Although Kagan is no Chomsky-ite, it's interesting listening to his lectures that this point is highlighted again.  Some of the periods of most radical Athenian democracy also corresponded with the Athenian Empire at its most imperialistic.

* I'm disappointed that Kagan's lectures end exactly on the eve of Alexander the Great.  (Kagan covers up through Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon, but then stops there).
Especially after having read a few different takes on Alexander the Great this past - year, I would have been curious to see who Kagan sided with.
For example, in Alexander: The Sands of Ammon, author Valerio Massimo Manfredi portrays Alexander as not simply conquering, but also liberating the Greek cities on Asia Minor from Persian rule, and in some cases restoring democracy to them.  (Granted this is a work of historical fiction, but Manfredi is a classics scholar in his own right, so presumably he knows his facts as well.)
Was Alexander's legacy that he ended the age of classical Greek civilization?  Or did he restore it, by ending Persian control over all the Greek city states on Asia Minor?  I would have been interested to hear Kagan's take.

* Unrelated note: When talking about the Spartan training, Kagan compares it to the the 19th century British Public School system, and talks about the books written by Englishman about the hazing that took place in their public school days.  I'm fairly sure this is an indirect reference to Tom Brown's Schooldays

* I regret to say that I've never read Herodotus or Thucydides.
I was probably to young to read them when I was fascinated by ancient history in my adolescents, and by the time I was older I had moved onto other interests.
I still have them on my list of books to read before I die.
If I ever do get around to reading these volumes, this lecture series would make a great companion to putting either book in context.

* One final note:
When I was about 14, I had ambitions of being an ancient history scholar, and I actually entered college as a classics major, before I got distracted by other interests.  (Modern history suddenly seemed to me to be much more interesting).
When I listen to these lectures, or read a good book on ancient history, I sometimes regret slightly that I didn't stick with the ancient classics.
On the other hand, I have in my travels in the TESOL world met 3 people now who were in a PHD program in the classics, and all of them dropped out once they realized there were no jobs at the end of the tunnel, and it was all just a very expensive hobby.
 Almost no one makes it as a full time job, and given my problems with lack of focus, and my middle-brow intelligence, I almost certainly would not have been among those select few.
In fact, at my old alma mater, the classics program has recently been completely axed, which means even my old professors no longer have job security[Links here and here].
Since the only realistic option was just enjoying this kind of stuff as a hobby, I guess I should have no regrets.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Democracy in America

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