Losing Sight of the Classics

…and what it means to civilization according to Victor Davis Hanson

Profile in Classics: Victor Davis Hanson | Hoover Institution (h/t Ace)

Classical wisdom, formed on the farm and on the battlefield, is not only the basis of democratic governance, but it is also central to good citizenship. Today, you don’t have to be a soldier or a farmer to be a good citizen, but you should give back to your community in some way, Hanson argues.

He counts the principles of ancient Greek citizenship off on his fingers: “First, beware of success. Success can lead to self-destruction and divine retribution. When things are going well for you, be modest, because it’s not necessarily always from your talent, but also from your luck.” That’s a lesson Greek heroes learned the hard way.

Second, “Don’t have inflated expectations of human nature. Humans are not born, as Rousseau thought, as good people who need to be liberated. Rather, they need to be civilized. Thucydides knew that civilization was very thin. You need to preserve it. We are one blink away from savagery.” He sharpens his point by citing Occupy Wall Street. “Did you see all of the feces and debris on their campgrounds? Is this what 2,500 years of democratization and science have led to?”

“The point is that human nature is capable of doing as much damage as good if it’s not carefully embedded within civilization.” The 2008 Greek riots show how quickly order can dissemble in chaos and violence.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, a citizen of ancient Greece had more responsibilities than rights. Fulfilling those duties embodied civic virtue: “You, as the ancient Greek,  must participate in government and vote. You must raise a family. You must not break the laws. You should own land and produce food for the country. You must be in the militia. In exchange, the ancient Greek received freedom and protection.”

Mindful of his duties to the state, for instance, Socrates refused to flee Athens when he was being sentenced to death unjustly, even though he had the opportunity to. “Today, there’s a sense that you don’t owe anyone anything.” As Hanson has written elsewhere, “every Greek man, woman, and child now owes about $40,000 to the northern Europeans, with almost no means of paying back that huge sum.”

Finally, the ancient Greeks were skeptical of utopianism. “They didn’t think education can really change human nature. They knew that we are simply human beings with appetites and that what a person says is not necessarily what he does or how he lives.”

Hanson points out that Greece, once the cradle of Western civilization, has abandoned these ancient and time-tested principles. This brings to mind the fourth requirement of good citizenship: an awareness of history.

If Hanson were in charge, he would put the Greeks to work learning the lessons of the past. “The solution to a lot of these problems is reading good literature. I would assign them to read the Iliad by Homer, the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the Annals by Tacitus, the Leviathan by Hobbes, The Prince by Machiavelli, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon—and, of course, we don’t read enough 19th-century novels, like Joseph Conrad’s books.”