Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A Warning From Ancient Greece About the Curse of Empire

"All those who come before you on this platform are accustomed to assert that the subjects upon which they are themselves about to advise you are most important and most worthy of serious consideration by the state. Nevertheless, if it was ever appropriate to preface the discussion of any other subject with such words, it seems to me fitting also to begin with them in speaking upon the subject now before us.

For we are assembled here to deliberate about War and Peace, which exercise the greatest power over the life of man, and regarding which those who are correctly advised must of necessity fare better than the rest of the world. Such, then, is the magnitude of the question which we have come together to decide." 

This is how Isocrates introduces his speech titled "On the Peace." It is a sober piece of writing, with a more subdued tone than most of his other speeches. Isocrates is speaking from his own experience. His family and property was devastated during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, and he has seen Athens rise from that devastation only to again entangle themselves in wars and intrigues. Now, after another serious defeat, Athens is seeking for peace. Isocrates sees this as the moment where he can lead Athenian foreign policy down a different track than they have been on for the last 50 years: He wants them to give up the disastrous dream of an empire.

In doing so, he realizes that he is speaking from a disadvantaged position. The speakers beating the drums of war have an easier case to make than the ones who urge for peace. One can appeal to pride and ambition, whereas the other can only appeal to humility and harmony: for the former put into our minds the expectation both of regaining our possessions . . . and of recovering the power which we formerly enjoyed, while the latter hold forth no such hope, insisting rather that we must have peace and not crave great possessions contrary to justice, but be content with those we have—and that for the great majority of mankind is of all things the most difficult.

The psychosis of empire carries with it a recognizable symptom of invincibility: For some of us appear to me to be over zealously bent on war, as though having heard, not from haphazard counsellors, but from the gods, that we are destined to succeed in all our campaigns and to prevail easily over our foes. Similar sentiments were expressed recently about the inevitability of success in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, showing us that although we are far removed from the Athenians in time, human nature has not changed that much.

Isocrates claims that (1) security, (2) material well-being, (3) harmony and unity within the nation, and (4) esteem and respect abroad would be conditions in which Athens would be most happy. Now it is the war which has robbed us of all the good things which I have mentioned; for it has made us poorer; it has compelled many of us to endure perils; it has given us a bad name among the Hellenes; and it has in every way overwhelmed us with misfortune. On the other hand, if Athens were to keep their peace treaties and covenants, Isocrates claims that they would be secure, trade would increase, Athenians would be united in a common project of improvement, and we shall have all mankind as our allies—allies who will not have been forced, but rather persuaded, to join with us, who will not welcome our friendship because of our power when we are secure only to abandon us when we are in peril, but who will be disposed towards us as those should be who are in very truth allies and friends.

In order to secure this lasting peace, one thing has to happen: Athens has to stop trying to dominate everybody: For I, for my part, consider that we shall manage our city to better advantage and be ourselves better men and go forward in all our undertakings if we stop setting our hearts on the empire of the sea. For it is this which plunged us into our present state of disorder, which overthrew that democratic government1 under which our ancestors lived and were the happiest of the Hellenes, and which is the cause, one might almost say, of all the ills which we both suffer ourselves and inflict upon the rest of the Hellenes.

What is this empire? Why have all nations sought after it? And why is it so destructive to whoever holds it? Isocrates says that "all the world lusts after this power" and they have "waged wars to obtain" it.

The empire is based on force, and therefore goes contrary to the principles of the Hellenes, since we recognized the principle that it is not just for the stronger to rule over the weaker. Athenians were raised with a hate of despots and a love of democracy and equality. Yet, as we often do, they failed to translate the principles of their domestic policy into their foreign policy. Isocrates sees this inconsistency of principle, and he seizes on it. He begins by denouncing the conditions of the tyrant: Is it not true that when men obtain unlimited power they find themselves at once in the coil of so many troubles that they are compelled to make war upon all their citizens, to hate those from whom they have suffered no wrong whatsoever, to suspect their own friends and daily companions, to entrust the safety of their persons to hirelings whom they have never even seen, to fear no less those who guard their lives than those who plot against them, and to be so suspicious towards all men as not to feel secure even in the company of their nearest kin? Isocrates is here stating a common sentiment among the Athenians. It was the terrors of tyranny which made them turn to democracy in the first place, and the bloodbath caused by the brief reign of The Thirthy reiterated those lessons to his own generation. Then he makes the connection: while you consider the power of a despot to be harsh and harmful not only to others but to those who hold it, you look upon the empire of the sea as the greatest good in the world, when in fact it differs neither in what it does nor in what it suffers from one-man-rule. 

So what is the lure of empire? Why have Athenians and others been willing to ignore their own principles in order to obtain it? The answer is, because it can satisfy the most basic desires for quick wealth and power: it turns the heads of those who are enamored by it, and that it is in its nature like courtesans, who lure their victims to love but destroy those who indulge this passion. But when did Athens cease to lead and begin to dominate? They were given the hegemony or leadership over the Hellenes because of their valor and wisdom in the war against the Persians. It is not leadership which causes evil, Isocrates points out, but rather unbridled dominion. The Athenians of that generation were chosen to rule, but those who came after them desired, not to rule but to dominate—words which are thought to have the same meaning, although between them there is the utmost difference. For it is the duty of those who rule to make their welfare, whereas it is a habit of those who dominate to provide pleasures for themselves through the labors and hardships of others. 

This is a state which is contrary to virtue and nature, which is why Isocrates prefaces the next part of his argument with a grave warning: But it is in the nature of things that those who attempt a despot's course must encounter the disasters which befall despotic power and be afflicted by the very things which they inflict upon others. And it is just this which has happened in the case of Athens

An empire is a deception. It is not what it seems: what we call empire, though in reality it is misfortune, is of a nature to deprave all who have to do with it. The empire is a licence and arrogance based on physical strength which tempt all men to abuse the power they have been given: anyone can see that those who have been in the strongest position to do whatever they pleased have been involved in the greatest disasters. Athens itself reached a point where before they knew it, they had filled the public burial-grounds with the bodies of their fellow citizens.

Isocrates uses the history of Sparta to illustrate this principle:

"And we ought not to emulate those who hold despotic power nor those who have gained a dominion which is greater than is just but rather those who, while worthy of the highest honors, are yet content with the honors which are tendered them by a free people.

We have a most convincing proof of this. For imperialism worked the ruin not only of Athens but of the city of the Lacedaemonians (Sparta) also.

For in place of the ways of life established among them it filled the citizens with injustice, indolence, lawlessness and avarice and the commonwealth with contempt for its allies, covetousness of the possessions of other states, and indifference to its oaths and covenants. In fact they went so far beyond our ancestors in their crimes against the Hellenes that in addition to the evils which already afflicted the several states they stirred up in them slaughter and strife, in consequence of which their citizens will cherish for each other a hatred unquenchable.

They first became subject to the dominion of their present ills at the moment when they attempted to seize the dominion of the sea, since they were seeking to acquire a power which was in no wise like that which they had before possessed.

Because of the arrogance which was bred in them by that power they speedily lost the supremacy both on land and sea. For they no longer kept the laws which they had inherited from their ancestors nor remained faithful to the ways which they had followed in times past.

For they did not know that this licence which all the world aspires to attain is a difficult thing to manage, that it turns the heads of those who are enamored by it, and that it is in its nature like courtesans, who lure their victims to love but destroy those who indulge this passion.

anyone can see that those who have been in the strongest position to do whatever they pleased have been involved in the greatest disasters, ourselves and the Lacedaemonians first of all. For when these states, which in time past had governed themselves with the utmost sobriety and enjoyed the highest esteem, attained to this license and seized the empire, they differed in no respect from each other, but, as is natural in the case of those who have been depraved by the same passions and the same malady, they attempted the same deeds and indulged in similar crimes and, finally, fell into like disasters.

Isocrates summarizes the moral of the story with this brief sentiment: If you will go over these and similar questions in your minds, you will discover that arrogance and insolence have been the cause of our misfortunes while sobriety and self control have been the source of our blessings. It is urgent that Athenians realize this truth for a man who is godless and depraved may die before paying the penalty for his sins, but states, since they are deathless, soon or late must submit to punishment at the hands both of men and of the gods. And time is running out for Athens. A mighty enemy, Philip of Macedon, is amassing a great army in the north. His greedy eyes are looking south towards the scattered, divided, and leaderless Greek city states that he is planning to subdue into his empire. When his armies came, Athens led the fight against them. But because of their arrogance and intrigues, they had as many Greeks fighting against them as were fighting with them. Thus ended the independence of the Greek city states, and with it, the brief light of democracy.

What can we learn from the mistakes of Athens? The evils of empire have shaped our world increasingly since the 1700s. The atrocities of the colonial powers still haunt us and manifest themselves in a world divided between victims and conquerors. The colonial war was a major contributor to World War I and the revived imperial ambitions of Germany, Italy, and Japan helped trigger another one. Following that, the US and USSR each formed empires of influence and force, leading even the US to commit crimes and outrages which they had formerly decried and stayed away from in international politics. The US currently has a crumbling empire. More despised and feared than loved in large parts of the world, and not always undeservedly so either. Deep trails of blood in South America and the Middle East have followed American foreign policy. In deed the US have often acted outwardly as a dictator, while struggling to maintain a democracy internally.

Is it possible for the US to lead rather than dominate? These concluding words of Isocrates may still be applied in our days. The first advice he gives is to choose good leaders and representatives who do not hunger for war and easy money.

The second way is to be willing to treat our allies just as we would our friends and not to grant them independence in words (only) . . . and not to exercise our leadership as masters but as helpers, since we have learned the lesson that while we are stronger than any single state we are weaker than all.

And the third way is to consider that nothing is more important . . . than to have a good name among the Hellenes. For upon those who are so regarded they willingly confer both sovereign power and leadership.

For no other of the states will dare to oppress them; on the contrary, they will hold back and studiously avoid aggression when they see the power of Athens on the alert and ready to go to the aid of the oppressed.

If the foremost states resolve to abstain from acts of oppression, we shall have the credit for this blessing; but if, on the other hand, they attempt to oppress others, then all who fear them and suffer evil at their hands will come to us for refuge, with many prayers and supplications, offering us not only the hegemony but their own support.

it is a noble enterprise for us, in the midst of the injustice and madness of the rest of the world, to be the first to adopt a sane policy and stand forth as the champions of the freedom of the Hellenes, to be acclaimed as their saviors, not their destroyers, and to become illustrious for our virtues and regain the good repute which our ancestors possessed.

For if we really wish to clear away the prejudice in which we are held at the present time, we must cease from the wars which are waged to no purpose and so gain for our city the hegemony for all time; we must abhor all despotic rule and imperial power, reflecting upon the disasters which have sprung from them; 

This, then, is the kind of leadership which is worth striving for.