Category Archives: Commentary

The Argument for Athens’ Democracy

Theseus and the “democratic peace” thesis

In his colloquy with the Theban herald, Theseus is not, I think, advocating any form of the “democratic peace” thesis (on which see Michael W. Doyle, Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs (1983)). Certainly Theseus is not claiming that democratic Athens is reluctant to go to war: as we have seen, fifth century Athens was more or less continually at war. Nor is he even claiming that Athens is unlikely to make war with other Greek democracies: that claim too is unsupported. (From 415 to 413, democratic Athens was at war with democratic Syracuse.) See Eric Robinson, Reading and Misreading the Ancient Evidence for Democratic Peace (2001).

Theseus and the claim that democracy is epistemically superior

What Theseus is saying, I think, is that democracies will make better decisions

Well, perhaps not.

Well, perhaps not.

about war than non-democratic states, both because more sources of information will be consulted, and also because the arguments for and against war will be more fully and critically examined. The historian Christian Meier, in his Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age (English trans. 1998 (1993)) tells us that “Athenian democracy followed two fundamental principles: First, all decisions were to be made as openly as possible and on the basis of public discussion, with the deliberating bodies being as large as feasible. Second, as many citizens as possible were to take part in the political process and also hold office. Organized groups of aristocrats were thus prevented from using their influence in the appointment of public officials. In general, political manipulation by small groups was not to be tolerated.”

The Athenians often extolled the virtues of democratic deliberation. In his funeral oration (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 40), Pericles says that the Athenians “weigh what we undertake, and apprehend it perfectly in our minds; not accounting words for a hindrance of action, but that it is rather a hindrance to action to come to it without instruction of words before.” Moreover, Pericles argues (with an eye to Sparta) that Athens’ proclivity for deliberation does not prevent it from showing courage and daring when in arms: “For also in this we excel others; daring to undertake as much as any, and yet examining what we undertake; whereas with other men, ignorance makes them dare, and consideration dastards.” Indeed, Pericles claims, the kind of knowledge Athens acquires through deliberation is a necessary condition of the virtue of courage, rightly considered: “they are most rightly reputed valiant, who though they perfectly apprehend both what is dangerous and what is easy, are never the more thereby diverted from adventuring.”

Thucydides himself may have been more skeptical of the merits of deliberative

Democratic deliberation

Democratic deliberation

democracy than Pericles (as Thucydides represents him) was. Thucydides’ account of the Athenian Assembly’s debates over the fate of the city of Mitylene, which had rebelled against Athens in wartime, is illustrative. After suppressing the revolt, the incensed Athenians had voted in a moment of fury to put the entire male population of Mitylene to death, and dispatched a vessel to convey their decision to the commander of their forces at the city. The next day, in a more sober and reflective mood, they decided to reconsider their hasty decree. Thucydides gives us the opposing speeches of Cleon (who advocated carrying out the original order) and Diodotus (who wanted it rescinded). See Thucydides, Book III, cc. 37-48. In a close vote, the Assembly decided to rescind the decree and spare those Mityleneans who had had nothing to do with the revolt. Luckily the vessel they dispatched to countermand the original order arrived before the first one did.  Thucydides seems to want to illustrate both the pitfalls of the Assembly’s decision-making (it can act from passion and without consideration, and even its amended decree is extremely harsh) and also its desirable features (it provides a workable procedure for error-correction).

In this light, we can see the colloquies of the opening scenes between Theseus and the suppliants, and then between Theseus and Aethra, as modeling the debates of the Athenian assembly. The colloquies show us a process in which information is gathered and assessed, arguments and counter-arguments (including women’s) are heard, and appeals to the emotions of pity and pride are admissible along with considerations of national interest. And certainly the policy outcome – intervention against Thebes – seems to be better than the defective outcomes produced by one-man rule in Argos and Thebes.

If this interpretation is right, Euripides will be anticipating, through Theseus, a defense of deliberative democracy that Aristotle would later set forth: that it incorporates epistemically superior decision procedures. (More recent authors speak in this connection of “the wisdom of crowds.”)  Aristotle says that when many different people

of whom each individual is not a good man, . . . meet together [they] may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.

Quoted and analyzed in Jeremy Waldron, The Wisdom of the Multitude:  Some Reflections on Book 3, Chapter II of Aristotle’s Politics (1993). Waldron interprets Aristotle to be saying here that “the many acting collectively may be a better judge than the few best not only of matters of fact, not only of social utility, but also and most importantly of matters of ethics, value, and the nature of the good life.” It is this very claim to epistemic superiority that critics of Athenian democracy like the Pseudo-Xenophon will deny: “Someone might say that they ought not to let everyone speak on equal terms and serve on the council, but rather just the cleverest and finest.”

Modern scholars on democracy’s epistemic advantages

Modern scholars have developed interesting defenses of democracy that harken back to these Greek debates, arguing that the Athenian experience supports the claim that democracy as a decision procedure offers epistemic advantages over alternative processes. See Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge:  Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008). The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, e.g., using a model of democratic decision-making derived from John Dewey, contends that democracy should be seen as akin to experimentally-based scientific investigation. Ideally, democracy pools widely distributed information from the many diverse knowers who participate in it, subjects their different claims to shared deliberation and critique, reaches public policy conclusions on that basis, permits dissent, ensures accountability, and makes policy changes after getting feedback. These characteristics promote sound policy choices and give democracies a competitive edge over other systems. See Elizabeth Anderson, The Epistemology of Democracy (2006). In particular, democratic procedures arguably give democracies a competitive advantage in waging war.  In Why Societies Need Dissent (2003), the legal scholar Cass Sunstein points to evidence that the superior performance of the American and British democracies over the Germany, Italy and Japan was owed to the fact that the public and press in a democracy are free to review, debate and criticize the government’s actions, while in totalitarian systems, criticisms and suggestions are both unwanted and unheeded, and the streams of information and authority run from the top on down. (To be sure, the superior wartime performance of the Stalinist Soviet Union cannot be explained in this way.) Democracies are therefore more likely to make adaptations and correct errors when it is useful to do so.    

Further, both Euripides’ Theseus and modern researchers are saying that once democracies go to war, they will tend to prosecute it more determinedly, because the citizens who fight it have done so of their own accord, and because they rather than their overlords stand to enjoy the rewards of victory. “Making decisions about the city was . . . an essential part of being a citizen, and those who made the decisions had also to be ready to die for them on the battlefield” (Sophie Mills). There is substantial support for this view: in Democracies at War (2002), Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam amass the evidence that

democratic elites [are] far less likely than other kinds of states to enter into war impulsively, and thereby avoiding risky and costly military adventures. On the battlefield, democratic political culture imbues democracies’ citizens with individual attributes that serve both the citizens and the state well in war as well as in peace. More often than not, the sons of democracy outfight the sons of tyranny by showing better individual initiative and leadership than their counterparts raised in and fighting for autocratic regimes.

Finally, Theseus is saying that democracies will make war with less wastage of life – or at least, with less wastage of its own citizens’ lives – because the citizens and the decision-makers are one and the same. Modern democracies behave similarly: in the 1999 war in Kosovo, the NATO democracies attempted to wage a “zero-casualty” war – meaning, that their forces would suffer no casualties.

Theseus and the Theban Herald, Round Two:  Why Athens fights

Theseus’ debate with the Theban herald is not over: there remains the question of explaining to Thebes why Athens will fight.

The core of Theseus’ argument is, of course, that Athens will fight to uphold the laws and customs of Greece. But Theseus is not content simply to refer to those laws; instead, he undertakes to show their rationality. Some readers take this to indicate that Euripides was a rationalist or humanist who did not credit the divine authority of the laws. That may be so, but there is a simpler explanation for this turn of the drama: the Thebans already know that they are violating a religious prescription (an action they consider justified by Argos’ impiety in attacking them). Theseus’ effort to display the rationality of the laws therefore addresses an aspect of the situation that Thebes has insufficiently considered. In any case, here is what Theseus says:

I claim the right to fulfill the law of all Hellas

In burying those dead bodies. Wherein lies the offence?

If you were injured by those Argives – they are dead.

You fought your foes with glory to yourselves, and shame

To them.  That done, the score is paid.  Permit their bodies

To hide below ground, and each part to return there

Whence first it came into this light; breath to the sky,

Flesh to the soil.  For we have in our own bodies

But a life-tenancy, not lasting ownership;

At death, the earth that bred us must receive us back.

Do you think that you hurt Argos by not burying them?

Far from it; this is a hurt done to the whole Hellene race,

When dead men are denied their proper rites, and left

 Unburied.  Should such practice become general,

Brave men would shrink from battle.  And do you, who hurl

At me these threatening speeches, tremble at dead men

Unless they lie unburied?  What fear troubles you?

Do you think that from their graves they’ll undermine your town,

Or in their earthy chambers beget sons, from whom

Vengeance will haunt you? . . .

Yield us the bodies to inter;

We wish to give them pious rites.  If you will not –

In plain terms, I will come with arms and bury them.

It never shall be published through the Hellene lands

That I and this city of Pandion, called upon

To uphold this ancient, divine ordinance, let it die.

Theseus is invoking the ideal of “helping the wronged” – an ideal that held a powerful attraction for Athens and its public. Matthew Christ, in The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens (2012), argues that “the Athenians were drawn to the notion that they were a noble people who were always prepared to intervene on behalf of fellow Greeks in distress and to save them from their oppressors.” Abundant evidence supports this view. For instance, in his funeral speech, Pericles argues that Athens intervenes on behalf of other Greeks states disinterestedly, without a view to its own gain – and thereby earns their esteem and gratitude (which, incidentally, serves its interests):

we purchase our friends, not by receiving, but by bestowing benefits. And he that bestoweth a good turn, is ever the most constant friend; because he will not lose the thanks due unto him from him whom he bestowed it on. Whereas the friendship of him that oweth a benefit, is dull and flat, as knowing his benefit not to be taken for a favour, but for a debt. So that we only do good to others, not upon computation of profit, but freeness of trust.

It is true, as Christ also shows, that this ideal, despite its attractiveness as a matter of Athens’ self-image, did not appreciably affect its relationships with other cities: his analysis shows that Athenian intervention in practice was regularly based on strategic considerations, not on compassion. It is also true that what Athens presented to itself and to its allies as “humanitarianism” could be a cloak for imperialism: in arguing for going to war on behalf of Athens’ Sicilian allies, Alcibiades is reported to have told the Assembly that Athens acquired its empire precisely through (ostensibly) benign intervention:

the way whereby we, and whosoever else hath dominion, hath gotten it, hath ever been the cheerful succouring of their associates that required it, whether they were Greeks or barbarians. (Thucydides, Book VI, c. 18)

But within the dramatic world of The Suppliants, such strategic thinking does not appear. The only hint of it I can discern occurs near the end of Theseus’ exchange with the Theban herald, when the latter accuses both Theseus and Athens of “busy-bodiness” or “meddlesomeness” (prassein poll’) and Theseus replies that that habit makes Athens very prosperous (poll’ eudaimonei). “Busy-bodiness” can occupy the same semantic field as “interventionism,” as when the Athenians tell the Camarineans in Sicily that they have come as allies to the cities on that island that have suffered injustice (adikoumenois) from Syracuse, and that they are intervenors (polla prassein) and liberators because they have much to guard against on Sicily themselves (Book VI, c. 87, 2). But if Euripides is implying a connection between interventionism and imperialism, he does not develop it in this play.

A final note

One final note on Theseus’ speech. In seeking to explain the rationality of the Greek laws relating to the burial of the combat-dead, Theseus remarks that if the custom of permitting the bodies of the defeated side were not upheld, “brave men would shrink from battle.” That may well have been true in classical Greece. In describing the retreat of the beaten and demoralized Athenian army from Sicily, Thucydides tells us that the soldiers were struck “both with fear and grief” in seeing their dead comrades lying unburied on the ground (Book VII, c. 75). Something similar might even be true nowadays. I once asked the grandfather of one of my students, who had taken part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, what he remembered most about that day. He recalled first his own “fear and grief” at seeing the dead bodies of other GIs stacked up.

There is a subtle, ironical consequence to Theseus’ argument, however. If the custom of burying the combat-dead is not honored, then men will be reluctant to fight – and so the chances of future war will be less. On the other hand, by enforcing the war code, Theseus will be making future wars more likely. The code thus seems to be a way of perpetuating the institution of war, not of limiting or ending it. We shall see other ironies of a similar kind as the drama nears its conclusion.

Trollope’s “The Warden”: An Exceptional Law and Religion Novel

A small distraction from various present horrors. I have written about Anthony Trollope before, one of the greatest and most unjustly under-appreciated (at least in the United Trollope, The WardenStates) novelists of the Victorian period. But particularly for those interested in law and religion, may I recommend “The Warden”–the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels–as one of the greatest little novels I’ve read in years. A few notes on the plot:

The story concerns a will by one John Hiram, who establishes in the 15th century a “hospital” (really a kind of sanatorium) for the care of several bedesmen (needy pensioners). An Anglican churchman–the warden–is given the care of this hospital, with an attendant salary. But over the years, as the property increases in value, so does the warden’s income, which by the time of the story sits at a very comfortable 800 pounds. The warden at the time of the telling, Septimus Harding, is a kind, gentle, caring, and honorable man who takes exceptional care of his charges. Nevertheless, a question arises about Mr. Harding’s entitlement under the will to so generous an income. A reform-minded young man named John Bold (who also happens to be the suitor of Mr. Harding’s daughter) begins to make inquiries–with the utmost good faith–about the nature of the original bequest. And this unleashes a bitter contest between the local archdeacon and the reformers (as well as other unscrupulous and nasty types) about the propriety of the income of the wardenship at Hiram’s Hospital.

Part of what makes the novel so good is the delicacy with which the characters are drawn. Unlike in Dickens, where the characters are perhaps a bit too often either the purest angels or the most abject devils, Trollope’s novel is populated with characters who have doubts about what is right. Mr. Harding himself is a deeply good man, but also one with sincere and real qualms about the justice of the matter. As Trollope puts it, Mr. Harding was far less concerned to be proved right at law than to be right.

Though their lives are entirely comfortable, many of the bedesmen are lured into joining a law suit when the promise of 100 pounds a year is dangled in front of them by an exploitative lawyer who strikes the appealing notes of self-righteousness in tandem with legal entitlement. In the end, after his name is repeatedly dragged through the mud by the local press, the warden resigns and the bedesmen don’t see a cent. In a touching scene at the end of the novel, as the warden is leaving the hospital, he says goodbye to a bedridden bedesman who is destined to die within the week, “poor old Bell”:

“I’ve come to say goodbye to you, Bell,” said Mr. Harding, speaking loud, for the old man was deaf.

“Are you going away, then, really?” asked Bell.

“Indeed I am. And I’ve brought you a glass of wine; so that we may part friends, as we lived, you know.”

The old man took the proffered glass in his shaking hands, and drank it eagerly, “God bless you, Bell!” said Mr. Harding; “good bye, my old friend.”

“And so you’re really going?” the man again asked.

“Indeed I am, Bell.”

The poor old bed-ridden creature still kept Mr. Harding’s hand in his own, and the warden thought he had met with something like warmth of feeling in the one of all his subjects from whom it was the least likely to be expected; for poor old Bell had nearly outlived all human feelings. “And your reverence,” said he, and then he paused, while his old palsied head shook horribly, and his shriveled cheeks sank lower within his jaws, and his glazy eye gleamed with a momentary light; “and your reverence, shall we get the hundred a year, then?”

How gently did Mr. Harding try to extinguish the false hope of money which had been so wretchedly raised to disturb the quiet of the dying man! One other week and his mortal coil would be shuffled off; in one short week would God resume his soul, and set it apart for its irrevocable doom; seven more tedious days and nights of senseless inactivity, and all would be over for poor Bell in this world; and yet, with his last audible words, he was demanding his moneyed rights, and asserting himself to be the proper heir of John Hiram’s bounty! Not on him, poor sinner as he was, be the load of such sin!

There is so much more in this superlative story of law, rights, religion, justice, reform, tradition, personal frailty, and the complicated nature of human motivations and character. One of the very best.

The Virtuous Democratic Statesman at War

The figure of Theseus

This is an opportune moment to discuss the character of Theseus, as Euripidestheseus-statue-gallery portrays him. By the fifth century, the image of Theseus had become, in a word, that of the consummate Athenian statesman, warrior and gentleman — the founder of the city’s democracy but also the epitome of its aristocratic qualities.   In the image of Theseus, Athens saw the best and finest presentation of itself. “Of all Greek heroes, Theseus . . . has the greatest claim to enshrine all the best qualities of the Athenian citizen, not least in his championship of the demos, celebrated by poets and painters alike of the classical period.” John N. Davie, Theseus the King in Fifth Century Athens (1982). (For a more recent and very full treatment, see Sophie Mills, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (1997)).

By the time Euripides’ Suppliants was produced, Theseus had been richly and variously mythologized; but he had become, unmistakably, an Athenian national figure (unlike Heracles, with whom he had been associated, but who remained a Greek hero). He was famed for having killed the Minotaur, a monster that was half-man and half-bull, and who devoured sacrificial offerings of young Athenians. By that act, Theseus liberated Athens from being forced to pay (human) tribute and came to represent the forces of civilization against barbarism. His legendary deeds were commemorated by the fifth century lyric poet Bacchylides, who in one fragment says that “a god impels him, so that he can bring justice down on the unjust,” and that he journeys seeking “splendor-loving Athens.” Theseus also seems to have been the central figure in a lost epic poem.

From the late sixth century onwards, Theseus begins to appear frequently in Athenian vase painting, and the imagery depicting him there resembles that of the Athenian tyrannicide Harmodius, suggesting that Theseus was linked to the emergence of the young Athenian democracy. Euripides goes so far as to say in The Suppliants that he was the true founder of the Athenian democracy. By the fourth century, the belief that associated Theseus with the foundation of the democracy seems to have been widespread: the celebrated painter Euphranor showed him in the company of Demos (the People) and Demokratia (the Democracy). By fabricating this link, Athens’ artists and myth-makers gave the city’s democracy a royal pedigree. See Henry J. Walker, Theseus and Athens (1995); Martin Robinson, A Shorter History of Greek Art (1991).

Athens also memorialized and honored Theseus in its public buildings. The



Theseion, was a hero shrine in the center of Athens, built to house his body. According to the later writer Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, “now he lies buried in the heart of the city, . . . and his tomb is a sanctuary and place of refuge for runaway slaves and all men of low estate who are afraid of men in power, since Theseus was a champion and helper of such during his life, and graciously received the supplications of the poor and needy.” In the comic poet Aristophanes’ The Knights (l. 1312), the Theseion is also represented as a place of refuge. Gradually, Theseus’ shrine came to be seen as a place of refuge for suppliants of all kinds.

Athens’ fifth century tragic poets exalted Theseus to new levels. “[I]n the hands of the tragedians . . . Theseus grew in stature as a statesman and king until, in the [Suppliants] of Euripides and Oedipus Coloneus of Sophokles he appears as a humane and articulate representative of democracy” (Davie). Indeed, he becomes the personification of the city itself: “Where he is representative of Athens in tragedy, Theseus embodies Athenian civilization in all its manifestations, so that he is usually less an individual character with his own fate than a symbol of Athenian virtue. . . . [H]e is amply endowed with all four cardinal Greek virtues, and other characters can simply look on and admire.” (Mills). Later Athenians singled out the justice of Theseus’ intervention on behalf of the Argive suppliants for special praise. In his Funeral Oration, the Athenian speaker Lysias commended Theseus for deploying Athens’ military might for the selfless and humanitarian purposes of upholding Greek laws and of ending Thebes’ outrages against the gods.  See Lys. 2.7-10,

Theseus’ colloquy with the Athenian herald

Returning now to the play, we pick up the action after Theseus has received the Assembly’s assent to his expedition against Thebes. Theseus addresses two heralds – the first, Athenian, the other, Theban – in succession. (Functionally, both heralds serve as ambassadors.) Theseus instructs the Athenian herald to appeal “graciously” to Creon, King of Thebes, to surrender the unburied Argives; if Creon refuses, the herald is to tell him that war with Athens will ensue.

Theseus gives his (intended) ambassador specific instructions what to say and how to say it. Greek cities commonly, but not invariably, limited the discretion of their diplomatic representatives in that way. See, e.g., Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, c. 148 (ambassadors to Argos say what “they have been instructed” to say). As one scholar notes, the practice of sending an ambassador with instructions was especially advantageous for a democracy, because that procedure “ensured that the will of the people would not be thwarted by their envoys.” Anna Missiou-Ladi, Coercive Diplomacy in Greek Interrstate Relations (1987). Theseus’ instructions may reflect a preference for democratic diplomatic practice.

Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald

As Theseus is giving these instructions, a second herald, the Theban, appears. The Theban brusquely demands to speak with the “king absolute” of Athens. Theseus corrects him sharply: “This state is not/Subject to one man’s will, but is a free city. The king here is the people, who by yearly office/Govern in turn.” (Euripides is obviously being anachronistic here.) The Theban herald rejoins with a stinging critique of Athenian democracy, and Theseus answers with a defense of it.

Some critics find this constitutional colloquy intrusive (or even a later interpolation), see, e.g., G.M.A Grube, The Drama of Euripides (1941) (finding the debate to be a “flagrant irrelevancy”). But Euripidean drama was renowned for its intellectual qualities: later ancients called him “the philosopher of the stage,” see C. Collard, Euripides (1981), and even in his own lifetime, the comic poet Aristophanes satirized his efforts to educate the Athenian public, see John Dillon, Euripides and the Philosophy of His Time (2004). The debate between Theseus and the Theban herald in fact deepens the argument of what is essentially a drama of ideas. In particular, it raises the possibility that Athens’ military intervention was just because, in part, of the decisional procedures that led to it.

The constitutional argument

The clash between the Theban herald and the Athenian democrat-king mirrors the great fifth and fourth century debate in Greece between the proponents and opponents of democracy. (Herodotus presents a version of the debate in the form of a dialogue among three Persian nobles, one of whom advocates democracy, the second oligarchy, and the third, monarch. Histories Book III, cc. 80-83; see generally Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (1998). For the Theban, whose city (he says) “lives under command/Of one man,” it is obvious that a democratically governed city cannot make coherent or intelligent public policy. “Experience gives/More useful knowledge than impatience. Your poor rustic,/Even though he be no fool – how can he turn his mind/From ploughs to politics?”

The Theban’s argument parallels that of the fourth century writer known as “Pseudo-Xenophon,” who is his tract On the Constitution of Athens maintained that “among the best people there is minimal wantonness and injustice but a maximum of scrupulous care for what is good, whereas among the people there is a maximum of ignorance, disorder, and wickedness; for poverty draws them rather to disgraceful actions, and because of a lack of money some men are uneducated and ignorant.” (E.C. Marchant trans.). Some critics take the Theban’s anti-democratic speech to be “good Euripidean doctrine” that “Theseus does little or nothing” to refute. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953)). This, I think, is clearly wrong.

The essence of Theseus’ answer is that Athenian democracy depends on the equal protection of the law, and therefore serves the ends of justice. “Equal laws” mean that the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, are subject to the same laws and can all seek their protection. (The Pseudo-Xenophon contends that this is untrue, alleging that Athens’ laws are designed to promote the interests of the worse-off.) Further (although this is more implicit than explicit), Theseus’ argument suggests that a domestic policy that protects the city’s lower classes through equal laws is congruent with a foreign policy that gives precedence to the claims of Greek customary international law over the claims of power and force:

          A state has no worse enemy than an absolute king.

          First, under such a ruler there is no common law.

          One man holds the whole law in his own grasp; that means

          An end to equality. When laws are written down,

          Both poor and rich possess their equal right; the weak,

          Threatened or insulted by a prosperous neighbor, can

          Retort in the same terms; the humble man’s just cause

          Defeats the great.

Just as the written law of Athens protects the weak from the strong, so Athens itself, by enforcing the common (if unwritten) laws of the Greeks, will vindicate the rights of Argos that a more powerful Thebes is violating. Democracy, it appears, leads naturally to humanitarian intervention, or to what we call “the responsibility to protect.” Both in its domestic arrangements and in its foreign policy, Athens as a democracy is deeply committed to the rule of law. By contrast, in violating the common law of the Greek city states, Thebes is rejecting the idea of equal justice, and “is behaving toward the other states of Greece just as a despot . . . behaves toward the other citizens of his [city].” Walker, Theseus and Athens.

Theseus also defends Athens’ constitution on the grounds that deliberative democracy tends to produce policy decisions of a higher quality than autocracy. Specifically, he argues that that is true of the question of initiating wars:

          Further: the people, vested with authority,

          Values its young men as the city’s great resource.

          An absolute king regards them as his enemies;

          The best of them, and those he thinks intelligent,

          He kills off, being afraid of rivals to his throne.

          How can a city grow in strength, when all its young

          And bold spirits are mown down like fresh stalks in spring?

As Plato will later argue, see The Republic, Book IX, 578a-579c, the “absolute king” or tyrant is governed by fear of internal enemies; and that fear may cause him to project violence outward against foreign states. Thus, the absolute king will tend to make decisions, especially concerning war, that are destructive of the common good. By contrast, Theseus argues, a democracy will address the question of war far more carefully, because the decision rests in the hands of its citizens – and it is their lives, or those of their children, that will be at stake. Here again we may cite Pseudo-Xenophon, who says that in Athens, “it is the people who man the ships and impart strength to the city; the steersmen, the boatswains, the sub-boatswains, the look-out officers, and the shipwrights — these are the ones who impart strength to the city far more than the hoplites, the high-born, and the good men.”

Theseus also argues that Athens’ democratic system makes the city richer,

Theseus in discussion

Theseus in discussion

because under a tyranny the common people have no incentive to work and save: “Why should a man win wealth and substance for his sons/When all his labour only swells a tyrant’s hoard?” Herodotus had earlier made exactly the same point about Athens (Histories Book V, c. 78): once Athens had rid itself of its tyrants, the Athenians “became by far the best of all. . . . [T]hey were deliberately slack when repressed, since they were working for a master, but after they were freed, they became ardently devoted to win achievements for themselves as individuals” (The Landmark Herodotus (Robert B. Strassler ed., Andrea L. Purvis trans. (2007)). And in fact, recent research confirms the unusual prosperity of ancient Athens. See Mogens Herman Hansen & Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (2004).

The Theban herald, however, denies that democratic decision-making is rational. From his perspective, it is impaired by a cognitive or emotional deficiency from which every voter suffers: no voter thinks that he will be a casualty. In other words, democracies take undue risks because their voters discount risk too much: they are therefore war-prone.

          For when an issue of war hangs on the people’s vote,

          Then no one reckons that his own death may be involved;

          This mournful prospect he assigns to someone else.

          If Death stood there in person while men cast their votes,

          Hellas would not be dying from war-mania.

Moreover, the Theban argues, if democracies were rational, they would consistently prefer peace to war, since the benefits of peace are obviously greater:

          All men know, which of two arguments

          Is more valid; we know what good, what evil is;

          How far peace outweighs war in benefits to man;

          Peace, the chief friend and cherisher of Muses; peace,

          The enemy of revenge, lover of families

          And children, patroness of wealth. . . .

 And more pointedly, he says to Theseus:

          A wise man’s love is owed first to his children, then

          To his parents; and to his native land, which he should strive

          To build, not to dismember. Whether on land or sea,

          A rash leader is a risk; timely inaction, wise.

It is, of course, entirely natural that the Theban ambassador should urge on Athens the advantages of peace: if he is persuasive, his city will be spared an Athenian invasion. Nonetheless, there is obvious appeal in his arguments.

But Theseus remains unpersuaded. Euripides invites us to think that Athens occupies a midway position between Argos and Thebes. Argos by its aggressiveness has initiated a foolish and unjust war, which it has lost. Thebes counsels peace, but the peace for which it calls is stained by the Theban injustice of not allowing the Argives to repatriate their dead. There is an unjust peace, exactly as there is an unjust war; and an unjust peace is an unstable one. Athens is positioned as the mean between these two opposites: it wages war justly, to undo the effects of an unjust war that has led to an unjust peace.

Inazu on Falwell, Flynt, and “Confident Pluralism”

John Inazu has an interesting column at The Hedgehog Review concerning his new book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference. I had not known the denouement of the Flynt/Falwell affair. I am very glad that there are people like John about, pressing these kinds of positions so eloquently, though sometimes, perhaps in my more Rousseauian moods, I just don’t think “Plures Ex Uno” (or perhaps just “Plures” in disaggregation, haphazardly occupying the same geographic spaces) has quite the same civic appeal as “E Pluribus Unum.” I’ll have something longer on this shortly. For now, though, enjoy John’s column. A bit:

“It is impossible,” said the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” Falwell and Flynt certainly seemed to fulfill Rousseau’s dire prediction. Many of the rest of us do, too. From hostility to civil-rights protests in Missouri, to anti-Muslim protests in Oklahoma, to culture wars boycotts, we struggle to live with those whose views we regard as irrational, immoral, or even dangerous….

Even as some of us struggle to coexist, others feign agreement by ignoring or minimizing our stark differences. We hold conferences, attend rallies, and sign statements expressing unity and solidarity. But most of us do not actually think that our differences are so easily overcome. And most of us do not actually want to see a thousand flowers bloom. We can all name things we think the world would be better off without. This is especially true when it comes to questions of morality and ultimate conviction. We might prefer a society in which everyone agreed on what counted as a justifiable homicide, a mean temperament, or a good life, but that is not the kind of society in which we actually live.

There is another possibility that better embraces the reality of our deepest differences: confident pluralism. Confident pluralism insists that Rousseau was wrong: Our shared existence is not only possible, but necessary. Instead of the elusive goal of E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”), confident pluralism suggests a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our “many-ness.” It does not require Pollyanna-ish illusions that we will resolve our differences and live happily ever after. Instead, it asks us to pursue a common existence in spite of our deeply held differences.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.

Pope Francis on Freedom of Religion Today

Much of the debate surrounding issues of religious freedom today seems to center around the appropriate social role of religion, whether religion is predominantly private or is something that can—or maybe must—extend to all aspects of public life.

This question becomes more critical as new laws highlight existing tensions and create new clashes between the religious rights of individuals and the rights of others. What will be required of a California doctor who wishes not to participate in euthanasia procedures after the passage of the “right to die” law? To what extent must opponents of same-sex marriage participate in gay weddings after Obergefell v. Hodges? What accommodations should be made for service providers like the Little Sisters of the Poor who feel that complying with portions of the Affordable Care Act is against their religion?

Pope Francis offered his insight into the meaning and importance of religious liberty in the public sphere in his opening remarks at the Center’s conference on international religious freedom in June 2014. A complete English translation of his remarks is available here. He said, in part:

Reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental right of man that reflects his highest dignity, that of the capacity to seek the truth and to adhere to it, and recognizes in that right an indispensable condition in order to deploy his own potentialities. Religious freedom is not only the freedom of a thought or of a private sect. It is freedom to live according to ethical principles consequent to discovered truth, whether privately or publicly. This is a great challenge in the globalized world, where weak thought—which is like a disease—lowers the general ethical level, and in the name of a false notion of tolerance ends by persecuting those who defend the truth about man and that truth’s ethical consequences.

Legal regimes, national or international, are called to recognize, guarantee, and protect religious freedom, which is a right that inheres intrinsically in the nature of man, in his dignity as a free being, and is also an indicator of a healthy democracy and one of the principal fonts of the legitimacy of the state.


Last month, when the Holy Father spoke at Independence Hall during his visit to the U.S., he highlighted similar themes. (The New York Times published an English translation of his speech here.) After reminding listeners, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that we were created with inalienable rights, Pope Francis said this about religious freedom:

It is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.

. . . In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

We live in a world subject to the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity. The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such is a precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity and a path to peace in our troubled world.

The Pope’s words challenge lawmakers, individuals, and followers of all religions (and those who are not religious as well) to see religious freedom as essential to a person’s dignity. It seems difficult today to strike a balance between the rights of believers to live according to their faith and the rights of non-believers not to have the faiths of others imposed on them. This increasing tension seems at least partially due to cultural forces that pit the religious and the secular against each other. Fewer people consider themselves to be religious than previously and both the religious and the non-religious become combative and defensive. Too often, the non-religious argue that any display of religion or act of faith is an inappropriate imposition and an attempt to establish religion as the law of the land. The religious on the other hand, claim that there is a war being waged by politicians aiming to eradicate religion altogether. Legislating in light of social and scientific developments while protecting the rights of religious believers requires careful balancing.

Pope Francis insists that relegating religion to the private sphere is not a solution to this conflict, as it would deny people the human dignity of living according to “discovered truths.” Instead, individuals must go beyond labeling those who disagree with them as either immoral or bigoted and governments must prioritize the human right to publicly practice religion and live by religious principles.

Democratic War

A violation of the Greek norm that enjoins dishonoring the bodies of an enemy’s

Thebans at war

Thebans at war

battle-dead is at the core of Euripides’ Suppliants. Correcting that violation is what appears to give Athens just cause to wage war against the violator, Thebes, which will not permit the burial of the soldiers from Argos who died in battle before Thebes’ gates. We have thus far tracked the development of this norm from Homer through Sophocles, with sidelong glances at other Greek authors. We have seen that the norm was upheld as early as Homer, although it permitted exceptions. We have also seen that the norm was sometimes characterized as unwritten, divine in origin and everlasting in duration, and sometimes as a custom binding in the Greek world only and a special mark of its superior civilization.

In what follows, we shall briefly review other sources of evidence for the norm: the early fifth century historian Herodotus, who was born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey but then in Greek Ionia, and the later fifth century Athenian historian Thucydides. Both writers strongly confirm the existence of the norm. We shall conclude this section with an analysis of the special place of this norm to fifth century, democratic Athens, and to the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ play.


By the time Herodotus wrote, it would seem that the burial norm in question had



become well entrenched. In Book IX of his Histories, an inquiry into the wars between the Greek city states and the neighboring Persian Empire, Herodotus recounts a conversation after the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea between one Lampron, a leading figure in the Greek city of Aegina, and Pausanias, a Spartan general. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Pausanias, Lampron proposed that Pausanias cut off the head of the fallen Persian Mardonius and impale it, just as Mardonius had earlier done to Leonidas, the uncle of Pausanias. This, Lampron said, would both avenge Leonidas and deter other barbarians from attacking Greece. But Pausanias was repelled by the suggestion. He said to Lampron:

Aeginetan, I thank you for your goodwill and forethought, but you have missed the mark of right judgment. First you exalt me and my fatherland and my deeds, yet next you cast me down to mere nothingness when you advise me to insult the dead, and say that I shall win more praise if I do so. That would be an act more proper for barbarians than for Greeks and one that we consider worthy of censure even in barbarians.

(Book IX, 79, 1) (emphasis added) (A.D. Godley trans.).

Herodotus further illustrates the norm in a story that concerns Onesilos, the younger brother of the King of Salamis in Cyprus, who was killed while besieging the city of Amathous. Herodotus tells us (Book V, cc. 114) that the Amathousians cut off his head and hung it up over their city’s gates. In time bees swarmed into the hollow skull and honeycombed it. The Amathousians consulted an oracle about it, who advised them to take down the head, bury it, and worship Onesilos as a hero every year. It would seem that the Amathousians had wronged Onesilos by displaying his severed head and had to make recompense by offering him worship.


A single episode from Thucydides’ History will suffice. This occurs after the



battle of Delium in November 424, in which the Athenians were defeated by the Thebans. See The Peloponnesian War, Book IV, cc. 97 et seq. As was customary for the side that had been defeated, the Athenians requested a truce after the battle so that they might reclaim and bury their dead. The victorious Thebans at first refused, arguing that because the Athenians had transgressed the law by occupying and fortifying the consecrated site of a temple, they would not permit them to gather in their dead until they evacuated the temple. The Athenian defense, which is not of direct concern to us here, is an extended and sophistic application of the doctrine of “necessity” in war (on which see Clifford Orwin, Piety, Justice, and the Necessities of War: Thucydides’ Delian Debate (1989). For our purposes, the critical facts are that the Athenians affirmed, and the Thebans did not deny, that but for the alleged Athenian sacrilege, the Thebans should have granted a truce and allowed the Athenians to recover their dead. Moreover, after driving away the Athenians, the Thebans did in fact permit the Athenians to retrieve the bodies, thus underscoring the legitimacy of the Athenians’ claims.

Several scholars have viewed this episode after the battle at Delium as the inspiration for Euripides’ Suppliants, thus dating the play close to 424 (perhaps 423). That may be so, although the evidence is inconclusive. Other scholars, observing that the play ends with an alliance between Athens and Argos, date the play to around 421, seeing it as a celebration of the treaty that Athens and Argos concluded that year. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953); for the treaty, see Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 44, 47.) This too cannot be proven. In her valuable Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997), Sophie Mills notes that “since an alliance was made between Argos and Athens in 421 (and renewed in 416), it is likely that the alliance of the play is also intended to link the myth with contemporary politics for the audience;” but she also points out that “although the language of Euripides’ treaty strongly resembles that of historical treaties, its actual terms differ significantly from those of the treaty of 421.”

What matters more for us is that by the time The Suppliants was produced, the Greeks considered it to be among the most fundamental norms of war to allow an adversary to collect and to bury its battle-dead. The justice of a war depends in large part (though not entirely) on the justice of the cause for which it is undertaken. If Euripides means us to think that Athens made war on Thebes to uphold this norm, then that war would seem to have had a just cause.

War and democratic Athens

Moreover, we are now also in a position to see the particularly compelling nature of the norm for Euripides’ audience in democratic Athens. To an extent that most Americans would find hard to understand (even though our country has been almost constantly at war since 1941), the Athenian imagination was saturated with the idea, and usually the fact, of war. W.R. Connor, in an article on Greek warfare cited earlier, remarks that for fifth century Greeks, “war was more than tactics, strategy and gore; it was linked to almost every aspect of their social organization and to their rich imaginative life.” And with its rulership over a large, tribute-paying overseas empire, democratic Athens was especially war-prone. David Pritchard writes of fifth century Athens:

War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate, with war and peace being a compulsory item on the agenda [of Athens’ assemblies]. Fifth-century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of every three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. . . By the 450s military service was also perceived as the duty of every citizen, which the Athenian demos appears to have taken very seriously.

When our Athenian authors wrote or spoke of war, they spoke with first-hand knowledge. Thucydides was a general, as was Sophocles; Socrates had fought at the battle of Delium. Over 70% of adult, male Athenian citizens were available for active service, and about 30% of militarily active citizens served in the hoplite infantry (Pritchard). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (in Thucydides’ account) stated that Athens was fielding 13,000 hoplites and deploying another 16,000 men to guard the city’s forts and walls. At the time, the adult male population of the city is estimated at about 60,000. And not only did many Athenian citizens experience combat; high numbers of those citizens were killed in action, and many more risked being killed.

For Athenian citizens and their families, therefore, war was woven into the fabric of ordinary life. They debated it; waged it; endured its hardships; and died in or from it. And for those reasons, the city’s practices regarding the burial of its citizen battle-dead were of the utmost importance to all of them. The city’s commemoration of those dead flooded and enriched its citizens’ imaginations. Its funerary practices lay at the center of the web of reciprocal claims and obligations that bound the citizens and the city to each other. Athens might ask you to give your life for it; but in return it promised you an afterlife of undying glory in its collective memory. Every Athenian soldier whom Pericles praised in his Funeral Oration had died, he argued, a beautiful death, worthy of a Homeric hero:

For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever. For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.

With this understanding of the Greek war convention in mind, let us consider the play itself more closely. In the following installments, I will review and analyze the action of the drama. The next posting will discuss the significance of the setting of the play at the shrine of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, and will describe the institution of “supplication.” Thereafter, postings will successively cover the opening scenes leading up to the entry of the Theban herald; Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald; the scenes culminating in the report of Theseus’ victory at Thebes and his return to Athens; and from then on up to the play’s conclusion, including the appearance of the goddess Athena.

Holidays of Forgetting

Halloween-Hero-1-AThis article is another installment in the ongoing holidays wars. As I have previously noted, how and what we celebrate has reached a tipping point, due to two competing and perhaps ultimately irreconcilable trends. Our calendar, which marks out sacred space as “holidays,” either civil or in recognition of some religious tradition, is being pummeled between secularization on the one hand, but also a blossoming pluralism on the other.

There are still the annual Christmas wars, where fidgety towns debate how many reindeer can neutralize a crèche, or where to place the menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court jurisprudence on this point is a hopeless morass, and so many places have tried simply to ignore it, one town famously referring to this time of year as “the sparkly season.”

The Christmas wars were largely a debate between those who think the Constitution enacts some impenetrable boundary between religion and government, and those who did not. Most of the former were generally, but not always, antipathetic specifically to the background Christian culture of the United States. To impose a secularist view would by definition, make the culture less Christian and also less religious. But the more current controversies are adding a new wrinkle.

The underlying theory of the Connecticut schools profiled in the article seems to be that one cannot publicly observe a holiday where some people feel “excluded” or “offended.” Such a position runs against the equally strong current in public schools of multiculturalism. Even if some people don’t like Halloween, shouldn’t the traditions of all people be reflected and invited to understand those holidays? On the other hand, some evangelical Christians also do not like Halloween, so it is easy to understand a decision to ban the holiday by your average school administrator.

Other school systems are taking exactly the opposite tack , and designating more holidays, across a number of traditions, such as Muslim holidays and the Chinese New Year, to accommodate the various traditions present. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is of course, to have no holidays at all, except perhaps secular ones (though some, like Columbus Day are also under attack).

As Paul Connerton writes in his book, How Societies Remember, holidays and the rites associated with them, “have as one of their defining features the explicit claim to” commemorate continuity with the past. It makes a difference therefore whether Halloween is meant to claim continuity with some pagan past, real or imagined, or whether it looks forward to All Saints’ Day. But the real trouble Halloween, as well as other holidays, may have is that it is emptied of memory. In a secular culture, such holidays express nothing but themselves and the passing moment. And that ritualized forgetting may be the real lasting danger to how we celebrate.

Mistreating the Enemy’s Body: The Judgment of Zeus

Essential as it was in the classical Greek world to honor the citizen-soldiers who had died for the city, it was also considered important, indeed commanded by the customs of war, to bury the bodies of enemy soldiers who had died in combat, or at least to permit the enemy recover and bury them himself. The custom was not, of course, universally followed, and indeed some have argued that the practice of the world that Homer dramatizes was contrary to it. But by the fifth century, and certainly by the time Euripides’ Suppliants was staged, the practice had congealed into a customary norm. So compelling was that norm, in fact, that it was taken to be a defining mark of Hellenism and of civilization.   We cannot begin to understand the moral universe of The Suppliants until we grasp the centrality of this norm and the horror that attended its violation.

The Iliad

The obvious starting place is Homer’s Iliad. The Greek hero Achilles, seething with anger at the insult offered him by the Greek king Agamemnon, has withdrawn from combat, leaving the Greek forces to their own devices. Without Achilles, the war goes badly for the Greeks. They send an embassy to Achilles, offering compensation for Agamemnon’s offense, appealing to his fellow-feeing for his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, and seeking to persuade him to rejoin them in the struggle against Troy. Achilles will not be mollified. But his loyal comrade and intimate friend Patroclus persuades Achilles to permit him to enter the fray, bearing Achilles’ armor, so that the Trojans may be deceived into thinking that Achilles himself has returned to fight them. Achilles agrees, but only after setting strict limits to how and when Patroclus may fight. Disobeying Achilles’ instructions, Patroclus is speared and killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. On learning of Patroclus’ death, Achilles’ grief and remorse have no limits. The loss of Patroclus, Achilles says, wounds him as much as the killings of his own father or son would: “Nothing could more afflict me: fame relating the foul deed/Of my dear father’s slaughter, blood drawn from my sole son’s heart/No more could wound me. Cursed man, that in this foreign part/(For hateful Helen) my true love, my country, sire and son,/I should thus part with.” (Iliad Book XIX, ll. 318-22).

Achilles composes his differences with Agamemnon and the Greeks and rejoins the battle against the Trojans. He seeks Hector out for single combat. Hector’s mother Queen Hecuba implores her son to withdraw into the safety of the walled city of Troy, warning him that Achilles will defeat and kill him, leaving his unburied body for the dogs: “our tears shall pay thy corse [corpse] no obsequy./ Being ravish’d from us, Grecian dogs nourish’d with what I nursed” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 74-75). Despite knowing Achilles to be far stronger and more powerful, Hector, fearing shame more than death, remains outside the city, to confront the vengeful Achilles. Hector proposes to Achilles that whichever of them kills the other do no outrage on the defeated man’s dead body:

Let vows of fit respect pass both, when conquest hath bestow’d

          His wreath on either. Here I vow no fury shall be show’d

          That is not manly, on thy corse; but, having spoil’d thy arms,

          Resign thy person; which swear thou. (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 219-22).

Although Homer characterizes Hector’s terms as “fair and temperate,” Achilles angrily refuses them: he says that he and Hector can no more reach an agreement than lions and men, or wolves and lambs, could.   Achilles can only urge Hector to feel what he himself feels: “Hunger for slaughter, and a hate that eats thy heart to eat/Thy foe’s heart” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 232-33). Achilles’ anger transports him to the levels of a beast and a cannibal: in his wrath, he tramples down the barriers between the civilized and the barbaric, the human and the bestial, the cooked and the raw. He is waging a war for the utter annihilation of his enemy, a war without mercy or limits, war in the form that Clausewitz was later to call the “pure concept” of war. (See On War, Book One, c. 1, sec. 23, in which Clausewitz says that “the pure concept” of war is that of “a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence”).

The degradation of Hector’s body

Achilles slays Hector, pierces the dead body’s “Achilles’ tendons,” straps the body to the back of his chariot, hauls it back to the Greek camp, and drags it in the dust twelve times around Patroclus’ funeral pyre. Addressing the dead Patroclus, Achilles boasts:

Hector lies slaughter’d here

Dragg’d at my chariot, and our dogs shall all in pieces tear

His hated limbs. Twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,

I took alive, and (yet enrag’d) will empty all their veins

Of vital spirits, sacrific’d before thy heap of fire. (Iliad Book XXIII, ll. 16-21.)

Then Achilles lays Hector face down in the dust before Patroclus. This, Homer says, was shameful, “unworthy” of Achilles.

Despite Hector’s death and the degradation of his body, Achilles’ thirst for revenge remains unslaked: “with Hector’s corse his rage had never done” (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 16). Even the gods begin to pity Hector. Apollo denounces Achilles Continue reading

Ghosts in Norway

The_ScreamChesterton famously said that if people do not believe in God, they will believe in anything. And the historian Christopher Dawson wrote that in the absence of God, people will take as gods Hitler or Stalin. Both were arguing the same point: people are naturally religious, and they seek a system of beliefs in order to understand the transcendent nature of human existence.

In our own day, denial of that religious impulse results in a curious schizophrenia. The belief in ghosts, for example, now on the rise in ostensibly faithless places like Norway, coincides with the equally sharp loss of organized religion, or even widespread reflection on what religion is. “God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum,” the article quotes a professor Methodist preacher in Oslo. But what does that mean?

According to the secular imagination, this was not supposed to happen. Religion – by which is often meant churches – would disappear, to be replaced by science and empirical data. But this is not how it is turning out.

The challenge is that it is difficult for most common forms of secularism to accommodate religious beliefs. The contrary is not equally true. In the Christian tradition, science is perfectly compatible with religion and empiricism has a useful place in understanding the world, even if it is not the only criterion for that understanding. Indeed, there is a not insubstantial body of scholarship that argues Christianity enabled science by positing a comprehensible world according to the laws of nature. But for secularism, religion, either in organized churches or in “spiritual” positions such as the belief in the ghosts must be understood either as irrational or as pathology.

But jettisoning a concrete and intellectually disciplined tradition like Christianity has removed a way to understand spiritual phenomenon like, yes, whether ghosts exist. Replacing that tradition with a loose “postmodern” belief in various “weird things” (as the article calls them) completely severs the connection Christianity formed with empirical science. Further, postmodern faith of this type provides no resistance to secular power. Clairvoyants and ghost-hunters are no Thomas a Becket or Thomas More.

So these trends are not so much a challenge to secularism as a reinforcement of the secular state. It robs believers both of a ground to reality and a mode of resistance to those who treat their beliefs as well, a little spooky.