Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 6)

In some ways reading Herodotus doesn’t feel like ancient history; it reads more like one of today’s national newspapers.  One common thread stays constant from ancient times down to our own; the fact that politicians always want more power.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an ancient Greek tyrant, a Persian king, or a modern American politician.  They’re all after the same thing.  Change the names and places but the political motive always stays the same.  We can trace this in a story Herodotus tells about Histiaeus.  Histiaeus was a “tyrant of Miletus, who had been allowed by Darius to leave Susa, and come down to Sardis.”  Histiaeus had been driven out of Miletus by his fellow Greeks and sought refuge from the Persian king.  Darius accommodated his request and settled him comfortably in the Persian capital at Susa.  While Histiaeus was in Susa the Persians had to put down a Greek rebellion in Sardis and this is what brought him back there.  “On his arrival, being asked by Artaphernes, the Sardian satrap, what he thought was the reason that the Ionians had rebelled, Histiaeus made answer that he could not conceive, and it had astonished him greatly, pretending to be quite unconscious of the whole business.”  Artaphernes had been ruling as the Persian governor of Sardis and wanted to know why the Greeks had rebelled in the first place.  Histiaeus shrugged and said he didn’t have a clue.   “Artaphernes, however, who perceived that he was dealing dishonestly, and who had in fact full knowledge of the whole history of the outbreak, said to him, ‘I will tell thee how the case stands, Histiaeus: this shoe is of thy stitching; Aristagoras has but put it on.’"  Artaphernes was no fool.  On the surface the rebellion had been instigated by Aristagoras but the hand behind it all had been the hand of Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had planned the whole thing; Aristagoras had just put the plan into action.  Three men are involved in this story.  Darius is the generous and kind-hearted king who shelters Histiaeus.  Histiaeus is the double-dealing tyrant trying to get back into power through the kindness of Darius.  Artaphernes is loyal to his king and wants to protect Darius’s real interests.  He can see what’s going on.  But what can he do about it?

To find an answer we should look back to our reading of 2 Samuel.  There we find a parallel story.  David is like Darius, the generous and kind-hearted king.  Absalom is like Histiaeus and takes advantage of the king’s generosity.  Joab is commander and advisor to King David, just like Artaphernes is to Darius.  When Absalom leads a rebellion against David, David can’t bear to think of Absalom (his own son) being killed in battle.  So he commands the soldiers to spare Absalom if they can safely do so during the heat of battle.  Joab can see what’s going on and ends up killing Absalom himself.  Because Joab knows that if Absalom’s life is spared then David will pardon him and the danger to David’s political power (and even his life) will remain.  This is similar to what happened when Histiaeus “fell into the hands of the Persians…”  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus alive back to King Darius; just as Joab’s soldiers could have taken Absalom alive back to King David.  But Herodotus thinks “Now, had he been taken straightway before King Darius, I verily believe that he would have received no hurt, but the king would have freely forgiven him.”  This is what Joab thinks would have happened if Absalom had been taken alive back to King David.  The Persians could have taken Histiaeus back alive.  Herodotus goes on to say “Artaphernes, however, satrap of Sardis, and his captor Harpagus, on this very account (because they were afraid that, if Histiaeus escaped, he would be again received into high favour by the king) put him to death as soon as he arrived at Sardis.”  Darius probably would have granted clemency to Histiaeus, if he had the chance.  He didn’t get that chance.  Artaphernes, just like Joab in the story of Absalom, made sure of that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 5)

Herodotus spent several chapters telling us about Persia, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, and Scythia.  Meanwhile, back at the home front, he turns our attention to Thrace, the northern neighbor of the Greek world.  In some ways the Thracians are as strange as any of the “barbarians” Herodotus has covered.  He gives an example from the Thracian Trausi tribe.  “When a child is born all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness.”  What are we supposed to make of that?  It sounds similar to the book of Ecclesiastes, where “all is vanity.”  But this is not a theme that captures the ancient Greek imagination.  For them life was a struggle and they openly acknowledged that life can be tragic.  In fact, the Greeks invented tragic drama.  Aeschylus showed how the great king Agamemnon came to a tragic end because of hubris.  Sophocles showed how Oedipus suffered at the hand of Fate.  Euripides showed how Medea (one of those “barbarians” from around the Black Sea/Scythian area) was betrayed by that famous Greek icon, Jason.  These were all tragic lessons brought to the stage by Greek dramatists.  But generally life for an ancient Greek, man or woman, was not a tragedy.  Life was an adventure to be lived to the fullest.  Homer’s Odyssey is one of the truly great Western adventure stories about a long journey to get back home.  For Plato philosophy is the ultimate human adventure; the tragedy is that so few people follow it.  Herodotus proves this point when he goes on to say that for the Thracians “to be idle is accounted the most honorable thing, and to be a tiller of the ground the most dishonorable.  To live by war and plunder is of all things the most glorious.”  Thrace was not a country that encouraged philosophy.  Aristotle would emphatically reject the Thracian (or any) “philosophy” that encourages idleness and plunder.  For Aristotle happiness was the full development of human capacities to achieve excellence in whatever field is pursued, whether in work, in war, in drama or philosophy.  So what were these glorious Greeks busy doing while those far-away barbaric Persians were getting stronger and spreading their empire?  The Greeks were fighting bitterly amongst themselves.  Herodotus doesn’t make excuses.  He just records how the Greeks, in their own way, were just as avaricious and power-hungry as any Persian king ever was.  It’s true that Cyrus came to power by leading the Persians ruthlessly against the Medes.  And when Cyrus was killed his son Cambyses (who Herodotus thought was insane) took his place.  Then Darius led a bold and murderous coup to claim the Persian throne.  This sounds as bloody as our reading in 1 Samuel when Saul, like Cyrus, wanted his own son (Jonathan) to rule after him.  But the rise of David led to civil war amongst the Hebrew tribes.  Some were for Saul, some were for David, and many were just out for themselves.  This was how the game was played and the Persians and Hebrews weren’t exceptional in this.  Neither were the Greeks.  Aristagoras wanted to revolt against king Darius; not because he was a patriotic Greek but because he wanted to rule for himself.  He tried to get Sparta and Athens to help.  But Sparta had its own problems.  They had a king (Cleomenes) whom Herodotus suspected of not being in his right mind.  And at that time the Athenians were split between the backers of Clisthenes (who called the common people to his aid), and Isagoras who, finding things weren’t going his way, called on Cleomenes (a Spartan) for help.  When Isagoras (with the help of Cleomenes) drove out Clisthenes, where did Clisthenes turn for help?  To Sardis, to make an alliance with… guess who?  The Persians.  Got all that?  We need a program guide to keep up.  These real-life historical characters don’t sound much different from Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Jason.  Herodotus shows readers just how dramatic history can be.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 4)

Americans aren’t the only ones who want “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Reading Herodotus it seems that even in ancient times all people wanted to live in freedom and be happy.  It’s not clear whether Herodotus thinks all people are essentially alike or if he thinks they’re fundamentally different.  Compare what he has to say about two great peoples, the Egyptians and the Scythians.  “The Egyptians adhere to their own national customs, and adopt no foreign usages.” (Book 2)  “The Scythians have an extreme hatred of all foreign customs, particularly those in use among the Greeks.” (Book 4)  In this way at least they’re alike; they both want to live in freedom and be happy living by their own traditional customs.  But in other ways they couldn’t be more different.  The Egyptians had been rooted in the same spot since prehistoric times.  They were an agrarian urban-based people.  The Scythians had wandered all over the northern part of Asia Minor.  They were a nomadic people.  “The Egyptians… believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.” (Book 2)  But “According to the account which the Scythians themselves give, they are the youngest of all nations.” (Book 4)  The Egyptians had to defend their homeland by the Nile River and had no place to retreat.  That’s why the Persians under Cambyses and Darius could defeat the Egyptians in battle (though they were less successful in Libya and Ethiopia).  The Scythians had a different defensive strategy.  They “make it impossible for the enemy who invades them to escape destruction, while they themselves are entirely out of his reach, unless it please them to engage with him.  Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go… how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?”  Darius had to withdraw from Scythia without conquering them.  In fact, it was a somewhat humiliating retreat, not a strategic one.  Herodotus says “the Persians escaped from Scythia” and thinks they were lucky to get out alive.  The Greeks were intimately connected with both Egypt and Scythia.  Herodotus believed “almost all the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt.”  He also says “I maintain that both the shield and the helmet came into Greece from Egypt.” (Book 2)  The seafaring Greeks were also well acquainted with the Scythians.  They had established colonies and trading posts around the Black Sea.  We can infer this from Herodotus’ testimony that “the Geloni were anciently Greeks who, being driven out of the factories along the coast, fled to the Budini and took up their abode with them.  They still speak a language half Greek, half Scythian.”  (The Budini were a people who lived in far northeastern Scythia.)  In spite of these intimate connections Aristotle still believed "It is proper that Greeks should rule over barbarians" (Politics, Book 1, chapter 2)  Why would he think this?  He believed Greek civilization was superior to all the others.  All people may want to live in freedom and happiness, but he thought the Greek way was best.  For example, Herodotus says “The Agathyrsi are a race of men very luxurious and are very fond of wearing gold.  They have wives in common...”  Aristotle thought wealth should be used to live a certain kind of moderate lifestyle, not a “luxurious” one.  He also thought the family (a husband and wife raising their own children) was the cornerstone of civilized life.  Herodotus told us that “The Androphagi are more savage than those of any other race.  They neither observe justice, nor are governed by any laws.”  Aristotle believed that when people are governed by rational laws they’re the best of creatures, but when they’re not, they’re the most savage of creatures.  For these reasons Aristotle thought it proper that Greeks should rule over barbarians, not the other way around.  That’s fine; but what did barbarians think of that idea?  Let Herodotus speak for them: “These be the names of the Libyan tribes whereof I am able to give the names; and most of these cared little then, and indeed care little now, for the king of the Medes.”  Presumably they cared little for the Greeks as well.  They didn’t give a fig for Darius or for Aristotle either.