Greeks' grand struggle was a cakewalk compared to Iraq

The odd thing is that conservatives wear pinstriped suits. They love the ancients so much that they really should be walking around in togas. The main contribution of the Greeks to modern American politics may have been Michael Dukakis, who once ...

The odd thing is that conservatives wear pinstriped suits. They love the ancients so much that they really should be walking around in togas. The main contribution of the Greeks to modern American politics may have been Michael Dukakis, who once climbed the Acropolis in wingtips.

But that doesn't stop conservatives -- especially the Straussians who pushed for going into Iraq -- from being obsessed with ancient Greece and from believing that they are the successors to Plato and Homer in terms of the lofty ideals and nobility and character in American politics -- while Democrats merely muck about with policies for the needy.

Harvey Mansfield, a leading Straussian who taught political science at Harvard and who wrote a book called "Manliness" (he's for it), gave the Jefferson lecture recently at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington.

It was an ode, as his book is, to "thumos," the Greek word that means spiritedness, with flavors of ambition, pride and brute willfulness. Thumos, as Philip Kennicott wrote in The Washington Post, "is a word reinvented by conservative academics who need to put a fancy name on a political philosophy that boils down to 'boys will be boys.' "

In his prepared remarks, Mansfield did not mention the war, which is a downer at conclaves of neocons and thumos worshippers. But he explained that thumos is "the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat." In thumos, he added, "we see the animality of man, for men (and especially males) often behave like dogs barking, snakes hissing, birds flapping. But precisely here we also see the humanity of the human animal" because it is reacting for "a reason, even for a principle, a cause. Only human beings get angry."


The professor used an example, naturally, from ancient Greece to explain why politics should be about revolution rather than equilibrium: "What did Achilles do when his ruler Agamemnon stole his slave girl? He raised the stakes. He asserted that the trouble was not in this loss alone but in the fact that the wrong sort of man was ruling the Greeks. Heroes, or at least he-men like Achilles, should be in charge rather than lesser beings like Agamemnon who have mainly their lineage to recommend them and who therefore do not give he-men the honors they deserve. Achilles elevated a civil complaint concerning a private wrong to a demand for a change of regime, a revolution in politics." Mansfield concluded: "To complain of an injustice is an implicit claim to rule."

The most recent example of the Hellenization of the Bush administration is the president's choice for war czar, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who says he loves the Greek military historian Thucydides.

Other Thucydides aficionados include Victor Davis Hanson, who was a war guru to Dick Cheney when the vice president went into the bunker after 9/11 and got into his gloomy Hobbesian phase. (Hobbes' biggest influence also was Thucydides.)

Donald Kagan, a respected Yale historian who has written authoritatively on the Peloponnesian War, is the father of Robert Kagan, a neocon who pushed for the Iraq invasion, and Frederick Kagan, a military historian who urged the surge.

I called Kagan to ask him if Thucydides, the master at chronicling hubris and imperial overreaching, might provide the new war czar with any wisdom that can help America sort through the morass of Iraq.

Very much his sons' father, the classicist said he was disgusted that the White House, after a fiasco of an occupation designed by Rummy, "is still doing one dumb thing after another" by appointing Lute, a chief skeptic of the surge.

Kagan said one reason the Athenians ended up losing the war was because in the Battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C. against the Spartans, they sent "a very inferior force" and had a general in command who was associated with the faction that was against the aggressive policy against the Spartans.

"Kind of like President Bush appointing this guy to run the war whose strategy is opposed to the surge," he said dryly.


With cold realism, Thucydides captured the Athenian philosophy in the 27-year war that led to its downfall as a golden democracy: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

What message can we take away from Thucydides for modern times?

"To me," Kagan said, "the deepest message, the most tragic, is his picture of civilization as a very thin veneer. When you punch a hole in it, what you find underneath is hollow, the precivilized characteristics of the human race -- animalistic in the worst possible way."

Compared to Iraq, the Peloponnesian War was a cakewalk.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.

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