Ancient Greece and the Strategic Failure of Modern Humanism

The great men of Ancient Greece were not universally beloved in their day. The historian Herodotus was faulted for misleading the public. The statesman Pericles was constantly suspected of aspirations to tyranny. And Socrates, godfather of Western philosophy, was executed for subversive teachings. Yet we remember these men far more readily than we do their many detractors. Their wisdom has proven durable and fruitful for every subsequent generation that sees fit to make use of it.

Our own generation seems mostly to be in the process of discarding that wisdom and following gleefully down well-worn paths toward destruction, albeit at the heels of new sophists and new demagogues. But there are still people who believe the ancient Greeks have things to teach us. Claudia Hauer is one of those people, and her new book, Strategic Humanism: Lessons on Leadership from the Ancient Greeks, is a short guide to “drawing on Greek literature as we encounter the problems of our own age.” It is a book in which I find some things to admire, and some things to dispute.

Hauer teaches humanities, science, and languages in the Great Books program at St. John’s College. She also holds the Lyon Chair in Professional Ethics at the United States Air Force Academy. Her book is a series of essays that distill some of what she teaches to cadets as they prepare for their military service.

In applying ancient insight to modern warfare and geopolitics, Hauer is in the company not only of older contemporaries like Victor Davis Hanson, Graham T. Allison, and Donald Kagan, but also of American generals and statesmen throughout the years—including the founders themselves. As Hauer explains in her introduction, “characters and scenarios found in the texts of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle continue to arise today.” Human nature, as Thucydides would have been the first to observe, does not change.

But our sense of ourselves as human beings does change, and a major premise of Strategic Humanism is that since Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Renée Descartes (1596-1650) it has changed for the worse. 16th- and 17th-century natural philosophers were overly optimistic about the possibility of drawing a bright dividing line between mind and matter. By doing so, they hoped to enable the former to exert its will more perfectly upon the latter. Just as often, though, they achieved the reverse.

Bacon hoped to perfect “the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe,” and in one realm it seems he got his wish: we have unparalleled technological control over our surroundings. But this knowledge about matter came at the cost of wisdom about absolutely everything else: our purely material genius has made us moral and spiritual idiots. We can plot the movements of the heavens but fail to account for their beauty as anything more than mere illusion. We can split the atom, but not reason cogently about whether we ought to.

Ultimately Hauer seems unaware of, or else uninterested in, what the modern challenges to which we might apply ancient wisdom actually are.

In her opening chapter (“Greek Humanism and the Cartesian Revolution”), Hauer makes a convincing argument that humans cannot be reduced to machines or machinists. Our inchoate yearnings, our subjective experiences, our irrational emotions: all of these remain irrevocable features of our humanity, despite scientific efforts to subdue or manipulate them. The Greeks can help us make sense of all this because their “experience of…embeddedness in the world led [them] to a robust sense of what it means to be a human being.”

In other words, though some Greek philosophers, statesmen, and historians were famed for rationally analyzing the world, they also never forgot that they were in that world, and that human truths like honor and happiness could not be argued away. There are those who make an exception of Plato, blaming him for our fond illusion that creation can be cleansed of animal infirmities and analyzed in coldly rationalist terms. Others, myself included, think that dialogues like the Symposium show Plato and his teacher Socrates as far more than mere dualists. But at the very least, some of Plato’s more zealous followers—Porphyry and Plotinus, for example—did carry the quest for intellectual purity to an extreme. Hauer explains at the outset that this is why Plato does not appear in her book.

There follow a series of chapters on Homer (“Honor and Atrocity in Homer’s Iliad”), Herodotus (“Herodotus: A Multicultural Approach” and “The Power of Language”), Thucydides (“From Democracy to Tyranny”), and Aristotle (“Aristotle: A Moralist for Our Times”), each of which may be read with profit.

Particularly engaging is Hauer’s analysis of the many ambiguous oracular pronouncements in Herodotus, the misreading of which spelled downfall for overconfident monarchs like Croesus of Lydia. “Croesus takes a rigidly linear approach to problems and puzzles of strategy, and he fails to acknowledge that terms can have non-literal meanings.” Greek generals like the Athenian Themistocles were more willing to read between the lines. Themistocles persuaded his fellow citizens that the Delphic Oracle’s advice to rely on a “wooden wall” meant emphasizing naval strategy. He exemplified a state-of-the-art, distinctively Greek policy of brains over brawn.

Somewhat misleadingly, Hauer depicts this Athenian sophistication as coinciding almost exactly with the principled virtue that allowed Greece to triumph over Persia. It was only later, when “Sophists such as Gorgias dismissed traditional morality in favor of moral relativism,” that Athens indulged in unblushing aggression during the Peloponnesian War. With Pericles’ help and patronage, the sophists twisted Athens’ civilized intellectual culture into a façade for pure power politics.

There is probably some truth to this: One of Gorgias’ extant speeches, the “Defense of Helen,” depicts all rhetoric as falsehood and all persuasion as a kind of violence: “those who convince…anyone about anything are crafters of lies.” In Gorgias’ telling, winning words are tantamount to date rape drugs: skilled rhetoricians can force us to do anything, regardless of what we want or what is right.

But Gorgias did not invent the cynical strain in Athenian politics. It was there from the beginning. Themistocles came up with the winning strategy against Persia, but on the eve of battle he also employed a tactic of deceit which flew in the face of the older honor codes reflected in Homeric verse. He eventually defected to the Persians once his influence waned in Athens. Ingenuity has its excesses, too.

Hauer does acknowledge this at some points (“language has an extraordinary power to shape perception,” she says, “a power that can be used for good or ill”). But on the whole she seems too ready to wed the innovations of the high classical period to the comfortable assumptions of modern liberalism. Her “Multicultural Approach” to Herodotus includes an approving citation of Edward Saïd, who famously faulted the West for its chauvinism. In Covering Islam (1981), Saïd expressed his hope that we would “dispose finally of both the residual hatred and the offensive generality of labels like ‘the Muslim,’ ‘the Persian,’ ‘the Turk,’ ‘the Arab’ or ‘the Westerner.’”

It is true enough that Herodotus was generous toward non-Greek cultures, and that he was accused of “philobarbarism”—loving foreigners—by his detractor Plutarch. But there is no justification in the Histories for blithely implying, as Saïd did, that even noticing differences between cultures and valuing some over others amounts always and everywhere to atavistic prejudice.

“Ancient discourse was, like today’s, driven by a set of mono-cultural prejudices hostile to conscious and deliberate multi-cultural practices,” writes Hauer. I don’t know where she gets that, but it’s not from Herodotus. If anything the Histories bears witness to a remarkable ability among the best Western thinkers to hold two thoughts in their heads at once: different cultures behave differently, but some things are objectively better than others.

Herodotus accepts the reality of cultural diversity. But he does not advocate tiptoeing around moral judgments of others out of cosmopolitan nicety. Some things are universal: “men have long ago discovered noble laws, from which one must take instruction,” says the Lydian Gyges in Herodotus’ first book (Histories 1.8.3). Herodotus’ own tolerance did not extend to the Babylonian custom of prostitution in temples, which he called “the most disgusting of their practices.” Hauer does not deal with this comment. Nor does she address the fact that her own preference for open discourse and multiculturalism is itself a culturally contingent prejudice—and a good one, at that. As her own book makes clear, she owes it at least in part to the Greeks.

Aristotle, too, is pressed uncomfortably into service on behalf of palatable modern values: “the Aristotelian notion of thriving cannot be reduced to a statistical reckoning based on access to the external resource of money.” Aristotle says almost the opposite of this at Nicomachean Ethics 1099a-b: “it is impossible, or at least not easy, to do noble things without the requisite supplies—for many noble things must be done with the use of instruments, including tools, wealth, and political power.”

There are various ways to formulate an argument against this claim while retaining the core insights of the Nicomachean Ethics. It did not prove impossible for Christian interpreters to update Aristotle for a new ethos in which wealth and virtue were thoroughly disassociated. Secular readers, too, find ways to soften Aristotle’s elitism by arguing that the bliss of philosophical contemplation doesn’t cost anything. But Hauer never furnishes any such arguments—she just assumes that Aristotle didn’t really mean what he said about money.

Nor does Hauer explain the following vexatious comment, made to demonstrate that “through war…[Athens and America] learned who they are.” “In the United States,” writes Hauer, “the Revolutionary War honed our love of freedom and defined our distinct sovereignty, while the Civil War illustrated just how far people would go to protect the injustice of slavery.” That is astonishingly glib. You could just as easily say the Civil War showed how many Americans were willing to die to abolish slavery—not to mention all the Southerners, among them General Robert E. Lee, who were at best ambivalent about secession. In any case it’s hard to see how the Persian or Peloponnesian War has anything to do with this breezy remark, and Hauer doesn’t enlighten us.

Ultimately Hauer seems unaware of, or else uninterested in, what the modern challenges to which we might apply ancient wisdom actually are. This year, the entire Defense Department hosted an “Extremism stand down” in the wake of the Capitol riot on January 6. Retired Army Brigadier General Thomas Kolditz, a former department head at West Point, said in an interview that “one of my bigger concerns is that there has long been a strong Trump following in the military.” As the Federalist’s Elaine Donnelly reported, the Navy recently released a Report “filled with ideologically leftist vocabulary including ‘intersectionality,’ ‘disparate impact,’ and 338 variations of the word ‘diverse.’

All of this came to light after Hauer published her book. But it is the result of trends that were well underway as she was writing: every American institution, the military included, is in danger of being captured by small-minded and bigoted dogmatists. The new woke ruling class is thoroughly hostile to reasoned discourse of the kind the Greeks lauded and Hauer endorses.

There is not a word about “wokeness” or any of its attendant dysfunctions in Strategic Humanism, which makes me think Hauer is not really all that serious about addressing the real problems of the present. In her chapter on Thucydides, she reminds us of the many passages in Greek literature (Republic 1.327c and Thucydides 3.82 foremost among them) in which it is admitted that civil discussion breaks down, and reason cannot function, when one or more parties will not listen. But this is a perfect description of racialist woke dogma, which is proving itself ever-more furiously resistant to all attempts at moderation or debate.

“It’s not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here,” screamed a young woman at Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis in a 2015 video. That episode has come to symbolize a movement that was steadily gaining power while Hauer was writing. By the time she published, “rational thinking” itself had been characterized as a “white value” in a controversial infographic produced by the Smithsonian Museum.

The whole Western way of doing things—including and especially the Athenian policy of genteel, reasoned discussion—is threatened by this new, ascendant creed. In it is reflected a will to power more fanatical than the sophists dreamed of, an antipathy toward tradition more ferocious than Aristophanes ever satirized, and a spirit of small-minded fideism that would send Socrates back to his death in a heartbeat were he alive today.

Perhaps this means there are limits to how effective intellectuals can be at talking down our modern demagogues. If Socrates could find no way to make the Athenians see sense, maybe we Americans will fare no better. Maybe, too, the time for reasoned discussion has passed. But God help us if so, and God help us too if we do not find some means of wresting our culture back from the woke mob. Strategic Humanism offers no such means.