Reflecting on Thucydides and Prince

I was a great fan of Prince’s, as I suppose most of us who grew up in the 1980s were. There was the delightful raunchiness of Purple Rain, magnificently enhanced by Sheila E’s ferocious drumming. His sudden loss came at the end of a week when I had begun seriously re-reading Thucydides in Greek, after hitting a solid brick of wall of “we hate him” in my justice class. Thucydides is tough, and most students never get anything from him other than the Melian Debate, and always in translation.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think Thucydides is much diminished by translation, and diminished in ways that Plato and Aristotle are not. I think you can lead a good life just reading Plato in English. But Thucydides…no. I remember wading through him one summer in English and thinking “well, that sucked; why is he such a big deal to classical scholars?”

Much aided by Robert Connor’s excellent Thucydides, I came later to appreciate the importance of the book as a commentary on war and society. Connor helps illustrate the structure of the narrative, so that you can see, ultimately, what Thucydides is trying to get us to see:

1) Empire is profitable, so that imperialism leads inevitably to over-reach

2) People are fearful and seek advantage/domination as a result

3) and again as a result, suffering ensues

4) people naturally resist domination as much as people seek it; and

5) again, as a result, suffering ensues.

There is no just war (jus bellum); there is merely war.

This week reading through in Greek, the author’s subtle commentaries on leadership became more apparent to me: Pericles, as a leader capable of cooling passions at the same time acknowledging the necessities of aggression as a cornerstone to maintaining the profits of empire–and also a visionary of the Athens as people desire it to be (the Funeral Oration). But mostly, Pericles is capable of sacrificing for the common good. When he is gone, the story is diminished, as is Athenian capacity.

Then Cleon and Brasidas, both clever politicians and military leaders, but both duplicitous and motivated mostly by their own self-interests. Diodotus wins some clemency for the Mytilenes vis-a-vis Cleon not by appealing to Athenians’ sense of right and wrong, but by pointing out the advantage for Athens in showing clemency. Nicias appears to be good-hearted and noble–he seems a remnant of old Athens– but allows himself to get played by Cleon and Demosthenes, and is completely incapable of formulating a pragmatic argument that can really move Athenians when they are as focussed on advantage as they are. Nonetheless, he dies a noble death, proving himself capable of self-sacrifice in an attempt to stop the Syracusans’ senseless slaughter of his men as they tried to retreat. Even that noble sacrifice proved misguided, as the survivors were sent as slaves to the quarries–a long, tortuous death instead of a quick death from arrows on the battlefield. And then Alcibiades with tyrannical focus on himself and what he wants, which leads him to exile and treason.

All these are ways in which leadership can go completely, utterly wrong, even when, as with Nicias, one has good intentions and motivations.

These themes hit me very hard as I as am, as usual, reflecting on my place in the world, and realizing, not for the first time, that I really don’t belong in my department. I spent some time blaming the department for that, and then I started blaming myself, but it’s not anybody’s fault. People have their preferences and proclivities; they are as they are. And as Popeye says, I am what I am. The only transformations really possible through leadership occur, I suspect, when the right leader meets the right context at the right time. That’s a high-wire act if there ever was one.

I may simply belong nowhere, and ambitions–even those that exist as a desire to help or to envision–are best laid aside. It’s hard telling what might have happened for Athens if Cleon or Nicias had had such an insight and the humility to accept it.

Prince led simply by being who he wanted to be–fiercely original, his innate creatively wielded like sword. That strikes me as a very wise way to be in the world for those of us who never fit.

Thomas Jefferson on Bonaparte

I was complaining on Fboo about how my students won’t read a page and a half of Thomas Jefferson, which is a shame, because he wrote like so:

Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control. His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out. To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added. But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

Bam a lam.

Why would this writing appeal to me right at this political moment, I wonder. Atrocious egotism. Hmm. I wonder.

Pat Conroy on teachers

We lost writers Pat Conroy and Umberto Eco the last two weeks. I am not prepared to discuss Eco because In The Name of the Rose was a life-changer for me, and I always hoped that Eco would simply live on forever as a reward for giving me, and so many others, such joy. I have liked Conroy’s fiction more than his nonfiction.Other writers seem to hate the nonfiction, but I particularly loved the My Losing Season and The Books of My Life. I think Conroy was so unabashedly sentimental about books in the latter that it bothered literary writers. He was supposed to connect with books intellectually; we all are, or we are doing it wrong. But that misses the emotional and aesthetic education books provide long before we get around to thinking about them more dispassionately. (It also assumes that the emotional and aesthetic do not overlap or inform the intellectual; or at least, the way I just framed it does.)

Anyway Conroy’s essay about his lifelong friendship with transformative teacher Gene Norris is one of my favorite essays. Norris taught black boys how to drive and celebrated their accomplishments loudly and ridiculously. He let the fatherless, like Conroy (who had father, but a brutal one), imprint on him and became the father they never had. This is so messy–and so generous–that I can’t even begin to write about it myself. Anybody, man or woman, who does this for a kid that isn’t ‘theirs’, is love in the world manifest.

I got caught up reading Conroy’s blog after his death. It is a sweet and sentimental blog, and it’s worth reading. This quote about teachers strikes me as particularly apt:

Teaching remains a heroic act to me and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.