Greek and Barbarian.


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During the Cold War, many were inclined to cite the greater efficiency of the market economy as the fundamental distinguishing trait of the West, proudly pointing to our groaning supermarket shelves and favorably contrasting them with Soviet bread lines. Persons used to this way of viewing matters will be especially liable to a feeling of cognitive dissonance when reading Herodotus, who constantly stresses the wealth of oriental despotisms; whereas “in Hellas,” according to one Greek quoted in the Histories, “poverty is always and forever a native resident” (Book 7: chapter 102).

An especially famous and illustrative story, not less significant for being probably unhistorical, concerns Solon the Athenian lawgiver and Croesus of Lydia (immortalized in the expression “rich as Croesus”). After proudly displaying his wealth to his Athenian visitor, Croesus hopefully asks whether Solon in all his travels has “yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in happiness and prosperity?” Solon disappoints him by naming a number of Greeks who lived in relatively moderate circumstances. Croesus indignantly asks “are you disparaging my happiness as though it were nothing? Do you think me worth less than even a common man?” Solon explains that no judgment can be made while Croesus is still alive, for reversals of fortune are too common. (1:30-32) Croesus eventually attempts to conquer the Persians, but is defeated by them and deprived of his kingdom.

The Asiatics as portrayed by Herodotus might be described, for lack of a better word, as accumulators. This applies no less to political power than to wealth. “We have conquered and made slaves of the Sacae, Indians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, and many other great nations” says one Persian grandee matter of factly, “not because they had committed injustices against Persia, but only to increase our own power through them” (7:8). In other words, they are believers in what a contemporary neoconservative journalist might call “national greatness.” They build larger monuments than the Greeks and undertake vast projects such as diverting rivers. It never seems to occur to them that anything might become too big or too organized. When they attempt the conquest of Greece, Herodotus shows them becoming encumbered by their vast baggage trains, unable to moor their multitude of ships properly in tiny Greek coves—generally crushed beneath their own weight like a beached whale as much as they are defeated by the Hellenic armies.

A related Asiatic trait is a failure to acknowledge human limitations. When Xerxes’ invasion is delayed by stormy weather at the Hellespont, he orders the beachhead scourged and branded. His slaves are instructed to say: “Bitter water, your Master is imposing this penalty upon you for wronging him. King Xerxes will cross you whether you like it or not” (7:35). Similarly, there is no real place in the Asiatic’s thought for death, because it is the ultimate limitation on human planning and power. Xerxes weeps while reviewing his army as it occurs to him that all his men will be dead in a hundred years, but decides he must simply put the matter out of his mind.

(The Occidental Quarterly, April 19, 2009).

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