Commencement 2019: The School of History
By Andrew J. Ellison, Executive Director/Great Hearts San Antonio
It is a commonplace to say that one of the reasons we study history is to become better interpreters of the present. There is the clichéd saying that “those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it”.
Of course, it is a dangerous oversimplification to say that history simply repeats itself. Knowledge of history by itself is not sufficient to inform the actions of citizens, kings, queens, and statesmen; every age must solve its own problems and respond to its own challenges—ancient Greeks, long-dead Romans, and great Americans like Washington, Lincoln, or FDR—however noble or inspiring to us they are—can’t do it for us.
The 19th century German professor and philosopher G.W.F. Hegel emphasized the error in the commonplace. He may have been guilty of overstatement, but he writes in the preface to his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History” that every age, every event, every moment in world history is so entirely unprecedented that the past can provide zero insight into it. “No one has yet learned ‘the lessons of history,’” he writes—because there are no real, practical “lessons” to learn,
Now, what does give us insight? Perhaps not all that surprisingly for a German professor, Hegel argues that only his unique philosophical system, detailed in thousands of nearly unreadable pages of jargon-laden prose, provides comprehensive understanding of the past, present, and future alike, interpreting and predicting with absolute and scientific certainty. As a teacher of mine once said of Hegel: “He’s either got it exactly right—or he’s COMPLETELY NUTS.”
But not everything Hegel said was wacko. There is a flash of humor here and there; one of my favorite quips from that “Preface” that I mentioned earlier is where Hegel pokes fun at the moralizing pretentions of history schoolteachers, petty men who would denounce an Alexander the Great for his maniacal ambition and other moral faults, as evidenced by Alexander’s violent subjugation of Asia—the implication is that the schoolteacher is morally superior to Alexander, proven by the fact that he has never once in his entire teaching career violently subjugated Asia.
Hegel also said that the study of history was “not to make us cleverer for next time, but wiser for all time”. If I understand him correctly, the same thing could be said about your own education here at Great Hearts: its purpose has not been to train you for the needs of the present, not to prepare you for college and jobs—but to help set you on a lifelong path in pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Not to make you smarter than your fellow college freshmen next year—but to help you be wiser and happier and better for the rest of your life.
Another great teacher of mine once told me that history was the laboratory in which the truth or falsity of political and moral philosophy is tested and proven. I like this idea—for while the evils of 20th century totalitarian ideologies can be demonstrated by argument around the seminar table, they can also be empirically verified: look at the horror, the slaughter, the famine, the genocides, the material destruction, the moral degradation wrought by Soviet Communism and Nazi terror, and it is clear that those ideologies are false, bad, and hideously ugly. Look at American growth, stability, material prosperity, the ability to survive a civil war, and its gradual extension of the blessings of liberty to parts of posterity originally excluded, and it would seem that the recommendation of a blended constitution with checks, balances, and a mixture of democratic, aristocratic, and autocratic forms, found in the thinking of the American founders and in the ancient writings of Aristotle alike, is, on balance, true.
Look at the way the bold and unprecedented experiment in Athenian democracy turns into reckless war-making, factional strife, the partisan abuse of justice, and rule by demagogues, and the critiques of pure democracy made by Plato and James Madison alike seem to be verified.
Read what Rousseau has to say about something called “the general will” of the people, a mysterious force which must be grasped and acted upon by the true legislator even if the vast majority of the people are unaware of it—and then look at the violence unleashed upon the people in the France of the 1790s or the Russia of 1917 by a fanatical revolutionary minority claiming to be acting on behalf of those very same people, most of whom were either indifferent or actively opposed them. Was Rousseau’s notion insightful, fruitful, true? We can read about it and discuss it and argue around the seminar table—but such theorizing can be —I might even say MUST be—complemented by careful observations in the lab of history.
The wonderful thing about the lab is that it is a controlled environment—in the laboratory of history you can conduct “experiments” in nation-building, in war and peace, in law and revolution, without anyone getting hurt. Or at least without anyone NEW getting hurt, without the body count increasing further. Hegel rightly likened history to a slaughter-bench, an altar upon which countless lives and entire peoples were sacrificed. As sober students of history, we should keep this grave truth in our minds always—never rejoicing in it as twisted, evil geniuses like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler evidently did.
I’d like to ask you to step into the lab with me one last time in your high school education. Recall if you will that dry and often difficult book that you read from in your junior Humane Letters classes, the great History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Everyone thinks Thucydides is no fun when compared to Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History”. Everyone is right, by the way—but don’t think for a minute that this judgment reflects poorly upon Thucydides! His history—which he consciously sketches in his opening chapters as a kind of anti-Herodotus—is an underrated masterpiece, a work of epoch-making and genre-forging genius, one of the most important books ever written. You are very lucky that you have read it. While Herodotus is entertaining and dramatic, and still very close to the Greek epic tradition of poetry and story-telling, Thucydides is a real original: sober, analytical, rational, a deep thinker about social and political causes and effects. I prefer to think of him as the real “father of history”—Herodotus to my mind is more of the jolly old grandfather, telling tall tales and handing out treats to the kids.
Recall from Thucydides’ History that great “funeral oration” of the Athenian leader Pericles, an inspiring vision of the balanced glory and prosperity of Athens in its golden age, of a united and free society at its zenith. I must quote from it at length:
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few…the laws afford equal justice to all in their private differences…advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit…
The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no real harm. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless. Fear is our chief safeguard against this, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute books or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without disgrace.
We throw open our city to the world, and never exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing…
We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without frivolity; wealth we employ more for use than for show…
Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. In our national enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point…although with the rest of mankind decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation the fruit of reflection…
In generosity we are equally singular…it is only the Athenians who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.
You may recall that at the speech’s climax, Pericles proclaims that Athens is “the school of Hellas”, an education to the rest of Greece, a model of what Greeks can be. It is a vision that can educate us, a vision of a society that is both free AND law-abiding, active AND thoughtful in its politics and policies; prosperous AND courageous; tolerant of different ways of life AND equally committed to excellence; somehow both pluralistic AND united; open to foreigners AND vigorous in defending against foreign attack when necessary.
It is a beautiful and inspiring vision of that most rare thing, a society that is orderly and free alike. Pericles continues:
You must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this…
Remember what happens next? Just a matter of sentences after Pericles’s speech is over, Thucydides tells of the first appearance of the devastating plague that ravaged Athens throughout the summer of the year 430. The beautiful portrait of a balanced, healthy, powerful Athens is replaced by scenes of horror: corpses lying in the streets. Fear and panic amongst the healthy, utter despair by the infected at the first sign of coughing. Manners, religious rites, and ancient customs in sudden and near-universal neglect. A wave of criminality, as men ceased to fear the law and legal punishments, certain that they—or, better yet, all the judges!–would die of disease before they could ever be brought to trial.
Withered like a summer flower or collapsed like a house of cards, Pericles’ Athens does not last. Pericles himself dies in the plague, but not before our historian depicts the fickle Athenian people blaming him for all their problems and for the war with Sparta which they once enthusiastically supported but now no longer have stomach for. After relating his death, Thucydides comments that Athens’ failure to follow his restrained and moderate foreign policy brought it to ruin in the subsequent decades of war, a war that ravaged and exhausted all of Greece before the final Athenian defeat. In the hundreds of pages of history that take us from Pericles’ death in 430 to nearly the end of the war in 404, Thucydides shows us an Athens that betrays the Periclean ideal. An Athens that commits acts of outrageous savagery against its enemies—think of the shocking “Melian dialogue”, in which the arrogant and merciless Athenian delegate brazenly tells the helpless defeated Milesians that “we will do whatever we want with you, because that is what the strong do to the weak and what they have always done and always will do!”; a once-responsible and restrained Athens that for some reason trusts the outrageous fraud and wealthy upper-class charlatan Alcibiades—such appalling character, and such charm!—with supreme political power; an Athens which makes a mockery of its own law and justice and visits fratricidal revenge-punishments on its own good and faithful military commanders for the slightest misfortunes of war; an Athens which, late in the conflict, detached from reality, under the sway of the despicable Alcibiades, foolishly gambles all its strength upon the Sicilian expedition, an unnecessary, massive foreign campaign of conquest that is as audacious and as doomed as Napoleon or Hitler’s invasions of Russia. From the glory of Periclean Athens to the depths of defeat, the prisoners thrown into the gravel pits to die of starvation and disease and the city’s remaining population certain they will now be exterminated, just as they have done unto others—this a sobering and tragic history of downfall, just as capable of moving us readers to pity and fear as Oedipus, Antigone, and the most powerful of the Greek tragedies.
If Pericles’ great funeral speech is a beautiful picture of a balanced, prosperous, healthy city, perhaps the greatest such image from the ancient world, Thucydides also gives us a powerful, condensed, and shocking portrait of what it looks like when the social order of an entire nation is completely torn apart—the passage is one of my favorites, the one about the spread of revolution throughout Greece, found in Book III. It wasn’t just Athens that was torn apart by the conflict—every city in Greece was sent into upheavals by the war between the Athenians and the Spartans. I must also quote from this passage at length:
The whole Hellenic world was convulsed…the sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and will always occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same… Revolution ran its course from city to city…
Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the “courage” of a loyal party supporter; prudent hesitation, “cowardice”; moderation was held to be a cloak for “unmanliness”; the ability to see all sides of a question “incapacity to act” on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of “manliness”, preemptive plotting “justifiable self-defense”. The advocate of extreme measures was always held to be trustworthy; his milder opponent a man to be held in suspicion. To succeed in a plot or a scheme was to prove shrewd; to detect and thwart a plot, real or imagined, still shrewder; but to refuse to do either was considered a betrayal of your party and cowardice before your adversaries.
Revenge was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation…only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand…
The leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: the one side with the cry of political equality and democracy, the other with a moderate conservatism and oligarchy; but they both sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish, and, stopping at nothing in their struggles for ascendency, engaged in direct excesses. In their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not limiting them to what justice or the common good demanded…
Religion was in honor with neither party; but the use of fair and lofty phrases to arrive at criminal ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile, the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two camps, either for not joining in the quarrel or because the envy of the opposing parties would not allow them to escape.
Every form of iniquity took root in Greece by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.
Human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all authority…indeed men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required.
That is an image every bit as frightening and sobering as Pericles’ funeral speech is beautiful and inspiring. The author tells us that this kind of disorder will ALWAYS occur, because that’s the direction in which human nature leads. It starts with the abuse and manipulation of language; next comes fanatical and unrestrained action and the factional spirit of party vs. party in a winner-take-all battle. Then, the respective political visions of liberty and conservatism for the common good of all become empty slogans, barely covering each party’s struggle to dominate. Law becomes a tool to destroy fellow citizens rather than a common protector of all. Honor and honesty and the unwritten laws of decency are trampled upon and mocked. Trust and tolerance between fellow citizens vanish. And the center does not hold—“the moderate part of the citizens (perishes)”, swallowed up by radicalized factions. The only choices are between extremisms.
So what is Thucydides’ message? What is the lesson to be learned in this course within the “school of history”? What conclusions should we draw from these observations in our laboratory? In the true spirit of Socratic inquiry and Humane Letters, I will of course tell you nothing. You must think, discern, weigh, consider, criticize, and reflect. You must integrate what you have learned from the great books, what you have learned from your friends and classmates and teachers, what you believe about the universe and humanity, and what you see and experience around you. It’s for YOU to discover and hypothesize and agree or disagree. Aim at nothing less than truth. Accept no falsity, no nonsense, no party line, no philosophical system created by a German professor with delusions of omniscience.
But what is my message to you? I believe I have a responsibility to say SOMETHING here, not just to recapitulate a reading from 11th grade Humane Letters and answer your questions with more questions.
My message is this. Pericles boasted that Athens was “the school of Hellas”. I urge you: be a school to your generation, an education to your peers, an example and inspiration to your elders. Teach your culture and your country and your bosses and professors and your candidates and elected leaders how they should be! Teach them how to be reflective and to eschew extremism of all sorts. Teach them how to be generous, fair-minded, how to trust their fellow citizens. Teach them what you have learned here at your school—that philosophical or religious disagreement need not dissolve the deeper ties of friendship! That there is no intellectual argument that can’t be smoothed over by a senior trip, a class play, by singing together, a field day, or a good students vs. faculty tug o’ war.
Teach your generation and your elders to respect impartial law and justice and moderation and self-restraint. Teach them that politics is not everything! That beautiful music, Shakespeare, a Euclidean proof, a Latin poem, or a Russian novel are vastly more important than fashion, faction, and party strife! Teach them that harmony, concord, and political friendship are rare, precious, and won only with difficulty over generations and that they should never be thrown away for this or that cause of the moment!
Be the “center”, the moderate and tolerant and morally serious middle that is needed to keep any community together.
Teach them what you have learned from Socrates, that the pursuit of justice is not about seeking out and punishing the alleged wrongs of others, but the right ordering of one’s OWN soul, about building the ideal city, the kallipolis, within you!
Teach them what you have learned from Dmitri, Ivan, and Father Zosima: that we are ALL guilty, that we all deserve punishment and should thus accept hardship with humility, and not with screams of protest over the smallest perceived slight, trigger, or injury!
And underlying it all, graduates, to borrow from Pericles:
You must yourselves realize the power of this community, your school, and feed your soul with the memory of her from day to day, no matter how far away you travel. Then your love of her and gratitude for what she has given you will fill your hearts; years from now, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was out of love, courage, sacrifice, labor, duty, and the keen pursuit of the beautiful that your teachers and your parents built this school and made this possible for you…
Graduates of 2019: bring your school with you as you leave us! Take Great Hearts with you forever! Be a school for your generation!
Teach the world!