December 27, 2003

Department of "Huh?"

Glenn Reynolds and Michael Novak demonstrate that they have never read (or do not remember) their Thucydides (or anything else about Classical Athens) when they claim that Athens's problem was that it was insufficiently aggressive and warlike. In Novak's words, "In a word, in order to survive and to prosper, democracies need to infuse a Spartan spirit into their Athenian thinking. To maintain the peace, prepare for war. A democracy too soft will soon perish."

No no no no no no no. That was not Classical Athens's problem at all, not at all.

Classical Athens's problem--according to our only effective source, Thucydides--was that it had aggressively built up and continued to expand an empire that both Sparta and Persia regarded as a threat, and then thrown away a large part of its strength on an attempt to conquer Sicily that added Syracuse to its list of enemies as well. There's lots to criticize in the Athens of Perikles, Nikias, and Alkibiades. But only true idiots think it "soft" in any sense.

Posted by DeLong at December 27, 2003 04:09 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Two other problems with this line of thinking:

1. It's unclear that Athenian democracy has anything to do with contemporary democracies, other than the name.

2. One of the big selling points of contemporary democracies is that they are supposed to be less inclined toward going to war (especially, but not solely, with each other). Though Misters Reynolds and Novak may not find that calling card so appealing right now, it remains one of the best reasons to support global democracy.

Posted by: Brandonimac on December 27, 2003 04:35 PM

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Good work noticing this (common) misapprehension about Athens. Reading descriptions of Athenian Assembly debates makes it clear that "softness" was scarecly the issue (though Pericles' oft-repeated statement that Athenians could simultaneously enjoy the "good life" and defend their country is sometimes taken this way).

It also seems noteworthy to me that the Spartans were also not particularly belligerent (at least in their ideals). Given their permanent fear of rebellion at home (the enslaved helots), war abroad was generally something they tried to avoid, although less so later on. It's fairly clear that Athens, not Sparta, started the Peloponnesian War, for example. The Spartans (or at least the small ruling class of homoioi) wereintensely (indeed, bizarrely) trained exclusively to fight, but the whole point was to make both helot rebellions and foreign invasions seem pointless.

More generally, I have a very hard time with anyone who advocates "Spartan ideals" for the United States or any other modern state! If one looks with any care at all at what the "Lycurgus package" entails, one's reaction quite properly ought to be horror and revulsion. How any modern American thinker could advocate adopting the features of a self-consciously totalitarian system that demanded that all human life be dedicated exclusively and utterly to the service of the state -- starting with childbirth, when all babies showing signs of weakness were immediately murdered!

(As I understand it, Sparta _was_ an ideal for many eighteenth-century thinkers, though I don't know how much so for the various authors of the American constitution -- but that's perhaps a useful caution about idealizing our "founding fathers" too much!).

Posted by: PQuincy on December 27, 2003 04:46 PM

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And Athenian democracy was, if anything, more likely to go to war. In broad oligarchies, the oligarchs knew that they were going to be the front-line hoplites. The Athenian Assembly, however, knew that war meant that a lot of them were going to be hired to be rowers in the fleet...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 27, 2003 04:47 PM

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What happened to Spartans any way?

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 27, 2003 04:59 PM

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Concentration of wealth. Richer-than-average Spartiates married each other, and so the number of Spartiates who could afford to be full-time soldiers fell from perhaps 10,000 in 525 B.C. to perhaps 1,000 by 330 B.C.

In the Classical Greek context, a city that could put 10,000 professional hoplites--not weekend warriors--into the field was really fearsome. A city that could only put 1,000 was not so...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 27, 2003 05:30 PM

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The thing that I find even more interesting about Reynolds and Novak's mistake is how it illuminates their thinking process.

It seems that Novak and Reynolds first came up with their conclusion ("Democracies need to maintain a militaristic toughness") then went looking to sources to support this.

Unfortunately, this type of thinking is all to common these days. Personally, I think it's more common on the right (but I'm biased.)

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here on December 27, 2003 05:35 PM

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Neocons who look to ancient history for parallels always seem to overlook the repeated occurrence of imperial over-reach. Go figure.

Concentration of wealth as causing the decline of Sparta is an observation new to me. I bet the Neocons overlooked that as well. Go figure.

Posted by: Tom DC/VA on December 27, 2003 05:48 PM

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What I remember broadly from Thucydides was a long series of demagogues inciting wars without end. Can't see any lesson to learn from that :)

Posted by: Buck on December 27, 2003 06:36 PM

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What I remember broadly from Thucydides was a long series of demagogues inciting wars without end. Can't see any lesson to learn from that :)

Posted by: Buck on December 27, 2003 06:39 PM

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Two Comments:

1) Athens and Sparta have unfortunately been reduced to two paradigms which stand opposite to each other. Athens is considered to have been liberal, democratic, philosophical, full of citizens playing lyres and producing great art while Sparta was supposedly warlike, militaristic, totalitarian and full of slaves.

Though these paradigms have truth the reality was much more nuanced and complicated. In reality, Athenian "democracy" was very limited. Most men in Athens were not considered citizens - citizenship was heriditary. The citizens were an elite that imposed brutal rule over the residents of Athens. Sparta had democratic councils which all Spartan army veterans could have participated. Spartan women also had more rights and greater respect than Athenian women.

2) Athens rose to power not by creating an empire in the literal sense. Athens created the Delian League as an alliance between Greek states to protect themselves from the Persians. Athens dominated the League and that was what is known as the "Athenian Empire". Athens mantained its predominance by offering member states military protection, free trade and a sense of equality.

This leadership role allowed Athens to become prosperous and ushered in a Golden Age. Athens however became more domineering and used its navy to intimidate other states to ensure the Athenian vision of the world would prevail. This led to widespread resentment. Once reliable allies such as Argos and Megora turned against Athens. These states that felt oppressed by Athenian might rebelled and coalesced around Sparta. Pelopenessian war broke out and Athens was humbled in defeat. The end of the Pelopenessian war is considered as the beginning of Athenian decline.

Greek history shows that a neoconservative foreign policy does not strengthen a state, in fact it can be very dangerous.

Posted by: RandomVisiter on December 27, 2003 08:11 PM

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What I love about this is how it exposes insty's wannabe-intellectual status. He manages (as usual) to avoid saying anything which might commit him to a position- a safe thing to do when one doesn't know anything but wants to appear erudite and schorlarly about history and geopolitics... but this backfires when the argument that he's so curious to see continued turns out to be a load of BS.

Wu

Posted by: Carleton Wu on December 27, 2003 08:48 PM

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It's worth emphasizing that Sparta, as a rule, was reluctant to engage in foreign wars. It was Athens who went around attacking other cities.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on December 27, 2003 11:51 PM

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Here is something on "Athens versus Sparta":

http://www.nwc.navy.mil/CNCSCaseStudies/cases/case02.htm

It is just two paragaraphs but Athens versus Sparta as described therein makes me think of North versus South in American Civil War.

Athens won over Sparta. And then what happened to Athens?

Brad says Athens grew too big and so it cracked in the middle. That's quite a common story, is it not?

One is divine.

Two is dialectic.

Three or more is chaos.

What about zero?

Mathematics rules every thing.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 28, 2003 12:53 AM

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My growing fear is that we have weakened ourselves by the war and occupation in Iraq. We have taken on a fierce burden with fairly little assistance, and we have decided that we can pass the costs off to our children.

Posted by: lise on December 28, 2003 04:55 AM

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I love this blog. But I'm not sure Brad is right in aligning Reynolds with Novak in this case: all Reynolds says is, "I'd be interested in hearing what Victor Davis Hanson, and perhaps Jacques Chirac, would say in reply."

I'm pretty sure Hanson's reply would be that Novak has it all wrong. His "Carnage and Culture" describes the fearsome power of "marching democracies"; "The Other Greeks" celebrates the hoplite army. Reynolds cites Hanson frequently: how could he have missed this cornerstone of his thinking?

So, unless Reynolds is really incompetent, he's distancing himself from Novak here, not praising him.

Dan Tompkins

Posted by: Dan Tompkins on December 28, 2003 05:07 AM

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I love this blog. But I'm not sure Brad is right in aligning Reynolds with Novak in this case: all Reynolds says is, "I'd be interested in hearing what Victor Davis Hanson, and perhaps Jacques Chirac, would say in reply."

I'm pretty sure Hanson's reply would be that Novak has it all wrong. His "Carnage and Culture" describes the fearsome power of "marching democracies"; "The Other Greeks" celebrates the hoplite army. Reynolds cites Hanson frequently: how could he have missed this cornerstone of his thinking?

So, unless Reynolds is really incompetent, he's distancing himself from Novak here, not praising him.

Dan Tompkins

Posted by: Dan Tompkins on December 28, 2003 05:08 AM

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RandomVisiter wrote,

"Athens mantained its predominance by offering member states military protection, free trade and a sense of equality.

"This leadership role allowed Athens to become prosperous and ushered in a Golden Age. Athens however became more domineering and used its navy to intimidate other states to ensure the Athenian vision of the world would prevail. This led to widespread resentment. Once reliable allies such as Argos and Megora turned against Athens. These states that felt oppressed by Athenian might rebelled and coalesced around Sparta. Pelopenessian war broke out and Athens was humbled in defeat."

Let's see.

"Offering member states military protection" = Pax Americana.

"Free trade" = globalization.

"A sense of equality" = international law, UN membership on the Security Council, membership in NATO

"used its navy to intimidate other states to ensure the Athenian vision of the world would prevail" = Neocon war to spread "democracy"

"Once reliable allies such as Argos and Megora turned against Athens." = France, Germany, Russia (and Britain soon?)

"These states that felt oppressed by Athenian might rebelled and coalesced around Sparta." = Decision by the EU to establish a military outside of NATO.

Posted by: Andy Hughes on December 28, 2003 06:26 AM

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'all Reynolds says is, "I'd be interested in hearing what Victor Davis Hanson, and perhaps Jacques Chirac, would say in reply." '
Well if you've read instapundit more than a few times you soon become aware that the name Chirac is actually an euphemism for evil idiot coward.
So, to understand what Reynold's standing on this actually is, figure out what Chirac would say, and then assign Reynold's to the opposite position.

Posted by: Bryan on December 28, 2003 07:14 AM

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According to Paul Cartledge ("The Spartans"), Spartan women were hot, skimpily-dressed, independent, and a bit slutty. So don't knock the Spartans.

Alvin Gouldner described the Athenian ethic as "total-committment rationality" -- the willingness to stake everything on one battle. Colloquially it translates into "go-for-broke". Reynolds is way off.

Hansen believes that democracy grew from the Greek phalanx and thus was military in origin. He places high value in the infantry, group solidarity, and man-to-man combat, and he denigrates cavalry and long-range missiles shot by bows or slings.

He wants to put the contemporary US military at the core of American democracy, but his attempt fails when you consider that we've been moving toward a professional rather than a citizen army, and that our warfare depends primarily on the longest of long-range missiles, plus maximum mobility.

WWI was a sort of test of Hansen's existential man-to-man combat mystique (shared by most generals in that war), and the consensus at the time was "never again!" But the grass covers all.

Posted by: Zizka on December 28, 2003 09:44 AM

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According to my copy of Starr:

"Since Thucydides worked on his history after the war was over, he particularly sought to discover why his native Athens had lost. The basic responsibility he laid squarely upon the fickle, overconfident people, which showed poor judgement in its choice of leaders and in its blind decisions on foreign policy. [...] The growingly ruthless imperialism of Athens is underlined in two famous passages, one the debate in the assembly over the punishment of Mitylene; and the other a probably fictitious interchange between the Athenian generals and the leaders of Melos in 416, in which the former laid down the principle that "the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must"".

Posted by: Russell L. Carter on December 28, 2003 10:12 AM

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For Sparta's reluctance to become involved in foreign wars, remember that they never bothered to show up at Marathon, they quickly pulled back from the Vale of Tempe and when the Greeks were planning the defense of Greece from Xerxes, the Spartans wanted to make a stand south of Athens, at the peninsula. Sparta was a martial society because the helots outnumbered the Spartans heavily. Jefferson's point that owning slaves was like holding a wolf by the ears was one the Spartans understood, and their answer was to militarize.

Remember too, that the Spartans weren't the super-warriors that legend portrays them. They weren't invincible. Don't forget what happened at on Sphacteria and that both Athens and Argos had some success against Sparta at various times. In fact, Athens was winning the Peloponnisian War until the final stage.

Posted by: Douglas Anders on December 28, 2003 04:35 PM

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For Sparta's reluctance to become involved in foreign wars, remember that they never bothered to show up at Marathon, they quickly pulled back from the Vale of Tempe and when the Greeks were planning the defense of Greece from Xerxes, the Spartans wanted to make a stand south of Athens, at the peninsula. Sparta was a martial society because the helots outnumbered the Spartans heavily. Jefferson's point that owning slaves was like holding a wolf by the ears was one the Spartans understood, and their answer was to militarize.

Remember too, that the Spartans weren't the super-warriors that legend portrays them. They weren't invincible. Don't forget what happened at on Sphacteria and that both Athens and Argos had some success against Sparta at various times. In fact, Athens was winning the Peloponnisian War until the final stage.

Posted by: Douglas Anders on December 28, 2003 04:43 PM

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For Sparta's reluctance to become involved in foreign wars, remember that they never bothered to show up at Marathon, they quickly pulled back from the Vale of Tempe and when the Greeks were planning the defense of Greece from Xerxes, the Spartans wanted to make a stand south of Athens, at the peninsula. Sparta was a martial society because the helots outnumbered the Spartans heavily. Jefferson's point that owning slaves was like holding a wolf by the ears was one the Spartans understood, and their answer was to militarize.

Remember too, that the Spartans weren't the super-warriors that legend portrays them. They weren't invincible. Don't forget what happened at on Sphacteria and that both Athens and Argos had some success against Sparta at various times. In fact, Athens was winning the Peloponnisian War until the final stage.

Posted by: Douglas Anders on December 28, 2003 04:55 PM

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Zizka,

an yet, WWII was won by the side with more men and more guns - so I don't know that WWI was the test.

But yes, the US is moving more and more towards a professional (indeed mercenary) army. And if you believe the thesis that democracy comes out of citizen armies (a thesis which I think has some very strong evidence backing it up), that has to concern you greatly. Moreover when you add in the movement towards remote and autonomous (robotic) weapon systems - you should become even more concerned.

As for whether it's the best way to fight and win wars - superior to the infantry model. Well, that hasn't been fully tested, has it? Because the US hasn't fought anyone in a major war since Korea. And, of course, the US lost the Vietnamese war. Not because your troops weren't better troops - but because you didn't have the stomach.

When one looks at the situation one sees the US as a highly militarized society with the best military tech. One sees that the US' industrial sector is now much smaller than that of its rivals and that those rivals have more manpower.

What would happen, then, assuming no strategic nuke use?

Well, the US would win the initial battles and then be ground under by superior manpower and manufacturing might. Look into how much each of those smart munitions cost and how much is kept on hand. Dumb munitions have significant advantages in any war that doesn't end very quickly.

When that professional army fails, it will be back to the citizen army. Whether it will be enough will depend on who still stands with the US.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on December 28, 2003 06:36 PM

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No invading force could prevail in Vietnam.

Look at Iraq. Compared to Vietnam, Iraq is practically "invader friendly"! Even then, the occupation troops are not exactly having picnic in there.

And look at Afghanistan. It is the local people who rule just outside of Khabul.


Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 29, 2003 05:49 AM

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Ian: During the Afghan wars an al Qaeda leader in the Yemeni outback was killed by a satellite-directed robot drone. In sci-fi dystopias the robot drones are almost always the bad guys, but now they're us. And in the fiction robot drones sometimes kill the wrong people because of programming error, etc., and since they have no common sense they do so relentlessly and efficiently. I believe, but am not sure, that that also happened in one of the recent wars.

The Spanish poet Machado said something like "The masses were a revelation of the machine-gun". An elite, professional, mercenary army (the US DOES recruit abroad in a number of nations) will be a powerful anti-democratic force. Though two world wars was a pretty high price to pay for "The Century of the Common Man."

Posted by: Zizka on December 29, 2003 08:53 AM

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A national army built on (a) officer corps made up of "family fathers" just like you and I without any nepotism and open to all and (b)main body of private soldiers recruited via a universal conscription system goes a long way in providing insurance / guarantee for democracy.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 29, 2003 10:05 AM

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I think Sparta is admired for two reasons:

1) A more imagined than real meritocracy

2) The idea that humans can, despite whatever we think is "human nature" create any form of society we want, by sheer force of will. I would call what I know of Spartan society simply impossible, if I did not know it really existed

Posted by: bob mcmanus on December 29, 2003 01:19 PM

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A few comments on the bizarre post cited by Prof DeLong:
-I don't see how Athenian democracy can be reduced to military organization. It had roots just as much in forging a social compact between different social strata (the Coast, Hills and Plains) to solve problems of debt slavery, concentration of wealth, and disputes over land tenure and control of international commercial trade.
-Being an ally of Athens was often voluntary to begin with, when some one asked for military aid. But after that, I think it was often more like a protection racket than any kind of "coalition of the willing" or true alliance. So I am not sure there is a good comparison there for the U.S. I agree that the league was certainly unstable over the long term.
--I'm repeating this from a post of a few weeks ago, but I think Thucydides said that to Athenians, freedom meant ruling others, just as much as themselves. Do we want to emulate this also?
--Spartan decline was due to military reverses even if they were not particularly expansionist. Didn't some other Greeks conquer their most productive colonies, and afterwards Sparta was not strong enough to reconquer them or compensate for their loss?
--I like the points made about rudimentary democracy NOT being a uniquely Athenian feature. Sparta did have a democratic tradition, going back to the time all citizens gathered once each year to vote on the proposals submitted by the two ruling kings. And some old Greek (Aristotle) did comment on the scandal of Sparta -that is was ruled by the women.
--One comment on the article refrernce by Prof DL is truly strange -that the U.S. founders wanted a society with core military values, and small military force (!???). Which founder trusted military power in anything but a citizen-wide militia (Hamilton, Adams, Washington? -certainly not Jefferson or Madison or Franklin). Has anyone ever read any founder praising traditional martial values? I'd like a quote or citation. It seems to me that a broadly based citizen militia prepared for self-defense is something much different from a society possessing a small military force with "martial values." If the later were effective enough to be effective it all, it could be effective in controlling the citizenry, and would be an absolute nightmare for the founders. This is even more bizarre than what Pundit Brooks said in his NY Times column.

Posted by: jml on December 29, 2003 01:38 PM

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don't know if the Prof is still reading this thread -but I have to say that I disagree that Thucydides is our only reliable descriptive contemporary source on the nature of Athenian democracy. This might be my artsy-fartsy side talking, but we also have Aristophanes. But I think the basic conclusions are the same, and that Athenians were not softies. Where else can you find such a bunch of outrageous, adventurous, aggressive, off-the-wall scallawags -Medici's Italy, Elizabethan England? Anyway, it is not a picture of peace-nik softies. And Aristophanes portait was not retrospective, but a view from the midst of the war.

Posted by: jml on December 29, 2003 02:19 PM

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Unfortunately, it's very hard to find successful nice guys in history. In their day the Swedes, the Swiss, and even the Czechs were absolute brutes.

Posted by: Zizka on December 29, 2003 04:19 PM

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Zizka wrote:
"According to Paul Cartledge ("The Spartans"), Spartan women were hot, skimpily-dressed, independent, and a bit slutty. So don't knock the Spartans."

The independent and equal part is well-attested.

Especially hot babes -I don't know. I think most evidence on that point comes from the poet Alcman, who loved to praise the women dancers at religious festivals. In one of his poems, the dancers are so beautiful and enticing that they not only seduce the audience, but they start fighting over each other (I guess that was a festival gone out of bounds).

Supposedly, both men and women danced naked, for some kind of obscure Spartan social purpose, but i'm not sure about that.

But slutty? No-way, unless you count sleeping with slaves (for the women) or the young squires (for the soldiers) in order to satisfy human needs while mates were away being slutty. Actually, I am not sure about the accuracy of this last point, but that is the story. Anyone have some info on this?

I think the extreme Spartan existence of sleeping in barracks and no private property was for males of fighting age only.

Posted by: jml on December 29, 2003 05:37 PM

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Two comments: When the neo-Cons began citing Thucydides a few years ago, I was astonished. The Athenians lost that war, their empire, and their democracy -- this was the legacy of Pericles. To see Thucydides as a voice for empire (and invading Iraq) was perverse. What on earth was the National Review thinking (surely Buckley has read Thucydides) running that Hanson crap?
Second: I first read Thucydides in 1968. To me, then, the historic lesson was plain: arrogance breeds defeat. But, of course, then I was thinking about Vietnam.

Posted by: Mike on December 31, 2003 12:09 AM

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