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Anya Leonard 0:08
Hello, this is Anya Leonard, founder and director of Classical Wisdom. You are listening to Classical Wisdom Speaks, a podcast dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds. Today I’m speaking with Victor Davis Hanson, an American classicist, military historian, columnist and farmer. He is Professor Emeritus of Classics at California State University, Ille Anderson Senior Fellow in Classics and Military History at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, as well as the visiting professor at Hillsdale College. He’s a regular writer at the National Review and author of many books, including his most recent, “The Case for Trump”. Today we discuss whether the American president is a Greek hero, what are the ancient parallels to cancel culture and monument removals as well as value of ancient history.
But before we begin, a quick thank you to our Classical Wisdom Society members who make this podcast possible. If you would like to become a society member and help support the classics, please go to https://classicalwisdom.com and click Start Here.
Thank you so much for taking your time to speak with me today. I very much appreciate it. I just wanted to say that here at Classical Wisdom, one of the things we sort of strive to do is to show how the classics are still really relevant today and how they can be an important source of wisdom in our modern world. This works for learning lessons from ancient examples, but also with regards to approaching difficulties and especially controversial issues.
So I often like telling people the stoics are very helpful for being able to hear different opinions and not necessarily be offended, but to think rationally. As well as the skeptics, you know, suspend judgment when hearing different views so that you can actually hear them. So these are some of the ways in which I find that the ancient world can be helpful in dealing with our very modern notions.
And so as yourself a classicist, I know you also have a lot of opinions on current events. And so I would like to hear from you what do you think of the modern notions of cancel culture or being woke or collective guilt? And do they have comparable ancient examples? And what can we learn from those?
Victor Davis Hanson 2:41
Now just to preface that comment by saying that most things in the ancient world have parallels in the modern, or at least the modern world, if it looks at the renaissance or the enlightenment or the middle or dark ages. There’s echoes of the ancient world and prior to the ancient world not so much. So it’s a friend, it’s a crutch. It’s an aid to go to make sure that you’re not crazy or you’re not alone and that you’ve seen it all before.
So if you take canceled culture or statue toppling, we have iconoclasm that starts in the eastern Empire and lasts for about 300 years during the Byzantine period. Statue toppling was a little bit more economical because there was a standard body set type and you could decapitate a Roman emperor’s head and substitute another one. We haven’t done that yet, but we may get there. So there was Damnatio Memoriae, and that was that we trotskyized people’s names so that they were no longer mentioned, or their relatives no longer existed.
In ancient Athens, depending on the year, little over 6000 votes were required to ostracize someone. That was important because it was similar to canceled culture. There was no need in a court of law or in a dispassionate, disinterested fashion to prove real culpability. It was basically a mob reaction to unpopularity. Almost everybody who was significant in ancient Athens at one time or another was ostracized.
So we have all of those ideas of hate, of shaming. The ancient world was not a modern guilt culture. And that is that there wasn’t a notion of private transgression between you and your God in the Christian sense. And that’s where we are now, because we’re largely in the West either an atheistic or agnostic society. And we don’t really see private sin as something that imperils our mortal soul. And there’s something for us to look for guidance in religious scriptures and things to address. Rather it’s a ‘shame culture’ where we try to enforce public morality by making fun of people or attacking the way they think or ostracizing people around them or making it hard for their employer to hire them.
When you look at the forensic speeches of Demosthenes, Aeschines, and a lot of Lysias Isias inheritance cases, there’s an effort to create a picture of an opponent that he’s just in every aspect of manner is not to be liked and not to be associated with. Demosthenes doesn’t like Aeschines. Besides policy differences, you’ve got to know that maybe Aeschines’ mother committed prostitution in a public bathroom or something. And it’s that type of cancel culture that’s very similar to the ancient world, at least at times.
We also have the mob, in the third book of Thucydides’ History, has that chilling exegesis of the revolution of Corcyra where words change their names and reality is not what we’ve seen. And the keyword there is the blunter wits win. And by that he means those who just saw what was at stake, they understood violence was the answer. They went out and decapitated their enemies. They didn’t think twice about it, didn’t try to over rationalize, and they were successful, sort of like Hitler’s brown shirts, with a Nazi move.
They were the blunter wits from the underclasses and they were used to thuggery. And I think, in today’s Western protest, there’s a sense that you don’t really have to justify whether Robert E. Lee is any different than James T Longstreet; they both are Confederate. Or maybe Frederick Douglass, he’s not up to your current standards of wokeness. You just go out and do it. And you do it because you want to do it. You say to people, “what are you going to do about it?” And Thucydides saw that as a very dangerous development in society, that the blunter wits will prevail.
Anya Leonard 7:13
And so if you have the knowledge of these ancient events, does that help shape a response or a view? I mean, you know, they say those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but those who know history are doomed to watch others repeat it. Is there anything you can do with that kind of knowledge?
Victor Davis Hanson 7:35
Well, you could be careful because everybody left and everybody right thinks that they have the only insight into the true lessons of history and their views or exegesis is conditioned by their modern proclivities. But that being said, there is a universal and that is that you’re not alone, that you don’t wake up in the morning and think you’re the most important person. That in 2020 as a whole, this has never happened before, whether it’s the ancient world or the French Revolution, you can see parallels and you can see how people on both sides dealt with them. And you can predict what’s going to happen.
So of course, Corcyra or in the revolution of 411 and Athens or the career of Theramenes, or you can see what Xenophon talks about in the first and second book of his History, you can see what happens in these revolutionary cycles. Eventually, they all, and the 30 tyrants are the same thing, as we know from Xenophon as well. They start to peter out because the logical, rational trajectory is that nobody is ever going to be able to satisfy their claims on revolutionary purity and authenticity and genuineness.
And so they start, whether it’s Robespierre or the 30. They start turning on their own. And they say, well, yesterday’s revolutionary is today’s Revolutionary. We’re seeing that in the contemporary field in some sense, that today as we’re speaking a prominent moderate voice at the New York Times, Bari Weiss just resigned and said there’s no place for her because she’s been canceled out. And we’re starting to see 150 liberal writers, artists, celebrities of sorts, write to Harper’s and say, “This is not sustainable, because now they’re going after us.” And that’s sort of reminiscent of the reign of terror between 1793 and 1794 when the Jacobins finally devoured Jacobins and they put an end to it. So things like that, those trends that are not so controversial, I think are very helpful.
Anya Leonard 9:41
And you mentioned before the Damnatio memoriae during the Roman time period, you know, that was a very common thing to do, say, topple Caligula, or one of those guys who you know had just been murdering your family. And when I think of a modern parallel to that, tearing down the statues of Stalin or Saddam, you know, again very recent trauma in your life. But would you have had any ancient examples of people tearing down statues referring to incidences that had happened hundreds of years beforehand rather than just the most recent tyrant?
Victor Davis Hanson 10:18
No, I mean, I, I think you could argue that when there were destructions, deliberate destructions of icons, it was more a them-us foreign-domestic, Persians coming in after Thermopylae, for example, and destroying sanctuaries or shrines in Boeotia or after the Persian war. The Greeks came together and argued whether they should or should not rebuild the temples and statuary that the Persians had destroyed. There wasn’t top offs in ancient literature that when certain thugs were short of money, especially in the post-classical period and in the fourth-century onward bc, they would raid Delphi and strip off precious metals from some of the statues, but it was always more careerist, more fiscal, more monetary than it was ideological.
And I think we in the United States have had periods of this, the Salem witch trials, the McCarthy period, but we’ve never, that I remember, and I’m speaking as someone 66, we’ve never had people go after statues with so little rationale. I mean, it started with anybody that had a confederate uniform and any statue, bronze, or stone that was put up in the south had to come down or even the North. And then as I said it went to anybody who seemed to be not of this century, a Teddy Roosevelt or Ulysses S Grant, so we very quickly got away from the idea that Confederate racist mediocrities are what we’re going to focus on and that will somehow make us feel better and solve social problems if we destroy that iconographic expression.
We didn’t stay there long, we metamorphosed into almost anything of the farthest era, as I said, it can be Teddy Roosevelt, it can be Ulysses S. It can be Frederick Douglass, it can be black civil war veterans because it’s a puritanical expression that you have to be good, you have to be perfect. And this pampered generation that has more leisure and affluence and technological appurtenances than any generation in history really does believe, like Hesiod’s warning that with technological or material progress comes ethical progress. Whereas the Greeks, I think, you could argue, there’s a long strain in Homer from the windy lectures by Nestor or Hesiod, especially that with material progress comes a danger of ethical regress. That people have to keep busy, they have to keep working and when they’re idle and wealthy, and there is an anti-aristocratic and anti plutocratic flavor in Greek literature for that reason.
Anya Leonard 13:25
And so speaking of ethics and good morals, you’ve written before about heroes, specifically, in your book the “Case for Trump” and when you liken the president to a hero, but with the very important caveat of what an ancient Greek hero is, which is quite a bit different than I think what most people think heroes are like. Do you still feel this is the case today and maybe more importantly, are Greek heroes something that we want in our modern world, are they something to look up to?
Victor Davis Hanson 14:01
Well, there was an important adjective that I added in that book. And that was tragic heroes. I mean, we have epic heroes. We have heroes, we have tragic heroes. Usually, a tragic hero in the locus classicus, the seven extant plays of Sophocles: Ajax, Philoctetes, Antigone, Oedipus, is that they have a flawed, they have something that’s a hamartia sin, and that is revealed in times of stress or disruption or crisis, and it seems to consume them.
And even though they can be of great value, because they’re outliers, they’re not part of society. The methodology which they use to solve a crisis is also the one that makes them unfit. So we know that Antigone was the only one who has the courage to bury her brother, but she does so in such an off-putting manner there’s really no place for her because she solves the problem and shows that women should not be judged by their gender, but by their personalities and their innate essence. But by proving that she’s also not going to be comfortable either on her own part or by society’s part.
Same as Ajax. By all accounts, Ajax was the better warrior than Odysseus. He was blunt, he was simple, black and white Manichean view of the world and yet he doesn’t get the armor of Achilles, and he rails and he’s angry. And there’s no place for a guy like that in a modern polis society.
I could go on but that was very influential in the American Western. And I pointed that out in the book that John Ford, as well as others, if you look in the 1950s coming out of the post-war era, there was a series of movies, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” with John Wayne, “The Searchers” with John Wayne, “The Magnificent Seven,” a John Sturges’ movie with Yul Brynner and “Shane” was probably the most iconic with Gary Cooper. And then the plots are all the same, the so-called townspeople of the polis, in other words, the city-state, is at an impasse. Whether it’s a Mexican village, or it’s Hadleyville or it’s an effort to find a missing girl that’s been kidnapped, and they need somebody who is not of them. In other words, they’re willing to do things and say things that reflect the way it really is without convention, without mannerism. And they’re very successful. Shane will take out all of the cattle barons that need to be taken out. But the very methodology in which they employ makes them tragic. Because even though they created civilization or restored civilization, they’re not of civilization, and that’s tragic because they get no credit.
And what I was trying to point out about Trump is he seems to always complain. He’ll say, “well, I got the economy. They say I’m racist, but I’ve got the lowest black and Latino unemployment in history. We’ve got the most energy production natural gas, the United States. We’re no longer dependent on Mideast oil. I was tougher on Russia than anybody in the Obama administration.” He goes and rails and rails and rails of the injustice of all that not getting credit. And what he doesn’t realize is that 46% of the country elected him not to give him credit. But because he was an outsider with certain skill sets to come in and deal with the Chinese mercantilism, unfair trade, and the hollowing out of the industrial interior, non-enforcement of immigration law, so-called optional wars in the Middle East in a strategic sense didn’t in a cost-benefit analysis instead of pencil out. And once he did that, then he wouldn’t be either necessarily thanked or acknowledged, but he would have got them done because he was not part of the system.
So the Republican establishment, the pundit class, hated him as much as the left did. And so I don’t think he understood that he was in a tragic role and tragic doesn’t mean bad or good. It just means that you’ve created the very conditions under which you’re going to benefit somebody else, but not yourself. And you’re going to be angry over that unchangeable, unalterable fact.
Anya Leonard 18:32
So does that mean he’s fated to end up like Antigone or Ajax?
Victor Davis Hanson 18:36
Yes, I think he is. I mean, he was on TV this morning, and he didn’t look very well. 74 years old, he’s too heavy. He’s stressed out. He’s down in the polls, I think he’s still probably will win. But I think that whether he’s out of the presidency in 2021 or 25, I don’t think he’s gonna be invited to funerals with other presidents. I don’t think NPR is going to have him on to josh around with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I don’t think when you get your annual ratings of presidents’ evaluations by our eminent academic historians, I don’t think he’s going to be rated in the way that they might have rated other people that had a particular effect on GDP or unemployment or energy production or foreign affairs. That’s just not going to happen.
Anya Leonard 19:34
It’s interesting though, because it’s always cyclical. I mean, I don’t live in America and I haven’t lived in America for a very long time. So I try, not to feel grandiose in any regard, but I always feel like Thucydides sometimes because you know, I’m always on the outside looking in and when you’re not in it, you don’t feel it the same way then when you’re looking outwards. And it seems like you know, people complain so much about George W. Bush now Oh, he’s fine. He’s kind of a lovable character. It’s amazing. You think of every Roman Emperor, they always think this one’s really the worst at the time. But then with time they think actually, that one wasn’t so bad.
Victor Davis Hanson 20:13
That’s right out of what Suetonius said always starts the same. If you read with Suetonius with an uncritical eye, then you say, well, wow, Caligula was horrible, and Claudius was a dunce. And then Nero was horrible. And then we have the four emperors and then, but when you read it more critically, you can see that a lot of the criticism is of the person in office at the time.
There’s sort of a trope, a Suetonian trope in America that because the universities, the foundations, the entertainment industry, and especially the media tend to be left of center, they look at a republican president as a threat, an existential threat to their whole progressive agenda. So when George H W Bush got elected in 88, with the help of Lee Atwater, who ran a, what I would call a pretty tough campaign analogous to what James Carville would do four years later with Bill Clinton, then he was horrible. He ran a tank commercial against Dukakis. He had a Willie Horton commercial. He was a wimp. You know, it was just a terrible guy. Then he was out. And we had the Clinton years.
And then we had George W. Bush. And after his initial popularity after 911, waned, and we got into the acrimonious years of the Iraq war, and Why couldn’t it be more like a statesman, like his centrist father? The aristocrat bluestock we didn’t really like him, but he was a sobering, judicious father figure. Instead, he was a Texas twangy Exron he was horrible. He was a Nazi browning, Al Gore said he was a brown shirt, John Glenn said he’s Nazi-like. We had the whole Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore and we went through the Nazi thing. There were op-eds, I think in The Guardian, correct me if I’m wrong, said, Where’s John Wilkes Booth when we need him? Pretty tough stuff. Then he’s gone.
Now we have Donald Trump and lo and behold George W. Bush was a sober and judicious president. And we did the same thing with Reagan. They hated Reagan, they said you Reagan is the most polarizing person. And now Reagan is the godfather of bipartisanship. And I don’t know if that’ll happen with Trump. It depends on who replaces him. If we go back to the Marquess of Queensbury rules republicans then yeah, he will not be rehabilitated. But if we get a populist nationalist in the Trump tradition, who is successful, and at some point the left will say, you know, why couldn’t he be more like Donald Trump? Donald Trump was not that bad.
Anya Leonard 22:57
Yeah, we only see these things with hindsight.
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