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Us Then: Intro and Chapter 1

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

Intro: The Classical Mirror

All languages open up new worlds, new peoples, and new ideas, illuminating the awe-inspiring diversity of the human race. The Ancient World is a wonderful attestation to the sheer range of the multifarious paths human society and its development have travelled. But do different practices and languages make us fundamentally different as human beings? It would be very easy to dismiss the existence of any such thing as human nature upon glancing at the differences that undeniably exist between us across the globe. Are we defined purely by what we support, believe in, and conversely condemn? We certainly are in part, that cannot be disputed. Herodotus, the 'Father of History' had perceived exactly this, when, having narrated the irreconcilable differences between the Callatiae tribe and Greeks in their funerary practices, he concludes that 'custom (νομος) is king'. Our practices do define and, indeed, divide us. However, if we ask another question - 'where do our practices come from and why have we developed them?' - we get a different picture. Our evolution of our practices and societies is driven by the same needs and impulses everywhere, as I shall shortly demonstrate. This is the important lesson Classics teaches us. We are not beholding a remote, strange set of peoples. Remote they may be, but they are also human. Effectively, Classics is a mirror that reflects what it is to be human. It binds us to the Greeks and Romans, rather than separating us.

Chapter I: Creatures of Habit (23/05/2021)

Part I

Humans are creatures of habit. We generally find comfort in familiarity and in seeing what we value as a particular group being safeguarded and we become resentful when we see it being threatened. In this respect, we are not so very different from animals. We might protect what we value generally with entrenched practices, rituals, or laws, but the instinct is not so very different. Now, I am not going to undertake here an argument about how animalistic we truly are, suffice to say I don’t think we as far from our bestial counterparts as we might like to think. That is another article for another day, I refer you now to Mary Midgley’s brilliant discussion along those lines, Beast and Man. I certainly think we are too ready to congratulate ourselves on perceived advancement due to the flashy glamour and sophistication of modern technology. My article, the Progress Delusion is coming soon. What I am driving at here is that human beings across the world are bound together as human beings by a complicated and colourful set of natural emotions, thoughts, and feelings, which lie behind our reactions, and which, due to different circumstances (weather, climate, landscape, the complexity of human nature itself) have built the sheer variety of human society. And some of the ancients thought so, too.

Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, in the late fifth-century, wrote that his work might seem less pleasurable to read, due to the absence of the story-telling element, but that:

If those who wish clearly to scrutinize the past with a view to understanding the

similar sorts of things that will happen according to the human factor, deem my

work useful, that will be sufficient.”

This powerful statement that places human beings at the heart of causation comes towards the end of the preface to the history (1.22.4). Thucydides is not describing a ‘cyclical’ process, as such. He does not mean that the same things literally go round again. What he is saying is that human beings are such that similar kinds of events will occur. From the nature of his work we can safely deduce this to be wars, territory disagreements, internal unrest, political upheavals, divided communities. As we behold many places across the world, we can perhaps reflect that he wasn’t far wrong.

Later in his marvellous work, commenting on the deadly stasis (civil conflict) in Corcyra (with deadly grammar to match) he issues a similar didactic warning:

And thanks to internal conflict there fell upon the cities many dangerous and

difficult circumstances, the sort of things that occur and always will occur, while

human nature remains the same, but emerging in manifestations varying from the less to more severe, because of the specific changes of each set of events.

In one shrewd sentence Thucydides has encapsulated in a nutshell the common threads that bind human beings and their conduct and result in these patterns, and the complexities of circumstance that explain the very different form these events seem to take They might look like different events, but at their core lie similar strands of human behaviour.

In a critical thinking activity that I used to run at my last school, we were exploring wha it meant to study history and inevitably the question of causation arose. The debate swung from the value of studying patterns to whether this was artificial, and how far major events could be viewed in isolation. When this excellent discussion ended up concluding that of course history was important, but in something of a Platonic aporia as to how, as final exercise, I gave them the following passage:

And civil discord raged throughout the cities, and in those places where it arrived

later, the spirit of revolution carried a greater excessive zeal for the discovery of fresh ideas as each place learnt of what the previous place had done; and this was visible in the artful cunning of their undertakings and the extraordinary violence of their reprisals.”

I simply asked them, ‘what’s this describing?’ A variety of thoughtful and plausible suggestions were made: a theoretical passage on how revolution and political ideas spread, the spread of communism, the Arab Spring, as this displayed how the confidence to rise up rippled across the different countries. Sadly, I forget some of the others. I do remember that none of them were right. Each, however, had clearly appreciated the passage’s significance. Human beings as imitators, emulators, and escalators borne of a tendency to one-upmanship. They were quite shocked to learn it came from the fifth-century BCE and our friends Thucydides. The passage follows immediately on from the second passage above as evidence for human nature as a key causative factor.

Polybius shared a very similar view to Thucydides, and the next section will look more closely at how he explores the complexity of human beings.

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