OK. So the G-8 summit at Camp David has concluded with an official communique, a declaration laying out the agenda of member nation-states, with the top agenda item (nos. 2 through 9) being “The Global Economy.” There is scarcely a word in the document that is not hedged. Even in the title to this section we have an equivocation, since by “the global economy” the G-8 really means their concerns about the Eurozone — whether Greece will leave the currency union, what follow-on contagion effects such a Greek departure might have, whether there will be a run on European banks, how much the Eurozone economies will contract as a result of the financial crisis, and whether market pressures will also force Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and possibly even Italy out of the Eurozone.

The G-8 declaration talks the talk of growth. Indeed, it talks a lot about growth. The word “growth” appears ten times in sections 2 through 9. The G-8 has even seen fit to include such dispensably obvious nostrums as, “Our imperative is to promote growth and jobs.” If you have to say it, you’re probably already in trouble. And in fact we know that the Eurozone already is in trouble. The bill has come due for 67 years of welfare state largesse, which means that two or three generations of Europeans have been raised up in the belief that they are entitled to a cradle-to-grave social support network, regardless of consequences or conditions.

Here are some further unsurprising declarations from the G-8 declaration:

“…we commit to take all necessary steps to strengthen and reinvigorate our economies and combat financial stresses, recognizing that the right measures are not the same for each of us.”

“We welcome the ongoing discussion in Europe on how to generate growth, while maintaining a firm commitment to implement fiscal consolidation to be assessed on a structural basis.”

“We all have an interest in the success of specific measures to strengthen the resilience of the Eurozone and growth in Europe.”

There is a sense in which it is almost comical to engage in public rhetoric of growth while the Eurozone economies are shrinking because of the financial crisis and the greatest worry is stopping a run on the banks, but if it is comical it is black humor and no laughing matter.

What exactly does “growth” mean in this artfully vague declaration by the G-8? “Walking the walk” of growth might mean Keynesian-style financial stimulus, in which governments would undertake to spend money (perhaps on “shovel-ready” projects) in order to “kick-start” the economy by the influx of money, jobs, and economic activity. It might even mean the economically largest nation-states in the Eurozone — Germany and France — using their money for economic stimulus in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy. And how long would such a practice be expected to continue? Once you begin spending German money on Greek construction projects, where does it end? More likely, the talk of growth means Eurobonds mutually issued and mutually backed, with the proceeds ploughed into the ailing economies. These aren’t really “growth” measures; they are firewalls to contain a crisis, but they must be said to be about “growth” because the public does not want to hear about austerity.

Does anyone believe that this is really going to happen? The Eurobonds might happen, but the longer the crisis goes unresolved, the more those Eurozone nation-states with something to lose will hesitate to throw good money after bad. And since there is a tendency to kick the can down the road rather than to take decisive action, things can easily go from bad to worse, making it look like marginal Eurozone members are clearly not worth saving, and even more clearly not worth sacrifices on the part of another nation-states and their peoples.

So what is really going on here? Under pressure from vacuous protests from people who are angry but have no ideas that will move the debate forward, no constructive policy prescriptions, and no agenda beyond an economic cri de cœur, the heads of state of the largest and wealthiest nation-states in the world today have issued a vacuous declaration. This is, in short, a feel-good measure — tit-for-tat vacuity.

However, dangerous illusions are perpetrated by vacuous protests and vacuous declarations intended to mollify vacuous protests: the idea that government declarations can create jobs or grow the economy, the idea that government services can expand while tax revenues fall, the idea that no one need suffer in an economic downturn, the idea that someone or some institution is to blame for the business cycle, and that by punishing the malefactors that the body politic can be made whole again. This is not an exhaustive list.

The most obvious and most dangerous illusion is that talk can substitute for action. There is a very old phrase for those who will not be honest about their public pronouncements: crying wolf. What happens when you cry wolf too many times? No one pays attention when there really is a wolf at the door.

If you prefer a Biblical reference to a fairy tale, I can cite Jeremiah 6:14, where the prophet says, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Our politicians today say growth, growth when there is no growth, and there is no prophet who is apparently willing to speak truth to power in this respect, despite the superficial currency of that slogan (i.e., “speaking truth to power”).

Finally, if you prefer classical antiquity to fairy tales or Bible prophets, I can cite the famous passage from Thucydides about corruption of language that came from radicalization during the Peloponnesian War:

“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 ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.”

Though we face no war like the Peloponnesian War, we see that under the political pressure of the economic crisis in Europe that words are forced to change their ordinary meanings. Dishonesty and the degradation of language have follow-on effects every bit as severe as austerity measures: it becomes impossible to discuss the economy honestly, impossible to tell people what they need to hear, and difficult if not impossible to act decisively when decisive action might make a decisive difference.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A quote quite frequently attributed to Thucydides is that history is philosophy teaching by example. The source of this quote does not seem to be Thucydides himself, though the idea could certainly said to be implicit throughout his work. The sophistication of Thucydides’ perspective suggests a philosophical subtlety, and Marcellinus tells us that Thucydides studied under Anaxagoras, as well as studying rhetoric with Antiphon. In any case, the source for this pseudo-Thucydidean quote seems to be Dionysius of Heraclea, Thus:

The contact with manners then is education; and this Thucydides appears to assert when he says history is philosophy learned from examples.

Dionysius of Heraclea, Ars Rhetorica (XI, 2, p. 212), (Tauchnitz edition)

Perhaps Thucydides said it, and tradition carried the saying to Dionysius of Heraclea, or perhaps Thucydides wrote it in a text now lost, but whatever the case the saying is clearly associated with Thucydides, even if we can’t trace it to an extant text.

In several posts I have touched on the possibility of historical falsification of ideas (cf. e.g., Confirmation and Disconfirmation in History), which also suggests the possibility of the historical verification of ideas, and the verification and falsification of ideas would constitute perfect instances of history teaching by examples.

In other posts I have also discussed counter-factual conditionals in relation to history, and it occurs to me today that counter-factual conditionals are simply the opposite perspective on history teaching philosophy by examples. With counter-factual conditionals we have events that did not in fact happen, but the fact that they did not occur but might have occurred has a lesson to teach us. With history teaching philosophy by example, we have events that did in fact happen, but which we understand might have been otherwise. Each illuminates the other because each is implied by the other. And in so far as each is implied by the other, the two are twin or parallel concepts.

I take it as a philosophical virtue to make parallel formulations explicit, and if we can find the appropriate linguistic formulation for the concepts we can demonstrate their parallelism all the better. For example, we could contrast counter-factual conditionals to factually-consonant conditionals, and then it becomes clear that all history is conditional. This was a theme that S. J. Gould emphasized on several occasions. I quoted him to this effect in The Immiserization Thesis.

In so far as any history, counter-factual or factually-consonant, accords with our ideas, whether validating them or falsifying them, is a matter of our ability to explicitly express these ideas in concrete terms. We can never specify all of the details that might emerge with the translation of ideas into facts and facts into ideas (something I discussed in Putting Ideas First), but we can certainly do better than we have in the past. And the closer we approximate the complexity of facts by filling out the complexity of our ideas beyond their usual abstract and schematic form, the closer we can get to speaking with any degree of precision of historical validation and falsification. And if I am correct that counter-factual conditionals and factually-consonant conditionals are parallel concepts, each shares in the difficulty of the other, even while an improvement in the formulation of the one suggests parallel improvements in the formulation of the other.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs. We may know, for example, on an intellectual level that terrorizing civilians does not win wars, much less win hearts and minds, but when we find ourselves with our backs to the wall in an existential struggle, we may nevertheless choose to act upon tactics of mass terror — perhaps for revenge, perhaps to see the hated enemy suffer, perhaps out of sheer desperation or for lack of alternatives.

Similarly (again, a parallel formulation), even when an idea seems to be confirmed beyond any degree of rational doubt by actual historical events that appear to bear out the validity of that idea, we cannot allow ourselves to become smug about it, assuming its permanence. I am sure that almost every person who have lived in a stable society comes to believe in the permanency of the institutions of this society (which is what Sartre called the Spirit of Seriousness), only to be given a rude jolt when the seemingly permanent comes crashing down in a strategic shock or a revolution.

The validation and falsification of ideas by history are parallel concepts, just as countering or conforming to facts are parallel ideas. Extrapolating parallel concepts by applying advances with one idea to a parallel idea, mutatis mutandis, is one way to systematically extend the theoretical framework of our knowledge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Aftermath of War

6 December 2010


The first great age of Western philosophy — the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — occurred in the aftermath of war. I don’t think that this has been sufficiently appreciated. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was not the Athens that saw the foundations of the Parthenon laid, not the Athens of Pericles, not the Athens that transformed the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and not the confident (if not overweening) Athens that allowed itself to become involved in the Peloponnesian War. The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a defeated Athens, an Athens that had witnessed catastrophic escalation and radicalization, had been ravaged by a plague, and was administered by a puppet government installed by the Spartans.

The Peloponnesian War was the World War of classical antiquity. There were many wars in antiquity, and many wars before the Peloponnesian War, but there was never before anything like the Peloponnesian War, when almost all the city-states of Hellas were forced to take sides in a brutal conflict that lasted almost thirty years (and more than fifty years if we count the First Peloponnesian War and the Thirty Years’ Peace). If there had been such things as nation-states in classical antiquity, the Peloponnesian War would have been the great example of a civil war. As it was, the Greeks knew that the Peloponnesian War turned Greek against Greek and father against son.

I have had occasion in other posts to quote some of the famous passages in Thucydides that describe the radicalization and brutalization that occurred as a result of the war, and since only longer extracts can do justice to the topic, I won’t repeat them here. Those of us who lived in the twentieth century know enough about radicalization and brutalization that we have some understanding of what happens to societies when war becomes a way of life. If you’re interested, you can read about the Corcyrean Revolution in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and you can read Thucydides’ descriptions of Athens and Sparta in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective. Better yet, get yourself a copy of The History of the Peloponnesian War and read the whole thing.

What interests me today is the way that this great conflict shaped Western intellectual history. Before the Peloponnesian War Athens in particular and the Greeks in general were already famous for their philosophers and philosophical schools, but we note that this philosophy was largely cosmological and metaphysical. Thales said that the world was made of water, and Democritus said that there were only atoms whirling around in a void. This sort of thought, if carried on today, would be science, but in classical antiquity there was as yet no distinction between science and philosophy. One might even say that the distinction between science and philosophy begins, or at least has its roots, in the intellectual shift that happened during the Peloponnesian War.

The Golden Age of Athens had its philosophers, but it was much more famous for its poets and playwrights, its art and architecture, and its famous statesmen like Pericles. This was a vigorous culture that produced great monuments of building and literature that still astonish us today. It is thrilling even today to read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and to hear the hero contemptuously tell Hermes, “Tell your master Zeus that I hate and despise him.” Prometheus not only gave us fire, he also gave us the omertà. We Westerners recognize ourselves in this immediately; our rebelliousness is not the least of our Hellenism.

But Hellenism has a long history, and after the Peloponnesian War we do not see this confident, outward-directed energy, or the kind of overflowing vitality that made Greece (Hellas) the wonder of the world. What we do see is domestic comedy, like the New Comedy of Menander, and the emergence of moral philosophy. Socrates is the most important figure here. While Plato’s Socratic dialogues have their share of metaphysics and epistemology, the central concern is moral. The Republic is devoted to an inquiry into justice. The paradigmatic philosophical question for Socrates and Plato was, “Can virtue be taught?”

It is easy to understand, once we see this great age of philosophy in historical context, that the Greeks probably did a lot of soul-searching in the aftermath of the war. One form that this soul-searching took was explicit philosophical inquiry into virtue and justice, as we find in Socrates and Plato. The radicalization and homicidal fury that Thucydides described, while it is all-too-real in the moment, cannot last. Tempers run high in war, but eventually the war ends, tempers cool, even if bitterness remains, and thoughtful men reflect on their deeds and misdeeds. Perhaps they even say to themselves as Nietzsche said, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.”

In several posts I have written about what some historians call the Axial Age, in which the world’s great mythological traditions had their origins and formative years. The Axial Age of Greece was the heroic age, even before the Golden Age of Athens. The formation of axial age mythology was, in a sense, the intellectual background to the Peloponnesian War, and following the ravages of the world, a novel and different kind of intellectual activity emerges. As I have suggested that civilizations undergo a process that we may call axialization once they reach a certain stage of maturity, we can also posit a process of philosophicalization when this mature form of civilization reaps the wind after having sown the whirlwind in mythological enthusiasm.

We find ourselves today in the aftermath of war — the aftermath of the Cold War. The Cold War was a long conflict fought on many fronts, through several proxy wars, between ideological enemies. Despite being a long contest, of the sort from which we do not expect a clear winner to emerge, in fact it was settled decisively in favor of one of the agents to the conflict. All of these things the Cold War has in common with the Peloponnesian War: its length, the many proxy wars fought by allies putatively aligned with one side or the other, the clear ideological difference between traditionalist Sparta and democratic Athens, and the decisive outcome.

We think in the aftermath of the Cold War as the Greeks thought in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, in terms of the structural influences that our civilization brings to bear on us. If we were to produce another Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, it might all be worth it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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