How and How Not to Study Humanities at Yale
Since Yale doesn’t have a core curriculum in the humanities like Columbia’s or the University of Chicago’s, it’s difficult to tell how many students here wish they’d studied more classic texts about lasting challenges to politics and the spirit in personal and public life. Such challenges can become urgent when least expected—when you’re deciding whether and how much to invest in an undertaking, or how to respond to a friend’s request for your support in some difficult public stance he or she is taking, or whether you agree that the republic that nurtured and sustained you should go to war.
Fortunately, if you’ve missed Directed Studies or a major in the humanities, I have a quick fix in the Greek historian Thucydides’ account of Athens’ debate about whether to murder or spare the Mytilenians, a hitherto friendly people whose leaders had turned on Athens’ in a war. The Athenians had thwarted the defection and had to decide how harshly to punish the betrayal. Whatever they did—and how they decided it—would have consequences for Athenian democracy, internally as well as internationally.
On one side, Cleon urged maximum retaliation, in this case through mass capital punishment. Anticipating by 2,500 years analogous calls at Yale to extend this country’s retaliatory and preventive violence, Cleon warned that seeking reconciliation with people who’d behaved treacherously would only endanger Athens’ vital interests. He urged Athenians to accept their grim responsibility to kill all the Mytilenians, including those who’d only gone along with the defection. Cleon advised especially Athens’ well-meaning “liberals,” as we’d call them now, that
Because fear and conspiracy play no part in your daily relations with each other, you imagine that the same thing is true of your allies, and you fail to see that when you … give way to your own feelings of compassion you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them love you any more. What you do not realize is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favor. Your leadership depends on superior strength and not on any good will of theirs. … It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well and look up to those who make no concessions. Let them now therefore have the punishment which their crime deserves…. The only alternative is to surrender your empire, so that you can afford to go in for philanthropy…. Punish them as they deserve, and make an example of them to your other allies….
This argument may well have persuaded Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II, when victorious allies had to decide whether to punish Germany as onerously as the Soviet army and commissars did, or whether to undertake a more reconciliatory, rehabilitative course, as Americans did. Cleon actually did influence New York Times columnist David Brooks, who read the above passage while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and wrote papers on Thucydides. Brooks and certain other touters of Thucydides functioned as tight ends for the Bush Administration during the Iraq War, in the 2004 presidential campaign, and during our continuing engagement in Iraq.
Indeed, Brooks virtually echoed Cleon in a September 4, 2005 column: “Americans have had to acknowledge dark realities that it is not in our nature to readily acknowledge: the thin veneer of civilization, the elemental violence in human nature.” In 2006 he urged we meet Iraqi insurgents’ “savagery with savagery” because they’ve “create[d] an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.”
But there was another voice in Thucydides’ account of the Mytilenian debate. Diotodus answered Cleon with what could be a rebuke to Brooks’ eagerness to meet savagery with savagery and to disparage the other side in the debate (namely, in 2004, John Kerry, who Brooks claimed had “a brain of sculpted marshmallow” for seeking an alternative course). Acknowledging that the Mytilenes had aided Athens’ mortal enemies, Diodotus warned that by murdering them, Athenians would only make other peoples more desperate to succeed in breaking away. Shouldn’t Athens show the world that reconciling with Athens was the wiser course? Well, that would depend on when and how Athens exercised restraint, for not every danger is easily overcome. But Diodotus cautioned Cleon and others inclined to vengeance, as to war, that
The idea that fortune will be on one’s side plays as big a part as anything else in creating a mood of overconfidence; for sometimes she does come unexpectedly to one’s aid, and so she tempts men to run risks for which they are inadequately prepared. And this is particularly true in the case of whole peoples, because they are playing for the highest stakes—either for their own freedom or for the power to control others—and each individual, when acting as part of a community, has the irrational opinion that his own powers are greater than in fact they are. In a word it is impossible (and only the most simple-minded will deny this) for human nature, when once seriously set upon a certain course, to be prevented from following that course by the force of law….
Still more important, Diodotus warned of the dangers to internal security that come not from enemies but from “a closed national-security mindset in people who poison public deliberation with charm, intimidation, and insinuation.” He warned that an advocate of using
gratuitous force, knowing that he cannot make a good speech in a bad cause, … tries to frighten his opponents and his hearers by some good-sized pieces of misrepresentation. … [In contrast,] the good citizen, instead of trying to terrify the opposition, ought to prove his case in fair argument; and … when a man’s advice is not taken, he should not even be disgraced, far less penalized. [If he is treated respectfully, even though his advice is rejected, other] speakers will be less likely to pursue further honors by speaking against their own convictions in order to make themselves popular….
Diodotus hadn’t opposed war when the situation had really come to that. He was against making it come to that by working up delusions and shouting down those who resisted them. Armies and wealth, though vitally necessary, can’t defend or nourish a people’s deliberative integrity and will-power. The more a nation fills itself up with armed watchmen and sharp-tongued scourges of dissent, the more rapidly it decays. Its bad leaders distract citizens from strategic blunders and the collapse of public discourse by sophistical chin-stroking or by “creating a mood of overconfidence” that “tempts men to run risks for which they are inadequately prepared.”
Not all wars are as unjustified and full of strategic folly as was the war in Iraq. Nor are all temperate, successful occupations, like Americans’ of Germany and Japan, necessarily the right prescriptions for circumstances like those in Iraq. But since all wars and occupations require mobilization and unity, it’s tempting for their advocates to accuse critics like Diodotus of endangering the nation’s vital interests in order to “go in for philanthropy,” as Cleon sneered.
Diodotus’ lesson is that often it’s the supposedly hard-headed who are naïve about what most endangers national strength, especially when they’re intimidating or stampeding their countrymen into unsustainable efforts to control what even the most powerful states cannot. In British India and South Africa, and Soviet Eastern Europe, unarmed supposedly naive people led by Ghandi, Mandela, Havel, and countless others brought down vast national security states that had forgotten how to nourish their own deepest strengths. “How many [military] divisions has the Pope?” Stalin once quipped. When the Pope stepped off a plane in Communist Warsaw four decades later and was greeted by a million people, Stalin’s successors got an answer: The Pope had no divisions but enough power to show that Soviet domination of Poland was doomed by its own heavy-handedness and soul-suffocating lies.
Other classic texts make clear why strategies like Cleon’s fail. The mid-twentieth-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, exploring the pitfalls of national-security strategies and preventive wars, cited St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents, but guileless as doves.” How can you be both? Echoing Cleon at first, Niebuhr reminded well-meaning liberals and Christians that the serpent and his kind—“the children of darkness”—are wise to the fact that selfishness is irrepressible in all humans. But, Niebuhr noted, the children of darkness misuse that wisdom to manipulate and discourage do-gooders who think that all people can be led by example to peace and light.
Therefore, Niebuhr added, “The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification.” They must not lose their ability to be guileless as doves whenever conciliatory and trusting behavior is called for. Or, as Jesus put it, “Be ye as deceivers, yet true.” Understanding those last two words is the fulfillment of wisdom. Ronald Reagan outsmarted his Vulcan advisors this way when, to their horror, he decided cannily to trust Gorbachev because both men dreaded the nuclear end-game toward which their national-security strategists were driving.
Reagan’s neo-conservatives and so-called “realist” advisors had gotten stuck in their discovery of evil in all men. They’d become as wise as serpents but hadn’t a clue how to extend the kind of trust that elicits trust. They had good reason to resent some liberals’ ignorance of their wisdom and to accuse some self-styled “children of light” of hypocrisy. But however maladroit and counterproductive are the latter’s reactions to war, and however tempted Cleon or Brooks are to exploit their follies, liberals’ reactions are usually just that—reactive, not causal. The real causes of the Mytilenian defection or the Iranian threat may lie elsewhere: Most of the current Iranian threat has been nurtured, provoked, funded, and armed by Washington since 1953, as Peter Galbraith shows in the October 11 New York Review of Books.
But perhaps the greatest irony which serious study of the humanities can teach is that while the children of light have their own darkness, the children of darkness have some light in them that’s struggling to get out but has been blocked or miscarried by their own gnawing fears and compensatory over-confidence. That is why they always loudly claim to be devotees of the classics, and of George Orwell, and, indeed, of Reinhold Niebuhr. Two books that see through this and that opened my eyes to this reversal of the conventional wisdom about who is hard-headed and who is naïve are Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and Jonathan Schell’s “The Unconquerable World.”
By the way, Diodotus won the debate in Athens, narrowly. His listeners turned down Cleon’s deft appeals to their fears and pride. They voted to treat the Mytilenians as Americans treated the defeated Germans. Of course, so much has changed since then that it would be irresponsible to rummage through history for quick precedents to justify preventive wars or containment. It would be better to read Niebuhr, Schell, and the classics on what’s really lasting in politics and to resist designations of evil driven by ideology and by public put-downs.
“[A]nyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to. If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others,” Yale President Kingman Brewster, Jr. wrote in a 1967-68 annual report. I quote him so often that some people roll their eyes, but he understood that a liberal democracy and free economy depend on virtues and beliefs which the liberal state and markets can’t nourish or defend, since they have to serve even un-enlightened self-interest. Armies alone can’t sustain a republic’s virtues and beliefs, and wealth can’t buy them. Enlightened self-sacrifice and the strength that comes only in vulnerability to honest dialogue have to be nourished elsewhere, and all the more intensively, in citizen-leaders. That’s what Yale College and the humanities are for. And it requires not a Cleon, stuck in the wisdom of the children of darkness, but a Diodotus, who has absorbed that wisdom and gone beyond it.
Jim Sleeper is Lecturer in Political Science at Yale.