March 19, 2008


A Convergence Of Civilizations: (ADAM KIRSCH, March 19, 2008, NY Sun)

"It seems unlikely that the long struggle between East and West is going to end very soon," he writes on the book's last page. "The battle lines drawn during the Persian Wars more than twenty-three centuries ago are still, in the selfsame corner of the world, very much where they were then." It is the kind of call to arms we might expect from a politician or a polemicist. Coming from a historian, it is surprising, because it seems to negate the first principles of history, which are contingency and change. If Americans are Athenians and Muslims are Persians, then nothing that has happened since the Battle of Marathon really matters; history is not a process, still less a progress, but an eternal deadlock.

The odd thing is that Mr. Pagden's book, simply because it traverses so much time and space, effectively undermines its own thesis. Take the Persian Wars, the first act in the clash of civilizations, in which a grand Eastern despotism, ruled by the Achaemenid monarchs Darius and Xerxes, tried to snuff out the small but resilient democracy of Athens. It is certainly true that, had the Greeks lost the battles of Marathon and Salamis, the course of European history would have been different. Mr. Pagden quotes J.S. Mill's verdict that Marathon was "a more important event in English history" than the Battle of Hastings, when the Normans conquered England itself.

Yet the closer one looks at this history, the more ambiguous it becomes. Athens may have been a democracy in the early fifth century B.C.E., but it had not been one a hundred years before, and it wouldn't be one a hundred years later. The foundational works of Greek political thought, Plato's "Republic" and Aristotle's "Politics," were antidemocratic in tendency. On the other hand, the culture of the Ionian Greek cities that were under Persian rule was hardly stifled by Eastern despotism: The origins of philosophy lay with Ionian Greeks like Heraclitus and Anaximander. All this suggests that, had Persia extended its overlordship to the west coast of the Aegean, much that we prize in Greek culture would still have existed, though in different form. Certainly the fate of democracy as a political system could not have been permanently decided by just two battles.

If even today we remember Persia as an effeminate despotism, the first incarnation of an eternally menacing East, it is largely because of the way this image was perpetuated by later writers. It is thanks to Herodotus, Mr. Pagden shows, that the Persian Wars became a morality play about the superiority of Greek isonomia, or equality before the law, to Persian absolutism. Yet conveniently, two centuries later on, when Alexander the Great reversed Xerxes's campaign — leading a Greek empire on an aggressive campaign into Asia — the stigma of despotism did not attach to him. On the contrary, as Mr. Pagden writes, what looked like monolithic imperialism in the Persians was, in Alexander, an enlightened vision of a world state: "[H]e introduced into Greece, and subsequently into the whole of Europe, an ambition for universalism that would determine the future of the continent." According to one 20th century historian Mr. Pagden quotes, the League of Nations itself could be traced back to Alexander's example.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 19, 2008 3:04 PM

They shouldn't have stolen Helen

Posted by: mike in europe at March 19, 2008 5:17 PM