"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
— College football coach Red Saunders
(often attributed to Vince Lombardi), 20th century
What is wisdom?
What gift of the gods is held in honor like this;
to hold your hand victorious
over the heads of those you hate?
Glory is precious forever.
— Lines by the Chorus of god-intoxicated
women in Euripides's The Bacchae
(405 BCE, around line 877)
It's too loaded to quote by itself, but the purest form of the ideal I wish to discuss — and “ideal” isn’t necessarily a compliment with me — is the Nazis' "Sieg Heil!", "Hail Victory!" Anyway, what I’ll be getting to here is the form of the Warrior Ethic where what counts is winning, with how one wins is of some importance — honor code and all, chivalry — but secondary to just winning. This is one theory to explain a lot of violence, especially the premeditated and highly-organized kind.
There are also Transcendent-Value theories where any means is justified by a goal of great value: sometimes something godly, but sometimes the Nation or the Revolution or ... whatever. And/or one can oppose a really great evil. E.g., if you believe abortion is murder and a large number of abortions mass murder moving toward genocide, then all sorts of means might be justified to end abortion, and just throwing some acid in a child’s or woman’s face — that example comes from Nineteen Eighty-Four and recent history— might be seen as moderate. If slowing the Hitlerian Holocaust would have justified bombing the death camps (and I’ll accept that argument), bombing a probably unoccupied abortion clinic would definitely — arguably — be justified: if, but only if, abortion is murder and one accepts the Machiavellian statement of faith, “The End justifies the means.” (“End” means “final outcome” as well as “goal,” and one can never be sure what even the major immediate results of an act will be, let alone results far down a history of causes and effects.)
But, as I often do, I digress.
Let’s start again.
For my dissertation, I was strongly influenced by William Arrowsmith (Tulane Drama Review 3.3 [March 1959]) and his “One final point (pp. 73 f.; III) that the great Greek tragedies each defined, so to speak, a central term that was contested — argued over — during the time the tragedy was written and produced. For a highly relevant example, The Bacchae is explicit on defining, sophia “wisdom” and its opposites. Now my 1971 dissertation was, “Wise Men and Fools: Values and Competing Theories of Wisdom in a Selection of Tragedies …” by Shakespeare and some playwrights chronologically on either side of his theatre career. So I was really interested in applying Arrowsmith’s idea (or stealing it), and I was eventually greatly concerned with one of the offered answers to the question, “What is wisdom?” The one by the Chorus in The Bacchae quoted in my headnote of wisdom as winning, gaining glory: glorying in humiliating an opponent.
Flash forward to this year and my listening and re-listening to audiobooks of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence(2014) plus relistening to Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (2007), primarily reviewing those really early “Earliest Accounts” and getting an over-view without the thesis of Armstrong on the beginning and development of “agrarian civilization” and its cooperation and conflicts with herders and raiders seeming to come from the hills and plains like the tides against (very early on) the walls of the City.
Euripides’s Bacchae state articulately and explicitly a key value of aristocrats from before the time of Gilgamesh at Uruk ca. 2600 BCE to the wannabe nobles of the Master Race (Herrenvolk) of the 20thcentury into our own time: Sieg heil!, “Hail, Victory!” Period.
Except there is more, and not just among the “Aria” — Aryans, speakers of (proto)Indo-European — who didn’t enter the historical record until long after King Gilgamesh and his archetypal Heldenleben (Heroic Life). Among the aristocrats of truly ancient Uruk and the military branch of their descendants; among the Aria military aristocrats and their literal and cultural descendants; and basically among military aristocracies in agrarian civilizations around the world: i.e. among almost all civilizations, there were a few basic rules.
First, the essence of nobility and later gentility is that members of the elite don’t work for a living. Work is for peasants. In the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Christian peasants cheered on Lollard Christian priest John Ball and his subversive rime, “When Adam delved” — dug, like a farmer — “and Eva span” — Eve spun, like a good working wife — "Who was then the gentleman?” But the rime was subversive, reminding those revolting peasants — villainous villein serfs — of one official creation myth that suggested the natural state for people was equality.
However respectable the source of the Adam/Eve bit in the Book of Genesis — Hebrew authors in the Jewish tradition of opposing agrarian civilization — that wasn’t the theory popular with The Powers That Be in civilizations dependent upon inequality and a small elite’s relieving the peasants of a big hunk of their harvests and also setting them to perform useful public works: like irrigation ditches and temple storehouses for grain and pyramids and tombs and monuments. In such cultures the ruling myth was that the gods had set up a hierarchy among themselves that was reflected on Earth. With the Code of Hammurabi, the hierarchy was pretty simple, “made up of three different classes, the [...] Upper class, the [...] free man class, and the [...] slave class.” In India, you got a complex caste system, and to get back to an England a historical period after John Ball and 1381 and all that, you get the Renaissance Anglican sermons teaching Early-Modern English Christians that “Almighty God has created and appointed all things in heaven and on earth [...] in a most excellent and perfect order. In heaven, he has appointed distinct and several orders and states of Archangels and Angels. In earth he has assigned and appointed Kings, Princes, with other governors under them, in all good and necessary order” — and for religious obligation people were required to know their places, stay in those places, and practice “Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates.”
And if they didn’t, as back in 1381 and the later peasant revolts, well-armed and dangerous knights and lords and their retainers were thrilled and delighted to slaughter them. And in good conscience.
Second, there was the necessity of the better sort’s not working to find some other means of support. By the time of sermonizing in England under the Tudors and Stuarts, a gentleman inherited wealth and land and rents. But before that? Well, Karen Armstrong notes that King Gilgamesh’s story has him taking what he wants, including a quest for precious cedar logs involving killing the forest’s god-appointed guardian.
Outside the City walls things were simpler but similar. From the old Aryans’ cattle rustling — all cattle rightfully belonged to the Masters — to the Germanic tribes complexly descended from them, real men were warriors, and warriors were Heroes, and the Heroic Life was organized theft and extortion, later, with luck, evolving into taxation and rents.
“In that day of this life,” the best of men would still be a man of violence, but he would direct that violence against the monsters that threatened human communities: over a few millennia Gilgamesh gets cleaned up into Beowulf and then seriously Christianized into a non-raping, non-plundering virginal knight like Sir Galahad.
But don’t count on your local warrior bands including many Beowulfs, let alone Galahads — and chivalric Galahads were sworn to protect the Church and ladies — not farms nor shops, and not peasant women nor peasant men.
What you could hope for back in the Agrarian-Civ. day was a kind of Darwinian selection with a strong dose of Thomas Hobbes: i.e., getting the warriors held in check by war lords and then the war lords restrained by a king, and then, maybe, the warring kings kicked into line by an Emperor — and the lords and their inferiors might have a time of peace (except, of course, for the structural violence of the lords’ exploiting “their” peasants).
With luck … depending on the Emperor. And not getting too concerned with the crucifixions, mutilations, breaking on the wheel, and such emperors and their imitators used upon rebels, criminals, or just the seriously annoying: "As may be both due vengeance to themselves / And wholesome terror to posterity" (Gorboduc 5.1.96-97 ).
Because that is the next problem, that imperial or royal "wholesome terror."
Susan Wise Bauer tells a story that I hadn’t heard from the early days of China as a more or less united empire with a ruler who wasn’t much into the Sage King bit or Daoist inaction or Confucian restraint. Significantly, the Emperor obviously believed (or felt), and enough of his court agreed or acquiesced that he got away with it — he felt that arbitrary action, often uncontrolled or cruel, was a good thing. Arbitrariness and cruelty — and presumably downright weirdness — demonstrated that this Son of Heaven was indeed special and that his power was literally absolute: constrained by no one and nothing.
I could increase examples, but I’ve rambled on enough. The point is that there’s a kind of “Perennial Ideology” that celebrates winners for winning, elites for taking what they want, and rulers for a kind of untethered arbitrariness. This ideology runs deep indeed and in many people may only be thinly overlain by a veneer of Christian or other religious restrictions on the powerful, and/or Enlightenment ideas and attitudes, and/or official republican and liberal-democratic ideas in countries like the United States.
If this is the case, we can understand better a fair number of supporters of Donald J. Trump and other actual or wannabe “Strongmen” — and those trying to rehabilitate Stalin and celebrate Genghis Khan.
If this is the case, Trump et al.’s self-absorption, selfishness, lying, laziness, arbitrariness, mockery of losers, and petty (and not-so-petty) cruelty aren’t bugs but features. This antithesis of the strong, quiet, well-disciplined warrior is in a tradition of rapacious warrior thugs and mildly-mad emperors. And, among part of the US population, supported for such faults. This helps him win, so long as he continues to win. And if he continues to win, this increasingly inarticulate and ignorant man will be accounted, in some quarters, wise.
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