US election: Elusive virtues that would help nation heal these scars

Today in The Australian

Many decades ago, in that fleeting parenthesis between the ravages of Marxism and those of the assault on Dead White Males, there raged in academia something of a great debate about Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

About Henry Ergas

Henry Ergas AO is a columnist for The Australian. From 2009 to 2015 he was Senior Economic Adviser to Deloitte Australia and from 2009 to 2017 was Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility. He joined SMART and Deloitte after working as a consultant economist at NECG, CRA International and Concept Economics. Prior to that, he was an economist at the OECD in Paris from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. At the OECD, he headed the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Structural Adjustment (1984-1987), which concentrated on improving the efficiency of government policies in a wide range of areas, and was subsequently Counsellor for Structural Policy in the Economics Department. He has taught at a range of universities, undertaken a number of government inquiries and served as a Lay Member of the New Zealand High Court. In 2016, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia.
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28 Responses to US election: Elusive virtues that would help nation heal these scars

  1. Bruce of Newcastle

    This is more like 632 AD. Two religions are at loggerheads. The new Green-Progressive religion thinks the world is going to fry in very few years time if they don’t force the entire population to do obeisance to their god. On the other side is the substantially Christian conservative section of US population, who pretty much reject the green-left’s apocalyptic views of global warming and refuse to do all the other woke stuff like worshiping at the altar SSM and abortion.

    The problem is the green-left won’t take no for an answer because of their existential (imaginary) fears. So they feel empowered to do absolutely anything to force obedience upon the US population. Like stealing elections.

    So it’s not a Thucydides trap, it’s worse than that: an olde style fanatical religion on the warpath. And there can be no healing because the fanatical religion is new and rejects the compromises that have historically oiled the gears of the US civil polity.

  2. Bruce of Newcastle

    This is more like 632 AD. Two religions are at loggerheads. The new Green-Progressive religion thinks the world is going to fry in very few years time if they don’t force the entire population to do obeisance to their god. On the other side is the substantially Christian conservative section of US population, who pretty much reject the green-left’s apocalyptic views of global warming and refuse to do all the other woke stuff like worshiping at the altar of SSM and abortion.

    The problem is the green-left won’t take no for an answer because of their existential (imaginary) fears. So they feel empowered to do absolutely anything to force obedience upon the US population. Like stealing elections.

    So it’s not a Thucydides trap, it’s worse than that: an olde style fanatical religion on the warpath. And there can be no healing because the fanatical religion is new and rejects the compromises that have historically oiled the gears of the US civil polity.

  3. thefrollickingmole

    Thucydides should be required reading, at least in bite sized chunks, for high school kids.

    His account is literally “nothing new under the sun”.
    The same hubris, “superstar” personalities, venality and greed are visible in his writings as valid as contemporary newsprint.

    USA might survive this full frontal assault of the elites against the proles, but when the leaders despise the people they are leading that cant be sustained.

  4. thefrollickingmole

    Thucydides should be required reading, at least in bite sized chunks, for high school kids.

    His account is literally “nothing new under the sun”.
    The same hubris, “superstar” personalities, venality and greed are visible in his writings as valid as contemporary newsprint.

    USA might survive this full frontal assault of the elites against the proles, but when the leaders despise the people they are leading that cant be sustained.

  5. thefrollickingmole

    Thucydides should be required reading, at least in bite sized chunks, for high school kids.

    His account is literally “nothing new under the sun”.
    The same hubris, “superstar” personalities, venality and greed are visible in his writings as valid as contemporary newsprint.

    USA might survive this full frontal assault of the elites against the proles, but when the leaders despise the people they are leading that cant be sustained.

  6. thefrollickingmole

    Good article

  7. thefrollickingmole

    Though something is triggering the spamminator.

    Thuc ydides should be required reading, at least in bite sized ch unks, for high school kids.

    His account is literally “nothing new under the sun”.
    The same hubris, “superstar” personalities, venality and greed are visible in his writings as valid as contemporary newsprint.

    USA might survive this full frontal assault of the elites against the proles, but when the leaders despise the people they are leading that cant be sustained.

  8. Vicki

    A fine piece by Henry, who is something of a classicist. But, while human nature is is the seed of all conflict, the nature of Periclean Athens was very different from Republican Rome.

    The development of the city-state produced a form of government in classical Greece that produced an amazing degree of citizen participation in decision making. Rome’s development was characterised by the predominance of aristocratic families, predominantly large landholders, from the start.

    The United States of America seems to have taken its cue from both seeds. But it always seems to me that the founding fathers were very keen to ensure that rural America was not overruled by the numbers in the cities.

    On my first visit to Washington I was amused and enchanted by the triumphalism of the government architecture and statuary which absolutely echoed those of ancient Rome.

    As it grew to maturity and spread its influence throughout the Mediterranean, Rome tended to settle its internal political scores amongst its leading citizens by violence. The USA is, of course, influenced by so many other forces. But, like Rome, it has a de-commissioned militia from Middle Eastern conflicts – interestingly, like Rome. It is not impossible that these veterans may be mobilised “to protect the Republic”.

  9. Tapdog

    Am I dumb enough to pay $14 to read Henry’s excellent article? Nope

  10. Mak Siccar

    Here you go.

    US election: Elusive virtues that would help nation heal these scars. HENRY ERGAS

    Abraham Lincoln warned of dire consequences should ‘the mobocratic spirit’ be allowed to prevail.

    11:00PM NOVEMBER 5, 2020 60 COMMENTS

    Many decades ago, in that fleeting parenthesis between the ravages of Marxism and those of the assault on Dead White Males, there raged in academia something of a great debate about Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

    As with most such debates, it is difficult to understand how issues that seem so peripheral could have provoked such excitement. And as so often happens, once each side had claimed its share of (balding) scalps, the combatants wearied of the whole thing and moved on.

    But while the participants were far too busy talking to listen carefully, those watching from the relative safety of the undergraduate benches soon learnt there was much more to Thucydides than the puzzles that had triggered the storm.

    Nothing, it turned out, was accidental in the intricate masterpiece he worked on for at least 27 years. There were, in particular, good reasons the soaring beauty of Pericles’s Funeral Oration — which is now widely recited on Anzac Day — was immediately followed by an account of the devastating plague that hit Athens in the spring of 430BC, when the war was in its second year.

    After all, there are few more powerful exemplars of that untranslatable combination of intelligence, planning and resolve that the Athenians termed “gnome” than Pericles’s call for his countrymen to prove worthy of “the praise that grows not old”.

    Yet there are also few more uncompromising demonstrations of the limitations of human foresight than the plague, which Pericles himself described as “the one phenomenon that proved stronger than our expectation”.

    Entirely unforeseen by Pericles in his weighing of the war’s likely course, its wreckage went well beyond the horrific cost in human life; rather, its worst consequence — and the one that did the most to bring about Athens’ eventual defeat — was that it left “the fabric of society nearly broken, both intellect and virtue weakened or abused”. The underlying tensions had, no doubt, always been there. But by shattering life’s fragile steadiness, the epidemic raised conflicts to new heights, preparing the ground for “stasis” — society’s disintegration into factions.

    And as “man’s intelligence”, rather than calming the furies, “served to spread conflict far and wide”, even language was distorted beyond recognition, with words being used to mean their opposite: instead of connoting virtues, “moderation”, “careful analysis” and “patience” became insults to be hurled at “weaklings”, “procrastinators” and “cowards”.

    This was the original triumph of what George Orwell would later call “newspeak”. But Thucydides presented the phenomenon as far more terrifying than that Orwell imagined: not as something imposed from above by despots but as a spontaneous, altogether authentic voice roaring out of the political whirlwind.

    Moreover, once even the possibility of dialogue had broken down, extremism fed on itself in “a frenzied struggle to exceed one’s rivals at excess itself”. And the successive leadership changes that process unleashed failed to bring any lasting respite.

    In some cases, that was because the “new men” were dangerous demagogues, such as Cleon; in others, because they were, like ­Nicias, well-intentioned but ineffective. None could restore the dispositions that led to civic strength and individual attainment, or prevent those who degrade and debase from gaining ground.

    Little wonder then that, as Athens’ defeat approached, Thucydides stopped his account in mid-sentence: more than most, he knew that politics depends at least as much on hope as on fear — and at that point, his reserves of hope had run out.

    And little wonder too that so many troubled epochs — from the Rome of Catiline and Caesar to the England of Cromwell and Hobbes — have found Thucydides timely.

    Today, his echo resonates most loudly in the US, where the coronavirus — striking like the plague of Athens out of the blue — helped transform longstanding divisions into a war of all against all.

    Beginning with Tocqueville, American democracy’s greatest students invariably feared the tyranny of the majority, with its grinding conformity and its reduction of social life to solitary apathy; in contemporary America, as in Thucydides’s Athens, it is factious minorities, flexing their muscles with little regard for civility and the law, that have proven to be by far the more vicious tyrants.

    Entirely ignored in the firestorms they have ignited is Abraham Lincoln’s warning, delivered in one of his earliest and finest speeches, that should “the mobocratic spirit” — which “substitutes furious passions” for “the executive ministers of justice” — ever be allowed to prevail, “depend on it, government (of the people by the people) cannot last”.

    And even if those institutions withstand the shock, the confident belief that “we Americans are the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world” is grievously tattered, while the civil religion of “Americanism” which that belief sustained hangs by a thread.

    To say that is not to fall into a facile “declinism” that pines for a past that never was, laments a present that isn’t and despairs over a future that will not be.

    Whatever one makes of the election, this is hardly the first time — and certainly will not be the last — that like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, the president-elect seems more likely to prove a cork floating on the oceans than the moon controlling the tides. Time and again, America’s power and prosperity have survived that and worse.

    Nor would hopelessness about America’s prospects be faithful to Thucydides’s enduring insights.

    Observing human suffering “too great to be measured by tears”, he could be extremely bleak; yet he was no Euripides, for whom man is little more than a miserable wretch, who was only given the gift of forecasting the future so that the gods could ensure his unceasing disappointment.

    On the contrary, Thucydides’s history is perhaps unique among historical writings in its claim that mankind’s errors are rooted in human nature and its simultaneous insistence that they are mistakes that can and should be avoided. But if one thinks, as Thucydides did, that civilisation perpetually skates on thin ice, with murderous rage waiting to break through whenever brute chance strikes, then no virtues can be more important in avoiding humanity’s recurring errors than adaptability, moderation and prudence. And nowhere does it matter more to the cause of freedom that they be well implanted than in the United States.

    Whether the closeness of the result, and scars it will leave, ­finally hammer that home to America’s political elites remains to be seen. This much, however, is certain: until that lesson is learnt, Lincoln’s dream, that the nation the civil war was fought to preserve would, for centuries to come, rival the glory that was Periclean Athens, will remain a distant and fading ideal.

  11. Mak Siccar

    Uh oh. My copy and paste has been eaten by the Spaminator.

  12. Uh oh. My copy and paste has been eaten by the Spaminator.

    Perhaps, if it gets released, add another comment pointing to it so it is not missed by those who don’t make a habit of scrolling up.

  13. Steve of Kenmore

    Now reading Victor Hanson Davis’ highly regarded account of the wars. Comparing America to Athens.

  14. Mak Siccar

    Try again.

    US election: Elusive virtues that would help nation heal these scars HENRY ERGAS

    Abraham Lincoln warned of dire consequences should ‘the mobocratic spirit’ be allowed to prevail.

    11:00PM NOVEMBER 5, 2020

    Many decades ago, in that fleeting parenthesis between the ravages of Marxism and those of the assault on Dead White Males, there raged in academia something of a great debate about Thuc ydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

    As with most such debates, it is difficult to understand how issues that seem so peripheral could have provoked such excitement. And as so often happens, once each side had claimed its share of (balding) scalps, the combatants wearied of the whole thing and moved on.

    But while the participants were far too busy talking to listen carefully, those watching from the relative safety of the undergraduate benches soon learnt there was much more to Thu cydides than the puzzles that had triggered the storm.

    Nothing, it turned out, was accidental in the intricate masterpiece he worked on for at least 27 years. There were, in particular, good reasons the soaring beauty of Per icles’s Funeral Oration — which is now widely recited on Anzac Day — was immediately followed by an account of the devastating plague that hit Athens in the spring of 430BC, when the war was in its second year.

    After all, there are few more powerful exemplars of that untranslatable combination of intelligence, planning and resolve that the Athenians termed “gnome” than Peri cles’s call for his countrymen to prove worthy of “the praise that grows not old”.

    Yet there are also few more uncompromising demonstrations of the limitations of human foresight than the plague, which Pe ricles himself described as “the one phenomenon that proved stronger than our expectation”.

    Entirely unforeseen by Per icles in his weighing of the war’s likely course, its wreckage went well beyond the horrific cost in human life; rather, its worst consequence — and the one that did the most to bring about Athens’ eventual defeat — was that it left “the fabric of society nearly broken, both intellect and virtue weakened or abused”. The underlying tensions had, no doubt, always been there. But by shattering life’s fragile steadiness, the epidemic raised conflicts to new heights, preparing the ground for “stasis” — society’s disintegration into factions.

    And as “man’s intelligence”, rather than calming the furies, “served to spread conflict far and wide”, even language was distorted beyond recognition, with words being used to mean their opposite: instead of connoting virtues, “moderation”, “careful analysis” and “patience” became insults to be hurled at “weaklings”, “procrastinators” and “cowards”.

    This was the original triumph of what George Orwell would later call “newspeak”. But Thu cydides presented the phenomenon as far more terrifying than that Orwell imagined: not as something imposed from above by despots but as a spontaneous, altogether authentic voice roaring out of the political whirlwind.

    Moreover, once even the possibility of dialogue had broken down, extremism fed on itself in “a frenzied struggle to exceed one’s rivals at excess itself”. And the successive leadership changes that process unleashed failed to bring any lasting respite.

    In some cases, that was because the “new men” were dangerous demagogues, such as Cleon; in others, because they were, like ­Nicias, well-intentioned but ineffective. None could restore the dispositions that led to civic strength and individual attainment, or prevent those who degrade and debase from gaining ground.

    Little wonder then that, as Athens’ defeat approached, Thucydides stopped his account in mid-sentence: more than most, he knew that politics depends at least as much on hope as on fear — and at that point, his reserves of hope had run out.

    And little wonder too that so many troubled epochs — from the Rome of Catiline and Caesar to the England of Cromwell and Hobbes — have found Thu cydides timely.

    Today, his echo resonates most loudly in the US, where the coronavirus — striking like the plague of Athens out of the blue — helped transform longstanding divisions into a war of all against all.

    Beginning with Tocqueville, American democracy’s greatest students invariably feared the tyranny of the majority, with its grinding conformity and its reduction of social life to solitary apathy; in contemporary America, as in Thu cydides’s Athens, it is factious minorities, flexing their muscles with little regard for civility and the law, that have proven to be by far the more vicious tyrants.

    Entirely ignored in the firestorms they have ignited is Abraham Lincoln’s warning, delivered in one of his earliest and finest speeches, that should “the mobocratic spirit” — which “substitutes furious passions” for “the executive ministers of justice” — ever be allowed to prevail, “depend on it, government (of the people by the people) cannot last”.

    And even if those institutions withstand the shock, the confident belief that “we Americans are the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world” is grievously tattered, while the civil religion of “Americanism” which that belief sustained hangs by a thread.

    To say that is not to fall into a facile “declinism” that pines for a past that never was, laments a present that isn’t and despairs over a future that will not be.

    Whatever one makes of the election, this is hardly the first time — and certainly will not be the last — that like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, the president-elect seems more likely to prove a cork floating on the oceans than the moon controlling the tides. Time and again, America’s power and prosperity have survived that and worse.

    Nor would hopelessness about America’s prospects be faithful to Thucy dides’s enduring insights.

    Observing human suffering “too great to be measured by tears”, he could be extremely bleak; yet he was no Euripides, for whom man is little more than a miserable wretch, who was only given the gift of forecasting the future so that the gods could ensure his unceasing disappointment.

    On the contrary, Thu cyd ides’s history is perhaps unique among historical writings in its claim that mankind’s errors are r00ted in human nature and its simultaneous insistence that they are mistakes that can and should be avoided. But if one thinks, as Thu cydides did, that civilisation perpetually skates on thin ice, with murderous rage waiting to break through whenever brute chance strikes, then no virtues can be more important in avoiding humanity’s recurring errors than adaptability, moderation and prudence. And nowhere does it matter more to the cause of freedom that they be well implanted than in the United States.

    Whether the closeness of the result, and scars it will leave, ­finally hammer that home to America’s political elites remains to be seen. This much, however, is certain: until that lesson is learnt, Lincoln’s dream, that the nation the civil war was fought to preserve would, for centuries to come, rival the glory that was Periclean Athens, will remain a distant and fading ideal.

  15. Mak Siccar

    Second attempt failed even after guessing which words could be naughty.

  16. thefrollickingmole

    Thuc ydides triggers it.
    I dont know why or how, it just does.

  17. Spurgeon Monkfish III

    Uh oh. My copy and paste has been eaten by the Spaminator.

    Mak – you need to paste any text lifted from the Oz as “plain text”.

    Ross Cameron mentioned Thucy and the Peloponnesian War when the former spoke at CPAC on Wednesday.

  18. Bruce of Newcastle

    This is more like 632 AD. Two religions are at loggerheads. The new Green-Progressive religion thinks the world is going to fry in very few years time if they don’t force the entire population to do obeisance to their god. On the other side is the substantially Christian conservative section of US population, who pretty much reject the green-left’s apocalyptic views of global warming and refuse to do all the other woke stuff like worshiping at the altar of SSM and abortion.

    The problem is the green-left won’t take no for an answer because of their existential (imaginary) fears. So they feel empowered to do absolutely anything to force obedience upon the US population. Like stealing elections.

    So it’s not a Thuc ydides trap, it’s worse than that: an olde style fanatical religion on the warpath. And there can be no healing because the fanatical religion is new and rejects the compromises that have historically oiled the gears of the US civil polity.

  19. Bruce of Newcastle

    And thanks Mole for finding the magic word!

  20. Mak Siccar

    thefrollickingmole
    #3647567, posted on November 6, 2020 at 11:11 am
    Thuc ydides triggers it.
    I dont know why or how, it just does.

    I thought I found all of these, and inserted a space therein, in my second attempt. Oh well.

    Spurgeon Monkfish III
    #3647630, posted on November 6, 2020 at 11:37 am
    Uh oh. My copy and paste has been eaten by the Spaminator.

    Mak – you need to paste any text lifted from the Oz as “plain text”.

    Thanks. I’m not sure that that is an option on the iPad. I’ll look closer next time.

  21. Bruce of Newcastle

    Oops, sorry about the triple posting, looks like Sinc has found the spam bin full of Greek generals.

  22. Rex Anger

    An interesting read, thanks to all Cats.

    But I am inclined.to agree with Bruce of Newy (Don’t you ever let a chance go by, my goodan! 😁).

    From my limited readings of the Pelopponesian war, Thucydides described the interactions of many tightly interlinked players and small polities in the orbit of bigger ones. And how all inexorably got dragged into the stoush between the two big players in Athens and Sparta.

    A closer modern approximation would be the path into World War One, with the intricate and intertwined big Imperial players and smaller Imperial players. Though, as history shows, Germany wanted the war and was happy to sacrifce the actual flexibility of its mobilisation planning in order to stick the boot into France and Belguim first.

    In fact, I would argue that we a sick amalgam of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War period (Holy Roman Empire declining and being pushed back in traditionally ‘safe’ territories. Only we have no Gustavus Adolphus or Sweden-equivalent on our side, and the UN andGlobal elite play boh he Vatican and The Inquisition), and Soviet Russia’s attempts to create a colonial empire onnhe cheap post-1945. They supply the guns and the money, the stooges provide the bodies.

    In effect, the Red Flag is now painted Green (complimentary colours in the painting world, Cats! Consider that…), and the Hammer and Sickle are less obvious as they are depicted in the hands of an effigy of an androgynous, hermaphroditic ‘Mamma Gaia.’ Whichakes it al totally Okay, Comrades!

  23. Tel

    So it’s not a Thuc ydides trap, it’s worse than that: an olde style fanatical religion on the warpath. And there can be no healing because the fanatical religion is new and rejects the compromises that have historically oiled the gears of the US civil polity.

    https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2011/04/the_un_and_one_world_worship.html

    The Pope has signed onto this, so it’s the old religion being led into the new religion.

    But with the official establishment of the worship of a goddess of the earth, we now see a broad ranging attempt to rectify communism’s atheist problem; first by the embracing of communism’s basic tenets by liberation theology, which is characterized by Marxist dialect applied as a hard shell lacquer over traditional Christian theology; and secondly, by the substitution of a Gaia/Pachamama Earth goddess for the Judeo/Christian God.

    The two overtly religious substitutions for atheism are perfectly suited to Marxist goals.

    That’s exactly what Pope Francis is teaching.

  24. Rex Anger

    An interesting read, thanks to all Cats.

    But I am inclined.to agree with Bruce of Newy (Don’t you ever let a chance go by, my goodan! 😁).

    From my limited readings of the Pelopponesian war, Thucydides described the interactions of many tightly interlinked players and small polities in the orbit of bigger ones. And how all inexorably got dragged into the stoush between the two big players in Athens and Sparta.

    A closer modern approximation would be the path into World War One, with the intricate and intertwined big Imperial players and smaller Imperial players. Though, as history shows, Germany wanted the war and was happy to sacrifce the actual flexibility of its mobilisation planning in order to stick the boot into France and Belguim first.

    In fact, I would argue that we a sick amalgam of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War period (Holy Roman Empire declining and being pushed back in traditionally ‘safe’ territories. Only we have no Gustavus Adolphus or Sweden-equivalent on our side, and the UN andGlobal elite play boh he Vatican and The Inquisition), and Soviet Russia’s attempts to create a colonial empire onnhe cheap post-1945. They supply the guns and the money, the stooges provide the bodies.

    In effect, the Red Flag is now painted Green (complimentary colours in the painting world, Cats! Consider that…), and the Hammer and Sickle are less obvious as they are depicted in the hands of an effigy of an androgynous, hermaphroditic ‘Mamma Gaia.’ Whichakes it al totally Okay, Comrades!

  25. Rex Anger

    I m sad to say that I had a comment in thjs matter. I tried to post it twice. And just gone.

    Sod WordPress some days…

  26. HGS

    The USA is not ancient Athens. The US has not engaged is widespread war to create an Empire and then pillaged its own allies. The US has always paid its way and generally produced peace.

    Nor is it Rome. The US has not defeated and subjected all around them and then hung on and to empire into dotage.

    Yet the US seems broken and spent. Can those who make up the US continue the experiment with freedom and prosperity?

    Are there a few good people with the capability, the ‘vitues’, to save the day? Very unlikely, as the great Greek historian showed, there is never a recovery. What tomorrow brings will be very different.

  27. Rex Anger

    I tried to post something similar to these before, albeit bigger and with more analogies. It was nommed. Twice. Sod WordPress 🙁

    @ Bruce-

    I think you are on the right track. Ditto to you, HGS.

    Rather than being a complicated interplay of small and large factions sliding around the machinations of a few big players, I think the USA and West are facing a combination of the Thirty Years’ War situation in Europe (H oly Roman Empire and Inquisition being played by our world’s Davos types and their bugman minions; No clear equivalent Gustavus Adolphus and muscular Kingdom of Sweden as yet identifiable on the side of we deplorables and proles), and Soviet Russia’s attempts to build a global colonial empire on the cheap post-1945 (Russkies supply guns and money, Commie stooges supply the cannon fodder. In USA, Georgy Sore-Arse and various very rich Elites play the former role, and we all know which groups are supplying the rubes).

    Given the generational trail of destruction each event has carved in its own little corner of the world, it is not a nice amalgam to observe…

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