Against His-story, Against Leviathan! Chapter 8
Returning eastward from Thrace, the Persians tangle with Aegean and Anatolian Greeks, people called Mushki on ancient tablets. The Persians’ own one-time Scythian companions.
It is true that the Aegean and Ionian seas are veritable hornets’ nests of petty quarrels, feuds and never ending wars among puny cities.
But on closer inspection the former Mushki are not at all as the Assyrian and Babylonian tablets describe them. They speak the Greek dialect of the Persians’ own original tongue, but in all other respects those the Assyrians called Muski are Phoenicians-not like the Phoenicians of Darius’s day, but like the ancient world-embracing Phoenicians. They write their Greek with Phoenician characters, wear Phoenician garments, tell Phoenician tales, travel in Phoenician ships, and every little city has trading posts in every part of the Mediterranean, just like the Phoenicians.
Every city, called a Polis, has shrines to gods, some of them Phoenician. But the Temple is not where the gods are. The gods are in Agora, the marketplace.
The men of the polis are all merchants of wine and olives-all, that is, except the slaves-and all swindle and lie as expertly as Phoenicians. They claim to derive their physical strength from their vigorous exercising in the sun, but the Persians quickly learn that at least part of the Greeks’ strength comes from the shiploads of wheat which arrive daily, and although the Greeks try to lie about the source of the wheat, Darius discovers that these former Mushki have no trouble locating the Scythians; like true Phoenicians, they give a few jars of olives and some jugs of wine to a few Scythian strongmen and they return to the Aegean with all the wheat they can eat.
The Assyrian-armored Persians instinctively see the weak spot of these tiny Greek Phoenicias with their floating empires: the Greek cities cannot feed large armies; they must keep their wealth afloat and even to maintain it. The Persians know they can be masters of every Anatolian polis in a single campaign.
But such a campaign is unnecessary. The Greeks also know their own weakness, and each Ionian polis outdoes all the others in emptying all its visible coffers and ships to regale Darius the Great with more gifts than his army can carry to Persepolis. Like the second Hiram of Tyre, the Greeks try to buy their way out of the world-embracing Leviathan’s entrails.
The great Darius, cynically “King by the grace of Ahura Mazda,” surely recognizes something that makes these Greeks differ from all their predecessors.
The Greeks know that their gods are dead, that the Temples are empty. When they listen to a recitation of Hesiod’s description of the age when gods mingled with men, the listeners concentrate on counting the strophes in Hesiod’s lines.
Darius must wish the Persians who listen to recitations of Zarathustra’s visions would learn to concentrate on meter and verse. Darius’s own cynicism surely helps him recognize that the Greeks are becoming something we call Secular, and he surely thinks them unique in this, for he cannot know that distant Chinese are at that very moment hurling themselves into a similar secularism.
The Greeks still make, or pretend to make, sacrifices and offerings to their gods; they don’t kill and plunder for the sake of killing and plundering. But when they go to their Temples and shrines, the Greeks do not concentrate on gods, even dead gods. They concentrate on the lines, forms and colors of the roofs and columns.
How is this possible? The old Phoenicians couldn’t bear to live without their dead Baal, they couldn’t bear to see themselves as mere merchants of purple and ivory.
The Greeks can bear this no better than their mentors. They dread the thought of a new Hesiod describing a sixth generation made of no metal whatever but of wine and olive oil stored in clay vases. They speak of everything except the wine and olive oil and the slaves who harvest, squeeze and store the olive oil and the slaves who harvest, squeeze and store the juices. No, they do not think themselves merchants of wine and olives. They think themselves expert judges of lines, forms and colors, even those on the outside of the vases.
The Greeks are what we call Connoisseurs of Art. They’ve performed the feat of transferring the Temple’s activities to the Agora. They’re able to do this because few of their Temple’s activities came from their own past; many come from Phoenicia and never had much meaning for the Greeks.
When they’re through ransacking the Temple, they’ve forged activities that no longer have any connection to their own or anyone else’s past. What to all others is the sole reality loses all its reality among the Greeks. The great enactments are reduced to Drama, the shrines to architecture, the visions to Painting and Sculpture. The externalization of visions becomes Art; the internal probings become Philosophy; the sharing becomes Rhetoric.
The Greeks have inverted the relation between the Temple and the Leviathan. For all their predecessors, the artificial beast, however large and strong, was a mere tool, an instrument for feeding the dead gods in the Temple. But the Greeks have taken the fragments of their disemboweled Temple and turned them into mere ornaments of their Leviathan. The only god they worship is this polis, although they worship only a polis that is properly adorned.
Their Aristotle will think that their enactments and ornaments serve to purge people of their armor, to purify them, but this man will see many things through lenses that invert for him things clearly visible to others. The Greeks’ enactments and ornaments serve to prevent people from purging and purifying themselves, for they cover up the armor, mask it, give it the appearance of Art.
Darius the Persian must know that the Greeks are far ahead of his Canaanite subjects on the Levant who actually worship the abstraction of Leviathan, but who treat this abstraction as if it were a Sumerian god and make their actual Leviathan subservient to it. These Canaanites even persecute Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Samaritans, Phoenicians and other Canaanites who do not worship the abstraction in their Temple.
Only much later people who claim to be heirs of Moses will learn to worship the actual Leviathan, but in this they will be heirs of the Greeks and of the later English Greeks of Hobbes’s age who will try to perform the feat of worshipping Leviathan unadorned.
Darius and his strongmen learn what they can, and soon their capital Persepolis and their administrative center Susa fill with buildings which are not Temples and with monuments which are not shrines. Soon Architecture rises on the Fertile Crescent, for the first time, and Persians who had sought the light of Ahura Mazda find the artificial light of Art.
During the reigns of Zerzes and Artazerzes, the Persian Leviathan becomes increasingly adorned, and by the reign of the second Darius it is as pretty as a polis.
By the time the third and last Darius flees from Aristotle’s world-renowned pupil, the Persians will know of Zarathustra almost as little as the Greeks, and although the Greeks will render the name as Zoroaster, they will know only the name.
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The Persian rulers try to stay out of the Aegean hornets’ nest, where every little polis would try to draw the entire worm into a petty feud against a neighboring polis.
Consequently, not every Greek polis falls into the Persian Leviathan’s embrace. And the unswallowed Greeks do not hesitate to exploit the handicap of their brethren, any more than Phoenicians hesitated to exploit the ignorance of their fellow-Canaanites whose Egyptian captivity had given them no understanding of trade.
Actually, not all Aegean Greeks benefit from the plight of their Anatolian brethren. Some, like the Spartans, are not able to derive any benefit from it. The Spartans, many generations earlier, had tried to remain in what Hesiod called their first age. Women had remained important among them, and men had been content to behave more as ornaments than as masters. But the Spartans had made the mistake of trying to preserve their vanishing community by forcing others to provision it, by conquering and enslaving their Messenian neighbors. Instead of preserving anything worth keeping, this act had turned the Spartans into frozen armors glued to their spears, ever-fearful that the former Messenians reduce to Helots would rise and extinguish the little that was left of Sparta.
The Greeks who gain from the Ionians’ discomfiture are the ones who have preserved nothing from their past, those of Corinth, Aegina, Eretria, and above all Athens.
Dracon’s laws have reduced seed planters to debtors, and former debtors are now slaves who ornament merchants of wine and olives. For the merchants, the world is an object of plunder. Earth is not Mother. She’s a swirl of moving atoms, just like the polis.
Every little city, although a hornet to Darius, is in fact the head of an octopus, with free-moving tentacles probing every cove and crevice along the Mediterranean’s shores, with trading posts and colonies on the shores of Africa, Spain and Italy. The Greek tentacles try not to cross paths with the tentacles sent out be Carthage, Gades or Tartessus, for the Greeks are not sure of their commercial prowess in the face of the actual Phoenicians who still operate from these places. But the Greeks, especially the Athenians, go everwhere else, and nothing deters them from sending ships full of merchandise to the outposts and colonies of the unfortunate Ionians who have to empty their ships to please Persian Darius. And by defeating the fleet sent against them by Darius’s son Xerxes, the Athenians save themselves from paying tribute to Persia and quickly become as wealthy as their Phoenician mentors’ surviving heirs, the Carthagenians.
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Now begins the rise of that great and greater Athens so highly admired by the later Western Spirit and its so-called Renaissance. The following six generations will teem, in armored Western eyes, with infinitely varied “forms of freedom.”
The “forms of freedom” will be visible to those who look at Athenian Rhetoric and not at the slaves, grapes and olives.
Athenian rhetoric proclaims that the Anatolian cities are now free and can resume where they left off.
But the undefeated Athenian navy embraces them all in a Delian Confederacy, a rhetorical name for the Athenian Empire. Caian and Lydian towns which politely refuse to be embraced are coerced by the seaborne Athenian octopus that replaces the landborne Persian worm.
Discord reaches the metropolis itself. Two parties form, a Worm Party and an Octopus Party.
The authoritarians in the Worm party know that an empire needs a large concentration of military power to keep from dismembering.
The merchants in the Octopus Party, led by the constitutional tyrant Pericles, know that the wealth of Athens comes from its freely-moving tentacles, and that a large military concentration would eat up the sources of the wealth, empty the ships and lose the empire. The merchants know that the tentacles are not free human beings but bits of armor, parts of the polis, splinters which, like arrows, serve their purpose only when they’re loosed.
For this mercantile good sense, Archon Pericles will be praised in a later day as a defender of freedom.
Pericles defends the freedom of commodity circulation, not the freedom of people. Two thirds of the population of the very metropolis consists of zeks, of labor gangs engaged in mining, quarrying, crafts, personal service. And the cities in the Athenian Empire are tribute-payers like the cities in the Persian Empire.
The Worm Party is defeated, but Athenians do not give up their wormlike aspirations. They try to embrace their entire hinterland, Hesiod’s Boeotia, within their Empire. This leads to war with Thebes as well as Sparta, and the Athenians under Pericles begin the metamorphoses, the almost daily change from a flexible octopus to an entrenched worm, to and fro. Under Pericles they send tentacles to Egypt, yet build walls. Defeated by Spartans and their allies, the Athenians give up their land empire, but they rush to reduce sea colonies Samos and Byzantium.
Inside the metropolis itself rise what Toynbee will describe as supremely beautiful architectural works paid with imperial tribute exacted by Athenian armed force and, I would add, by commercial wile.
Periclean freedom is the freedom of claws and tentacles to grab whatever can be reached. It is the function of the supremely beautiful art and architecture and drama to conceal the claws and tentacles, first of all from the Athenians themselves.
The Athenians are nevertheless aware of the claws and tentacles, since they operate them. Only later apologists for other claws will see nothing but supreme beauty in Periclean Athens.
Flushed with the power of successful imperialists, Archon Pericles and his fellow merchants go too far. The Athenians themselves call such overreach Hubris: blind arrogance. They try to grab for themselves the overseas outposts of Corinth.
But Corinth is not an Ionian polis disabled by Persian tribute collectors. Corinth is a next-door neighbor, second only to Athens in overseas possessions.
Now begins the tale of inhuman violence by land and by sea, of enslavements, massacres and plagues known as the Peloponesian War and preserved for etenity’s perusal by Thucydides.
Every Athenian ally, every confederate and every colony rebels against the form of freedom Periclean Athens had shared with them.
After more than a generation of fratricidal and genocidal war, Athens is reduced to just another polis, a polis overloaded with monuments of past glory.
And the reduced Athenians become pious. They order the execution of a man called Socrates because he announces publicly that the Athenians’ gods are dead. They’ve been dead for ages, but this is not the time to announce their demise. Without the cover of their gods, Athenians are only wine and olive merchants, and not first rate merchants at that. The Phoenecians of Carthage on Africa’s northern shore are shrewder, and among Greeks, Syracuse has outrun Athens in size and wealth, if not in beautiful works.
The great age of Athens is over. Athens has risen and fallen. All that’s left is Plato’s attempt to found the ideal Leviathan, the perfect polis.
Plato is a typical Athenian. He speaks of the Leviathan with the language of the Temple. He concentrates on the ornaments that conceal the armor. He refers to slaves, grapes and olives only when he explains that some are born to squeeze the juices, others to sell them. Actually, he thinks slaves will be happy if someone explains this to them.
Plato does not know, cannot know, that a contemporary of his in distant China is devising an almost identical theory using the language of Leviathan itself, unadorned.
This exact contemporary of Plato is Shang Yang, minister to the Duke of Ch’in who is their heir to a worm segment on China’s western edge, a segment that may have been carried there by Assyrian-influenced pastoral nomads or even by Scythians.
Shang Yang’s ideal polis has none of Plato’s frills. The philosopher-king of this Republic starts things moving by making the land of peasant communities a marketable commodity. Next, merchants impoverish the peasants and drive them into debt. Now the Duke expropriates the defaulting peasants, or else the peasants themselves sell their land to get out of debt. Either way, the ancient community based on kinship is broken up, the land passes to the Duke and his henchmen, and a large number of landless former peasants is available for labor gangs and armies. On this solid basis, Leviathan is constructed. It is bonded by coercion. Its elders are the secret police. Its argument is terror. Music, poetry and morality subvert its ends and are totally liquidated. The purpose of the machine is to enlarge itself by perpetual war and preparation for war.
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Plato and Shang Yang both find monarchs to whom to offer their services, but only Shang Yang’s accepts the offering. The Syracusan tyrant to whom Plato offers his services has no use for the frills. Syracuse no longer uses the language of the Temple.
Plato’s admirer and pupil Aristotle puts the master’s wisdom into textbooks, a form suitable for the Academy, and when Philip the Macedonian invites this philosopher to tell his son Alexander all there is to know about the polis, Aristotle accepts the invitation.
Philip himself has been getting along without the philosopher’s wisdom. He started out
by repairing a rusty segment abandoned in Thrace by Darius the Persian during the hunt
for Scythians. Philip knows things that Aristotle doesn’t know. He knows—perhaps
intuitively, perhaps he’s heard of Phoenicia’s fate—that a seaborne octopus is no match
for a landborne worm, especially now, when every polis in the Aegean has been
exhausted by Athens’s attempt to be both an octopus and a worm.
The last defender of the Athenian octopus is a man called Demosthenes. Others send embassies to Phillip. The Octopus Party founded by Pericles seems to have perished with the sea empire.
Demosthenes defends the octopus. But Demosthenes is an Athenian and an orator. He speaks Rhetoric, the ornamented language that conceals instead of revealing. If he wer Shang Yang he would speak directly of the wine and olives, he would remind his fellow Athenians that their wealth, such as it is, still comes from the continual circulation of the commodities in their ships, and that even a brief visit by Philip’s army would empty the ships; should Philip stay longer, the ships would stop moving and the Athenian merchants would become as poor as their slaves.
Demosthenes’ listeners would be deaf even to Shang Yang’s clear warnings, because the Athenians prefer to face several Philips rather than another Peloponesian war, and other Greeks cannot imagine the Macedonians being worse than the Athenian Confederation. They invite, or at least pretend to invite the Macedonian, silencing all who call for resistance.
And of course they’re wrong and Demosthenes, or rather Shang Yang, is right. Athens fares no better in the entrails of a Macedonian worm than the second Hiram’s Tyre fared in the Assyrian worm.
The story of the Greek polis and its free-moving tentacles is completely over. Leviathanized humanity has taken another great step up the ladder. Philip of Macedon will be a name known to every schoolchild.
The only polis left is distant Syracuse, situated on an island halfway between Italy and Carthage, and Syracuse will never be as pretty as Athens still is. The Athenians had ransacked their Temple and pulled its contents into the Agora, they had already profaned what was once sacred, but they had done all this with painters’ brushes, with Art. The Syracusans do it with butchers’ knives, and soon their Archimedes will sell the power of the visionary to a tyrant who will turn them against Life itself, against Mother Earth. This Archimedes will boast “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world,” and when the tyrant kills with the inventor’s levers and pulleys, Archimedes will shout “Eureka!” Syracuse is no longer a pretty polis. It is situated between the ornamented world of the Greek polis and an unadorned future world of labor gangs and killing machines whoe dried up visionaries will express their lethal moral precepts by translating “Eureka!” into “It works!”
As soon as Philip enters, Achaean Greeks leave their beautifully ornamented cities. Their ships start to rot and will soon join the ships of Tyre on the bottom of the sea. The former wine and olive merchants hire themselves out to any ruler with wealth enough to engage mercenaries. From now on there will be Greeks on both sides of every war in eastern Eurasia west of China.
Philip is apparently murdered by order of young Alexander’s mother. The brave Demosthenes proposes a decree to the memory of the tyrant’s murderer.
But the tyrant’s son is not about to put into practice precepts he learned from Aristotle. Neither his mother nor his father’s strongmen have this in mind. Even if Alexander looked behind his teacher and learned on his own about the grapes and olives, there’s nothing he can do to make the octopus run.
So twenty-year old Alexander lets himself become “the Great.” He lets a handful of strongmen call him General of the Greeks, and he sets out with his flatterers to become King of Kings and Lord of Lords, following paths broken in for him by Crus, two Sargons and Lugalzaggizi, at last burning out in Babylon at thirty-three.
Many of the remaining Greeks leave the polis to help raise the General of the Greeks to the throne vacated by the third and last Darius, and they encounter fellow Greeks hired to keep the Persian from falling off his throne.
These Greeks, at least some of them, become administrators of the realms carved out of Alexander’s unwieldy Leviathan by the strongmen who’d had precisely this in mind when they’d set out with Aristotle’s pupil. Each strongman becomes a King of Kings in one or several of the myriad languages of Alexander’s decomposed Leviathan, and soon Greek ornaments, the frills that will later be hailed as “forms of freedom,” adorn, cover and conceal the fangs and claws of every conceivable type of artificial worm.
* * *
After the greatest of all Greek victories, the Greeks who welcomed Philip are shackled by tribute collections, conscript hunts and night searches—what we will call taxes, law and order. The very homeland of the polis is invaded, occupied, garrisoned, and plundered, first by Philip’s former strongman Antipater, then by Alexander’s mother, later by a sequence of Antigonuses, Demetriuses and Philips, until a fifth Philip experiences the fate of the third Darius and falls into the jaws of the next Leviathan. Another His-story ends. Enthusiasts for the polis become librarians and antiquarians.
This sequence of atrocities will turn up in books of His-story as an edifying sequence of advances. But these events are not experienced as human advances by those who live them.
The playwright Menander expresses the depth of his enthusiasm for the march of Civilization by reflecting, “Wisest is he who has fewest expectation, and happiest who dies young.”
The philosopher Zeno no longer has even a shred of the patriotism of his predecessor Aristotle and Plato. In Zeno’s eyes, everything in the Leviathanic world is a necessary evil. The enthusiasm of the polis-builders gives way to the resignation of zeks.
Epicurus says it too: Hell is right here, it is the man-made world you’re in, and the gods are too remote to help you, so live unobtrusively and, with luck, you’ll have nothing to fear.
There are some, called Cynics, who go even further. They say there’s nothing at all human about Leviathan, and the only human alternative is to disregard Polity altogether and live by one’s conscience.
Not since Hesiod’s age have Greeks turned their backs on Civilization so completely.
The resistance, rejection and withdrawal are either skipped in accounts of His-story, or else they’re compartmentalized and explained away as “religion.” Yet these are the only parts of the story tat have any human meaning. All the rest is a tale of worms, a tale of huge, maneating, earthwrecking artificial worms.
The story of Alexander’s successors is a tale of cruelty and war between rival Leviathans trying to eat each other. They all end up being eaten by a worm manned by new pastoral nomads fed up with conscript hunts, tribute raids and merchant caravans. Nomadic Parni tribes through whose lands the caravans move to China and back set out to shorten Civilization’s career, but like so many predecessors they end up stretching a Parthian Leviathan over the eastern provinces of Alexander’s realm.
Next door to Parthia, Cheng puts Shang Yang’s precepts into practice and becomes Shih Huang-ti, first emperor of a unified Chinese Leviathan.
In the Mediterranean, everyone’s eyes are on Syracuse, the last surviving wealthy and powerful Greek polis. Syracuse is starting to tangle with the Carthaginian octopus. But we will look elsewhere, because we will know that both Syracuse and Carthage are going to be swallowed—Carthage will in fact be destroyed—by a worm no one can see yet, a worm called Rome.
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