"Hellenism will never die. It is the first and last hope for Mankind."
Classics scholars John Heath and Victor Hanson are interviewed by Davlos correspondent Nancy Biska about their book, Who Killed Homer?, and about the almost total ignorance of the American people concerning the priceless heritage of Western Civilization bequeathed to them by the Greeks.
N. B. What do you believe are the ingredients required for a "healthy" globalism? Or, put another way, which are those factors that unite humanity and which are those that divide it?
V. H. Globalism in reality represents the Western way of ordering society carried to the highest power. That is, free markets, freedom of expression, freedom to rid oneself of local prejudices, progress in science and technology without interference from cultural or religious institutions, and the like.
What we in the West must remind the rest of the world about is the fact that there have always been opposing concepts (to unhindered market forces and economic rationalism): concepts that are not antithetical but are of vital importance to our civilization, such as indigenous religions, patriotism, pride in one's language and country, etc. That these concepts are compatible to our Western way of thought, and that they must be made to fit in with the dizzying rate of change we are experiencing. There must also be honesty on the part of our western intellectuals who all too often -- and with a worrying arbitrariness -- reject globalism, while at the same time routinely fly in jet planes, enjoy cheap electronic appliances, and accept funding in the form of grants from multinational corporations.
So that intellectuals and scholars must not be hypocritical in their "boutique" criticism of globalism, but should work hard in order to find a balance between globalism and the very real damage that it causes to local cultures: something not in the least bit desired.
J. H. Globalism is a slippery "sugar-coated" concept. If we mean by that term that humanity will share some specific values, then we are heading in that direction at a very fast pace indeed. And these values are most assuredly western in essence: democracy, free markets, freedom of speech, the right to self-determination, etc. But this process contains the risk of reducing all of us to the lowest common denominator; to creating a "mall-mentality," a consumer paradise where what we will be sharing will be mass-produced "designer" clothing , hamburgers, and soft drinks.
All civilizations are not equal
N. B. Which are the influences that the United States credits for her culture, her progress, and her position as the world's leading power?
V. H. We [Americans] are Westerners in our institutions, which means that our values have come to us from ancient Greece and Rome via the English Enlightenment. The United States adopted the classical Greek concept of Freedom -- both in its culture and in its economics -- pushing this concept to its theoretical limits to a degree that Europe had imagined but had never accomplished. This has given us a level of dynamism akin to perpetual motion -- occasionally expressing itself brutally and thoughtlessly -- unique in the annals of Western history.
J. H. The United States owes its current position of world dominance to the fact that she created the kind of an environment where the dynamism inherent in human nature was set free. This dynamism has two sides, as the ancient Greeks well knew. Communism, fascism, and even free-wheeling democracy make the mistake of trying to "reinvent" human nature. When a society is allowed to progress with a minimum of outside interference, the highest levels of progress in the technological and economic fields are achieved. Of course, there is always a price that must be paid for such progress, as, for instance, in the impact it may have on the environment.
N. B. How do we counter the Asiatic "irrationalism" -- theocracy, fanaticism, mysticism -- that is being presented as an alternative to the Western way of life?
V. H. We have to use the "gift of Hellenism," with logic and critical exactness, in combination with the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas, in order to counter this challenge with validity in the global arena. All cultures may have an innate importance, but this does not mean that all cultures are equal. Theocracy and fanaticism mean nothing but misery and sorrow for humanity; and we must have the courage to espouse this view categorically. In any case, I would also like to see closer ties and a more general atmosphere of good will among the western nations, and hope that they will value the priceless Hellenic heritage we all share.
We often "quarrel" among ourselves without ever considering or appreciating the fact that our freedoms, our religious tolerance, and our open societies do not, in reality, constitute the "norm" in today's world; as recent events [of September 11] have clearly shown us.
J. H. It's true that we in the West have an element that might be categorized as "fanatical."... The difference being that in our societies we define these elements as "extremist," and that they constitute a very small, albeit odious, minority. On the other hand, the irrationalism we encounter, and which is so prominent in the East, seems to be inextricably interwoven with religious irreconcilability. Theocracy as a conviction is not open to dialogue. It's a "matter of culture." The classical Greeks defined a framework within which there was a separation between the state and religion, as well as between the armed forces and religion. Which, by the way, is the main reason the West has been so successful militarily. Unfortunately, the only way to defeat the hatred toward anything that is "different" -- a hatred that led directly to the events of September 11 -- is to "root it out and destroy it."
The Emperor has no clothes
N. B. Please comment upon the two trends of "postmodernism" and "multiculturalism," which seem to have so influenced scholarly initiative in the United States.
V. H. Postmodernism is currently in a state of disrepute, just as it was held in disrepute by the intellectuals of ancient Greece, so it is held today by the intellectuals of our generation. The idea that what passes for reality is simply the result of social constructs set up to serve the interests of an elite establishment, and that no idea is inherently true, has only one "truth," which is: it is not true! Postmodernism is attractive to the semi-educated in America, because their nihilism can always be shown to be -- in a superficial way -- rhetorically "charismatic" when confronted by the challenge of real learning. Unfortunately, we've bred a generation of conjecturers who have not an inkling of knowledge about Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Sophocles, and who avoid like the plague the hard work of real study and research. They simply mimic the meaningless sophistries of a Foucault or a Derrida. There is nothing so infuriating as the marriage of ignorance and arrogance, which seems to characterize this generation of American academics, especially in the area of the Humanities. It's a sad fact that most of these "scholars" have determined that "the emperor has no clothes," and so we are witnessing a "disorderly retreat" away from the postmodernism of the 80s and the 90s. For all that, those were critical years, during which lives were "lost" in the scramble to accommodate a fashionable mental disorder disguised as pseudo-science.
Multiculturalism is something having a totally different approach from that of postmodernism, and is hypocritical and singularly unpersuasive in its appeal. Very few people in the U. S .would really prefer the political system of China, or would tolerate a Taliban-like treatment for women, or a Saudi Arabian form of "religious tolerance." It took centuries to create a symbiotic culture which satisfies the yearnings of various races under one mutually acceptable Western prototype. The Hellenic ideals of culture and civilization have given humanity the one and only hope for freedom and dignity. [Consequently] it is an act of arson to destroy such a laborious and difficult effort, placing us instead in a hodge-podge of racial categories, in order to present us as "victims" of various forms of oppression. Multiculturalism, in reality, has a very horrific and dangerous "rap-sheet" [astinomiko mitroou] in the 20th century. In its current form, multiculturalism manifests itself mainly as a rhetorical and political phenomenon; as a result, it has very few real adherents in the West. At least I haven't seen anyone in California demanding that we adopt the Chinese view of individual freedom, or Saudi Arabian surgical procedures, or the Algerian political system. In the main, multiculturalism is a cynical way of obtaining governmental or private grants for guilt-ridden -- but basically naďve -- colleges and institutions.
J. H. Postmodernism is simply a poorly-done rehashing of ancient sophistry. It is a game played by the arrivč academicians in the Sociological Sciences and the Liberal Arts. A plethora of books and articles have been written showing its contradictions; for example, the postmodernists tell us that language determines our apprehension of the world, and that language is so inconstant and changeable (if it is any of these things) that it is impossible to determine anything at all with any certitude. The "truth" (always in quotes for the postmodernists), relative to History, Literature, and even Physics, is determined by the "ego." Naturally, they don't believe any of this, otherwise they would not go through so much trouble to find arguments to "prove" that this method is the best way to examine phenomena (according to them, there is no better way). No one outside of the world of Academia believes these postmodern axioms. Actually, very few people are even aware of their existence.
Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is a framework of belief that tells us that we must all "feel good about ourselves." This is the prevalent ethos not only in the university, but it is also the overriding ethos of the guilt-ridden liberals in America. This peculiar vision of reality is the hideous offshoot of Identity Politics: the judging of individuals based solely upon their ethnicity and upon the history of their race. This is arrant racism and completely totalitarian in its application.
Multiculturalism teaches that your are that which you were born and that you must either be punished or rewarded accordingly. Nowadays, we see a new form of multiculturalism which endeavors to convince us that it simply endorses tolerance towards those who are different. But of course tolerance is an absolute value and the multiculturalists should practice what they preach by tolerating those who are "intolerant" in order to be consistent. The most important thing is that the multiculturalists in America don't mean what they advocate. They don't want to see differing cultural values. They espouse the glories of "difference," while showing a distinct preference for democracy, free markets, separation of church and state, etc. All cultures are not really equal, and the multiculturalists show us by their preference for our Western way of life that they do not differ from this assessment; if they've ever thought about these contradictions at all, which I seriously doubt.
Hellenism answers the human need for knowledge
N. B. Why, in your opinion, have these trends developed, and why have they been embraced by supposedly knowledgeable professors? How could the academic community in the U. S. tolerate this "scholarly nonsense" -- especially since it is supported by such pseudo-scientific argument?
V. H. That is a very good question, which, unfortunately, may cause us some concern. We've created a well-funded, self-contented, and permanent "professorate," which has become accustomed to enjoying a high level of independence, lots of personal free time, and the acquisition of material goods unheard of in any university or college system in history. A system, in other words, ripe for abuse; a "professorate" responsible for its own progress which has perhaps discovered that its unconventional and "dangerous" ideas have never really had any serious negative affect on its lifestyle. On the other hand, this "professorate" may see the university as an easy way to sooth its guilt and to mitigate the disappointments which stem from the real-life problems which it either doesn't want or hasn't the ability to confront by actually working next to those who labor for their daily bread, or by teaching in the ghetto.
These acts require real work and a courageous determination to break free from the rhetoric of the salon which predominates nowadays in the colleges of America. This "professorate" has become the "court jesters" who wear the multicolored costumes and the bells and whistles of our age.
J. H. I would not want to oversimplify so vexing and complicated a problem, but the answer to your question is obvious: it pays! The professors who play the game of postmodernism do so for the conventions they are invited to attend, the articles they write that would not otherwise be published, the peer validation, and for the insignificant esteem bestowed upon them by the university. Most practicing U. S. professors don't really believe in postmodernism, but the colleges and universities they work for are hotbeds of insecurity and timidity. Heaven forbid that they should deviate from the politically correct party line. Remember, the very same professors who support the idea that the science of Physics is nothing more than a "phrasal construct," and that a White male is a western farce who persecutes others as a matter of routine, is the very same individual who exploits and enjoys this "western farce" each time he hurries to the airport in order to board a flight on a jet plane which will take him to the next convention. The fiction of David Lodgels [who writes about these things] has not been as appreciated as it should be.
N. B. Why is it that now that access to education is so much more widespread, we have this surprising dichotomy of more and more "educated" people willing to accept these obviously untrue and wrongheaded arguments and theories?
V. H. We seem to have become more of a "therapeutic" rather than a "tragic" civilization. Without the proper Paideia, these kinds of false gods of "knowledge" slip by -- silently and without protest -- while telling us that every kind of -ism and -ology presents us with another form of therapy; that there does not exist anything real such as evil, that even death can be mitigated; that perpetual peace is possible. The "illegitimate" sons of the enlightenment, Marx and Freud, have convinced us that either the state or we ourselves can actually change human nature -- albeit with enough of the necessary force and slaughter during the process. Thucydides, on the other hand, teaches us something different about the tragic immutability and consequently heroic nature of Mankind.
J. H. First, you've hit the "nail on the head";this is one of the really serious problems: In spite of the fact that educational opportunities are on the rise and are more available to more people than ever before, is the quality of this education keeping pace or is it in decline? Anyone who has been teaching at the college level in America over the past 20 years, will tell you that our freshmen students have been totally unprepared for any serious learning.
Actually, in the U. S., our students come to college without the slightest inclination or desire to seek the truth. On top of which, they find a "professorate" ready to teach them that there are no truths, or that there are other, better, ways of thinking and living [than caring about what is true and what is false]. As a result, with little or no education in critical thinking, and with few, if any, prototypes (in academia or in public life) to inspire them to choose a life dedicated to the disciplined search for knowledge in whatever field of endeavor, most students simply "pass through" the system never actually having "touched" the world of ideas.
Second, we are living in an age fraught with some very real problems which have to be faced with courage. However, there are many wrongheaded ideas and contentions that have found currency, and which "permit" some to avoid having to think. These include some of the newer religions which are growing in popularity -- whether they are dogmatic (they provide the answers one seeks), or "new wave" (spirituality based) where one finds the reassurance one needs.
N. B. Is the dissemination of these false ideas and contentions dangerous?
V. H. Yes, because the logical results stemming from the actual application of such ideas leads inexorably to the murder of innocents, as we can attest by considering the 80 million souls annihilated by Mao and Stalin in pursuit of their utopian "worker's paradise"; or the slaughters committed by Hitler; or the millions of shattered lives provoked by the social programs in the U. S.; and the even more millions of unlettered victims of the failed American educational system, which has become a therapeutic rather than an educational system that really educates.
Ideas have consequences, and the tragic events of the 20th century all started with the "authority" of one or another phenomenal "cure-all," which was appealing to those of little learning. Cases in point are the distortion of German philosophy by Hitler, or the twisted and self-serving hermeneutics of the works of Aristotle and Plato by Marx, which led directly to the Gulag.
Fundamentalist Islam stands in total opposition to Hellenism
N. B. Do you believe that America has a future in light of the widespread dissemination of these dogmatisms via the media, the popular culture, and academia?
V. H. Well now, all is not lost in America! There are millions of us who are resisting these purveyors of falsehood and ignorance, and we've come to understand that our silence in the past has led us to the pathological situation in which we now find ourselves. So all-pervasive has this climate of relativism and anti-enlightenment orthodoxy in the universities become, that the point has now been reached where our students are being taught that what we have learned from the Greeks is only "somewhat" more important than the cultural heritage bequeathed to us by the Zulus and the Aztecs.
The crisis we are currently undergoing [September 11, 2001] may finally "ring a bell" and remind Americans that Islamic fundamentalism does not simply represent another equally valid culture, but is, in fact, something completely different, something really vile, something that stands in total opposition to everything we've ever learned from the Greeks.
N. B. We are standing at the doorstep of an epoch which will be of monumental importance for humanity. Shouldn't America -- which is leading the world into this new age -- prefer freedom of thought, speech, and conscience instead of irrationality, mysticism, theocracy, and dogmatism?
V. H. Yes, of course. We in the West don't need to be taught that there is a discernable dichotomy between the Word and the inexplicable. This was delineated many centuries ago by the Greeks, and this is why their tragedies -- especially those of Sophocles and Euripides -- provide an area within which logic attempts to explain that which cannot be explained by the mysteries of life and death; it is into this area that religious fanaticism stealthily intrudes itself. Religion must only be involved where logic and reason cannot satisfy man's thirst for knowledge, while at the same time limiting and defining the actual parameters of its spiritual bailiwick. Up till now, we in the U. S. have managed to do just that with relative success. There is no other country that is so critical of its zealots as ours is. Remember, we put Timothy McVeigh to death -- in spite of the many pleas for clemency emanating from Europe -- precisely because of his crime of dogmatism. [?] I hope that the Muslim world will condemn Osama bin Ladin the same way that we condemned the American fascism of McVeigh, and that they punish him in the same way. So that here again the West's response to its own extremism has always been more decisive because it is governed by values seldom encountered elsewhere.
J. H. Naturally. Fortunately our Founding Fathers created a system which makes the possibility of "straying" from the road they charted for us extremely difficult. But the problem of maintaining our confidence in a system which does not seem capable of educating our fellow Americans is a real one, and must be faced.
Hellenism will never die
N. B. Western societies have been mainly influenced by two ideologies: the Hebrew and the Ancient Greek. These are on opposite philosophical poles in the following way: The Hebrews (via Judaism and Judeo-Christianity) espouse the concept of "unquestioning belief": in other words, dogmatism and theocracy. Hellenism, on the other hand, seeks to promulgate the concepts of theorization, of scientific proofs, of research and dialogue, which lead to science and democracy. We live under the influence of these two dominant currents of thought. How can the essentially Hellenic ideals I mentioned contribute to the solution of the problems faced by mankind today?
V. H. Hellenism will never die! It is the first and last hope for Mankind. It responds to the human need for knowledge, and does not require us to "believe and submit" through imposition and force. It respects and encourages differences of opinion, and is amenable and hospitable to both conservative and moderate convictions.
We are so fortunate that those 'relatively poor' Greeks of the 8th to the 4th centuries B.C. developed such a brilliant and indestructible civilization. Our mission is to keep reminding our immigrants that Hellenism is the one and only institution in the world under which we can all unite while adhering to the principles and values of the West that they bequeathed to us.
We are all Greeks now, whether we want it or not!"
J. H. Important question. The Jews were really a questioning race, even about themselves. And naturally, as their Old Testament dictates, there was one question that was seminal -- concerning God's existence and his choice of their race as being chosen -- which the Old Testament does not allow them to ask. But I understand how you pose your question.
The ideas of Hellenism flourished within a Western framework: political self-determination, separation of Church and State, political control over the armed forces, etc. We are especially Western in our belief in the importance of airing our differences, of questioning everything; our society, our government, even ourselves. Within this framework, we in the West have progressed beyond imagining. There are cultures and religions which terrorize those who would seek self-knowledge. As a result, there are those who struggle to come to the West, or who fight to change their system so that it is more like ours.
N. B. Why is it that so many academicians today seek to minimize or deny the contributions to Western Civilization made by the Ancient Greeks? Is there perhaps some hidden agenda which is being served?
V. H. We in the United States are becoming more of a multiracial society day by day. This time of demographic flux gives the opportunity to demagogues, racists, and opportunists to exploit the fears and superstitions of many by stating that there is no uniting culture that can bind us all, thereby fostering their belief in "multiculturalism." However, every big lie which has been spun in the history of America -- from the "right" to own slaves, to sympathy for fascism and communism -- has "crashed" under the weight of logic and freedom. I am certain that the current academic intransigence and despotism will fall as well, and for the same reasons.
J. H. Contemporary academicians are prospering under a modern and very hypocritical anti-Western miasma (an ultra-Greek word!). To consider the Greeks as the founders of Western Civilization is (according to them): 1) an over-simplification, 2) an error, or 3) re-enforcement of oppressive Western "hegemonic arrogance" (such are the overblown phraseologies of these "scholars"). These three categories spring from the three gods that direct and control these modern-day academicians:
A) Education: To be able to show that the Greeks were the creators, to a large degree, of
Western Civilization requires serious thought, and such academicians are terrorized at
the thought of serious contemplation. And, generally speaking, the idea of opposing their
fellow "birds of a feather" is never even considered out of fear that their own wings might
be "clipped" as a result.
B) Social Sciences: Today's academicians have been taught to write endless commentaries
about the marginal differences between cultures as being of vital interest and importance.
Of course, the Greeks differed from today's West in many ways (e.g., we don't sacrifice animals
nowadays), but this contemporary fixation in the academy with these unimportant differences
causes them to lose sight of the bigger, more important, picture. As a result, a foolish
theory such as that posited by the author of Black Athena can find currency and legitimacy
precisely because so few scholars are willing [or able] to challenge it.
C) Criticizing the West: To deconstruct and criticize the West means you are paying a dividend to
your college or university. The current war being waged against the Taliban is a perfect example.
We see professors shaking hands with each other while blaming America for the horrific deaths
of their fellow Americans by terrorists.
Concluding this interview, Victor Hanson requested that he be allowed to make the following plea:
Allow me to express my sincere hope that we Greeks and Americans renew and reinvigorate our historic friendship through our common heritage and our common struggles during the last century against German Fascism and Soviet Communism. We were both on the same side in those conflicts. In spite of the errors and misunderstandings that characterized our relationship during the decades of the 60s and 70s, I pray that we will renew our former close ties of friendship, and that during these challenging times we will rediscover that we are essentially "one people." We are the same.
It is the responsibility of every true "Hellene" -- here in America or in Hellas -- to do all that his talents and position allow, to encourage a new era of mutual good will based upon our timeless, eons-old, common heritage.
I have dedicated a significant part of my life to the teaching of young Americans -- who are all too often naďve and inexperienced --about their Western heritage, and to dispelling some of the unhistorical distortions pertaining to the history of Greece, both ancient and modern, that are purposely being disseminated today. I sincerely hope that our Greek friends will participate in this undertaking. Thank you.
"Davlos" magazine. Number 240. December 2001