February 05, 2008
A proud Spartiates, James Vourantonis, whose parents immigrated to the American Midwest in the 1940s, and who on this website praised another Greek, Taki, for defending in his endorsement of Ron Paul the ancient tradition of Greek liberty, reminded me of something that I recently told my students while teaching classical Greek grammar. (Pardon my periodic sentence!) I was trying to explain the concision of Greek syntax as typified by the phrases ta peri Thermopulas and ta en Salamini, what happened at Thermopylae and what happened in Salamis, when I suddenly recalled how my ninth-grade teacher Miss Maguire taught the events of the Persian Wars. Miss Maguire would refer to the courage displayed by the outnumbered Spartans at Thermopylae Pass and to the Athenian naval victory won in the narrows near Salamis as dramatic moments in “our history.” From her perspective the balance of Western civilization hung on the manliness of the ancient Greeks who were then defending their homeland against despotic Asian invaders. Needless to say, as Aeschylus reminds us in The Persians, the Greeks were fighting for thekas ton progonon (the tombs of their ancestors) and not for some global democratic gibberish devised in Midtown Manhattan. But what they defended was also the cradle of a later glorious civilization.
None of this Western patriotism may make the slightest sense at my college, whose leaders stress that “we are citizens of the world.” Our central moral institution, a Center for Global Citizenship, strives mightily to help us overcome any sense that we are the latest (and undoubtedly least grateful) link in the chain of a distinctively Western culture reaching back to the Greeks and the Hebrews.
But my high school teacher, who was the descendant of Irish potato farmers who immigrated to Connecticut, felt differently. She viewed King Leonidas and his hoplites and the Athenian commander Themistocles as the ancestors of her own civilization; and she graded me down on an exam for having treated the Persian invaders more sympathetically than I did the Greeks, who were defending their Hellenic homeland. At the time I held a very high opinion of Persian imperialism for the extensive administration and multinational tolerance that had been associated with the Persian Shahs since Cyrus; but my teacher would have none of this. Moreover, she admired all the Greek city states, including the Spartans, and never held up the Athenians as the “good Greeks” for having supposedly produced a precursor of our latest version of “liberal democracy.” In fact she emphasized that wise Athenians like Plato, Thucydides, and Xenophon had held up Sparta’s military aristocracy as a disciplined society that had avoided foreign adventure. Fifty years later I shall happily acknowledge that Miss Maguire was right; and if I had continued along that deluded, infantile course from which she saved me, I would now be writing for the Weekly Standard or Commentary.