- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

"The bipolar nature of World War II and Cold War alliances is no longer evident. Our situation is more similar to that of the late Victorians, who had to deal with nasty little wars in anarchic corners of the globe, such as Sudan. Is it too far-fetched to imagine our own expedition through similar desert wastes to apprehend another Mahdi-like figure, Osama bin Laden?"
So predicts Robert Kaplan in "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos." His prophecy, written many months before September 11, was not mere luck. Today, Mr. Kaplan, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of nine previous books, ranks easily among the best journalists in the world: astute, informed, prescient, wise. His earlier works such as "The Ends of the Earth," "Soldiers of God," and "Eastward to Tartary" practically reinvented serious travel writing as a literary form (The genre had been presumed murdered by cheap tourism and even cheaper journalism). A collection of essays, "The Coming Anarchy," established him as a serious geopolitical thinker.
Now "Warrior Politics" both continues that effort and helps open a new realm. For the moment, call it the "neo-classical revival." Suffice it to say, Mr. Kaplan does not employ the word "pagan" for its Cecil B. De Mille connotations. But by consulting the classics for 21st-century political guidance, he's also doing more than he realizes. "True bravery and independence of thought," he writes, "are best anchored by examples from the past, culled from the pages of the great books." It's starting to happen … and in more areas than the political.
Mr. Kaplan begins by setting forth his own lack of credentials. "I have never taught at a university, been resident full-time at a think tank, or served in government." How can you not listen to a guy like this? He then explains that he was drawn to the classics as a means of making sense out of the world he'd traveled so extensively these last two decades, the horrors he'd witnessed, and how often good men and women make things worse. The chapters deal with a counterpoint of ancient and modern, fromThucydides to globalization, and Sun Tzu to America. For convenience, we consider two aspects of the book: his sense of the world and his sense of America's place in it.
There is, he concludes, no "modern world," at least not in the sense of a globalizing planet moving inexorably toward peace and prosperity. Nor is there any postmodern emergence, only an ancient world writ larger and more deadly. Rising populist and religious movements, ranging from the merely violent to the intensely terrorist, will take advantage of democratization, globalization and technology to spread their bile.
This means that none of these are conditions to be sought in and for themselves. Democracy without civil order, often harsh civil order, invites disaster. Globalization, capitalist raison d'economie, will trash those unable to compete, even as it raises their standards of consumption. Computers will "lead not just to new social compacts, but to new divisions as people discover new and complex issues over which to disagree."
Nor do the numbers offer much comfort. Population explosions in the areas that can least afford them; urban megasprawls of despair and violence; ecological disasters in the areas that can least afford them; more and more of the planet falling farther and farther behind. It's a grim situation, and not one to be ameliorated by do-gooders who think that if people just get enough rights, all else will follow … or by media who can hold others to impossibly high moral standards because they themselves are neither held accountable nor expected to produce much of anything beyond babble.
So what's America to do? Mr. Kaplan's dictum comes on both clear and very non-PC. "We and nobody else, will write the terms for international society." World government there may not be, but world governance is essential. The United States must lead when possible, dominate when necessary, and do both in accordance with a decidedly pagan ethos. The world may not like it, but the world requires it.
Now, what Mr. Kaplan means by "pagan ethos" is not always self-evident; the quotes from Livy, Plutarch, Machiavelli, and the rest illuminate but do not always define. Clearly, he has little use for Christian pieties regarding meekness, cheek-turning, etc. He believes in explicit rankings of moral priorities, and the willingness to do harm in the service of good. He counsels self-knowledge as the basis of cunning, and "clean anger" as an antidote to teary humanitarianism. He commends the Founding Fathers for their "constructive pessimism" and the tragic outlook that let them build an enduring state without trying to change human nature.
But is there anything distinctively "pagan" about any of this? Certainly, we all can ransack the classics for quotations supporting such a world view. But cannot much of the same also be adduced to so-called "realist" theories of international relations or any number of unsavory movements? If Machiavelli can be read with profit for his counsels of ruthlessness, why not also Adolf Hitler or Mao Tse-tung? Where's the classical beef?
The answer lies, perhaps, less in prescription than in a sensibility now reviving after a millennium or two of neglect and Christian co-optation. It's getting serious now and you don't have to read Aristotle or know about Epictetus to participate.
Modern culture offers only three ways of pondering what to do. One is psychological how do I feel? Another is submissive. Some source of external authority, whether God or person or The Rules, tells you what's what, and that's that. A third is utilitarian. You base your actions on desired outcomes. None works very well. "How do I feel," as the Stoics understood, rarely proves reliable guidance. Nor are we any longer a people to surrender meekly to One-Size-Fits-All authorities, even if such could be devised for this complex orb. And how rarely do our actions produce the intended results, and how often the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in.
The pagan ethos begins with character. Here the essential question is: How shall I live? The first concern is virtue, not rules or consequences. Character is destiny for statesmen, and for the nations they lead. In the classical sense, the key is arete, an untranslatable word that entails virtue, but also means excellence, competence, and courage. Pagan virtue must work in the real world to be virtuous. Values are goals to be achieved by virtue. Rules are instruments for the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of value.
But character is destiny for us all, and in recent decades we've been rediscovering that character and virtue are not Judeo-Christian monopolies. James Stockdale, who once described himself as "the lawgiver of an autonomous colony of Americans who happened to be located in a Hanoi prison," has written movingly of his dependence on the classica philosophers to run that colony. Feminist and post-feminist academics make similar discoveries when pondering how women should live now that the limits and the strictures have been shattered. Tom Wolfe writes a novel, "A Man in Full," with a Stoic motif. Marcus Aurelius gets a cameo role in "Gladiator" … and new paperback editions of his "Meditations" appear almost yearly. Even Ted Koppel reveres him (See "Tuesdays with Morrie").
Conservatives, by and large, have been hostile to this phenomenon. It cuts into sales of "traditional values." Liberals don't know what to do with it, or about it. PC and virtue don't mix well. Neither does the cult of victimhood or the nanny state. But it's gathering, this return to an ancient sensibility now newly relevant to both our common and our private lives. Mr. Kaplan has produced an important work on one aspect of the revival important for itself, and as part of something much larger.
Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.


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