Sunday, October 19, 2014


Lives Unlike Our Own

Victor Davis Hanson, Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 2-3:
It is all too easy for us today to forget these material conditions of the past and thus the critical role of warfare and agriculture in antiquity. Few citizens of the United States have served in an army; almost none—thank God—have killed someone in battle or destroyed the property of an enemy. Our efforts at protection are limited to bars on our windows, electronic alarms, blinking lights, and automatic locks; we are not dependent on armor and weapons over the hearth and the muscular condition of our right arms. Nighttime without streetlights, police cruisers, or a powerful flashlight is full of foreboding and terror—as the panic that follows the occasional urban blackout attests. Only about 1 percent of our population now lives on farms; most of us have no idea how to grow food, build our own house, hitch up a horse, or butcher a pig. An outbreak of food poisoning at the local fast-food franchise causes national scandal. We rarely walk more than a few hundred yards a day. The majority of Americans live in temperature-controlled rooms and approach hysteria when the electricity that powers our ranges, air conditioners, televisions, and washers ceases for a few hours. The lack of running water or phones for more than a day is the stuff of lawsuits against our municipal utilities. Our knowledge of dirty work, physical violence, and the savagery of the natural landscape itself is mostly limited to what we see on television or read in newspapers, magazines, and books; those with muscular physiques owe their impressive anatomy to weight machines, high-tech sneakers, and entertaining videos. And they win such contours without the tears, wounds, scratches, and blisters that routinely accompany the physical effort to plant, prune, harvest, and plow. Instead, we work out in sanitary and often inviting gyms, where cool air, piped-in music, scented towels, and hot showers are prerequisites. The color of our complexion and the smoothness of our skin are integral to this look of fitness, not calluses and disfiguring scars, which for thousands of years were the natural wages of a hard stomach and ample biceps.

How difficult it is, then, to remember that the Greeks not only did things that we would not, but also things that we could not do. How important it is as well to keep in mind that dramatic performances, democracy itself, vase painting, Ionic columns, and bronze statues were the veneer of a culture that at its heart was in an endless war to feed and protect itself from the savageries of humans and nature. In short, we especially of the deskbound academic class who write our histories must remember that the Athenians, the Thebans, and the Argives lived lives centered around farming and fighting, lives so foreign from our own as now to be almost unimaginable.

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