In “Pericles & the Foreseeable Future,” Kimball turns to the little-appreciated connection between liberal values at home and confident muscularity abroad. He reminds us that in his Funeral Oration, delivered after the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C., Pericles was making the argument that his world of a majestic Parthenon and Sophoclean tragedy was predicated not just on a fleet of 300 triremes, but on the spiritual confidence that such national military strength gave Athenians the luxury to enjoy their singular culture — a fact that we did not fully appreciate following 9/11. For a great democracy, the alternative to Pericles’ unapologetic confidence in Athenian exceptionalism is the “cultural suicide” of apologizing for, contextualizing, excusing, and ignoring serial attacks on the United States that bit by bit lead to neurotic worries about decline at home and ultimately impotence abroad. Note here that awareness of the dangers of hubristic imperial overreach in no way excuses pacifism and the deliberate decision not to protect one’s values and civilization abroad.
Some of the essays are lighter. Among the best is a review of Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys, the recent English bestseller that sought to remind readers that once upon a time boys did and knew certain things to prepare themselves for marrying, raising a family, earning a living, and becoming the once-proverbial good citizen. Rough sports, reading about war heroes, memorizing moral aphorisms — all these may now seem trite. But what replaced them in inculcating manhood? Video games in the parental basement, no-score T-Ball, banning dodge ball, race/class/and gender chanting in grammar school? Kimball is a master of understated irony, and once more the theme of “being careful what you wish for” resonates: if today’s empowered women are frustrated that they cannot find any good men any more, one might reexamine the wages of what hyper-feminist doctrine has wrought in our schools and popular culture.
In a brief homage to G.K. Chesterton, Kimball does not whitewash the former’s anti-Semitism and knee-jerk distrust of material progress, but shows how his own classical liberalism, quest for knowledge, and empiricism reflected the nearly inexplicable success of turn-of-the-century England itself. For Kimball, Chesterton is more than a quick wit and keen observer of contemporary foibles; his unapologetic defense of what was in his time becoming caricatured as old-fashioned and out-of-date is sorely needed today — especially in the sense of explaining to American audiences why our traditions and customs arose and how their social utility benefits the nation at large.
In a review of the classicist Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Kimball gets to the heart of Nussbaum’s thought with the blunt summation:
Professor Nussbaum is such a ferocious opponent of shame and disgust because she is such a passionate proponent of many things that shame and disgust recoil from.
Nussbaum, Kimball argues, believes that the popular morality of the lower classes that hinges on a unapologetic, and dare we say “natural,” sense of shame is a sign of primitiveness, a world away from the elite sensitivity that can use its learning to contextualize and rationalize away the socially constructed “wrong” and “repulsive.”
Kimball also notes the paradoxes of Nussbaum’s life and thought in the context of her own numerous scholarly controversies, in which she was often misleading and untruthful in her work — and ultimately shameful. Nor should we forget that at least some Greeks believed that with intellectual progress can come moral regress, as shame of the unlearned gave way to sophistic rationalization of the urban elite. Many of us might prefer the shame-based moral advice of Hesiod in his Works and Days — composed at the dawn of the agrarian Greek city-state on the isolated slopes of Mt. Helicon, in out-of-the-way Boeotia — to what we read more than three centuries later of the Athenian sophists in Plato’s dialogues.