The Lessons of Culture, Benjamin Netanyahu Edition

Here we are, on the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to both houses of the United States Congress. The Obama administration is acting like a petulant twelve year old  -- how dare the prime minister of Israel come to the United States and speak before Congress when he wasn’t invited by us? -- and the rancid Pelosi-Reid contingent of the Democratic Party has promised to take their marbles and go home: they won't even listen to what he has to say.

The ostensible issue is Iran, with which the Obama administration is currently capitula-- er, negotiating. The presence of a Jew, and a Jew from Israel, in the nation’s capital (and Capitol) is sure to offend the mullahs in Tehran, and it might just upset the delicate diplomacy by which Obama privately assures that Iran gets nuclear weapons while publicly pretending to prevent that eventuality.

Back in 2001, when Barack Obama was in the Illinois state Senate and still battening on the wisdom of the “Reverend” Jeremiah (“God-Damn America”) Wright, Netanyahu was more forthright, and more percipient, than most politicians about the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Those attacks, he said, were part of “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.”

Netanyahu was right then, and he is still right. For the prime minister of Israel, it is an existential -- a life-or-death -- issue. (Actually, it is an existential issue for the entire world, as Ilan Berman shows in his forthcoming book Iran’s Deadly Ambition.) The tiny, dynamic country of Israel is surrounded by Islamic states of varying degrees of radicalism, monstrousness, and doctrinal identity; nearly all are united in hating Israel and plotting for its destruction.

“A war to reverse the triumph of the West.” For Netanyahu, and for you, I hope, Dear Reader, that is a bad thing.

For Barack Obama?

I cannot answer the latter question with any confidence. But as I contemplate the long war to “reverse the triumph of the West,” I find it sobering indeed to contemplate the deeds of the Obama administration around the world. Its naivete, fueled by its arrogance, poisonous racialism, and allegiance to “progressive” ideology make it a powerfully corrosive instrument of cultural dissolution and political instability.

Behind Netanyahu’s comment about the “triumph of the West” was a recognition of how long in coming, and how painfully won, that triumph had been. There was also, I fancy, an appreciation of how disastrous the alternatives are.

Anyone looking for an illustration doesn't have far to seek.

If your stomach is too delicate to watch the many snuff videos flooding the internet of people being beheaded, pushed off tall buildings, stoned, flogged, or incinerated, take a look at this depiction of Islamic State legates reading from the Koran and smashing priceless 3000-year-old sculptures in aMosul museum.

A few years ago, in an essay on “The Lessons of Culture” in Future Tense: The Lessons of Culture in an Age of Upheaval,  I had occasion to quote Netanyahu on the war “to reverse the triumph of the West.” Since that war has been proceeding apace, I thought it might interest some readers to revisit an edited version of that essay as the world prepares for the prime minister’s address to Congress. I begin with these hors d’oeuvres:

We sit by and watch the Barbarian. We tolerate him. In the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his reverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond. And on these faces, there is no smile.

— Hilaire Belloc on the ruins of Timgad

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

—Tancredi, in Lampedusa’s The Leopard

The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.

—José Ortega y Gasset

And then to business.


The lessons of culture: What are they? One of the leitmotifs threading its way through the essays that compose “Future Tense” is the recognition that we are living in the midst of one of those “plastic moments” that Karl Marx talked about. Future tense: not just subsequent, but also fraught. To revise an old song: Will there always be an England? That “will there always be . . .” is everywhere on our lips, in our hearts. And it’s not just England we worry about. The law; the economy; the political prospects; changes in our intellectual habits wrought by changes in our technology; the destiny that is demography: America, the West, indeed the entire world in the early years of the twenty-first century, seems curiously unsettled. Things we had taken for granted seem suddenly up for grabs in some fundamental if still-difficult-to-grasp way. Fissures open among the confidences we had always assumed — in “the market,” in national identity, in the basics of social order and cultural value. Future tense: the always hazardous art of cultural prognostication seems brittler now, more uneasy, more tentative.

Granted, the parochial assumption of present disruption is a hardy perennial. As Gibbon observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.” But we know from history (including the history that Gibbon gave us) that there are times when that natural propensity has colluded seamlessly with the actual facts. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Burke (as usual) got it exactly right:

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind; indeed the necessary effects of the ignorance and levity of the vulgar. Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself, in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature, from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.

A book called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents will always be pertinent. Burke’s point is that whereas some discontents are part of the human condition, others are part of the conditions humans forge for themselves. o highlight in this series of essays.

Is there something unique, or at least distinctively different, about the economic crisis that began in 2008, was supposed to have evaporated by now, but that is lingering on if not getting worse? Has the ideology of transnational progressivism made such inroads among political elites that it threatens American self-determination and individual liberty? (I think of Burke again: “It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.”) Is America on the brink (or even beyond the brink) of a “fourth revolution” —  following on the original revolution of American Independence, the Civil War, and the revolution wrought by FDR’s New Deal — are we, another eighty years on, facing a new revolution that will fundamentally reshape political and cultural life in this country? The social commentator  Charles Murray has asked whether “a major stream of artistic accomplishment can be produced by a society that is geriatric [as ours, increasingly, is]? By a society that is secular? By an advanced welfare state?” We do not know the answers to those questions, Mr. Murray observed, because “we are facing unprecedented situations.”

We have never observed a great civilization with a population as old as the United States will have in the twenty-first century; we have never observed a great civilization that is as secular as we are apparently going to become; and we have had only half a century of experience with advanced welfare states.

Which leaves us—where? In 1911, the poet-philosopher T. E. Hulme observed that “there must be one word in the language spelt in capital letters. For a long time, and still for sane people, the word was God. Then one became bored with the letter ‘G,’ and went on to ‘R,’ and for a hundred years it was Reason, and now all the best people take off their hats and lower their voices when they speak of Life.” I think Hulme was on to something, both in his observation about the inveterate habit of reverence and the choice that sanity dictates. I wonder, though, whether we as a culture haven’t shifted our attention from “L” for “Life” to “E” for “Egalitarianism” or “P” for “Political Correctness.”

It is noteworthy, in any event, to what extent certain key words live in a state of existential diminishment. Consider the word “Gentleman.” It was not so long ago that it named a critical moral-social-cultural aspiration. What happened to the phenomenon it named? Or think of the word “respectable.” It too has become what the philosopher David Stove called a “smile word,” that is, a word that names a forgotten or neglected or out-of-fashion social virtue that we might remember but no longer publicly practice. The word still exists, but the reality has been ironized out of serious discussion. It is hard to use straight. Just as it would be difficult to call someone “respectable” today without silently adding a dollop of irony, so it is with the word “gentleman.”

Leo Strauss made the witty observation that the word “virtue,” which once referred to the manliness of a man, had come to refer primarily to the chastity of a woman. We’ve moved on from that, of course. Chastity was for centuries a prime theme of Western dramatic art even as it was an obsession of Western culture. Who can even pronounce the word these days without a knowing smile? And as for manliness, well, the philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote an entire book diagnosing (and lamenting) its mutation into ironized irrelevance.

Here’s the question: Absent the guiding stringencies of manliness, which are also the tonic assumptions of cultural confidence, how should we understand “the lessons of culture”? In his reflections on Pericles for “Future Tense,” Victor Davis Hanson noted that “the unabashed confidence of Pericles in his own civilization and national ethos . . . were once gold standards for unapologetic Western democratic rhetoricians.” And not only rhetoricians, but for Western democracies tout court. Pericles, Hanson observes, reminds us that “should a great culture not feel that its values and achievements are exceptional,” then no one else will either. The eclipse of that fundamental confidence is “injurious” to small and insignificant states, but “fatal” to states, like the United States, with aspirations to global leadership.

And where does that leave us? In one of his essays on humanism, T. S. Eliot observed that when we “boil down Horace, the Elgin Marbles, St. Francis, and Goethe” the result will be “pretty thin soup.” “Culture,” he concluded, “is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture.” In other words, culture is more than a parade of names, a first prize in the game of “cultural literacy.” Let me return to and elaborate on Hanson’s observations about Pericles. What lessons does the great Greek statesman have for us today? Does his example as a leader of the Athenians at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War have a special pertinence for us as we think about “the lessons of culture”?

To answer these questions, one first wants to know: What is it that Pericles stood for? To what sort of society was he pointing? What way of life, what vision of the human good did he propound?

In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the public funeral oration that Pericles, as commander of the army and first citizen of Athens, delivered to commemorate those fallen after the first year—the first of twenty-seven years, be it noted — of war with Sparta. As Hanson reminds us, the short speech is deservedly one of the most famous in history.

The funeral oration outlines the advantages of Athenian democracy, a bold new system of government that was not simply a political arrangement but a way of life. There were two keynotes to that way of life: freedom and tolerance on the one hand, responsible behavior and attention to duty on the other.

The two go together. We Athenians, Pericles said, are “free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law” — including, he added in an important proviso, “those unwritten laws,” like the lawlike commands of taste, manners, and morals—“which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” Freedom and tolerance, Pericles suggested, were blossoms supported by roots that reached deep into the soil of duty. Burke again: “Manners are of more importance than law. . . . The law touches us but here and there and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform and insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.”

Athens had become the envy of the world, partly because of its wealth, partly because of its splendor, partly because of the freedom enjoyed by its citizens. Athens’ navy was unrivaled, its empire unparalleled, its civic and cultural institutions unequalled. The city was “open to the world,” a cosmopolitan center. Political life was “free and open,” as was private life: “We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor,” Pericles said, “if he enjoys himself in his own way.”

Of course, from the perspective of twenty-first-century America, democracy in Athens may seem limited and imperfect. Women were entirely excluded from citizenship in Athens, and there was a large slave class that underwrote the material freedom of Athens’ citizens. These things must be acknowledged. But must they be apologized for? Whenever fifth-century Athens is mentioned these days, it seems that what is stressed is not the achievement of Athenian democracy but its limitations.

To my mind, concentrating on the limitations of Athenian democracy is like complaining that the Wright brothers neglected to provide transatlantic service with their airplanes. The extraordinary achievement of Athens was to formulate the ideal of equality before the law. To be sure, that ideal was not perfectly instantiated in Athens. Perhaps it never will be perfectly instantiated, it being in the nature of ideals to inspire emulation but also to exceed it.

The point to bear in mind is that both the ideal of equality before the law and the cultivation of an open, tolerant society were new. They made Athens the model of democracy for all the republics that sought to follow the path of freedom—just as America is the model of freedom today. Pericles was right to boast that “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” To continue the theme of aviation, we might say that in Athens, after innumerable trials elsewhere, democracy finally managed to get off the ground and stay aloft. In Periclean Athens what mattered in assuming public responsibility, as Pericles said, was “not membership in a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” To an extraordinary extent, within the limits of its franchise, Athens lived up to that ideal.

It is also worth noting that life in Athens was not only free but also full. Here we come to the lessons of culture. When the day’s work was done, Pericles boasted, Athenians turned not simply to private pleasure but also to ennobling recreation “of all kinds for our spirits.” For the Age of Pericles was also the age of the great dramatists, the age of Socrates, the great artist Phidias, and others. Freedom, skill, and ambition conspired to make Athens a cultural as well as a political paragon.

A recurrent theme of the funeral oration is the importance of sound judgment, what Aristotle codified as the manly virtue of prudence. The blessing of freedom requires the ballast of duty, and informed judgment is the indispensable handmaiden of duty. It also requires courage: the indispensable virtue, as Aristotle pointed out, because it makes the practice of all the other virtues possible. A free society is one that nurtures the existential slack that tolerance and openness generate. Chaos and anarchy are forestalled by the intervention of politics in the highest sense of the term: deliberation and decision about securing the good life. When it comes to cultural activities, Pericles said, Athenians had learned to love beauty with moderation — the Greek word is euteleias, “without extravagance” — and to pursue philosophy and the life of the mind “without effeminacy,” aneu malakias. The lessons of culture were to be ennoblements of life, not an escape from its burdens.

The exercise of sound judgment was required in other spheres as well. In their conduct of policy, Athenians strove to be bold, but prudent, i.e., effective. “We are,” Pericles wrote, “capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them beforehand.” The exercise of sound judgment was not simply an intellectual accomplishment; it was the tithe of citizenship. “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business,” Pericles observed, “we say that he has no business here at all.”

Pericles did not mean that every citizen had to be a politician. What he meant was that all citizens had a common stake in the commonwealth of the city. And that common stake brought with it common responsibilities as well as common privileges. At a time when everyone is clamoring for his or her “rights” — when new “rights” pop up like mushrooms after a rain — it is worth remembering that every right carries with it a corresponding duty. We enjoy certain rights because we discharge corresponding responsibilities. Some rights may be inalienable; none is without a price.