Gabrielle Giffords, American Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus

The Roman republic was 375 years old — more than 1½ times as old as the American republic is today — when, in 133 BCE, something unprecedented and indeed hitherto unimaginable occurred: domestic political violence.

A populist politician had got himself elected tribune by the citizens of Rome, in exactly the sort of democratic process that Rome was proud of. His name was Tiberius Gracchus, and he was ambitious, idealistic and perhaps somewhat naive. (He was also the grandson of my hero, Scipio Africanus, the nemesis of Hannibal.) This elder Gracchus — he had a younger brother named Gaius — then proposed reforms to improve the lot of the people. Many patricians in the Roman Senate did not like that.

It had never, up to this point, mattered that Senators and Tribunes, plebeians and patricians, Optimates and Populares (those were the names of Rome’s political factions) disagreed on matters of policy.

Of course they disagreed! Peaceful disagreement, in which the more persuasive arguments prevailed over time, was what the Roman republic was about. It was the reason Romans loved Rome.

Rome had withstood existential threats — a sack by the Gauls, near-extinction by Hannibal — without ever sacrificing its founding ideals: inside the city walls, there was no place for violence in politics.

But on that day in 133 BCE, a group of senators and their supporters made their way toward a popular assembly in progress. They beat Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters to death.

Yes, Rome was shocked. Of course it was. This incident had to be an outlier. The exception that proved the rule.

But it seems that a taboo had been broken, a precedent set. Something unthinkable had become thinkable: Political violence.

A decade after Tiberius’s murder, Gaius Gracchus (pictured above) followed in his brother’s footsteps. He, too, got himself elected tribune. He, too, intended to launch reforms.

And again, a mob of senators and their supporters came for him. Gaius fled to a grove and killed himself, as the attackers murdered his supporters.

Another outlier, they told themselves. An exception. Never to be repeated.

And yet, it was repeated. Over the next century the Romans — a people always well-armed, often for the right reasons — began flashing blades to intimidate other Romans in any disagreement. The tone of debate changed. The incidents of political violence became more frequent, and worse.

A taboo once toppled is difficult to re-erect.

Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Caesars….

Violence, or the threat of it, now prevailed in Rome.

Rome would remain a superpower for much longer. But no longer a republic. Not the Rome that the likes of Scipio Africanus had ever fought for. Not the Rome they considered worth preserving and defending.

In praise of sublime Greek violence

Nietzsche turned 26 as the Franco-Prussian war was raging (above). He saw this bloodshed as a failure of culture. So he started thinking more deeply about culture and its most fundamental mandate: dealing with human violence. And he arrived at some very interesting insights.

He did this by weaving together two strands of his thinking:

  1. the nature of violence in humans, and
  2. the nature of ancient Greek civilization

This is a great example of the benefits of cross-fertilization between areas of expertise. That’s because Nietzsche was not yet what we would call a philosopher. Instead he was, by training and profession, a philologist, which at that time in Europe basically meant a classicist — somebody who studies antiquity, which in turn mainly meant studying the Greeks.

Nietzsche absolutely adored the Greeks of the classical era (as we do here on The Hannibal Blog). He believed that they were the first to elevate humanity by transcending violence. Here is how.

(This is based on pages 139-141 of Julian Young’s excellent philosophical biography of Nietzsche, which I am currently reading.)

I) Violence

First, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks were honest about the human instinct to violence, and that’s a great start.

The Greeks knew that they were just as capable of violence as the barbarians. (Just read Homer’s account of Achilles’ wrath, or Thucydides’s account of the rape of Melos.) So they accepted that violence was simply part of human nature. The question was what to do about that knowledge.

Pause here for a moment:

a) 19th-century context

In Nietzsche’s own time, this was already a radical interpretation. First, European academe (of which he was part) basically viewed the Greeks as serene and enlightened über-thinkers, as beyond violence. And second, European society (of which he was also part, at least at the outset) had adopted a Christian morality (which Nietzsche would later in his life set out to debunk) that considered violence sinful and tried to eliminate or even deny it. So Nietzsche was already being politically incorrect.

b) Our contemporary context

While no longer politically incorrect, this view is still controversial today.  Which is to say that we are still arguing about whether we are at heart peaceful, like our cousins the bonobos, or violent, like our other cousins the chimps. (Video via Dan.)

In any case, the Greeks recognized the chimps in us humans, but then went a crucial step further.

II) Agon

That step was to redirect and sublimate whatever violent energy there is in humans.

Rather than denying or suppressing human aggression (what Nietzsche would later call the “will to power”), the Greeks purified it through the filter of culture.

The result was agon — strife or, better, competition. That’s agon as in agonize, agony, protagonist and antagonist, et cetera.

Classical Greece was perhaps the most agonistic — meaning competitive — civilization in world history, surpassing even modern America. Everything was a competition:

  • poets such as Homer and Hesiod competed with words,
  • playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides competed with their tragedies — literally for an award given out during the Dionysian festivals at which their plays were performed,
  • Socrates and Plato competed with the Sophists, and the Sophists with one another,
  • orators like Demosthenes and Aeschines competed with their rhetoric, and
  • athletes competed at the Olympic Games.

The result was beauty such as this discus thrower, sculpted by a competitive artist of a competitive athlete:

Agon pervaded every single aspect of Greek culture. It was the nasty goddess of strife, Eris, reincarnated as “good Eris”. Bad Eris had started the Trojan War. But Good Eris, according to Hesiod,

drives even the unskilled man to work: and if someone who lacks property sees someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant… Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.

You can choose to see infinite parallels in our own time and lives. For example, culture succeeds when Good Eris enters a courtroom in an adversarial justice system such as America’s. Culture fails when Bad Eris takes her place.

In the name of peace, may humanity study the Greeks and learn to ‘agonize.’

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The violence of myth, the myth of violence

I am thinking about Cheri’s question: If children accept as natural the violence in the Greek myths and other old stories (Bible!), why do we adults reject it?

Part of the answer, I think, is in Steven Pinker’s talk, below. (It doesn’t show up in RSS readers.) It has to do with the stunning drop in violence in our human history. The ancients had violence all around them, so it entered their stories naturally. Even our great-grandparents still saw a lot more violence than we do, so they accepted it in their stories naturally. And we, as Pinker says, now have standards that have run ahead of actual behavior, so when we are being all grown-up and modern, we can’t deal with it anymore.

But the child within us ‘remembers’ the world of raw experience, before these standards. And, as Cheri has said, different people are childish to different degrees. The ‘child’ in my own personality is rather outsized, so perhaps that is why I connect to the old stories rather easily. (Emphatically not, however, to the vulgar and gratuitous violence in Hollywood).

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