Friday, September 14, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson, Agrarian Conservative, Democrat

Well worth reading is "Profiles in Classics: Victor Davis Hanson," by Emily Esfahani Smith in the September 13, 2012, Hoover Institution Journal Defining Ideas.

Though today, [Smith writes,] Hanson is known as a conservative polemicist published by National Review, City Journal, and The Weekly Standard, among others, he originally came into the public spotlight as an agrarian writer in the Nineties. His 1997 book Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea is a powerful memoir and eulogy for the agrarian way of life.

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“The Greeks of the ancient world [lived in an agrarian culture and therefore] understood human nature,” Hanson says. “They knew that people want freedom and affluence, but that when you combine the two, you can have decadence.” The ancient Greeks knew that virtue required a strong moral order that protected people from themselves—from their own follies and vices. Hanson specifically cites the importance of a “shame culture” in checking human behavior.

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“Agrarian wisdom requires self-reliance. If you’re sick, there is no sick leave. If you have the flu, you still have to irrigate. You don’t have a guaranteed income. There is no retirement, no health care. You can’t blame anyone for your failures. If you decide to plan 20 acres of almonds, you have to decide whether to risk the $80,000. If it goes bad because of the weather, you can’t blame the economy. It was your choice.”

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To Hanson, the point is that nature runs the family farm like a tyrant, and it does not grant any bailouts of the kind Greece or the big U.S. banks received. Farmers know all about nature’s cruel absolutism, its metronome relentlessly ticking toward the end that we are all destined to meet. This instills a tragic sense in farmers—a sense that the ancient Greek poets captured beautifully in their verses, which few students are required to read anymore, a fact that Hanson laments in his 2001 book, Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom.

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Classical wisdom, formed on the farm and on the battlefield, is not only the basis of democratic governance, but it is also central to good citizenship.  .  .  

He counts the principles of ancient Greek citizenship off on his fingers: “First, beware of success. Success can lead to self-destruction and divine retribution. When things are going well for you, be modest, because it’s not necessarily always from your talent, but also from your luck.” That’s a lesson Greek heroes learned the hard way.

Second, “Don’t have inflated expectations of human nature. Humans are not born, as Rousseau thought, as good people who need to be liberated. Rather, they need to be civilized. Thucydides knew that civilization was very thin. You need to preserve it. We are one blink away from savagery.” He sharpens his point by citing Occupy Wall Street. “Did you see all of the feces and debris on their campgrounds? Is this what 2,500 years of democratization and science have led to?”

“The point is that human nature is capable of doing as much damage as good if it’s not carefully embedded within civilization.” The 2008 Greek riots show how quickly order can dissemble in chaos and violence.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, a citizen of ancient Greece had more responsibilities than rights. Fulfilling those duties embodied civic virtue: “You, as the ancient Greek,  must participate in government and vote. You must raise a family. You must not break the laws. You should own land and produce food for the country. You must be in the militia. In exchange, the ancient Greek received freedom and protection.” 

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Finally, the ancient Greeks were skeptical of utopianism. “They didn’t think education can really change human nature. They knew that we are simply human beings with appetites and that what a person says is not necessarily what he does or how he lives.”

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