Barry Strauss Interview
Barry Strauss is a professor of Ancient History and best-selling author of popular histories.
Hanley: Professor Strauss, what attracted you to the ancient world?
Strauss: I got interested in the ancient world when I was a freshman in college. Some very good teachers, and I loved languages, started taking ancient Greek. I remember it was 1970, and I started reading Thucydides. And I was amazed at how germane it seemed to the Vietnam War and the controversies of the time as if it had been written yesterday. I wanted to learn. I wanted to understand.
Hanley: When did you make the transition into, “Not only am I enjoying this, but I’m going to be a scholar of this subject”?
Strauss: Well, I guess I always took scholarship seriously, but it competed throughout my college career with journalism. I thought I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and an editor on the student newspaper. And then I actually got an internship, got to be a newspaper reporter for a long summer and realized it wasn’t for me. So I thought I’d try graduate school.
Hanley: Talk a little bit more about that transition. There you are reading these guys and you are loving it - and I know you were especially inspired by Professor Kagan at Yale. And here you are now, you’re one of those guys that other people are reading and enjoying. Was there a moment when it occurred to you, “Well, I can do this?” What was that transition like from student into “Now I’m going to be an author myself?”
Strauss: That’s a good question. I always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid in elementary school. I apologize if this sounds arrogant, but I never doubted that I could write books. It was more a matter of learning what I had to learn, acquiring knowledge of a field, of the specifics of the field, of the details. I guess I always thought I’d end up writing books about it.
Hanley: I can imagine that most people would have a hard time fully understanding the amount of work that goes into putting out a scholarly work of any note. Talk a little bit about that. Were you surprised by the effort that it took, or did it just seem a matter of course to you?
Strauss: Maybe I was a little surprised. I think it’s one of these things where you think, “Oh, it’s not going to be that hard. And then you start peeling the layers of the onion and there’s still something there. It just keeps going deeper and deeper and deeper. I think that probably between books, as a matter of self-defense, I deny just how much work there is. But it’s a lot.
Hanley: Was picking up the languages fairly easy or hard? How was that for you?
Strauss: It’s always hard. I think that I’m lucky in that I’m reasonably good at languages. I probably had an easier time than some people. But it’s not easy. Greek and Latin are not easy. The need to constantly be reading things in French, German, Italian, Modern Greek…it’s not difficult if you’re spending a few months say in Italy to pick up stuff in Italian. But, when you haven’t looked at Italian for six months and suddenly you’ve got to read a book in Italian, it’s not so easy.
Hanley: I can remember the civil war historian, Shelby Foote, talking about his method. If I remember correctly, he would read and read and read tons of books on the subject and then when it came time to actual writing, he would just do it from memory and wouldn’t really even have a book open. How is it for you when you set to the task of writing a book?
Strauss: Oh, I’m different in that. I do have notes and I do write with notes in front of me constantly. I’m constantly looking at books and constantly checking my own notes. I would agree with him to this extent that when you actually sit down to write a book, you have a pretty good idea of what you want to say. Generally the things that you’re going to go back and check are going to be the smaller things, not the bigger things. I usually find that I have thought through what my arguments are going to be, my big arguments. It’s only the small things I need to just rethink or redo. But certainly I need those notes in front of me.
Hanley: Well, certainly, everyone has their own talents and abilities. When you were going to school, did you have a sense that if someone wanted to apply him or herself they could be a professor, they could do what you’re doing? Or did you find there was some just inherent talent in certain people for that kind of life?
Strauss: Oh, I think the latter. But remember people aren’t generally lining up to be professors. It’s not as popular a field as law school or med school or business school. Usually it’s a small self-selected group of people who want to go get Ph.D.s. It’s certainly not for everyone. You have to enjoy academic life and enjoy research. In the case of what I do, you have to enjoy learning foreign languages and traveling to often kind of dust off the beaten track places.
Hanley: I can remember it was my Greek professor actually at USC, he was talking about the life of a professor, and he said that he finds quite often people are intimidated by this, whether it’s just a social function or just generally in meeting people. Do you find this to be the case?
Strauss: Yes. It’s a real conversation stopper. If someone asks, “What do you do?” And you say, “I’m a professor.” They say, “Oh, ok.”
Hanley: And then it must stop further when you say ancient history.
Strauss: Yeah. Ancient history, they think well, you know, of course, ancient history is an expression for “not important.” They just think, “Gosh, it must be so obscure.”
Hanley: So do you find yourself making a case for it or you just generally go on to something else?
Strauss: I generally go on to something else. One thing that I certainly did not expect when I went into academe is I never realized how lonely the life of a professor and a writer is. It’s not a very sociable profession. But myself, when I’m talking to people, I usually want to ask them about them. I know all about me. I want to hear about them.
Hanley: Exactly. So you must enjoy the teaching aspect of it then?
Strauss: Oh, yeah. Teaching is great. And especially at a good place like Cornell, you get very bright students. They can be very challenging. I love lecturing and when you have a good discussion going in a schoolroom, I love leading discussions. So I feel very lucky to be able to get paid to do it.
Hanley: My degree was in philosophy and I got a Master’s degree at NYU. One thing I remember being struck by was when the professors would work with each other, there were often extremely heated arguments. And then when it was over, they were like nothing had happened and, you know, let’s just move on. I find in ordinary life it’s not like that, right? People have a hard time separating that we’re just talking about a subject, and it’s nothing personal.
Strauss: Yes. When professionalism works, that’s one of the good things that you can abstract from your personality and just think about the subject. You must be very good if you did two degrees in philosophy.
Hanley: Well, I guess. I guess just like you with ancient history, I just really liked it. I went in thinking I was going to be a psychology major and then I took my first philosophy class and just loved it, and just never wanted to learn anything else.
Strauss: That’s great. It’s a great subject and I may say it attracts very intelligent people.
Hanley: Well, I hope so. Have you found yourself in the middle of sort of heated academic or back and forth journal articles? I mean, have you taken any what people consider to be controversial positions on anything?
Strauss: Well, some. I got very favorable reviews on my last book on the Battle of Salamis. But I also got some really negative reviews because of my methodology which comes close to creative nonfiction. In Salamis as in the Trojan War, I do a lot of speculating and a lot of saying, "We don’t know exactly what it was like, but it might have been like this for the following reasons.” I think most people like that, but quite a few said, “Well, you can’t do that.” That’s going way beyond the evidence. We just don’t know.” And that’s raised some eyebrows. And I think it will with the Trojan War book as well.
Hanley: Well, going back to the relevance of ancient history, to you it must seem so obvious and I’d like to think it’s pretty clear to me, too - but for the person new to the subject, what are the main arguments you make as far as why should the every day person be interested in ancient history?
Strauss: Well, first of all, there’s some awfully good literature: Thucydides, Herodotus, Tacitus, Livy - these are just spectacularly good writers. And although they’re not easy writers, to read them is an education in and of itself as to how to think, how to express yourself, and how to communicate. I think that we need antidotes today to our, well, I hate to say it, but kind of slovenly and thoughtless manner of communication which just gets worse and worse all the time or maybe I just get more curmudgeonly as I get older. I think ancient history is a wonderful antidote to that. Secondly, ancient history is written, by and large, by pagans who come from a very different world view, a non-Judeo-Christian world view. They tend to be more matter of fact about the realities of power. They tend not to sugarcoat things, to be blunter. I think reading ancient historians forces you to think about some not very pretty but very important aspects of the human condition, such as political power, military power, and looking at societies that cut their economies very close to the bone. They weren’t subsistence economies, but they had nothing like the kind of wealth and luxury that we do today. I think it is an education for people to see what human life was once like. It’s humbling, I think, in a good way to realize that we are no more intelligent and arguably no more self-controlled than people were five thousand years ago. It’s just that we know more. We have more experience. We have modern science. But the basic intellectual apparatus and world view of humanity has not changed and I think you can get that very clearly from ancient history.
Hanley: Absolutely. Now, do you have a particular favorite period? And if you could go back in time, what period would you go to?
Strauss: There’s so many, but I guess my first choice would be Periclean Athens when Athens was at the height of its power, when the Parthenon was built, Sophocles and Euripides were active. Socrates was on the scene. Aristophanes was a young man. Thucydides was a young man. The sophists were arguing. Pericles was a leading politician. Athens ruled the seas. I think it would be amazing to see.
Hanley: I sometimes think about that and I wonder just how shocked we would be if we were thrust back there with our modern sensibilities with everything from the way they treated young boys on occasion…
Strauss: Oh, yes.
Hanley: And women, and all the sacrifice. What do you think would be the most difficult transition for you?
Strauss: There would be many shocking things. I think we would probably be shocked at the state of sanitation, people’s diet. I think we would be shocked at simply the human smells everywhere. These were societies without deodorants and without toothpaste. And we’d be shocked by slavery, the status of women, and the status of sex of all sorts, both pederasty and the predominance of prostitution. There was an enormous amount of prostitution. A lot of people were abused.
Hanley: That brings up Greek religion. It seems like it didn’t really have an ethical dimension to it. Would you agree with that?
Strauss: No, I wouldn’t. I think Greek religion had a strong ethical dimension to it, just different than our ethics. For instance, I think Greek religion is very concerned with the question of justice, very concerned with the question of how to treat other people, hospitality, who are your friends, who are your enemies, and how do you treat a guest - very concerned with questions of family, of honor, of vengeance, of obligations. I don’t think Greek religion has the world’s most sophisticated answers to those questions, but I think it was interested in ethical questions.
Hanley: Would you say by and large they were more focused on what’s going to bring me honor rather than trying to be a good person?
Strauss: Well, certainly in the early period of Greek history, they were a remarkably shallow people and not all that interested in what was inside. They were not very interested in any intentions. They were a results culture and an honor and shame culture. You’re absolutely right. They cared more about appearances than about essential goodness and evil. I think as the civilization matured and developed, critics like Socrates and Plato, the philosophers, moved Greek civilization on a different path.
Hanley: How can the modern person best understand the way an ancient Greek believed in the gods?
Strauss: Well, I think one thing is that we have to realize that they took religion seriously. We tend to say, “Oh, that’s just mythology.” But that’s what they would say about the Bible. They believed in their myths. They were polytheists and polytheism goes against the grain for most of us. One way to understand it, I suppose, is to look at other polytheistic religions like Hinduism, for instance, which is a very sophisticated and serious one. Another way is to try to translate some aspects of Greek religion into modern religion. For instance, I think the average person reads the Iliad they think, “This is ridiculous, with all these gods on the battlefield and whatnot. Come on. Nobody could ever believe in that.” But then if you think about soldiers nowadays in war, and you think about the expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and you realize the importance of chaplains and religion in modern warfare, well then Greek religion doesn’t seem quite so out in left field; it does seem closer to the human experience. I think you have to try and think of the ancient Greeks as real life people who had many of the same needs that we do and think of the ways in which religion was meant to cater to those needs.
Hanley: Now, in the Christian tradition, they seem to be very focused on literal history, you know, something exactly happened this way at this time. Did the Greeks have the same kind of sense of things? Like for example, with Heracles, did they strongly believe the events occurred the way they did, or was that not so important to them?
Strauss: Well, I think that in some sense it was like, I’d compare it to saints’ lives in which there are many saints of whom there are various versions of the lives of the saints. And there’d be stories that will gather around a particular saint and people understand that not all those stories are going to be true. I think that’s probably the way many Greeks would look at Heracles, say, “He’s a great person around whom many stories were gathered. Some of them were true. Some of them were not true.”
Hanley: Do you think they put great emphasis on whether it was true or not?
Strauss: Oh, definitely. For instance, let me give you an example. In 475 B.C. - so we’re in the 5th century B.C., just on the eve of the golden age of Pericles - one of Athens’ leading generals came home to Athens from a navy campaign in the Aegean Islands and he brought with him a great discovery: the bones of Theseus, the hero, Theseus. How did the Greeks know that these were the bones of a hero? Well, they were extremely large. It’s been speculated, hypothesized, that these were actually mastodon bones or mammoth bones. In other words, they were fossilized bones, but nonhuman bones. But the Greeks took them to be the bones of a hero. Theseus was supposed to have died on the Island of Skyros. These bones were found on Skyros. And so they were solemnly buried in Athens. Athenians thought these were the bones of Theseus.
Hanley: And that was very important to them.
Strauss: Yeah, very.
Hanley: Now, some work that I’ve read speculates that the particular art of Greek tragedy was written in that specific period as a way for the Greeks to kind of work out their increasing skepticism about the gods. Have you ever heard of that? Or do you give that much credence?
Strauss: Yeah, I guess I’m willing to say that was an element of tragedy. Of the three great tragic poets, one of them might have been a skeptic and probably was a skeptic, Euripides. When you get to the plays of Euripides, you can see elements of skepticism about religion. That’s very much a part of Athenian culture in the late 5th century. In the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, they’re not skeptics. They’re much more traditionalists, and they’re trying to bring the public back to a more traditional view. So, yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say - that one of the aspects of Greek tragedy is a society wrestling with skepticism about religion.
Hanley: Do you think that this, perhaps, increasing skepticism was at all tied to the move towards sort of a total war concept of the Peloponnesian War? It seemed like all previous rules of engagement were broken at will and just seemed like they moved much more towards absolute open warfare.
Strauss: That’s a good point. The Peloponnesian War is part of a wider process of revolution in Greek society in the 5th century. Military technology was revolutionized by the war with the Persians. Politics was revolutionized by democracy. Intellectual life was revolutionized by philosophy. Greek parochialism was revolutionized by contact with the Persians. So I think what you have in the 5th century is a society undergoing enormous shocks and changes and advances, and power and wealth are being amassed as never before. I think these are the ingredients of any society that are going to challenge traditional beliefs. So by the time of the Peloponnesian War, technology and politics were ready to take off in new and more terrible ways of killing people. You certainly see that in the war.
Hanley: What was the Greek view on death? They had this idea of the shadowy underworld. It seems like in the Iliad that Homer wants to essentially say, “Look, death is final. And the best you can hope for is that they write about you afterwards. But it’s absolutely final.” What can you say about their view of death and especially how it evolved over time?
Strauss: Well, you’re absolutely right about the Iliad, and what we see in Greek society in a number of ways are attempts to get around that. Greeks, like a number of other ancient peoples, were looking for hope and something less gloomy. So we find, for instance, in Athens the famous Eleusinian Mysteries. These were a festival celebrated outside of Athens in which the participants would be initiated into the cult of the gods and they would be taught secret things, mystika, mysteria. That’s where the word mystery is from. These secrets would be about the possibility of immortality after death, life after death. So I think there were Greeks, many Greeks, who were looking for more than the traditional belief in the underworld. In the ancient near east, there are two traditions essentially. There’s the Mesopotamian tradition which is that after death you just get to be shades in the underworld. And then there’s the Egyptian tradition which is that after death you have a wonderful permanent party living in the land on the Isles of the Blessed. And your body is preserved through mummification. Well, the Greeks tended towards the Mesopotamian view. But they were attracted by variance towards the Egyptian views and so we find this as an undercurrent in their ideas about death.
Hanley: In reading on Athenian democracy, it seems like quite a few commentators lament a little bit that we don’t have quite the same participation. Now, I know in Athens women were excluded and non-citizens, but, still, they voted on things by one person, one vote. Some people seem to lament that we don’t have it like that. But do you think that it could really work nowadays to do it like ancient Athens? Or did the founders of the United States have it right in being cautious about that?
Strauss: You’ve asked one of the most fundamental questions in the history of political philosophy. There’s this famous debate, especially in the 18th century between the ancients and the moderns, and I come down pretty much on the side of the moderns. I think that the modern solution of a weak state and strong civil society, representative rather than participatory democracy is a better solution than the ancient solution. But I do think that one thing we have to watch out for in modern conditions is going too far. It is quite possible to go too far. I think that we need to be concerned when the level of participation becomes extremely low, when the level of active patriotism and community solidarity are fairly low, when the gap between rich and poor become enormous. These are all things that would have been intolerable in an ancient democracy or an ancient republic of any kind and things, I think, that we need to be concerned about in our system. I think unreflective nostalgia for ancient democracy is a bad thing and a dangerous thing. But I think that a limited cautious sense that we can learn things from ancient democracy is very helpful.
Hanley: Even in the ancient world, you look at the oligarchic model and the Athenian democratic model, and even just in that perspective, which do you prefer?
Strauss: In the ancient world?
Strauss: Oh, I prefer the Athenian democratic model absolutely. Athenian democracy whatever its flaws were produced Western literature. I mean that’s where Western culture, Western art, come from. They come from Athens. Sparta was a remarkable society that had many admirable things about it, but it was a dead end. It could not reproduce the way that Athens did. There are not many cities in the history of the world that have pollinated the world in the way that Athens has. You have Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Peking - these are remarkable places. There are just not many like them and there’s no other city state in Greece that can compare.
Hanley: Let’s look at Sparta there for a moment. On the one hand, they seemed so committed to freedom. When the Persians came in and tried to take over Greece, they were big players. And then they didn’t want to be enslaved by the Athenians later. But then simultaneous to that they’re enslaving thousands of people. But there seemed to be no reflection on that. Is that right? It just seemed a matter of course that the strong take over the weak.
Strauss: Well, I don’t think they were completely without reflection on that. And the Athenians criticized that point of view. While some Athenians expressed that point of view, the Athenians also criticized it. The Greeks by and large did not question slavery. They thought that was just part of the way of the world. But they did question the way that Spartans treated other Greeks. So I think they had some sense that it was a complicated thing. But they were certainly not as egalitarian and as fair minded as we are.
Hanley: Particularly with Sparta, with them basically taking over a whole people (the Messenians), they do that, it seemed, with no problem. But they were outraged that someone else would want to do that to them.
Strauss: Yeah. That is a problem. I agree. I think the Spartans were hypocrites and there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy among the Athenians as well.
Hanley: That’s for sure. I guess there is a lot of that to go around in those times. Now, when Thebes finally came in and took down the Spartans with their great Theban general, Epaminondas, do you think that for him this was more than military quest? Did he have a moral imperative here as well?
Strauss: I think it’s quite possible. I hate to be wishy-washy. The truth is we don’t know. Alas we don’t have good biographies of Epaminondas, so we’re impoverished in what we know about him. But there’s enough in the little of it as we have to suggest that he was of a philosophic demeanor and was serious enough that it’s possible that for him it was not just a matter of power but that it was also a matter of philosophy and morality.
Hanley: Did the Greeks have any concept of a soul before Socrates came around?
Strauss: Any concept of the soul?
Strauss: You ask good questions, tough questions.
Hanley: I think about this stuff.
Strauss: I think so, yes. It’s much debated, but I think that in Homer, fundamentally, in the end there is a notion of the soul. It’s not so obvious.
Hanley: Is that in the sense of the underworld business or where do you see it there?
Strauss: Well, what do you mean? It depends what you mean by the soul.
Hanley: This idea that a spiritual inner self is really my true self.
Strauss: No. They do not. They do not have much of that at all before Socrates.
Hanley: In addition to that, what would you say was Socrates’ real breakthrough? If you would consider him a breakthrough in let’s say Western thinking, what was it?
Strauss: Well, Cicero said that Socrates’ most important thing that he did was that he brought philosophy into the streets. Before Socrates philosophy had been focused on the stars and the moon and the sun and up in the skies, having to do with the cosmos. Socrates gave philosophy a human focus. He said essentially, “Human affairs are the most important thing that we need to be looking at in philosophy.” So I guess I’d have to say that’s the most important thing. He, in some ways, is the founder of political philosophy.
Hanley: With the Republic?
Strauss: Well, the Republic is Plato. Socrates is conversations. I think that’s not entirely true because even the pre-Socratic philosophers had more interest in politics than we tend to give them credit for. But maybe with Socrates, political philosophy comes of age.
Hanley: Do you think he redefined human being in any given way? Was he a turning point from ancient to modern thinking?
Strauss: Yes, in a number of ways. Socrates is a key person in the idea that there is such a thing as absolute virtue, absolute goodness, that it is not relative, that not all things are relative, and that the human being has to be guided by an absolute and unchanging standard of right and wrong. A person’s willingness to do this and ability to do this trumps the laws of Athens, the laws of Thebes. It trumps any local customs and it trumps reputation. So in that sense, Socrates is a major turning point on the road that would lead to Christianity, among other things with the idea that morality is not relative, morality is absolute. Socrates, of course, also has an inner voice that speaks to him and that is more important to him than what the laws of the state say.
Hanley: As far as the moral absolutes, or not just moral, but I guess what counts as real being absolute, many people would say that idea ended up carrying the day for the better part of two thousand years until maybe just in the last couple of centuries we’re breaking free of that. Would you agree with that sort of arc of history?
Strauss: Certainly, you find history going in cycles between moral absolutism and moral relativism. Socrates was speaking in a very relativistic age. He was a breath of fresh air in an age of skepticism, sophistry, youthful rebellion, and a society that was being torn loose from its old values. I can imagine other ages in which Socrates would be burning people at the stake and would be a Grand Inquisitor. As the Greeks would say, “Measure in all things.”
Hanley: So, is part and parcel of postmodernism about not being stuck with absolutes?
Strauss: Boy, you’re really going all over the place. Yes, absolutely. Yes, indeed, that is part and parcel of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a species of relativism.
Hanley: Now, I’ve read a couple of guys who’ve surveyed this whole arc of history, including Charles Taylor. I don’t know if you’ve read him.
Strauss: Yes. I’ve read some of him.
Hanley: He and others essentially come down thinking post-modern relativism is not going to work. We need to go back to the Judeo-Christian model or some such model that gives us some certainty. Do you have any sympathy for that?
Strauss: Yeah, well, my instincts on this are conservative. I think that by and large the time-tested truths are the right truths and that although things have evolved and changed in many ways in the West since the days of the Greeks, in certain fundamentals they haven’t. We’ve lost our way in the road and we need to go back to the basic truths of the Western tradition otherwise we’re in real danger of losing everything. One of Socrates’ arguments to the Athenians was that if you don’t have a belief in absolute right or wrong, there’s absolutely nothing to hold you in place. If you believe that might makes right, well that’s going to take you anywhere. You have no idea where that’s going to take you. That’s just not an adequate way to run a society. And I think you can say likewise that if you believe that everything is relative, then there’s nothing to keep you from saying that might makes right.
Hanley: Well, that’s true or it may be true, but the question arises: “If we can’t really base our certainty on Homer, and we’re not confident in basing it on the Bible, and we’re not even really confident basing it on science, what do we base it on?” How would we know anything’s absolute?
Strauss: Oh, I think you have to base it on a kind of enlightened Christianity really. I don’t see what the alternative is for the West. I agree with you. If you say that you can’t base it on anything, then you’re unmoored. You don’t know that anything is absolute. But I think you have to take certain things on faith and I don’t find that a difficult thing to do because I think human beings are hardwired to have faith, a degree of faith, at any rate. I think it’s a survival skill. So, yes, to a certain extent, any faith will do. But if you want to have societies that are dedicated to freedom, well, then, I think the record shows that a kind of enlightened Christianity has got a very good track record in this.
Hanley: It’s going to be very interesting because, on the one hand, I have some sympathy for the view that we need to get past all religion because religion seems to have caused a lot of conflict over the last two thousand years. And maybe if we just got past all of that, we’d be left with, “Well, we’re going to create it ourselves. So how do we want to create it?” Do you think, is it possible that could work?
Strauss: Well, perhaps, if you had very, very wise people who understood human nature very well. But I think that part of the deal with faith is that people are willing to trust in a faith because it’s traditional. I think when people are looking for faith, they’re looking for something that is tested by time and has tradition behind it. I think the problem with “new and improved” is it’s not really what people what makes faith strong. I don’t think you should simply go back to everything that’s old and say, “It’s old, so it’s got to be right” because that includes slavery and lots of really nasty stuff. But, I think if you say nothing is free from skepticism, and everything can be rethought, then I think that you’re in danger of throwing out the Western tradition. I also think it’s naive to think that people, most people, can get by without religion. People want religion and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll find some other way to get it. They’ll either convert to a different religion, or they’ll invent their own. Instead of believing in saints, they’ll believe in celebrities and then celebrities will play the role of religion. I’m very dubious that the cult of celebrities can do the work that the cult of saints does.
Hanley: Now, I think Professor Kagan came to the conclusion that human beings are wired for conflict and we really need to work hard to get past that. In your reading of history, does it seem like the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Strauss: Yes, unfortunately, I think that’s true. But I think we have resources today that the ancients did not have that allow us to be more optimistic about some things. For instance, the ancients simply did not have the means to solve poverty and they did not have the means to give prosperity to large numbers of people and we do. We have the means to give health to large numbers of people. I think what we need to recognize, though, is that we haven’t gotten past that human propensity for conflicts that are hardwired into us. I think we have to recognize and frankly admit that it’s part of the human condition and to fight against it in order to protect ourselves from the worst side of our natures. I think that denying it and saying that everything is beautiful and everybody is cool and groovy is a recipe for disaster because I think the ugly side of human nature will just reassert itself, and it’s just going to roll over people who believe that everything is sweetness and light.
Hanley: Now, this is probably an especially challenging question. If you look at the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, are there parallels there between the West now versus the extreme Islamic extremists and if so, are there lessons we can lean so that we can have a better outcome?
Strauss: That’s an excellent question and to some extent I’ll say I need to think about it. But let me try to give you some answers. If you look at Athens and you look at Sparta at the beginning of the war, you just can’t believe that those slow folks in Sparta could possibly win. But there’s a lot to be said for “Slow and steady wins the race.” I suppose one way to translate that into contemporary conditions is saying, “He who remembers the basics and maintains the basics has very good prospects in the long run.” I think there’re various ways that can be applied to contemporary East/West conflict. I think another thing that we can learn from the Athenian experience is the need to have an appropriate balance between the leaders and the led. Athens did as well as it did and fought as hard as it did above all because of the energy of the Athenian people, but the Athenians needed good leadership. When they didn’t have a good leadership they made disastrous mistakes. One of the reasons they had good leadership was first they were led by an older generation of people who had been trained to sacrifice for the country and many of whom had experienced disaster themselves. I think Pericles was very much shaped by his experience as a teenager when he had to go into exile when his father was ostracized. When he comes back to Athens, he has to evacuate Athens during the crisis of Salamis. He sees the city destroyed. So, he and his generation had known hard knocks, and they didn’t take Athenian wealth and prosperity for granted. I think the problem that Athens faced with the Alcibiades of this world was that they were arrogant. They were shallow. They couldn’t take the abyss seriously. They couldn’t consider the possibility that they might lose everything, and they were very selfish and not thinking about the society as a whole. So I think that having proper leaders and educating people to be proper leaders is absolutely crucial in a free society. It’s one of the mistakes the Athenians made that we have to be very much concerned about today.
Hanley: Very good. The other possible learning I think of is going back to the origin of the Peloponnesian War and, if I remember Professor Kagan’s book well enough, it came down to the fact that the Spartans had acted out of the bounds of a treaty with Athens. Athens said, “We need to put this to arbitration” as the treaty specified, and Sparta said, “No, we’re not doing that.” And Pericles just decided, you know, I can’t cave in on this. If I do, they’ll just keep doing it. I think that story does have parallels today. It doesn’t have easy answers because I’m not sure exactly what the demands of the terrorists of today are, but I guess they have some. There are some who think, “Well, we just need to talk to them and give them a little bit, and then we can calm this whole thing down.” Does history tell us that that’s at all possible, or is that highly unlikely?
Strauss: Well, I think that history says that appeasement is possible when you have conditions where the two sides are in fundamental agreement or where their values aren’t that different, and neither one of them wants to take over the world. One of the things policymakers have to do is to decide is if their opponent is someone who’s really fundamentally reasonable and who you can talk to and appease, or is this someone who’s fundamentally untrustworthy. That is a basic question. Are the terrorists and their enablers, are they fundamentally reasonable, or are they fundamentally untrustworthy? The Iranian government, for example, wants to say: “What are you guys getting so upset about? We’re just a normal state, and in fact we don’t have enough energy for our needs. So we want to have nuclear energy. Maybe down the road we want to have nukes. But so what? France has nukes. England has nukes. The world’s not coming to an end. Why shouldn’t we want to defend ourselves? We live in a dangerous neighborhood. What are you getting so upset about?” The question is - do we believe them or do we believe their other voice that says, “We won’t rest until we’ve destroyed the great Satan.” Which is the true face of the enemy? And statesmen have to decide.
Hanley: There are not easy answers, that’s for sure. Well, I know time has flown by here. I just have a couple more questions for you. One of the philosophers I’ve enjoyed studying is the German Heidegger. He was actually quite taken with ancient Greece himself. He came out with a travel book called Sojourns. He visited Greece in the late ‘60s. One of the things he, I guess, complains about is that you don’t really get a feel for the ancient world, that it’s impossible to really connect with the spirit of ancient Greece. The one possible exception for him was on the little island of Delos. Was there any particular place you felt quite close to the ancient spirit?
Strauss: I hate to disagree with a wise philosopher, but I felt close to the ancient spirit in gazillions of places in Greece and all over Greece. It was part of the appeal of Greece to me. I think that when you learn the language, when you experience traditional Greek life in the countryside and you see the rhythm of the changing seasons in Greece, you get very close to the ancient life. There seem to be two classes of visitors that go to Greece. Those who think, “Oh, what a disappointment, there’s nothing of antiquity left,” and those who think, “My gosh, it’s all still here. These people haven’t changed.” I’m definitely of the latter variety. That was one of the things that made me fall in love with Greece and find it so exciting.
Hanley: And what about Delos? Did you ever check that out?
Strauss: Yeah, I’ve been to Delos. Delos is a mystical place. Among other things, it’s hard to get to. Not only you can’t go there and stay there, you have to stay on Mykonos, but that’s one of the most windy areas of the Aegean. And Delos does not have a proper docking facility so big boats can’t go there and if it’s at all windy, the little boats can’t make the trip. To give you a case in point, I was just on a cruise ship that was supposed to go to Delos a month ago. We didn’t make it because it was very windy. Fortunately I have been there another time, and it’s very beautiful and very serene and you do get a sense of antiquity there as long as you can keep yourself from remembering that at one point Delos was the largest slave market in the world. And that does detract a bit.
Hanley: Are there any other little bit off the beaten track places you would recommend to people?
Strauss: Oh, gosh, there’s so many. Off the beaten track places? Yes, there is a place near Corinth called Perachora. It’s north of Corinth on the Gulf of Corinth. It’s a peninsula that juts into the sea and it’s spectacular. It really does give you a sense of the Greek landscape and antiquity. Oh, gosh, there’s so many places. The whole area around Delphi, the plain west of Delphi, around Amphissa, that goes down to a little town called Galaxidhi and it’s just very, very beautiful. Ayia Galini is a town in Crete which is also rather magical. It’s a seaport on the south coast of Crete and it means “holy peace.” There’s so many places. Walking in the countryside around Corinth in the spring when the wildflowers are out, the poppies, and the daises - that can be just really be magical.
Hanley: I haven’t been yet. But I’m looking forward to going soon.
Strauss: Greece is wonderful.
Hanley: Alright. Last question here. I know that you are very much into rowing. Have you had any epiphanies out on the boat?
Strauss: Absolutely. Some of my very basic ideas about ancient Greece, Greek democracy, and Greek history, have come from those, precisely from those epiphanies. I really learned a lot about equality in Athenian democracy from my experiences rowing, and I think I figured out a lot about the battle of Salamis from rowing on Cayuga Lake and my experience with the winds there. It gave me lots and lots of ideas. Some of my Eureka moments, which are not always correct, but they’re always inspiring have come just from that, from rowing.
Hanley: Well, awesome. Bringing this to a close, I’ve very much enjoyed this conversation.
Hanley: I think I’m sure an hour from now I’ll think of all kinds of things I forgot to ask you, but I think we got a lot of good stuff in.
Hanley: Well, thank you very much, sir.
Strauss: You’re very welcome. Thanks for asking such great questions.
Hanley: You got it. Take care.