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Greener Grass

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Somewhere around the year 300 BC, the Greeks sent a diplomatic mission, headed by a man named Megasthenes, to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in India.  Everything we know about this mission is at secondhand.  Megasthenes wrote a book about his travels, but all manuscripts of it have been lost.  We know what he said only insofar as parts of it have been quoted by other ancient writers.

One of the most quoted bits is Megasthenes’s observation that, “No Indians ever set out beyond their own country to wage aggressive war because of their respect for justice.”

I came across that quotation the other day in a book called India by Michael Wood.  I like this book a lot, although it’s essentially a coffee table glossy with accompanying archeological travelogue.  But maybe, just because it is what it is–because Wood, like Megasthenes, is a Western traveler enthusing about India–this whole situation struck me more forcefully than it might have done in a regular book of history.

I mean, let’s look at this for a minute.  Chandragupta Maurya is the first man ever to establish an empire in  India.  He did it by rallying the forces immediately around him to repel the invasion of the forces of Alexander the Great from the area now known as the Hindu Kush, and then by turning those forces loose in the chaos of an unified India in order to unify it as much as possible.

In other words, Chandragupta Maurya was a man for whom aggressive war was a vocation.  He invaded the petty principalities and largely incoherent small societies around them and hammered them into a whole by force.  This was not necessarily, or even principally, a bad thing.  Throughtout most of human histor, progress has followed conquest, and Chandragupta brought a lot of progress to India.

Megasthenes, on the other hand, seems to be the earliest known example of the Westerner who glorifies any civilization at the expense of his own.   He also seems to be the first to ascribe nonviolence and lack of aggression to another society in order to castigate his own for its addiction to violence.

And that makes him, of course, the first example of a Westerner who, gloifying such a society, is unable to see it as it really is.

I don’t know.  Maybe if we had the entirety of Megasthenes’s book, it would differ significantly in overall content than the quotations we have seem to indicate.  Maybe we would even find the quotations are wrong.

But the quotations we do have are from ancient sources themselves.  They predate the arrival of “leftism” and Marxism by millennia.  That brings up the question of what it is about us that we seem to need to downgrade the society of which we are a part and to idealize “foreign” ones. 

I don’t know enough about Indian or Asian literature to be able to speak for myself, but I’ve got it on the authority of writers I trust that this is a peculiarity of  Western civilization found either not at all, or only very marginally, in any other. 

And, like the spread of Chandragupta’s empire, this isn’t necessarily all bad.  In a way, it’s merely an extreme form of the openness to new ideas and nontraditional ways of thinking that has given us the science we all take for granted these days.

That said, it’s a really odd character trait, and it has its downsides.  For one thing, the danger always exists that such an attitude will cause Western civilization to lose respect for itself and what it does right.  That’s something we can see now throughout Western Europe, and to a lesser extent in the Anglophone countries.  We can certainly see it in textbooks and books for children, which go overboard to praise and glorify other cultures and spend most of their time criticizing this one, often in ways that are ahistorical and tendentious in the extreme.

But the other danger here is that such hagiographical visions of other cultures tend to make it seem that things are possible that are not–that, for instance, an empire can be built without resort to aggressive war.

Think of a man walking down a deserted street late at night.  He sees another man suddenly coming at him with knife drawn. If we understand that this is a case of kill or be killed, then we don’t castigate the first man for killing his assailane, or for carrying a gun in case such an eventuality should arise.

If we believe, however, that the violent assault could have been deflected, and the assailant disarmed, by he first man’s use of rational argument, or song and dance, or prayer, then the resort to violence and the carrying of a weapon look morally indefensible. 

This is a very old issue, and it’s being played out right now, between the people who think that we can rely on diplomacy alone to protect us and those who think that only force will sufice, because weakness is provocative and appeasement never works.

We are a civilization split between those people who believe in noble savages and those who think savages are never more than savages after all, and we were that way centuries before anybody had ever heard of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

And I don’t know if there’s any cure for it, either.  Megasthenes was the representative of what was then the greatest civilization ever to have appeared on earth.  In terms of art, science, philosophy and law, it far outshone anything Chandragupta could provide.  Indeed, Chandragupta’s inspiration ws Greek, the civilization he wanted to build was inspired by the Greeks.

The Greeks, on the other hand–or one of them, at any rate–couldn’t wait to worship at the altar of the new, the different, and the not-like-me.

I’m having a pretty much all-India week-end this week-end, for the hell of it mostly.  If you’ve never tried any of the films coming out of Bollywood, I suggest you give a couple a try.

My favorite one, at the moment, is a little thing called Lage Munna Bhai.

It’s light, but not silly.  The musical production numbers–a big deal in Indian movies–are kept unobtrusive and strictly to the minimum.

And watching the ghost of Gandhi–well, no, I won’t give it away.

Written by janeh

April 24th, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Greener Grass'

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  1. I sent this to my sister who suggested that there are other ways in which the ‘foreigners are peaceful’ story can be read. One is as a kind of marvel, a telling of a story emphasizing the exotic nature of foreigners – sometimes they have their heads between their shoulders, they sleep six months of the year, they never fight…. Another literary use of the exotic is quite common with the ‘noble savage’ in European literature. The noble savage wasn’t always in fiction as something to be worshiped or admired, but as something to critique the European culture. The authors aren’t saying ‘Look how marvelous the natives are’; they’re saying ‘Look how far our ambitions for our own culture fall short – this character will show you what we should be like!

    I thought I’d toss that in as food for discussion.



    24 Apr 09 at 12:50 pm

  2. “I don’t know enough about Indian or Asian literature to be able to speak for myself, but I’ve got it on the authority of writers I trust that this is a peculiarity of Western civilization found either not at all, or only very marginally, in any other.”

    I’m not sure about this and would be interested to know which writers you mean.

    I don’t think it’s so much a current split as two tendencies in the Western tradition: one was to find the “other” savages in need of civilizing; the other was to romanticize them as having some pure quality we lost or never had. I think we have been swinging from one extreme to the other and are now in the romanticizing and self-blaming phase, intensified by the fact that some folks in places we either romanticize and/blame ourselves for (South and Latin America, Africa, Middle East) find it convenient to romanticize their past and blame us for everything that is wrong now, rather than taking responsibility.

    I throw my hands up when people insist that “all the problems in the Middle East were caused by first the British and then the Americans,” and conveniently forget the waves of conquest over the millenia. Or scream about “imposing democracy” while forgeting that previous waves of conquerers always imposed whatever they wanted. (Not defending Bush, mind you.)

    I agree that it’s dangerous.


    24 Apr 09 at 4:32 pm

  3. Well, context. Megasthenes wasn’t ambassador from “the Greeks” but from the first Selucid Persian monarch–Seleucus I Nikator. Since Seleucus I had already swapped out Alexander’s Indian provinces to Chandragupta Maurya in return for war elephants, I imagine a public document saying “the ruler of India is competent and aggressive, and we’ll all live to regret this” would not have made for a warm homecoming or rapid advancement at court.

    And, of course, all the estimated dates of composition fall at the tail end of the the Wars of the Diadochi. The Eastern Med had seen in two or three generations Phillip of Macedon’s wars of conquest, Alexander’s overthrow of the Persian Empire, and now Alexander’s generals (Seleucus was one) were fighting over the spoils from Italy to the Himalayas. The Indians may really have looked fairly peaceful by comparison.

    But the overall point is well taken: there is a strain in Western thought that seems to begin with Athens some time prior to the Peloponesian Wars–first curious about foreigners, then judging them by their own standards, then going completely delusional and attributing to the foreigners all manner of perceived virtues–including, generally, a love of peace and a benevolence toward the deluded observer’s culture. Even as delusions run, this one is unusually unproductive and dangerous. Last week I heard an old and skilled observer warning young men headed overseas: “when the reality you see on the ground contradicts what you were taught in the Kennedy School of Government, believe your own eyes.” It’s good advice, but as I was listening to it, I was also hearing George Orwell: “to see what is before one’s own eyes requires constant struggle.”

    And always we circle back to the human tendency to believe what we want to be true IS true. I’ve never met a proponent of the Peaceful Foreigner fallacy who didn’t have some advantage from it being true–if it were true.

    And of course only a few days’ walk down the toad from classical Athens, we have classical Sparta–not only unwilling to learn from foreigners, darn near unable to learn from Greeks.

    That Roman and Victorian British balance–the willingness to study and adapt what was best of others without losing track of whose side one is on is a very rare gift–possibly because we do so little to cultivate it.


    24 Apr 09 at 6:10 pm

  4. I have no answer as to why so many Westeners seem to hate their own society. But back during the Vietnam war I noticed something that might be related.

    The South Vietnam government would shut down a newspaper and the anti war people would say “Why are we supporting a government that doesn’t allow freedom of the press. They completely ignored the fact that North Veitnam was a communist government and NO communist government allowed any freedom of the press.

    Put it another way. On a civil rights scale of 0 to 10, I would have rated South Vietnam as 5 but I would have rated North Vietnam as 0.5. The anti-war people I knew could only see the 5 and ignored the very low rating of the alternative.

    Is this part of the “I hate my society” problem?


    25 Apr 09 at 1:06 am

  5. JD, I don’t know — there is also the problem of the US right supporting horrendous regimes because they are supposedly better than the communinsts/socialists. That has gotten us into trouble dozens of times.

    It might also be that subset that JH mentions, which is the US left refusing to see what was/is going on in any left/socialist/communist country. The oddest thing is that mentality still exists with Russia, which is now not the least bit “left/socialist” — it’s a poorly regulated capitalist country run by a group of plundering bureaucrats, who are stealing the nation’s wealth while most of the people live in poverty or want, facilitated by taking away their right to information and any kind of political action. The leftwing should hate these guys. And yet they are constantly cherry-picking facts to make it seem as if they are a reasonable bunch of men just objecting to US hegemony.


    25 Apr 09 at 1:32 am

  6. John & Mab:
    I think there are two things going on. One is the tendency of certain segments in society to glorify certain segments of the outside world – leftists sometimes forget that communist governments lacked certain essential freedoms, and there have also been rightists who forgot that fascists or right-wing dictators did the same while they were praising their ability to keep order and run things efficiently. Anyone who points this out runs the risk of being accused of fence-sitting.

    But the US – and every other country that ever existed – does and should deal with governments which are anathema to their own beliefs. This is hard to accept nowadays when people think moral pressure expressed in boycotts can correct the perceived failings of governments in distant lands.

    But what’s the alternative? If you have a failed state, like Somalia or Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban, which I think had recognition by only one or two other states, there can be no dealing at all. There’s no rule of law; no one who can deal with criminals or provide a legal framework to solve trade disputes. Even an evil government is preferable.

    Of course it’s tempting to pursue a country’s political ends by actually undermining the evil government, but that’s an extremely risky procedure, and you can end up like the US did in Vietnam; propping up an unviable local government until that policy became politically unviable back in the US. That doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

    Pretending that we (as a country) will only deal with countries whose governments live up to our own standards seems to me to be singularly pointless. It won’t happen, especially since the worse cases are often the ones we need to do something about, either because of trade or because instability tends to spread. And if the internal dissent is inspired by our way of life; that’s one thing. Meddling or controlling or creating internal dissent to try to create something in our own image is an extremely high-risk policy. There’s always another group of dissenters to scream ‘neo-colonialism’ and there’s always the risk of propping up a faction that doesn’t have local support and thereby makes matters worse.


    25 Apr 09 at 5:32 am

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