Irreverence Toward the Past Is Ingratitude for Its Gifts

Ancient military historian Victor Davis Hanson explores what Pericles’ Funeral Oration (in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War) teaches us about “the American experience in our present age of uncertainty.” One lesson is gratitude for our ancestors:

After bemoaning the truth that the public commemoration of brave men should not rest capriciously on the rhetorical skill of a funeral speaker—a trope followed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg address—Pericles begins his speech with Athens’s ancestors, thanking them for two contributions. Earlier generations of Athenians had kept Athens safe from foreign and Hellenic aggression, and their sacrifice had allowed a more recent cohort to expand the city-state into an Aegean-wide empire whose benefits Pericles’ own generation could enjoy without the toil and danger spent in acquiring it.

The mark of a great leader and an even greater people is precisely such reverence for the past—not a vague past, but one of real people who lived, suffered, achieved, and died for others. In our age of presentism and pride in our high-tech affluence—in which Americans use the standards of the contemporary university to judge prior generations as inferior to our own sensibilities in terms of race, class, and gender equality—such blanket praise of our ancestors seems reactionary and illiberal. After all, the President of the United States has recently apologized for American behavior of a half-century earlier in Iran; for supposed past indifference to the Palestinian issue; for maltreatment of Native Americans, blacks, and other minorities; and for dropping the atomic bomb in World War II. Nowhere does Barack Obama hint that he himself—so unlike the anonymous of the past whom he easily castigates—might lack the physical stamina or bravery to withstand a bout with pre-antibiotic diphtheria, to drive a mule team in summer across the Utah desert, to survive a Banzai charge on Okinawa, or to retreat from the Yalu River in November 1950.

Instead, all the tragedies and physical torment of past generations of Americans are reduced into vague nothingness, and our predecessors have become almost cardboard cutout figures, judged as sympathetic or repellent based on the twenty-first-century politically correct morality of an affluent metrosexual culture which would likely fail the challenges of danger, torment, and hardship that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans routinely overcame. Nowhere do we even attribute the magic of cell phones, jet travel, or modern medicine to an inherited intellectual and scientific foundation that was the legacy of the collective lives of long-dead Americans, who suffered greatly and gave us much.

Pericles’ point was not that the Athenians of a distant age who founded the empire were perfect, only that they had bequeathed a powerful Athens that the present generation apparently benefitted from and enjoyed. To fault the gift would be as illogical as it would be ungracious. A modern American update would be to lavish praise on the generations that defeated the British, Mexicans, Spanish, Germans, Italians, Japanese, and Soviets, and thereby passed on a free America, which we find far preferable to the defeats envisioned by our former enemies. The degree to which many Americans were at one time racist, sexist, or brutal would, then, be overshadowed by the fact that they were both better than the alternative of the times and had enough confidence that their own survival—and only their survival—would create the conditions for subsequent self-introspection, critique, and certain moral improvement.

There is also an element of old-fashioned manners in Pericles’ speech wholly lacking in modern platitudes: the recipient does not critique the benefactor’s gift as being not quite what he might have wished—unless he wishes to refuse it altogether. Or in blunter parlance, a Periclean American president would not have apologized for our fathers’ sins because he would have understood that they were dwarfed by the freedom and prosperity that our generation inherited from them.

Indeed, if our American inheritance were so bad, then we would be under no obligation to be tainted by it and could simply refuse the heritage altogether—and at our own, rather than our ancestors’, expense. Why not now expand present-day Indian reservations to include entire states where Native Americans could return to their own migratory past and indigenous alternative lifestyles? Why not refuse to use the water, power, or flood prevention capability of a Hoover Dam that so disfigures the natural course of the Colorado River? If modern man had so mindlessly destroyed John Muir’s scenic Hetch Hetchy Sierra Nevada valley, why then would not liberal San Franciscans rally to dismantle the dam, or at least today refuse to accept drinking water delivered from such a vast public project of scarifying dams and canals? Pericles’ point, of course, is not that a present generation cannot critique prior ones, but that it should do so in a manner that weighs concrete benefits versus abstract burdens.

Hanson observes that we are reluctant to publicly express American ideals not because they are untrue but because they are perceived as illiberal:

The traits that Pericles assumes as desirable—“refinement without extravagance,” “knowledge without effeminacy,” “wealth more for use than show,” the disgrace of surrender to poverty, and politicians who are private citizens rather than professional officials—were, until recently, unquestioned American ideals. After all, most Americans privately concede that one should display wealth without being crass, that excessive intellectualism can lead to a less physical, less well-rounded life, that the poor are not always victims of uncontrolled circumstances, and that those successful in private enterprise are more likely to be so in public affairs. These are unfortunate realities that cannot easily be refuted except by the argument that it is hurtful to express publicly values that so many fail to aspire to. The difference, again, in the ancient and modern sentiment is that the latter worry whether such an expression will be deemed illiberal, and the former simply whether or not it is true.

– “Is America Periclean?” (The New Criterion)


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