War for Helen?


One of the less well-known legends of Helen’s later life, from Star Trek comics #9

The Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae has a post today about the story that the Trojan War was triggered by Queen Helen of Sparta running off with Paris, alias Alexander, a Trojan prince. The post quotes several ancient Greek authors, sketching a variety of ways in which the ancients crafted the tale and a variety of purposes which they used it to serve.

They quote Herodotus’ remarks about the story:

“If Helen really were in Ilium, they would have given her back to the Greeks whether Paris wanted them to or not. Priam was not so out of his mind, nor were his other subjects, that they would want to risk their own bodies and children and the city itself just so that Paris could sleep with Helen.”

εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντοςἈλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. 

(Book 2, chapter 110)

I offered this comment:

I’ve always been puzzled by the tradition that regards it as self-evidently absurd that a major war could have been sparked by something like Helen and Paris running off together. It sounds pretty plausible to me.

Had Priam known, as a certainty, that Menelaos and Agamemnon would raise the army Homer describes, lay siege to Troy for 10 years, and then destroy the city, probably he would have handed Helen over the minute Menelaos demanded her. The legend says that it took years to put the coalition together, so that first demand probably came from a military power that Priam could easily have defeated. For Priam to have complied with that demand would have been to present himself as a soft target to every power with designs on Troy.

Even if he had known that a vast army was coming after him and that they would defeat him, however, after that first minute had passed it would have become extremely difficult for Priam to surrender Helen. Every moment Helen was in Troy, a larger share of Priam’s prestige was invested in keeping her there. After just a few days, giving her up would have been a severe loss of face. And the way politics works, if you lose face severely enough, there’s no limit to what you can lose.

I think of the week that followed 11 September 2001. The USA demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden; some very well-informed people of my acquaintance were quite sure that bin Laden and his circle had planned and ordered the attacks without informing the Taliban leadership, but were also sure that the Taliban leaders would not comply with the American demand, even though they knew that refusing to do so would result in the bombing, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan, because complying would invite out-factions within their movement to stage a coup. Either way, they would lose control of the country. But while they might escape from the American onslaught with their lives, and perhaps even with a chance at returning to power if the occupation went badly, a coup would lead directly to their deaths.

Large-scale rationality, with economic interests and geopolitical power structures and so on, that’s very important in keeping a war going and setting the range of possible postwar environments. But the events that lead up to war take place at a different level, where there’s a lot of contingency and a lot of personality. That must have been quite obvious in ancient times, when a policymaker in Asia Minor had no way of getting information in real time about military alliances that are or are not being formed in mainland Greece, but plenty of information about who’s dominant in the face to face relationships he has with the people around him.

I teach Latin and Greek at a mid-ranking college in the interior of the USA. When the story of Helen and Paris comes up in my classes, I ask my students to imagine what might happen if Michelle Obama fell in love with Ji Xinping’s son and the two of them ran off together. It would be a tremendous challenge to diplomacy to prevent even that situation from ending in disastrous violence. How much more volatile would the situation be if, instead of a bilateral confrontation between nuclear-armed superpowers who are connected by an incalculable number of electronic communications on a daily basis, the parties were loose and shifting coalitions with no access to even the most basic information about each other’s positions and capabilities.

Donald Trump is too poor to run for president


That barrel is terrific

The winning candidates in each of the last few US presidential races have headed campaigns in the course of which about $1,000,000,000 was spent. There is no reason to suppose that the winner of the 2016 race will ride any smaller a wave of money.

Donald Trump claims to possess a personal fortune of $10,000,000,000. This claim is unlikely to be true. More to the point, whatever the true scale of Mr Trump’s wealth, very few businesspeople are in a position to liquidate 10% of their holdings in order to finance one personal project. Mr Trump’s debts and other commitments are such that he is surely not at liberty to do that. Estimates of Mr Trump’s cash on hand range from $70,000,000 to $250,000,000, far short of the amount that is typically spent even on winning a major party’s nomination, let alone competing against the nominee of the other major party in the general election.

Mr Trump continues to assert that he has enough money to self-finance.  His refusal to solicit campaign donations is so essential to his appeal that it is unclear how he could start asking for money without dynamiting his base of support.

That creates two problems. First, Mr Trump’s campaign expenditures thus far have been quite modest. He has received so much coverage free of charge from cable news and other media outlets (all the way down to this blog post, apparently) that he hasn’t needed to buy advertising. The only way he can keep gaining that free coverage is to make news, and the only way he can make news is by making remarks that are more shocking than any he has made before. Unless conditions turn so bad that the electorate starts looking for an out-and-out revolution, that’s a one-way street that leads directly to a brick wall.

If Mr Trump somehow manages to be elected president, he would face a second problem. Assume that the net worth of all of his assets really were as high as $10,000,000,000. And assume that he was able to sell them all at their full value, despite the fact that every potential buyer would know that that he was under pressure to sell them. Assume all that. A US president is effective only to the extent that s/he is the leader of an effective party. If Mr Trump has $10,000,000,000, it might conceivably be possible for him to spend $1,000,000,000 of that and finance a successful campaign for the presidency. But even $10,000,0000,000 would not be enough to finance the entire Republican Party for four to eight years. Presidents help their parties raise money. They are expected to do it. If Mr Trump should refuse to do that, he would quickly lost the support of his party and with it any chance he might have of enacting his platform.

Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:


I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.