Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: Song of Wrath

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins
J. E. Lendon

One of the pleasures of being an eclectic reader is discovering that one book throws an unexpected light on another.

Song of Wrath is not a simple newspaper-style account of the Peloponnesian War. Rather, it's an attempt to explain why the war began, why it progressed the way it did, and what it meant to those who fought it. Lendon makes a pretty good case that the war between Athens and Sparta was triggered by values and ideas that were as familiar to the ancient Greeks as they are foreign to us. Sparta had long been the leading Greek city by virtue of superior timē--a hard-to-translate and impossible-to-measure concept that combines historical/mythological glory, victory in battle, prestige, and honor. The rising city of Athens became less and less inclined to defer to the Spartans, more and more inclined to consider themselves equal in timē. And the war came: not (in its first ten years, at least) a war for material power, or a war for resources, or a war of democracy against absolutism, but a war for esteem.

In Lendon's narrative, understanding the war as a contest for timē--a kind of currency, in that it could be transferred, spent, and accumulated--makes sense of both the causes and the strategies of the two sides. The Spartans ravaged Athenian lands to assert their superior rank; the Athenians ravaged Sparta's coasts to assert that they were unintimidated and equal in dignity. A straight-out battle transferred timē from the loser to the winner. But so did a superior display of mētis--cunning.

It's a fine book on its own merits--readable, vivid, and well-argued. Lendon deliberately tries for an archaic, even poetic style. He writes about people and places as the ancient Greeks would have thought of them. He doesn't speak of modern ethnographic or linguistic research, but of the wanderings of the Sons of Herakles, the patrimony of Agamemnon, the place where Apollo slew the great serpent Python. It wouldn't work for a book about Hoboken, but I generally liked it here. 

Really, the only flaw I'd single out is that Lendon occasionally gets imbrangled in trying to make sense the impossibly convoluted feuds, alliances, betrayals, humiliations, skirmishes, sieges, sulks, revolts, and general soap opera of far to many city-states. It's too much for any one mind to make sense of without some kind of chart, probably four-dimensional. 

Which leads me back to The Sleepwalkers--another ambitiously complex attempt to explain a war that sometimes seems inexplicable. World War I fools us, because the Atlantic world of 1914 was modern in all of its essentials. We half-consciously assume that the governments and statesmen of that era were modern in their thinking as well. But these men lived in a world where Germany could feel itself slighted because it had fewer overseas colonies than France or Britain; where France could feel itself honor-bound to avenge its territorial losses, much as Sparta and Argos sparred repeatedly over the strip of land called Thyrea that lay between them; where, if Austria-Hungary took over an insignificant pile of rocks in the Balkans, France would feel compelled to lay claim to an equally insignificant pile of rocks somewhere in the Aegean, or else feel the shame that Athens felt when she lost her little ally Plataea.

No doubt the Spartans would have understood.


  1. I'm sure that you've read some Corey Doctorow. I like his concept of wuffie, a prestige/esteem currency. The first time I read it I thought, wow, how new and interesting. Turns out it ain't that new.

    The Rai stones of Micronesia are a good example. Big carved rocks, hardly practical as normal currency, held more value the larger they were. And they were just rocks.

    Japan has a concept called ongaeshi, which means to give back on (pronounced own). You might remember that it showed up in the game Bushido, as a social currency.

    One idea I had for a short story involves Google glass (or the equivalent). Everyone uses them, all the time, and it it tracked like the evolution of clickthroughs. The more eyeballs you get the more currency.

    Still, the concept, while understandable, is still pretty foreign. That's what makes it so fascinating.

  2. I've read some Doctorow, though I haven't read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom specifically. I like his nonfiction better than his fiction. I just picked this at the library and am enjoying it very much.

    Your bringing up the rai (aka "fei") stones reminds me of an excellent, highly debatable book that I read last year--Felix Martin's Money: The Unauthorized Biography. The book is something of a jeremiad against the view that money is a thing, and in favor of the view that money is nothing but credit. That is, if I give you a dollar bill, it's not the physical object that's important; rather, I'm redeeming an IOU in a transferable, "liquid" fashion.

    The connection to the fei stones is that, while the Yap islanders do (or did) use these enormous rocks as money, they didn't treat them as objects. Debts and credits were reckoned with the stones, but the stones themselves never moved--only the "owner" changed. Apparently there was one family which had an enormous fei stone that actually sank to the bottom of the sea ... and nobody cared. Everyone still treated them as wealthy, and were perfectly happy to accept IOUs against this entirely inaccessible object.

    So you could argue that money is just a specialized way of measuring this larger concept of ownership and debt. What's interesting in the ancient Greek case is that qualities we normally associate with people (vengeance, hubris, shame) they assigned to city-states. It's as if the European debt crisis weren't a matter of how many Euros Greece needs to pay Germany, but whether Greece should "feel beholden to" Germany.

    In some ways it reminds me quite strongly of the traditional (and somewhat mythical) Mafia code. You know how that goes.

  3. _Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free_ looks good. Tangentially, I’m reading an interesting book, also on how the Internet is changing things, _The Shallows_, by Nicholas Carr. If you haven’t read it, I can recommend the first half anyway (only read that much, so I can’t speak for the rest of it). It’s about how the internet changes how we absorb information. Carr makes a compelling argument that the technology around how we absorb information is shaped by the form the information takes. I’m sure you’ve heard McLuhan’s famous quote, the message is the medium.

    “Greece should ‘feel beholden to’ Germany.”

    What I remember from the news stories when Greece was high in people’s minds was their attitude toward work. Their financial situation was their own fault. They did it to themselves because of their irresponsible lifestyle. The austerity measures that were put in place seemed like a moral punishment for their lack of moral integrity, rather than a measure to return to solvency.

    I wonder how this plays in the psychology of forgiving debt.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation. I admit to being a little skeptical of The Shallows, because his conclusions seem to be overly obvious. But you've got me intrigued, so now I've got to check it out.

    Yes, the psychology on the Eurodebt crisis is a funny one. Their government actually flat-out faked the figures, and yet the Greeks themselves don't seem to mind that. Meanwhile the Germans seem to be taing the "moral punishment" attitude seriously.

    As far as forgiving debt goes, it turns out that an entirely similar dynamic played out after World War I, and arguably had a large part in leading to the Great Depression.