At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic I took a renewed interest in the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I had recently gotten married and was working in Los Angeles. When the lockdowns began and the psychosis spread, I became a Great Despiser.
Eventually we managed an escape to Hawaii. For several weeks, I surfed, explored the islands, and read Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a real breath of fresh air, and I returned home in great health. From then on, my perspective on things started to change.
My wife and I no longer wanted to live in a failed state, so we moved across the country. I looked in the mirror and saw I was a bit slender, so I put on some mass. I stopped eating poisonous foods. I found some good company on frog Twitter, and I was encouraged to start writing again. Some of the smaller changes were the most noticeable: like how I started seeing new ideas in books I had not read since high school and college.
With Greek history, I never really cared that much about Herodotus. In school I remembered covering his descriptions of the famous battles, but I always wanted to skip over to Thucydides. Herodotus was just the pious mystic who went on obscure tangents. Thucydides was the realist that all the “serious” people gathered around. Even Nietzsche had many nice things to say about Thucydides, like how he was an antidote to the Socratic influence that he believed poisoned the Greek spirit and pretty much perverted the development of all subsequent Western philosophy. If Thucydides was the antidote to the supposed ills of Socratism, I soon discovered that Herodotus was something more like a steroid. Thucydides may be able to help restore our vision, but it is Herodotus who enables us once more to really breathe.
I had no intention of writing anything about Herodotus and was only looking for something to read while enjoying morning espresso. At the time, I was trying to focus on some political articles, but once I started reading Herodotus again, the book just came to life for me. It felt like I was finding all sorts of secret and interesting insights – I couldn’t put it down. In this new reading of Herodotus, I could feel within myself what Nietzsche describes in The Gay Science as:
“The frolicking of returning energy, of newly awakened belief in a tomorrow and after-tomorrow; of sudden sentience and prescience of a future, of near adventures, of seas open once more, and aims once more permitted and believed in.”
My new book Herodotean Fire is the collection of my commentary on over ninety passages spanning all nine books of the Histories. Herodotus’ stories are raw, fantastical, and expansive — going beyond the Hellenes and giving considerable attention to the habits and customs of other ancient peoples like the Egyptians, Persians, Thracians, and Scythians. But most importantly, Herodotus features the Greeks at their best, from their idyllic archaic age up through their illustrious victories in the Persian Wars.
My aim was not to attempt a normal academic commentary. Instead, I wanted to explore questions like, how did the ancient Scythians deal with fake news? What can the Egyptian pharaohs and their dual role as architects teach us about executive power? Was the leading Alkmeonid clan of Athenian nobles just a bunch of frauds? What is the difference between Cyrus the Great and Hillary Clinton? Why did Xerxes mutilate the corpse of King Leonidas after the battle of Thermopylae? And what explains the excellence of the Greeks and that of the Spartans in particular?
I had a lot of fun putting this together, so some commentary is short and reflects my immediate reaction to reading the passage, while other entries have more structure to them. While the themes are many and the style oscillates frequently between light observations and more heavy analysis, there is one idea that overshadows the rest: a man cannot read the ancients without feeling contempt for the world he inhabits today. Naturally, Herodotus will force you into a comparative study between ancient and modern.
Perhaps Dr. Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College described it best: for the ancient Greeks, their way of life was a preparation for battle. They aimed for victory in war, conquest, and everlasting glory. The Greeks were defined by their great striving as brothers in arms, not the pursuit of domestic ease as suburban libertarians. It was their constant “taking up of the spear of mankind”, in the words of Bronze Age Pervert, and launching it through the air that constituted their way of life and united them together as a people.
For us moderns, our way of life is diseased. We prepare ourselves only for slavery and death. We have these universalist ideals hung above our heads that are supposed to inspire and unite us together as one great people, yet our interests are so numerous, and we love many different things. It is as if the spear of mankind has been misplaced in a cluttered garage. Even if we could find it, who knows if we would even be interested in dusting it off and launching it once again. Our way of life is leading Western civilization into a mass grave. Our leaders simply want us to fade away.
In contrast to the cold grey backdrop of hegemonic liberalism, the Greeks provide a flash of colour, a vision of a completely different kind of life. Here we see a total rebuke of the dilapidated losers dominating the present and witness a people that were overflowing with heroic vitality; stories of men that were as wise as they were warlike; regimes that strove to cultivate a spirit of nobility and excellence in their citizens instead of reducing mankind to a dead inert mass. The hard pursuit of the good life was always championed over the low desire for mere life. The focus of existence was more than mere economics or consumption; and valuations were made based on simple humble truths, not the deranged ideologies of modern weaklings.
In these ways, and still in so many more, the ancient Greeks really knew how to live! Unfortunately, most of today’s aversion to what the ancients offered comes from our perspective being soured by postmodern cynicism. I know many who laugh at the idea of pursing “everlasting glory” or “uniting with others around some sense of profound moral purpose.” Many people today have a bad conscience about anything great and heroic, and they mock anyone who is caught longing for distant shores.
That point aside, most people simply lose interest after realizing the heavy price paid by the Greeks for their way of life. We hear modern people say, “All of that looks a bit harsh and uncomfortable.” But do they ever dare think that some degree of harshness and discomfort might be necessary? Ironically, I don’t think these people have ever stopped to realize the price they pay to continue on living as they do. To them, modern virtue towers over whatever the ancient Greeks may have valued. These people lack all self-awareness.
So while the destiny of an individual in the modern regime is their degeneration into Nietzsche’s Last Man, the question is not how we might return to the ancient Greeks (for such a return is impossible) but how to integrate certain aspects of their way of life into a vision for a future not yet even imagined. If modern man is soft, how do we become hard? If the modern citizen is weak and degenerate, how do we make him strong and noble? If the rulers of the modern regime are corrupt and hostile, how do we position better men to rule? In the end, the comparative study of the ancients and us, their descendants today, does not leave me with a sense that there is a “choice” between the two.
Become hard – or perish: this is the immortal lesson of Herodotus.