”I am at peace with God. My conflict is with Man.”— Charlie Chaplin
A Note from Addison: The missive below is written by Anya Leonard. She has been traveling through the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) for the past few months… writing to her readers at Classical Wisdom Weekly along the way… eventually settling back down in the West at her flat in Argentina. From her travels in the areas of the world which are war-torn and hurting she gleaned a pervasive question: Can we be humane in the face of horror?
We are sharing with you in light of recent events in Israel. So it goes.
A Palestine Viper
By Anya Leonard, Classical Wisdom Weekly
Our driver swerved to the side of the road, stopped the car, and jumped out. Running into the vast rocky Jordanian desert, he joined two elderly men and two young boys as they continued the chase.
Swiftly picking up the many rocks that were close at hand, they pelted with all their might again and again.
Bewildered, confused and not a little shocked, inside the car we three squinted to identify their victim.
Then our driver returned, gleefully with eyes shining like a kid who’s just caught his first fish, he proudly displayed their conquest: A Palestine Viper.
My young daughter, a self proclaimed ophiophilist, was horrified at the bloody mangled snake… she couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just leave it alone.
Trying to explain to an 8 year old the cultural differences in the middle east is not an easy task. From the visible gender expectations of clothing and men walking around with three wives to the long hard history of learned violence.
It was not our first time to the region, mind you… In fact, my husband and I lived in the United Arab Emirates in the mid 2000s and have had the fortune of a wide breadth of both amazing and illuminating experiences. I’ve run a press conference from the top of Burj Al Arab…we’ve eaten Iftar in Kuwait with a female CEO and firefighter…we’ve driven along the majestic fjords of Oman and explored the historic cisterns in Istanbul. Whether it was the cool Riads in Morocco, the chaotic roads in Cairo or the Russian filled seasides in Tunisia… we’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of MENA.
And yet, this last trip included my first time ever to visit Israel.
I won’t lie, I had a lot of expectations… Being of Jewish ancestry, I had been told a lot about the place and expected it to be very different from its neighbors. What surprised me, to be honest, was all the ways in which it wasn’t.
Of course there were some critical differences… especially in Tel Aviv where rainbow pride flags fly across town and young women rollerblade in sports bras past Brutalist architecture. And yes… it was lovely to order a bottle of wine to go with my sushi after crossing back into Eilat.
The markets, however, are just as thronged with treasures and bustling shoppers. The Falafel ready and delicious. The underlying tension and threat of violence always palpable.
I suppose it was a clear reminder that war has been waging in that region for time immemorial and that war between neighbors is the worst.
Sadly, it’s not a rare occurrence, neither in place nor in time.
And of course the most difficult thing about it is the cycle it creates… violence is always justified by previous violence. What is, after all, the appropriate response to murder, rape and kidnapping?
To this I think of Athens and Sparta. Tensions between the two city states came to their greatest head during the Peloponnesian War. Lasting from 431–404 BC, the conflict reshaped the ancient world. It included bloody battles, long sieges, disastrous expeditions as well as deadly plagues. Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war’s beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjugation.
What always amazed me though was… despite the fact that Sparta has been known throughout history as a vicious military might, a people of discipline and unrelenting purpose… they were considerably humane at the end of it all.
Athens surrendered in 404 BC after facing prolonged starvation and disease and was therefore eligible to have its walls stripped, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions commandeered. Fellow city-states Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be completely destroyed and all its citizens enslaved. Not an uncommon request at the time… However, the Spartans refused.
How could they eradicate a place that had produced such works as those by Sophocles? A people who had at one time risen to their aid?
It was concluded that (according to Xenophon) Athens was “to have the same friends and enemies” as Sparta. Athens remained… and remains to this day.
So how was Sparta – of all places – able to respond with kindness after so much bloodshed and violence? How did they break this cycle? How did they maintain their humanity, even in the face of the horror of war?
And how can we summon this ability today? Is it possible to find the humane amongst horror? Can we counter the evil acts of men with civility? Or is violence always justified? And what if each party is playing by different rules? Can conversations be had when value systems are so different… when it may be impossible to compromise?
Is it possible to break the vicious cycle? To ensure we see everyone as humans?
Of course such a serious topic does require more questions than answers… and so I have to ask just a few more, that of our ability to discuss it in the first place… How different would our answers be if the horror was personal? Is it possible to understand and rationalize when we – our children – our families and friends – are safe?
As always, you can reply to this email or write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One gentle reminder (and one that fortunately is not usually necessary in this lovely community) that the first step when dealing with such hot button topics and the corresponding emotions they inspire is civil and rational discourse. We don’t need to delve into the specifics of current events… as this question applies to places all around the world, to both individuals and groups.
What can we say to the issue… philosophically?
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom Weekly