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Crucial Questions; Part 3

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John Collier, Priestess of Delphi (S. Australia)
John Collier, Priestess of Delphi (S. Australia)
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Can any good be raised up from whatever is left of our world when the dust settles? No one has proposed a comprehensive solution to date, but in the face of widespread suffering in the present and predictions of worse to come, many of us feel called to act now. But what can be done? What power can stand against the tide of economic, political, biological and environmental disasters now engulfing our world?

And what can we say to those who have lost hope? That is the most crucial question, because without hope we haven't the strength to live and work for a better world. A central theme of this paper is that when the dominant worldview fails us, as it now does, great treasures of wisdom and guidance can be found outside of our normal purview. "Many of the most profound ideas and the most stirring expressions have been created during times of greatest social, political, and economic unrest by those who were the most seriously affected," according to the late Walter H. Capps. For this series I have been guided by that dictum.

My aim in Part 3 is to bring together the best and most relevant of what I've been able to glean from history, philosophy, religion, and other resources. Fine, you might say, but how are we to find hope when the situation is hopeless? To learn how people of the Soviet-Bloc nations kept hope alive, I have turned to Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), playwright, dissident, hero of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, and later the democratic Czech Republic. His book, Disturbing the Peace, was first published underground in 1985. It has since been published in thirteen languages. Below is Havel's statement on hope.

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind" Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit; an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons" Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather the ability to work for something because it is good". In short, I think the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from "elsewhere." It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

Havel's leading role in the liberation of Czechoslovakia and the encouragement he gave to people of other Eastern Bloc nations were powerfully sustained by his understanding of hope.

Athens in the 5th Century BC offers very different lessons for us today. It is called the Golden Age of Pericles for good reason. The world had never before seen such a flowering of creative genius in government, philosophy, culture, architecture, and the arts. But the glory of Athens was cut short by unprecedented misfortune. For centuries, Sparta had been the leading city-state in Greece. But as Athens grew into a powerful empire, the Spartans grew alarmed. In 431 BC, war broke out between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian league led by Sparta. The conflict continued for twenty-seven years until Athens surrendered in 404 BC.

Thucydides (460 BC - 400 BC) was an Athenian that many people still view as the greatest historian of all time. The following passage is from his monumental History of the Peloponnesian War.

[It was] without parallel for the misfortunes that it brought upon Hellas. Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate" never was there so much banishing and blood-shedding, now on the field of battle, now in the strife of faction. There were earthquakes of unparalleled extent and violence; eclipses of the sun" great droughts in sundry places and consequent famines, and that most calamitous and awful fatal visitation, the plague. All this came upon them during the war.

Thucydides served as a general on the Athenian side, so he writes with the authority of a first-hand observer as well as a brilliant historian. His timeless understanding of the causes of war and the cultural, psychological, and political changes wrought by war are of lasting importance. He understood that while everything else changes with time, human nature does not change. He wrote for future generations who could read his work, learn from it, and heed his warnings. "In fine," he said, "I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time."

Pericles was born in 495 BC, elected leader of Athens in 464 and continuously re-elected until his death in 429 BC. He was a brilliant statesman, orator, defender of democracy, and patron of the arts. As commander, he delivered his famous Funeral Oration in 431 for the city's war dead. Within two years, Pericles and both of his sons had died of the plague.

Many have described the Athenians' grief and bottomless anger, their abandonment of religious observance and thirst for revenge after Pericles's death. Thucydides comments on the debasement of character that led to increasing immorality and lawlessness by a people whose dedication to honor and justice had long been the glory of classical Greece.

It was so uncertain whether they would be spared" Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads"

Pericles was succeeded by lesser men who failed to provide moral leadership to the Athenians when it was needed the most. Tragically, the moral decline continued until the treatment of enemies reached a level of depravity never previously known in Greece. Entire male populations were exterminated in the presence of their wives and children, who were then sold into slavery.

Thucydides died before the end of the war, and his unfinished history stops in mid-sentence. In the twenty-four hundred years since his death, the war and its aftermath have been studied by archeologists, historians, and countless others, so we know that between the war and the plague, Athens' lost half of her male population. Farms were burned, fields plowed under, olive trees cut down, and the vineyards were laid waste by her enemies.

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Meredith Ramsay is a political science professor, now retired from UMassBoston, where she also served as Associate Dean of the Liberal Arts Faculty. She is a writer, musician, gardener, and amateur photographer. Her latest book is Community, (more...)
 

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