Sadly, this is usually true.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
Sadly, this is usually true.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
How is it possible this guy wasn’t a time traveller from the future?
“It is a part of probability that many improbable things will happen.”
Xenophon was a practical man. That must have frustrated his mentor Socrates. The thought of that pleases me immensely for some reason. I guess it’s my hate for Plato. Here’s more of an observation than a quote.
When the interests of mankind are at stake, they will obey with joy the man whom they believe to be wiser than themselves. You may prove this on all sides: you may see how the sick man will beg the doctor to tell him what he ought to do, how a whole ship’s company will listen to the pilot.
Some more Zorba.
‘Have you ever been to war, Zorba?’
‘How do I know?’ he asked with a frown. I can’t remember. What war?’
‘I mean, have you ever fought for your country?’
‘Couldn’t you talk about something else? All that nonsense is over and done with and
‘Do you call that nonsense, Zorba? Aren’t you ashamed? Is that how you speak of
Zorba raised his head and looked at me. I was lying on my bed, too, and the oil-lamp
was burning above my head. He looked at me severely for a time, then, taking a firm
hold of his moustache, said:
“That’s a half-baked thing to say; it’s what I expect from a schoolmaster. I might as
well be singing, boss, for all the good it is my talking to you, if you’ll pardon my saying
‘What?’ I protested. ‘I understand things, Zorba, don’t forget.’
‘Yes, you understand with your brain. You say: “This is right, and that’s wrong; this is
true, and that isn’t; he’s right, the other one’s wrong …” But where does that lead us?
While you are talking I watch your arms and chest. Well, what are they doing? They’re
silent. They don’t say a word. As though they hadn’t a drop of blood between them.
Well, what do you think you understand with? With your head? Bah!’
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
Zorba the Greek is a picaresque novel by Nikos Kazantzakis that supposedly is based on a real man that Kazantzakis knew. Zorba is an old Greek working man who insinuates himself into the journey of a young well-to-do intellectual Greek fellow who is travelling to Crete to take up ownership of a coal mine there. Their business venture and various adventures together are the story line of the book. But the story is the apprenticeship of the bookish young man under the tutelage of Zorba. And the craft he is learning is how to be a free man.
Kazantzakis was fascinated by philosophy and the spiritual life of the modern world. Being an atheist, he was always searching for meaning and truth. I’ve read a number of his books. None of them speak to me except Zorba. And the character in Zorba the Greek that represents Kazantzakis, the young intellectual, I do not find interesting. Zorba is the whole story. When he leaves the scene, I lose interest.
Zorba is a larger than life character that within the confines of his workingman’s world has lived many of the most intense experiences. He has been a guerilla warrior in the Greek wars against the Turks and the Bulgarians. He has been a musician, a craftsman, a laborer, a business man and an engineer. And he has had a life-long career as a Casanova. But at the basis of Zorba’s personality is his conviction that the only real wealth a man has is his free will. And that is what he tries to teach the young intellectual. A man is never free until he can throw away everything he has to follow a whim. If he can’t do that, then he is a slave to whatever things hold him back. And he includes wealth, family, patriotism and fear in that category.
Whether Zorba’s beliefs are consistent or even logical I’ll put aside. The book has many moments that are comical, moving, thought provoking or some combination of the above. The details of Cretan peasant life are picturesque but if accurate point to a primitive existence that verges on the barbaric. But this primal landscape provides scope for the larger than life exploits of Zorba.
And no matter how things turn out, no matter how fate conspires against Zorba, he is completely undaunted. He moves forward and latches onto the next day and the people and things around him and puts together some new mad plan to conquer the world, or at least his world. And that is the greatest charm of the book. To meet a man who has an unquenchable appetite for life. To meet someone who loves life at the visceral level. Who sees everything as if for the first time. Sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches things as if he were the first man in the world to do so. That is the charm if you can imagine it. That’s what makes it a perfect summer book for me. At least the parts with Zorba in center stage.
So how does the apprenticeship go? Well the young man will never be Zorba and at the end of the book he fails the test that Zorba gives him. But without a doubt his life has been enriched and his outlook has been broadened by knowing and surviving this catastrophic character.
Sometime soon I’ll have to write a book review of Zorba the Greek. I have a love/hate relationship with the book but every few years I have to reread it. I think I read it not because the book is flawless (far from it) but because Zorba represents the essential component of the male soul, force of will.
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
… ‘Let’s get back to our subject! What about Zeus?’
‘Ah! the poor chap!’ sighed Zorba. ‘I’m the only one to know what he suffered. He
loved women, of course, but not the way you think, you pen-pushers! Not at all! He
was sorry for them! He understood what they all suffered and he sacrificed himself for
their sakes! When, in some god-forsaken country hole, he saw an old maid wasting
away with desire and regret, or a pretty young wife – or even if she wasn’t at all pretty,
even if she was a monster – and her husband away and she couldn’t get to sleep, he
used to cross himself, this good fellow, changed his clothes, take on whatever shape
the woman had in mind and go to her room.
‘He never bothered about women who just wanted petting. No! Often enough even he
was dead-beat: you can understand that. How could anybody satisfy all those she-
goats? Ah! Zeus! the poor old goat, More than once he couldn’t be bothered, he didn’t
feel too good. Have you never seen a billy after he’s covered several she-goats? He
slobbers at the mouth, his eyes are all misty and rheumy, he coughs a bit and can
hardly stand on his feet. Well, poor old Zeus must have been in that sad state quite
‘At dawn he’d come home, saying: “Ah! my God! whenever shall I be able to have a
good night’s rest? I’m dropping!” And he’d keep wiping the saliva from his mouth.
‘But suddenly he’d hear a sigh: down there on earth some woman had thrown off her
bedclothes, gone out onto the balcony, almost stark naked, and was sighing enough
to turn the sails of a mill! And my old Zeus would be quite over-come.
“Oh, hell! I’ll have to go down again!” he’d groan.
“There’s a woman bemoaning her lot! I’ll have to go and console her!”
‘And it went on like that to such an extent that the women emptied him completely. He
couldn’t move his back, he started vomiting, became paralysed and died. That’s when
his heir, Christ, arrived. He saw the wretched state the old man was in: “Beware of
women!” he cried.’
So, the Odyssey is a sacred text for me. Here is the story of a courageous (if devious) man and a loyal wife and mother. Buffeted by fate, world war and surrounded by enemies they strive against all odds and for half their lives to get back together and restore their domestic peace. What else do you need in a story. Well, an amorous witch, a Cyclops and a journey to hell and back couldn’t hurt. I translated several chapters with the help of a good Homeric dictionary about forty years ago. Now that my brain is mush I look for a good translation. I prefer the version by Robert Fitzgerald but this is an older English version by the poet Samuel Butler that is in the public domain. Here’s the beginning of the poem and the Greek text of the same for atmosphere.
Tell me, O Muse, of that many-sided hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the people with whose customs and thinking he was acquainted; many things he suffered at sea while seeking to save his own life and to achieve the safe homecoming of his companions; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer recklessness in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Helios; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, as you have told those who came before me, about all these things, O daughter of Zeus, starting from whatsoever point you choose.
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.
Thucydides: The Civil War at Corcyra
Ancient Greek History contains many parallels to the upheavals of our own time. The revolutions that swept through all of Greece during the Peloponnesian War (the war between the Athenian Empire and Sparta and her allies) were not unlike the French Revolution and the proxy wars fought between American and Russian allies during the Cold War. In these civil wars neighbors and even brothers would clash and commit unbelievable atrocities in the name of either the democratic or the aristocratic cause. The ferocity of the fighting reflected the knowledge that if the tide turned, retribution would be equally horrific. In this episode of the war the people of the island of Corcyra have divided themselves into an aristocratic faction supporting the Peloponnesians (Sparta) and a democratic faction supporting Athens. The fleets of the two super powers are sparring off the coast of the island and the factions have been battling on land in increasing barbarity. The Spartans are at first victorious at sea and the democratic faction is panicked into negotiating a truce with the aristocratic faction. But when the Athenians chase the Spartan fleet away the democrats see their chance and butcher their less numerous aristocratic countrymen in Robespierrean fashion. The summation by Thucydides at the end of this story is very well known and seems to have a timeless quality. If you are interested in reading the whole story of The Civil War at Corcyra read Thucydides Book 3, Chapters 69 to 85.
Meanwhile the people of Corcyra, dreading that the fleet of the Peloponnesians would attack them, held a parley with the other faction, especially with the suppliants, in the hope of saving the city; they even persuaded some of them to go on board the fleet; for the Corcyraeans still contrived to man thirty ships. But the Peloponnesians, after devastating the land till about midday, retired. And at nightfall the approach of sixty Athenian vessels was signalled to them from Leucas. These had been sent by the Athenians under the command of Eurymedon the son of Thucles, when they heard of the revolution and of the intended expedition of Alcidas to Corcyra.
The Peloponnesians set out that very night on their way home, keeping close to the land, and transporting the ships over the Leucadian isthmus, that they might not be seen sailing round. When the Corcyraeans perceived that the Athenian fleet was approaching, while that of the enemy had disappeared, they took the Messenian troops, who had hitherto been outside the walls, into the city, and ordered the ships which they had manned to sail round into the Hyllaic harbour. These proceeded on their way. Meanwhile they killed any of their enemies whom they caught in the city. On the arrival of the ships they disembarked those whom they had induced to go on board, and despatched them; they also went to the temple of Herè, and persuading about fifty of the suppliants to stand their trial condemned them all to death. The majority would not come out, and, when they saw what was going on, destroyed one another in the enclosure of the temple where they were, except a few who hung themselves on trees, or put an end to their own lives in any other way which they could. And, during the seven days which Eurymedon after his arrival remained with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans continued slaughtering those of their fellow-citizens whom they deemed their enemies; they professed to punish them for their designs against the democracy, but in fact some were killed from motives of personal enmity, and some because money was owing to them, by the hands of their debtors. Every form of death was to be seen; and everything, and more than everything, that commonly happens in revolutions, happened then. The father slew the son, and the suppliants were torn from the temples and slain near them; some of them were even walled up in the temple of Dionysus, and there perished. To such extremes of cruelty did revolution go; and this seemed to be the worst of revolutions, because it was the first.
For not long afterwards nearly the whole Hellenic world was in commotion; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians. Now in time of peace, men would have had no excuse for introducing either, and no desire to do so; but, when they were at war, the introduction of a foreign alliance on one side or the other to the hurt of their enemies and the advantage of themselves was easily effected by the dissatisfied party. And revolution brought upon the cities of Hellas many terrible calamities, such as have been and always will be while human nature remains the same, but which are more or less aggravated and differ in character with every new combination of circumstances. In peace and prosperity both states and individuals are actuated by higher motives, because they do not fall under the dominion of imperious necessities; but war, which takes away the comfortable provision of daily life, is a hard master and tends to assimilate men’s characters to their conditions.
When troubles had once begun in the cities, those who followed carried the revolutionary spirit further and further, and determined to outdo the report of all who had preceded them by the ingenuity of their enterprises and the atrocity of their revenges. The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one. On the other hand, he who plotted from the first to have nothing to do with plots was a breaker up of parties and a poltroon who was afraid of the enemy. In a word, he who could outstrip another in a bad action was applauded, and so was he who encouraged to evil one who had no idea of it. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why. (For party associations are not based upon any established law, nor do they seek the public good; they are formed in defiance of the laws and from self-interest.) The seal of good faith was not divine law, but fellowship in crime. If an enemy when he was in the ascendant offered fair words, the opposite party received them not in a generous spirit, but by a jealous watchfulness of his actions. Revenge was dearer than self-preservation. Any agreements sworn to by either party, when they could do nothing else, were binding as long as both were powerless. But he who on a favourable opportunity first took courage, and struck at his enemy when he saw him off his guard, had greater pleasure in a perfidious than he would have had in an open act of revenge; he congratulated himself that he had taken the safer course, and also that he had overreached his enemy and gained the prize of superior ability. In general the dishonest more easily gain credit for cleverness than the simple for goodness; men take a pride in the one, but are ashamed of the other.
The cause of all these evils was the love of power, originating in avarice and ambition, and the party-spirit which is engendered by them when men are fairly embarked in a contest. For the leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professing to uphold the constitutional equality of the many, the other the wisdom of an aristocracy, while they made the public interests, to which in name they were devoted, in reality their prize. Striving in every way to overcome each other, they committed the most monstrous crimes; yet even these were surpassed by the magnitude of their revenges which they pursued to the very utmost, neither party observing any definite limits either of justice or public expediency, but both alike making the caprice of the moment their law. Either by the help of an unrighteous sentence, or grasping power with the strong hand, they were eager to satiate the impatience of party-spirit. Neither faction cared for religion; but any fair pretense which succeeded in effecting some odious purpose was greatly lauded. And the citizens who were of neither party fell a prey to both; either they were disliked because they held aloof, or men were jealous of their surviving.
Thus revolution gave birth to every form of wickedness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element in a noble nature was laughed to scorn and disappeared. An attitude of perfidious antagonism everywhere prevailed; for there was no word binding enough, nor oath terrible enough to reconcile enemies. Each man was strong only in the conviction that nothing was secure; he must look to his own safety, and could not afford to trust others. Inferior intellects generally succeeded best. For, aware of their own deficiencies, and fearing the capacity of their opponents, for whom they were no match in powers of speech, and whose subtle wits were likely to anticipate them in contriving evil, they struck boldly and at once. But the cleverer sort, presuming in their arrogance that they would be aware in time, and disdaining to act when they could think, were taken off their guard and easily destroyed.
Now in Corcyra most of these deeds were perpetrated, and for the first time. There was every crime which men could commit in revenge who had been governed not wisely, but tyrannically, and now had the oppressor at their mercy. There were the dishonest designs of others who were longing to be relieved from their habitual poverty, and were naturally animated by a passionate desire for their neighbour’s goods; and there were crimes of another class which men commit, not from covetousness, but from the enmity which equals foster towards one another until they are carried away by their blind rage into the extremes of pitiless cruelty. At such a time the life of the city was all in disorder, and human nature, which is always ready to transgress the laws, having now trampled them under foot, delighted to show that her passions were ungovernable, that she was stronger than justice, and the enemy of everything above her. If malignity had not exercised a fatal power, how could anyone have preferred revenge to piety, and gain to innocence? But, when men are retaliating upon others, they are reckless of the future, and do not hesitate to annul those common laws of humanity to which every individual trusts for his own hope of deliverance should he ever be overtaken by calamity; they forget that in their own hour of need they will look for them in vain.
(I once took a class on Homeric Greek from a very distinguished professor by the name of Seth Benardette. Besides many other strange characteristics, he wore a seersucker suit every day to class that summer. I’ve always wondered if it was just one suit. Now, Bernardette very strongly believed that great human wisdom can be extracted from Homer’s Iliad. Not being a renowned hellenist nor any kind but a practical philosopher I suppose I should defer to his superior judgement. But I’ve always liked the Odyssey better. I think this scene where Odysseus meets up with his dog that hasn’t seen him in twenty years since it was just a pup is more interesting than Achilles and his offended pride.)
As they were thus talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any work out of him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great field; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, he dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaios seeing it, and said:
“Eumaios, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?”
“This hound,” answered Eumaios, “belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.”
As he spoke he went inside the buildings to the room where the suitors were, but Argos died as soon as he had recognized his master.
A Happy Ending for the Ten Thousand
When last we left Xenophon he had roused the courage of the officers and then the common troops of the Ten Thousand Greek hoplites marooned a thousand miles behind the Persian lines, surrounded by the Great King’s uncountable troops and without a guide to lead them home. He provided them with a general plan. Head northwest to the mountains where the great rivers blocking their way would be shallow and passable and beyond which the King’s troops would not follow. So, they travelled for many hundreds of miles on foot through modern day Iraq into what is now essentially Kurdistan and in fact fought many battles with the ancestors of the modern day Kurds. At this point their goal was to reach the Black Sea in Armenia where Greek cities and ships could bring them back home to Greece.
 From there they journeyed four stages, twenty parasangs, to a large and prosperous inhabited city which was called Gymnias. From this city the ruler of the land sent the Greeks a guide, in order to lead them through territory that was hostile to his own.
 When the guide came, he said that he would lead them within five days to a place from which they could see the sea; if he failed to do so, he was ready to accept death. Thus taking the lead, as soon as he had brought them into the hostile territory, he kept urging them to spread abroad fire and ruin, thereby making it clear that it was with this end in view that he had come, and not out of good-will toward the Greeks.  On the fifth day they did in fact reach the mountain; its name was Theches.
Now as soon as the vanguard got to the top of the mountain, a great shout went up. 22] And when Xenophon and the rearguard heard it, they imagined that other enemies were attacking in front; for enemies were following behind them from the district that was in flames, and the rearguard had killed some of them and captured others by setting an ambush, and had also taken about twenty wicker shields covered with raw, shaggy ox-hides.
 But as the shout kept getting louder and nearer, as the successive ranks that came up all began to run at full speed toward the ranks ahead that were one after another joining in the shout, and as the shout kept growing far louder as the number of men grew steadily greater, it became quite clear to Xenophon that here was something of unusual importance;  so he mounted a horse, took with him Lycius and the cavalry, and pushed ahead to lend aid; and in a moment they heard the soldiers shouting, “The Sea! The Sea!” and passing the word along. Then all the troops of the rearguard likewise broke into a run, and the pack animals began racing ahead and the horses.
 And when all had reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another, and generals and captains as well, with tears in their eyes. And on a sudden, at the bidding of someone or other, the soldiers began to bring stones and to build a great cairn.  Thereon they placed as offerings a quantity of raw ox-hides and walking-sticks and the captured wicker shields; and the guide not only cut these shields to pieces himself, but urged the others to do so.
 After this the Greeks dismissed the guide with gifts from the common stock—a horse, a silver cup, a Persian dress, and ten darics; but what he particularly asked the men for was their rings, and he got a considerable number of them. Then he showed them a village to encamp in and the road they were to follow to the country of the Macronians, and, as soon as evening came, took his departure.