On Balance

At the beginning of 2018 the alarm bells are ringing. Doomsayers are crawling out of their holes, terrifying the rest of us with their predictions. Including, pollution, global warming, anti-biotic-resistant germs, nuclear war (especially in northeast Asia), computers that are more intelligent than we are, and what not. Accordingly, this is as good a time as any to draw up a balance of what we humans have achieved and not achieved on our particular cosmic speck of dust over the last few millennia or so.

Without any further preliminaries, here goes


What we have achieved


By some studies, 70,000 years ago humanity numbered just a few thousand individuals. Today the figure stands at about 7.6 billion. Had something similar applied to any other species, e.g chimpanzees, surely we would have called it an unparalleled triumph. Some ninety percent of the increase, incidentally, took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have extended our life expectancy from less than thirty years during the Neolithic to a little over seventy years today. Most of the increase also took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have reduced women’s perinatal mortality by approximately 95 percent. Ditto.

We have more or less done away with a number of important killer diseases. The last global outbreak of a pandemic that killed tens of millions was the so-called Spanish flu in 1919-20. Since then, all we’ve had is flashes in the pan. Hats off to the medical establishment.

The kind that is self-inflicted apart, we have more or less overcome famine. In many parts of the world today we are more likely to die of overeating than of not eating enough.

We have made life more comfortable. In fact, such are the amenities most of us in the West in particular enjoy as to exceed anything available even to royalty until the middle of the nineteenth century.

We have vastly increased our understanding of the universe, the things it contains, and the laws according to which it works.

Our technological genius has enabled us to set foot on the bottom of the sea as well as the surface of the moon. Also, to explore the planets. It has even enabled us to build machines that think, after a fashion.

We have built weapons capable of more or less putting an end to us. Though whether or not that should be counted as an achievement is hard to say.

What we have not achieved

We have not succeeded in uniting humanity under a single government (not that such a government would necessarily be a blessing).

We have not put an end to war.

We have not surpassed the achievements of, say, the ­ancient Greeks in such fields as sculpture, architecture, literature, drama, rhetoric, philosophy, and historiography.

We have not put an end to misery or to madness.

We have not made life less stressful. Some claim, to the contrary.

We have become no happier.

My grandfather used to say that, while growing old was good, being old was bad. That was almost certainly true during the Paleolithic It remains true today.

We have not put an end to death (though that may very well be a good thing).

Pace Freud and the entire psychological community, we do not understand ourselves any better than we did millennia ago. Did anyone ever understand human nature better than Shakespeare did?

Feminist claptrap to the contrary, the gap that separates men from women has not closed or even narrowed. Men are still from Mars and women, from Venus. Make up your own mind as to whether that is good or bad.

We still have no direct knowledge of the way animals think. Nor improved methods of communicating with them.

We have not become wiser.

Everyone thinks he or she knows about education. So how come we have not yet found a way to make our children better than ourselves?

We have not built a kinder, gentler, more just society. Nor, though everything is relative, is there any question of eliminating poverty.

We have not improved our methods of dealing with evil, when and where it raises its ugly face.

We have not closed the gap between free will and determinism even by one jota.

We have not discovered the secret of life. As a result, we are unable to create it either.

We are unable to control the weather or even forecast it much more than a week in advance.

We are unable to predict earthquakes.

We do not know what the future will bring. That means we are not in charge of our destiny.

We still do not know whether God exists.


Make up your own mind which of those two lists predominates.

In Memoriam, or Thanks to a Great Teacher

Each year as the academic year is about to open, I wonder how I can best help my students. Doing so, each year I think of my own most important teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks (1916-78). Today it pleases me to explain who the man was and why he was such an excellent teacher. Fuks Picture

When I first met Fuks he was 47 years old. He walked slowly with a pronounced limp; how he got it I never found out. His colleagues used to say that he bore the beauty of ancient Greece on his face. At his funeral, several of them wept.

As we became better acquainted I found that he wanted neither power, nor money, nor fame. His calm, deliberate voice commanded respect. Though he did his share of administration,  it was never his ambition to head this or direct that. The way he saw it, a professor should spend his life trying to get at the truth. Work was truly its own reward. and everything undertaken for its own sake was worth doing.

At the time he died he was working on a socio-economic history of the Hellenistic world which, unfortunately, he did not live to complete. Given the topic and Fuks’ slightly pedantic style, it would hardly have become a best-seller. But it might very well have become the kind of basic text from which generations of scholars get their inspiration and their facts.

Having first tasted excellence, I continued to join Fuks’ seminars long after I had abandoned ancient history as my main field and even after I myself had become a tenured faculty member. The weekly meetings took place not in a classroom but in his office. The walls were lined with slightly out of date books, all of them in hard cover. They had belonged to one of his deceased predecessors and gave the room a serious, dignified air. Fuks smoked. In the days before doing so became a crime his pipe, which was seldom unlit, helped create a pleasant atmosphere which I always thought was conducive to learning.

His courses were superbly well organized so that every participant knew exactly what each meeting would bring. But they were never hurried. Time was left for the unexpected, permitting individual students to pursue their interests if they wanted to. I recall how, on one occasion, I spent a meeting comparing The Republic to George Orwell’s 1984. A debate ensued. Fuks was delighted with my show of independence, though I later understood that he was not at all in agreement with my interpretation of Plato’s work. Later still I came to share his view.

Fuks would prepare his classes on small pieces of paper which he later tore up. The idea, he once told us, was to force himself to prepare again each and every time. More important, there were never more than five or six students, both male and female, in a class. Sitting around a table, we spent most of the time taking turns translating selected Greek texts aloud. In addition to Plato, the menu included several minor utopian writers as well as the great Hellenistic historian Polybius. Each word, each letter, sometimes even each accent were explored in an attempt to capture the author’s meaning as closely as possible.

The real secret of the course was that none of us graduate students knew Greek well enough to translate it on the spot. As a result, we had to prepare. Whenever we encountered a difficulty that could not be solved on the spot Fuks would stop. Next he would ask the student who had pointed it out to consult such and such sources and report back to the class in a week or two. If, having discovered that there was more to it than met the eye, the student asked for another week which was never a problem. I remember listening to a briefing on Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune, and preparing one on the meaning of oikoumene, “the inhabited world.” Needless to say, both presentations did not pass without comment and criticism. A better form of mental exercise can hardly be imagined.

An exceptionally well-balanced person, usually Fuks was as placid as placid can be. But one day he burst out. We were studying the way the Romans had subjugated Greece, and specifically the Achaean League, in 146 B.C. All of a sudden we heard him say: “Over two thousand years have passed, and I really do not care which side was in the right. But look, just look, at what those Romans did to the poor Greeks!”

It was Fuks who taught me to appreciate the beauties of Greek literature and, above all, Plato. Along with Nietzsche and Lao-Tzu, Plato is the only philosopher who was also a great poet. Not only is every character in the various dialogues sharply formed, but each one speaks in the kind of language you would expect from him—as a doctor, say, or a politician. Though I have since moved to other fields, I can sympathize with the scholar who spends his entire career studying him.

It was also Fuks, more than anyone else, who taught me how to do historical detective work. A very good example was a paper I once wrote for him on the difference between “cause” (aitia) and “excuse” (afourmē) as used by Thucydides and Polybius. Fuks helped. He insisted that I read everything ever written on the subject, including a hefty French doctorat d’etat as well as a one hundred and fifty-year old German monograph. He personally made sure I got the last-named volume by ordering it via the international lending service. And, having done so, did not allow me to defray the cost. He was equally generous to other students—spending time with them, encouraging them, and doing what he could for them.

There were also other lessons, most of them unspoken. In teaching the humanities and social sciences at the university level, curricula do not matter nearly as much as most people think. To be sure, one cannot do everything at once. Some things must come first and others last. Courses must be arranged in some kind of order and adapted to the students’ needs and abilities. Somebody must decide on the program and handle administrative details such as matching classes to classrooms, setting examination-dates, and the like. These and a thousand other matters are essential for the smooth functioning of any department and none of them will take care of themselves. I grant that, unless they are taken care of, the outcome will be a mess. Nevertheless, when everything is said and done, by far the most important thing is what happens in class.

The most important teaching devices by far are seminars of the kind where everybody can see everybody face to face. They enable students to think aloud to each other and to their teacher. But some prerequisites do exist. A good seminar can only be based on absolute trust between teachers and students such as the former can and must build up.

A friendly atmosphere is also essential. When a student came unprepared to a meeting, which only happened very rarely, Fuks did not say a word. There was no need. A lapse would be automatically forgiven on the assumption that force majeure had prevented the student in question from doing his or her homework. Or else, why bother to attend class at all? Absent-minded as I am, I am afraid that I sometimes played with Fuks’ pipe cleaner. But he never said a word about that either.

Above all, there is the need for tolerance. I sometimes wonder what Fuks would have said if, building on what Plato wrote about feminism and the relationship between the sexes, I had started developing opinions on these topics similar to those that later gave me so much trouble. My guess is that he would have raised an eyebrow. Even so he would have been glad to see me take an interest and encouraged me to explore it further. And he would have done whatever he could to help.

Thirty-six years after his death I still miss him on occasion. Having turned to teaching myself, I have often tried to do as well as he did. But I think I never quite succeeded. Perhaps this was because, not being an ancient historian, the texts I used in my attempts to imitate his methods were not nearly as good as the ones he read with us. With all due respect, even Clausewitz is not Plato. Or perhaps it was because of my own limitations.

As the new academic year approaches, I shall try to give others some of what I received from him.

The Fall and Rise of History

I well remember the time when I fell in love with history. This was 1956 and I was ten years old, living with my parents in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. While rummaging in a storage room, I came across a book with the title (in Dutch), World-History in a Nutshell. Greatly impressed by the story of the small, but brave, ancient Greek people fighting and defeating the far more numerous Persian army, I quickly read it from cover to cover. Much later I learnt that the volume was part of a series issued by the Dutch ministry of education and updated every few years. To the best of my memory the one in my hands did mention World War I but not Hitler; hence it must have dated to the 1920s when my parents went to school.

It was World-History in a Nutshell and the wonderful tales it contained that made me decide I wanted to study history. In 1964 this wish took me to the Hebrew University where I started thinking seriously about what I was trying to do. From beginning to end, my aim was always to understand what happened and why it happened. Though it took me a long time to realize the fact, in doing so I, like countless other modern historians, was following in the footsteps of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

Hegel’s most important propositions, as I came to understand them, could be summed up as follows. First, the past had a real, objective existence. It was, so to speak, solidified present, more or less covered by the sands of time; which meant that, given sufficient effort was devoted to removing the sand, “the truth” about it could be discovered. Second, in the main it consisted not of the more or less accidental, more or less cranky deeds of individuals but was pushed ever-onward by vast, mostly anonymous, spiritual, economic—this was Marx’s particular contribution—social and technological forces none could control. Men and women were carried along by it like corks floating on a stream; now using it to swim in the right direction, now vainly trying to resist it and being overwhelmed by it. Third, the past mattered. It was only by studying the past that both individuals and groups of every kind could gain an understanding as to who they were, where they had come from, and where they wanted to go and might be going.

Starting around the time of Hegel’s death, these assumptions were widely shared. All three of the most important ideologies of the period 1830-1945, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism and fascism subscribed to it. None more so than Winston Churchill, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The last-named once said that a person who did not know history was like a person without a face. As religion declined in front of secularism history, with Hegel as its high priest, became the source of truth, no less.

To be sure, there were always those who cast doubt on the enterprise. Whether seriously and out of ignorance, as when Henry Ford famously said that history was bunk; or only half-so, as in Walter Sellar’s hilariously funny 1931 best-seller, 1066 and All That. The outcome was a vast outpouring of written works—later, movies as well—and an ever greater increase in the number of students both in- and outside academia.

At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926-84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians—and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes—were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted—“read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this—each text, process, event and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto. The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

Since then this view has been eating up the study of history like a worm eating up an apple from within. Previously people had written learned tomes about, say, Greek antiquity; how it came into being, what its main characteristics were, how it unfolded, expanded, passed away, and so on. Now they did the same about the way historians had “discovered” or “invented” that antiquity. The same applies to “the middle ages,” “the renaissance,” “the enlightenment,” “the industrial revolution,” and so on and so on. This came dangerously close to saying that history was but a fairy tale and any attempt to write about it was not “science” but fiction—good or bad.

The implications of this view were tremendous. If all the study of history was capable of yielding was some kind of subjective tale, then of what use could it be in establishing “the truth”? And if it could not help in establishing “the truth,” then what could be the purpose of engaging in it? And how about the remaining social sciences such as political science, international relations, sociology, and so on? Weren’t they, too, based on the assumption that an “objective” past did exist and could be used to understand the present?

For a century and a half it had been assumed that a firm grasp of these subjects would qualify those who had it for many kinds of work not only in academia but in both the public and the private sphere. Now, increasingly degrees in these fields were seen as useless. The more useless they appeared to be, the less capable they were of providing their owners with a reasonable income as well as an acceptable position in society. The less capable they were of providing their owners with an acceptable position in society and a reasonable income, the smaller their perceived uselessness.

And so began the decline of the humanities and many of the social sciences that we see all around us. The lives of an entire generation of young academics have been blighted, given that nobody any more is interested in whatever they may have to say. Finding work outside the universities is even harder; instead of degrees, prospective employers demand “experience” above everything else.

Does that mean that books and movies that deal with the past will soon disappear? Of course not. Rather, it means that the purpose of reading those works has shifted. Instead of analyzing underlying factors and trying to extract “lessons,” people started looking for stories with heroes and villains in them. Instead of looking for the general picture they took an interest in the details; often, needless to say, the juicier the better. Instead of asking, “how we got to where we are now,” they wanted to know what life in the past had felt like. Nowhere was this more true than in my own field, military history. The reason, presumably, being that the vast majority of people in advanced countries no longer had any personal experience of warfare.

Where the demand exists supply will follow. Contrary to the situation as it existed a few decades ago, the most important historians writing today are not academics. They are popular writers, with his difference that the adjective “popular” is now as likely to be used in a complimentary way as in a derogatory one. By and large they do not reflect on underlying theoretical principles, create frameworks, or provide deep analysis. Yet from Antony Beevor in Stalingrad through Max Hastings in Catastrophe to Keith Lowe in Savage Continent, they have a vivid sense for detail and know how to spin a tale. Those tales may be useless in the classroom—having tried to use them there, I know. Yet judging by sales they seem to be filling the psychological needs of many people.

The king is dead; long live the king.