Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Herodotus, Aeschylus, and the Financial Crisis

There was an interesting piece about Herodotus by Charlotte Higgins called The Rest Is History in The Guardian this past weekend. Her point seems to be that Herodotus is admirable because stories in his histories illustrate that no one can take good fortune for granted -- that events can suddenly turn happiness into tragedy for even the most secure of us.

That's not a bad point to make to readers during today's financial crisis, where fortune reversed for so many people who thought that their high-debt, easy-credit way of life would continue forever. Those people are now getting accustomed to a way of life based on thrift.

Let us hope that our society reorganizes to encourage savings and channel resources into investments for the future (like education, research, and productivity) rather than current consumption. No sign of that yet.

As for Herodotus, I prefer the message that Higgins conveyed a couple of days later in her blog with Herodotus: a historian for today. There she said:
His achievement was extraordinary – he was one of the wave of Ionian Greek intellectuals (from the Aegean coast of what is now Turkey) to present a rationalising view of the world that removed the gods from the limelight and put human actions centre-stage. In particular, he was the first to write an account of the historical causation of a set of world-changing events: the Persian wars of the 480s, in which, quite astonishingly, a frequently disunited, jittery coalition of Greek cities fended off conquest by what was then the most impressive world empire in existence.
Whatever errors and iffy gossip they might contain, The Histories were a milestone in the development of a sense of history as consisting of events explainable in terms of human action. And it is hard to beat the Persian Wars for importance in determining the future of Western civilization.

Some of my favorite tidbits about the first Persian War concern the playwright Aeschylus and his brother Kynaigeirus, both of whom fought in the Athenian contingent at the Battle of Marathon. After the Greeks routed the Persians with a double envelopment, Kynaigeirus died of wounds suffered when pursuing the fleeing Persians to their ships. Aeschylus was evidently proud of his participation in the battle, given the epitaph on his tombstone:
This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,
Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride
How tried his valor, Marathon may tell
And long-haired Medes, who knew it all too well.
Among the plays of Aeschylus is The Persians, which is set during the second Persian War and includes as characters the ghost of King Darius, his son Xerxes, and his widow Queen Atossa. (It is the only surviving play from the set that Aeschylus wrote in winning the drama competition at the Dionysia in Athens in 472 BC.) A notable aspect of The Persians is that, in addition to celebrating Greek victory, it also portrays the Persians as understandable and even sympathetic human opponents, rather than merely as brutish invaders or effete Asians. It is worth considering how likely such humanity would be in our literature today if the Greeks had lost.

The Persians also gets us back to the current financial crisis. After news of the destruction of the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis arrives in Susa, the ghost of Darius appears and blames the debacle on his son's arrogance. (Aeschylus also fought at Salamis.) Arrogance leads to disaster in war, and it is also an essential ingredient in financial bubbles. When real incomes were falling, it was arrogant to think that lifestyles could be supported forever with neverending credit and mountains of debt.

Such is the stuff of bubbles. Now we have to recognize when the bubble stops deflating.