I just finished listening to the Anabasis on a free librivox.org recording. It’s been over a decade since I read it last. It surprised me. It had a lot to say about democracy, free speech, and faith.

First, a comment on the librivox audio. Most professionally-recorded audio books are marred by the occasional bad pronunciation of fancypants words. Apparently the narrators can’t be bothered to look it up or else think they already know how to pronounce it. Amateur audio is worse. It’s uhNABuhsis, in case you were wondering.

When I read the Anabasis before, I ignored the religion stuff. I remember that I half-consciously assumed that it was pastiche. In other words, without thinking about it I assumed that Xenophon wanted to sound like a classical author, so he put in all this classical author religion stuff. This time I paid attention to the dreams and the portents and the sacrifices. It is very, very hard to believe that Xenophon and the rest didn’t believe that they were working with the gods and being guided by them. In fact, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it’s just a pious gloss, either. In the Anabasis, the gods are active participants through dreams and omens. The subject of classical religion is one that nobody has a good handle on. The atheist idea that everybody just went around experiencing mass hallucinations is a non-starter. The Christian notion that the gods were devils is slightly more plausible, but only slightly. So is C.S. Lewis’ idea in his space trilogy (how seriously he meant it I don’t know) that the gods were something like angels. Mormonism’s implicit narrative is that the pantheistic religions are the distorted, mythologized remnants of specific dispensational revelations of the gospel (or of some version of the gospel–its not the exact same thing in every dispensation). That isn’t all that plausible either as a complete explanation. Maybe some combination of all of these approaches gets you somewhere.

The Anabasis has lot to say, implicitly, about democracy. It’s fair to say that the Anabasis doesn’t show democracy in a very good light. The troops’ votes are sometimes pretty stupid and tend to distort command decisions. The officers spend far too much of their time thinking of how to manipulate the vote so it doesn’t lead to disaster. On the other hand, for a group of mercenary companies who had just lost all their leadership, its hard to see what the alternative would be. Still, if reading the Anabasis doesn’t help you overcome the modern tendency to make an idol of voting, you are probably beyond help.

The Anabasis has a shockingly practical approach to free speech. At one point, the soldiers vote that from then on anybody who advocated splitting up the group would be put to death. Some of the soldiers had been activists for splitting up for awhile, had got their way, and the result had been disaster. The death penalty for political speech in a democracy is pretty horrible to the modern conscience, but its hard to see what alternative there was. The proscription was also a pretty interesting case of democratic self-hygiene. The soldiers must have suspected that they were likely to be led astray again if they let the activists keep speaking at them.

Highly recommended.

Continue reading at the original source →