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Thucydides in London: Would the Ancient Greeks Approve of Our Modern Olympics?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The precious heritage of ancient Greece: The recognition that a life without excitement is a life scarcely worth living and that a life of excitement must inevitably be a life full of risks.

As I was watching the London Olympics, a curious thought struck me: What would the ancient Greeks think about our modern revival of their games? Would they be impressed, scandalized, or just disappointed?

Certain of their responses are quite predictable. Surely they would scratch their heads over beach volleyball. They would gaze in curiosity at the trampoline events. They would doubtless be surprised that no great modern poet writes lyrical odes to the victors in the games as Pindar did for the champions in the Greek Olympics—or perhaps they would just be surprised that there are no great modern poets around anymore to write them. They would be amazed to learn that the most honored Olympians can earn immense fortunes by simply assuring people that they use a certain brand of toothpaste or drink a particular kind of soft drink. And of course they would be speechless to discover that women are not only allowed to watch the events, but that a great many of them actually participate in them. Yet even that shock would pale before the most incomprehensible blow of all. The modern discus thrower, unlike his ancient counterpart, wears pants! Indeed, all the competitors in the modern Olympic Games wear them, and often shirts as well. The 19th century movement to revive the ancient Olympic games for modern times was prepared to champion the ancient Hellenic ideals, but only up to a point—and that point was the Greek custom of conspicuous nudity.

When I was a boy and first learned about the Greek penchant for performing athletic feats while perfectly naked, I was puzzled by this strange lack of modesty. I vaguely attributed their shortage of clothing to their primitive times—perhaps people back then just didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to run around naked in public. Later, when I read the great Greek historians, I discovered that the Greeks were perfectly aware that other people made it a point not to go around butt naked. The Greeks had a name for these people—they called them barbarians. These were people, like the Persians, who did not speak euphonious Greek, but who, when they opened their mouths, could only stammer incomprehensibly “bar-bar-bar”—hence the origin of the term barbarian.

The ancient Greeks were perfectly aware that the barbarians found nudity to be utterly shameful. They were also aware that their own ancestors had originally felt the same way about nudity. According to the usually reliable Thucydides, the practice of athletic nudity was originally introduced by the Spartans:

[The Spartans] were the first to play games naked, to take off their clothes openly, and to rub themselves down with olive oil after their exercise. In ancient times, even at the Olympic Games, the athletes used to wear coverings for their loins, and indeed this practice was still in existence not very many years ago. Even today, many foreigners, especially in Asia, wear these loincloths for boxing matches and wrestling bouts. Indeed, one could point to a number of other instances where the manners of the ancient Hellenic world are very similar to the manners of foreigners today.

Note the smug tone of Thucydides’s remark. Yes, we Greeks were once like the barbarians—foreigners—but now we are modern and unhampered by the irrational shame so characteristic of the barbarian.

So what would Thucydides—or any other intelligent Greek of his time—say about the modern Olympics, where even loincloths are no longer deemed proper athletic apparel? Would he throw up his hands and exclaim, “What a travesty! These so-called moderns—why, they are nothing more than barbarians. They know nothing of the true Greek spirit!” Very possibly. Yet if Thucydides could be persuaded to watch our modern rendition of the ancient Olympic games, he might find himself having second thoughts about his initial response. Despite the fact that we moderns have fallen back into the bad old barbarian habit of wearing pants, we are not entirely untouched by the true Greek spirit. And we prove this for a few weeks every four years.

In most realms of life, we moderns put an immense value on the ideal of fairness and equality. We tend to value cooperation more than competition. But we forget all about this during the Olympics. It is then that, like the ancient Greeks, we come together to honor and acclaim manically ferocious competitors. We are thrilled to watch Michael Phelps pile up gold medal upon gold medal, though each of his medals could only be obtained through the disappointment of the many world-class swimmers who swam against him. We would be shocked at the very idea that Phelps should be compelled to share his glut of gold medals with his fellow competitors—after all, who really needs 18 of them? Yet we don’t want a fairer distribution of medals. On the contrary, we want our champions to amass as many as possible; we want them to become the dazzling winners who blind us to the many worthy losers. Or, to put this another way, instead of bemoaning the unfairness of life during the Olympics, we go out of our way to celebrate it.

The Greeks made heroes of those who risked the most and who won against great odds. By honoring our own great Olympians for the same reason, we prove that we are not wholly unworthy of our Hellenic heritage.

To recognize this point, consider the primary rule of the Olympics: You get just one chance. No do-overs. Obviously, this is highly unfair, since it unavoidably introduces an irreducible element of sheer dumb luck. During the first week of the London Olympics there was a perfect example of this systematic unfairness in the treatment of Jordyn Wieber. Often considered the world’s leading female gymnast, she suffered from plain bad luck when she failed to advance to the all-around final, where many people expected her to win gold. Suppose that, instead of being given just one chance, Jordyn and the other competitors had been allowed to perform the same event 10 or 20 times—a process that would permit the judges to average the different scores and to eliminate the distorting effect of both good and bad luck. This would obviously provide a more representative and accurate picture of the different gymnasts’ levels of skill and competency. Of course, this would involve more time and might slow down events, but who could argue that it would not be a much fairer way of assigning gold medals? Under such a scenario, Jordyn Wieber might easily have walked away with a gold medal in London. But the problem is that no one wants such a scenario—probably not even Jordyn Wieber herself. It would be a violation of the very essence of the Hellenic spirit: It would not be exciting. Much better to have everything hang on a single, decisive moment, to watch, open-mouthed, as one swimmer pulls out ahead of the pack and flails forward to win the prize, and even better than that, to see two swimmers battling furiously against each other until, by the merest fraction of a fraction of a second, one emerges victorious. Now that is true drama. It exalts us and takes us out of our petty mundane selves—if only for a moment—and it is a moment whose memory can last for centuries.

There are those, of course, who look upon the love of excitement for excitement’s sake as rather juvenile and adolescent—and they are perfectly right. Normally as people grow older—and sometimes wiser—they come to prefer less excitement and drama in their lives than they did when they were younger. Settled routines and predictable outcomes begin to suit them more as the years roll on. Some even become old fogeys, unable to see any reason anyone should ever get excited about anything. But there are many others who cannot excuse themselves on the basis of their advanced age. They can be quite young, though most are in the middle years. In every case, however, their aversion to excitement rests not on personal infirmity, but on high and lofty moral principles. They want to reform the world, to improve it, to make life more secure for everyone, to make sure that incomes are much more equal, and to ensure that awards are so evenly distributed that no one need feel that he or she is a loser. In short, they want a world in which everyone can be a winner.

There is, however, only one way to obtain such a world: You must banish excitement from it. You must make life unbearably monotonous, hopelessly drab, and utterly predictable. You must create the kind of world that every utopian thinker has envisioned. Both Thomas More’s Utopia and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two depict ideal communities from which any possible source of excitement and drama has been rigorously eliminated, and one shudders to imagine the stifling boredom of their hypothetical inhabitants.

We tend to value cooperation more than competition. But we forget all about this during the Olympics.

Today there are new utopians, immensely bright and well-educated, who want to control the government in order to exercise their benevolent paternalism on those who unfortunately make the wrong kind of decisions. In the words of Cass Sunstein, they only want to nudge the less bright and less well-educated into making the kind of good decisions that they themselves would make. They claim that they can help all of us live healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives if we are willing to entrust our choices to their supervision. But it is noteworthy that these new utopians don’t promise to make our lives more exciting—on the contrary, they want to make us rational economic actors, a breed of humanity that is not normally known for its flair for the dramatic.

The rational economic actor always knows the odds and never bets against them. If Michael Phelps had been one, he would have recognized at an early age that his dream of winning gold medals in the Olympics was so remote that it was absurd to waste years and years of his life on such a hopeless fancy. Indeed, all the swimmers—and all the competitors—would have been bound to reach the same conclusion, given the odds against them. As a result, there would be no Olympics at all, or none worth watching.

But we still have the Olympics and they are very much worth watching. Through them we continue to uphold the precious heritage of ancient Greece: The recognition that a life without excitement is a life scarcely worth living and that a life of excitement must inevitably be a life full of risks. The Greeks made heroes of those who risked the most and who won against great odds. By honoring our own great Olympians for the same reason, we prove that we are not wholly unworthy of our Hellenic heritage, even if we do wear pants.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “‘It’s Not About Crime, It’s About Values,’” “Scalia’s Wise Dissent,” “Are Americans Too Dumb for Democracy?,” and “The Occupy Movement and the Communism of Everyday Life.” Michael Barone describes “A Muddled Outlook for Olympics-Ready London.” Arthur C. Brooks argues “True Fairness Means Rewarding Merit, Not Spreading the Wealth.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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