At the suggestion of the wonderful Mollie Hemingway, I am reposting here on Ricochet an excerpt of a profile that I wrote of Victor Davis Hanson for the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas. I hope you like it and that it starts an interesting conversation about a man who, as you'll see, is quite extraordinary! The main theme of the piece is that we in the West forget the wisdom of the ancient past at our own peril.
Here's the excerpt:
Victor Davis Hanson says he lives in the nineteenth century—a fact that can get him into some trouble.
“Let me give you an example,” he says.
Hanson was in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart one day when he saw a young woman struggling to move a big screen television into her Honda. When he went over to help her, he noticed that she was holding an EBT card, a government-issued debit card for cash and food stamps.
Hanson told her, “You shouldn’t be using the food card to buy the big screen TV.” She told him to mind his own business. Despite her anger, Hanson persisted: “If you didn’t do that, you would more be self-reliant.”
Reflecting on that experience, he says, “In the nineteenth century, this would never have happened—the government giving you an EBT card to subsidize a lifestyle beyond necessities.”
Hanson may live in the nineteenth century, a time when duty and honor were moral imperatives, but he has made his academic career studying the ancient past. The lessons of Fourth Century BC Greece and Fifth Century AD Rome—civilizations and their falls due to affluence, leisure, and poor political leadership—are never far from the mind of this classicist and military historian.
That’s especially true when he thinks about Greece, the sick man of Europe today. “What’s happening in Greece is fascinating. The Greeks started rioting because they couldn’t borrow more money from Germany to fund their incredible public payrolls, lavish pensions, and other goodies.” The Greeks, Hanson argues, were essentially acting like spoiled children; they should have been writing thank you cards to their fiscally prudent northern neighbors who facilitated their EU entry, but they instead took to the streets in violent protest, invoking images of the Germans as Nazis.
Not that this should have surprised anyone. “The more you give people, the more entitlements they want,” Hanson says. “They never say, ‘Thank you, that’s so generous.’ They just think, ‘Gosh, don’t ever take that away. We need more.’” This culture of dependency, a byproduct of the entitlement state and what Hanson calls our “therapeutic culture,” is simply a display of human nature at its worst.
“The Greeks of the ancient world understood human nature,” Hanson says. “They knew that people want freedom and affluence, but that when you combine the two, you can have decadence.” The ancient Greeks knew that virtue required a strong moral order that protected people from themselves—from their own follies and vices. Hanson specifically cites the importance of a “shame culture” in checking human behavior.
“I may have the money to stay at home all day and watch Oprah and get pizza delivered to my couch,” he explains, “but I better not because it’s a sort of decadence. I may have enough money and freedom to line up at the mall to buy the latest Adidas-brand tennis shoe, but I shouldn’t do that.”
We in the West don’t have that sense of duty and responsibility today, he argues, which has serious implications for our political future. Though the situation is not as bad in the United States as it is in Greece, Hanson thinks America is losing its spirit of rugged individualism. The welfare state has driven people from the self-reliance that sharpens democracy to the dependency that blots it out. “We are emasculating our citizens,” he says gloomily. “I’m very worried about the future of civilization.”
You can continue reading the piece here.