It is time for me to write the book I always wanted to write, the book that may have no readers but that sums up my work. My book on America, “The Storm Before the Calm,” will be out in September, freeing me to write the book that has no title yet. The intent of this next book is to embed geopolitics, my life’s work, with philosophy, my love; I want to imagine that geopolitics derives from the great minds I read. My other books I have written alone. The writing of this one, or at least the thoughts that give it life, will be shared with my readers. And they, being in my mind far wiser than all the professors of philosophy I have met, will point out my errors and inconsistencies and will enrage me until I do better.
Each week I will write about a fragment of thought that I have been mulling over. Some will be polished; most – such as this one – will not have reached the clarity worthy of the reader. But each fragment is meant to be a prism through which I can understand important things in due course. The pieces will appear each Thursday.
It may be that most people will object to its obscurity and carelessness. If so, I will return to my cave and mutter.
This week’s fragment of thought is on the relationship between geopolitics and the shaping of the human soul. It traces Europe to Christianity, Christianity to Athens and Jerusalem, and these cities to wars between Babylon and Persia. It also traces the tension between the dictums “know thyself” and “I am the Lord thy God.” It is only a first sketch, so don’t expect too much of it.
European civilization has a unique place in world history. It was Europe, through exploration and conquest, that forged the global understanding that there is a single humanity living in multiple hemispheres and made that notion common knowledge. Until then, humanity had lived with a different and false map of the world, ignorant of its breadth and variability. Since Europe was the continent of Christianity, it spread Christianity. But Europeans’ realization of the many different cultures that existed, worshipping so many different gods, ultimately weakened the self-confidence of Christianity and of European civilization. But that is a story to consider at a later date. For now, the question is why it was Europe and not some other civilization that tore the veil away and revealed the breadth of the world.
All of this is a geopolitical problem. Religion would seem not to be part of geopolitics any more than philosophy is, but geopolitics is complex. It is about the relationship of humans to a place, but the nature of a place is shaped by complex forces – which, in this case, include Christianity. And Christianity itself emerges from two cities that are both near and very far apart: Athens and Jerusalem. It is there that we must begin.
Athens was the city in which reason came to know itself as man’s highest moment, and in which Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Jerusalem is the city that enshrined the commandment “I am the Lord thy God … Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Athens was the city of logos – reason and discourse. Jerusalem was the city of awe not of men but of God and his law. The Gospel of John begins with the proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In that phrase, John sought to unite reason and revelation, the principles of Athens and Jerusalem. Athens held the core belief that to know thyself was the highest of goods; Jerusalem, that knowing God’s law was the greatest of things. Christianity obsessed over the soul and the self at the same time that it obsessed over God’s will. The Christian scholar Thomas Aquinas struggled with this tension, as did the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Muslim scholar al-Farabi. The dilemma of Athens and Jerusalem embedded itself in Eurasia. The tension between reason and revelation defined the region.
From a purely geopolitical point of view, it is striking that all of this played out along the rim of the Mediterranean, a small region within a far vaster world. It is hard to imagine two cities more distant in spirit than Athens and Jerusalem. Athens was built above a port, Piraeus. Ships from all over the Mediterranean arrived daily, delivering luxuries from around the basin. Athens was a wealthy city and, as some have said, corrupt and even weak because of its wealth. Jerusalem rested on a hill, overlooking a hard land where luxuries were few and held in suspicion. Athens luxuriated in the good life. Jerusalem luxuriated in a hard and jealous God. Athens knew many truths; Jerusalem, only one.
The one thing that bound them together was Persia. Persia threatened the Athenians’ very existence – but they were saved first by the Spartans (who were more Hebrew than Athenian) and then by their own navy. The Israelites were not threatened by the Persians but rather saved by them. The prophets had warned the Israelites that their failure to adhere to God’s laws would cause the fall of Jerusalem. In the end, this is what happened. They were conquered by Babylon (roughly located in present-day southern Iraq), the Israelites were exiled, and many wound up in Persia. Persia and Babylon fought a war – or, more precisely, an episode of a war that is ancient if not eternal. After defeating Babylon, King Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
The Athenians had allies. The Spartans and the Athenians had a common interest in avoiding being subjugated by Persia. The Israelites lived on difficult land and struggled with one other – one of the reasons for God’s aforementioned warning. And because the land was hard, there were few allies available, and because the Israelites were meant to focus on God, diverting their attention to subtle statecraft could be difficult. Their relative poverty and limited ports also meant they were not embedded in the wider world of the Mediterranean. So, the Athenians won, the Israelites lost – yet, they recovered what was lost because of Persia’s war with Babylon and the Israelites’ ability to shape Persian policy toward them.
Greece defeated Persia because it had strategic depth: a navy that could strike the Persian flank and rugged hills to retreat into. The Greeks, moreover, did not have to unite until war broke out. Their own fragmentation increased their defensive capability. Israel faced a different problem. It had hills in the north and desert to the south, but there was little to protect it in the east. Therefore, the Israelites had to maintain constant vigilance and unity, for a threat could materialize quickly. The Israelites did not have the Greek comfort of strategic depth. Greece had luxury – even Sparta was luxurious compared to Israel. The Greeks had the luxury to think about knowing themselves. Israel, united by the commandment to honor God and his laws, could mass and win. Divided by a lack of piety, they could be crushed – and they were. The moral problem and the geopolitical reality merged. Or, more precisely, geopolitical reality generated a moral principle essential to survival.
Athens and Jerusalem were in many ways forged in the Persian-Babylonian crucible. But their most significant effect was not to the east but to the west and north, in Europe. Athens and Jerusalem served as the foundation for post-pagan Europe and dominated it. Europe dominated the creation of a single world as well. Part of Europe’s hunger came from searching for discounts in India. But the Christian components of the European surge into the world should not be neglected. And therefore, Athens and Jerusalem must not be neglected.
As I’ve said, this is not intended to be anything more than a fragment of thought. But it is the beginning of the question: What is the relationship of geopolitics to the intellectual tradition? I do not regard geopolitics as a mechanistic tool designed to predict next week. I see it as part of a very old discussion of how we humans should understand the things we do and the things we have done. I regard global self-awareness as a giant punctuation mark in human history that can be traced back to Christianity, Christianity to Athens and Jerusalem, and Athens and Jerusalem to Persia and Babylon – one of the axes of the world.
There will be more to follow.