A fearless forecast for the world from 425 BC
BEWARE ‘PERIPATETIC MERCHANTS’
It’s easier to fool a crowd
than a single person.
The game is the same — 25 centuries ago, human dynamics were eerily similar to the way we act now, same influences, the same hazards of health and welfare. All our existing belief systems derive from this period.
Known as “The Father of History”, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484-425 BC) bequeathed to us a detailed verbal photograph of when Greece and Persia were the major powers in the known world, and Egypt, after existing for many thousands of years, was going into eclipse. The philosophies developed during this era provide the bases of our thought processes today.
Without most people noticing, the mirror of history fuels the engine of the present.
It did exactly that for an innocent Polish traveler, who once only wanted to cross the border of his starving socialist republic; but who, during a temporary thaw in the Cold War of the early 1950s, became a literal 20th century Herodotus, traveling throughout Asia and Africa as a beleaguered foreign correspondent. Thrust into the confusion of faraway places without knowing their languages, he turned to his ace in the hole, a Polish translation of Herodotus’s Histories in his search for sense in the world.
Travels with Herodotus
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
(translated from the Polish by
Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2007)
All memory is present.
There is no consensus among historians as to whether the creator of Taoism — Master Lao Tzu — was older or younger than Confucius. Many scholars even maintain that Lao Tzu did not exist at all, and the only little book which he is said to have left behind him — the Tao Te Ching — is simply a collection of fragments, aphorisms and sayings gathered by anonymous scribes.
If we accept that Lao Tzu did exist and was older than Confucius, then we can believe the story, often repeated, about how young Confucius made a journey to where the wise man Lao Tzu lived and asked him for advice on how to conduct his life.
“Rid yourself of arrogance and desire,” the old man answered, “rid yourself of the habit of flattery and of excessive ambition. All this causes you harm. That is all I have to say to you.”
But if it was Confucius who was older than Lao Tzu, then he could have passed onto his younger countryman these three great thoughts. The first: “How can you know how to serve gods if you do not know how to serve people?” The second: “Why do you pay back evil with good?” And the third: “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”
[ . . . ] How does one survive? This is the question Chinese thought attempts to answer. It is perhaps the most practical philosophy the world has ever known. In contrast to Hindu thought, it rarely ventures into the realms of transcendence, and tries instead to offer the ordinary man advice on enduring the situation in which he finds himself . . .
Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007) was Poland’s most celebrated foreign correspondent, 13 books translated into 27 languages, including Imperium and Shah of Shahs, all written with an uncanny eye for the natural responses of people in different cultures. As Herodotus roamed the known world in the 5th century BC and recorded his astounding travelogue, so Kapuscinski did likewise, while fleshing out the amazing stories of dusty centuries which demonstrate how human nature has not essentially changed in two and half millennia.
Telescoping knowledge accrued from the 6th century BC down to the present delivers a message you might not have expected. Since the dawn of time, the archenemies of civilization have been plundering humanity with their moneymaking trickery.
These learned Persians, Herodotus says, maintain that the instigators of the world-wide East-West conflict are neither the Greeks nor the Persians, but instead a third people, the Phoenicians, peripatetic merchants. It was they who first began the business of kidnapping women, which in turn triggered this global storm.
Conditions sound similar? He’s talking about The Iliad; I’m talking about the Nakba, now taking place in Europe and the United States. So you see? Like our friends the Palestinians, the entire white race is now being displaced, generally by being bred out of the herd, by the light brown minions of Baron Coudenhove-Kalergi’s wet dream of a world superstate.
The world has a very old problem. This same kind of invasion, keyed by sedition and stealth, has continued successfully for, at the very least, twenty four hundred years.
The unstoppable engine of fate
The first book of Herodotus (there are four of them) contains the most gripping story that includes all the known superstars of the 6th century BC. It features Solon, the father of Greek democracy, counseling Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia, not to count himself too happy until his journey is over, because fate is fickle. Mix in the oracle at Delphi and a king whose decision destroys himself — enter Cyrus the Great, who defeats, condemns, then saves him, and at the end of Cyrus’s life Croesus is there to advise him not to attempt the behavior that would cost Cyrus his life. Just before Cyrus’ fateful decision to chase after the Massagetae, Croesus warns him: “ . . . human affairs are on a wheel and as it turns it does not permit the same people to always prosper.” It would make a great movie. And it took the genius of Kapuscinski to elucidate it, at least for me.
The root question of Herodotus’s original mission, the question he always asked in all his inquiries, was “Who first undertook criminal acts of aggression? Having this question as to precedence in mind makes it easier to negotiate the tangled and intricate twists and turns of history, to explain to ourselves what forces and events set it in motion.
The defining of this principle, the awareness of it, is hugely significant, because in Herodotus’s world (as well as in various societies today), the eternal law of revenge, the law of reprisal, of an eye for an eye, was (and remains) alive and well.
Revenge is not only a right — it is a most sacred obligation. Whoever does not fulfill this charge will be cursed by his family, his clan, his society. The necessity of seeking retribution weighs not only on me, the member of the wronged tribe [ . . . ] can set into motion a chain of retribution that can stretch for generations, for centuries even.
[. . .] Misfortune suddenly befalls you and you cannot fathom why? Simply this: that you have been revenged upon for crimes perpetrated ten generations ago by a forefather whose whose existence you weren’t even aware of.
Is there a formula for destiny?
Crime and punishment, injustice and revenge — one always follows the other, sooner or later. As it is in relations between individuals, so it is between nations. Whoever first starts a war, and therefore, in Herodotus’s opinion, commits a crime, will be revenged upon and punished, be it immediately or after the passage of time. This relation, this inexorable pairing, is the very essence of fate, the meaning of irreversible destiny.
Vengeance is everyone’s downfall
Kapuscinski continually veers into his Herodotus as if he is traveling himself in these catacombs of centuries past, but one phrase keeps reappearing in their narratives is that . . .
. . . . human happiness never remains long in the same place!
p.232 Persian words on the eve of the final battle of the war.
“My friend, an event which has been decreed by the god cannot be averted by man, for no one is willing to believe even those who tell the truth. A great many Persians are aware of what I just said. but we follow our leaders because we have no choice. There’s no more pain a man can endure than to see clearly and be able to do nothing.”
Kapuscinski is one of those writers who is always waiting to catch you unexpectedly with a fresh wry chuckle. From Peking to Persepolis, from the Congo to Algiers, he had the unique technique of going backwards to see where he was going.
He maintains an almost lighthearted detachment in situations that would make the rest of us quail before the hazards his path had intersected.
One could clearly see how dangerous freedom is in the absence of hierarchy and order — or, rather, anarchy in the absence of ethics. Under such circumstances, the forces of evil aggression — all manner of villainy, brutishness and bestiality — instantly gain the upper hand. As so it was in the Congo, which fell under the rule of these gendermes. An encounter with any one of them could be deadly.
In case you were wondering about the resolve of the Iranians, consider this conversation from the very dawn of the Persian Empire. Kapuscinski writes of someone . . .
. . . who once submitted a proposition, widely supported by his countrymen, to the then ruling Persian king, Cyrus the Great. It went as follows: Since Zeus has given sovereignty to the Persians and to you in particular, Cyrus, . . . let’s emigrate from the country we currently own, which is small and rugged, and take over somewhere better . . . Will we ever have a better opportunity than now, when we rule over so many peoples and the whole of Asia?
Cyrus was impressed with the proposal. He told them to go ahead, but he also advised them to be prepared, in that case, to become subjects instead of rulers, on the grounds that soft lands tend to breed soft men. It is impossible, he said, for one and the same country to produce remarkable crops and good fighting men. So the Persians admitted the truth of this and took their leave. Cyrus’ point of view has proved more convincing than their own, and they chose to live in a harsh land and rule rather than cultivate fertile plains and be others’ slaves.
But as you can see, the one thing these two men, 25 centuries apart, traveled well and did a service to humanity for recording how our faraway friends felt about things.
If Jarda and I had lived in Herodotus’s times, we would have been Scythians — they had inhabited our part of Europe. We would have cavorted through forests and fields on swift horses that so delighted our Greek, shooting arrows and drinking kumiss. Herodotus would have been very interested in us, would have asked about our customs and beliefs, about what we ate and what we wore. Next he would have described precisely how, having drawn the Persians into the winter trap of frigid temperatures, we had defeated their great army, and how their great king, Darius, pursued by us, barely escaped with his life.
My heroes in life are those worth imitating. As a journalist I appreciate the necessary skill of objective impartiality in the work of both men, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Herodotus. As the Polish foreign correspondent said of his vocational ancestor from 25 centuries earlier . . .
There is no anger in him, no animus. He tries to understand everything, fInd out why someone believes in one way and not another. He does not blame the human being but blames the system; it is not the individual who is by nature evil, depraved, villainous — it is the social arrangement in which he happens to live that is evil. That is why Herodotus is a passionate advocate of freedom and democracy and a foe of despotism, authoritarianism and tyranny — he believes that only under the former circumstances does man have a chance to act with dignity, to be human.