Strategic Humanism takes the reader through the works of Homer, Herodotus, ucydides, and Aristotle, laying out in clear and accessible terms their thoughts on leadership, war, and their relationship to individuals, nations, culture, and technology. In so doing, the book traces the path of ancient Greek democracy from infancy to maturity, culminating in the Athenian demise. roughout, Hauer holds up the political, cultural, literary, and philosophical milieu of ancient Greece as a kind of looking glass to our present era of rapid technological change and democratic malaise.
Tell me a little about your book.
When I started teaching cadets at the Air Force Academy in 2010, I noticed that they had trouble distinguishing between strategy and tactics, ends and means. Often in the military, the means come to determine the ends. The Greeks can teach us how to distinguish effectively between means and ends, and in this book, I make the case that the Greeks can teach us how to cultivate more effective leaders, both on and off the battlefield. Our technocratic culture and society overall need robust models for humanist leadership. I start with Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, who is shattered by his commander’s betrayal, and represents a timeless example of a betrayed warrior, disillusioned with combat, who loses a beloved comrade and is plunged into grief and rage. Then I trace the cohering of Greek nationalism, which came about when the Greek peoples were vastly outnumbered during the Persian invasion. The Greek “Miracle on Ice” victory, against all odds, was a triumph of strategy and human daring. If that victory had not occurred, western civilization would never have been born, and with it the democratic spirit that defines the West today. Just as that national democratic spirit was emerging after the Persian Wars, the Greeks splintered into civil war when the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Athens and the Sparta. All of this gives an amazing example of what I think is a universal truth, that we learn who we are as human beings by facing war and conflict. And since the Greeks lacked industrial technology, they illustrate this humanism without the distractions of the technocracies that pressure us today. Through the lessons the Greeks learned from these wars, they were able to give birth to moral philosophy, establish democracy rather than tyranny, and convert their human need to compete into a collaborative political process.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
“The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the consolidation of political power and national identity in mainland Greece was accompanied by the growing art of persuasion. Individuals profit by understanding that language can be ambiguous. Persuasion operates by influence, not force. The Athenians and the Spartans, while still acquiring their power, establish political arenas in which people can speak freely in the hope of influencing one another.
The political art of persuasion requires a public arena where men can compete for each other’s estimation. Any Athenian male can compete in the political arena with the same techniques that he can employ in the marketplace for his own private gain.
In their love of the contest, the Greeks find a political activity that reflects a deep humanist spirit. The Persian tyrant Xerxes is shocked to learn that the Greeks “contend… purely for the sake of excelling.” Xerxes executes those he disagrees with, while the Greek system allows an individual to fail and return to try again.“
What are you reading now?
I just finished Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Wilson is the first woman to publish a translation of Homer’s epic of homecoming, and she beautifully captures the combination of tender and tough in the story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War and his reunion with his wife. Odysseus takes 10 years to get home from Troy, and has some experiences that seem to have been so traumatic he can only process them through mythologizing them. He visits the dead in the underworld, and is haunted by the dead, which is such a powerful aspect of so many warrior’s homecoming stories. The Odyssey didn’t make it into my book, but it certainly has plenty of lessons on leadership to offer!
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
I was astonished at how much I had to learn. I had the idea that I knew what I wanted to say, but the writing process seemed to have a mind of its own, and the book went in some surprising directions. I also learned that although the writing was obviously my responsibility, you can’t write a book in isolation. In the course of writing this book, my relationships with colleagues strengthened, and many relationships I thought of as collegial developed into deep friendships. The book is about the importance of humanism, and it also invoked some pretty powerful autobiographical development in my own human self. I would love to hear from more authors about how they see themselves as having grown and matured through the writing process.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading – and why?
A friend gave me Stephen Budiansky’s Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas. I don’t often read biography, but this one was mesmerizing. Odysseus is described by Homer as a “man of twists and turns,” and I would describe Holmes after reading this biography as a “complicated man.” Budiansky describes Holmes’s Civil War experience as formative, which supports my argument that it is through war that we learn who we are, collectively and individually. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice, Holmes resisted attempts to manipulate him into politically convenient positions. His opinions were based on his humanist spirit, his penetrating intellect, and his refusal to be “typecast” as a liberal or a conservative. We owe much of our country’s commitment to the First Amendment to his work. The biography was also a good reminder to avoid superficial judgments about an individual. Human beings are not binary. We are complicated, and our stories are messy. This is the lesson of Greek humanism as well.
What is next for you?
I am working on a number of technology and ethics projects. The book-writing process convinced me that we as a society have not done enough to understand our current position relative to technology. I am interested in the ways that digital and AI technology erode the sphere of human judgment. It is easy to let technology do our deciding for us, and very hard to see the incremental ways in which this infringes on the full ethical scope of human judgment. Basic decisions that once formed the basis for our character are now being made by AI. How does this affect our way of being human? I think this is a crucial question.
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Claudia Hauer teaches humanities, science, and languages in the Great Books program at St. John’s College, and moral philosophy at the United States Air Force Academy, where she holds the Lyon Chair in Professional Ethics. She has a BA in Classical Studies from the University of Chicago, and an MA and PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota.