As the violence and brewing disorder of our times disturbs us, we can readily fall into a comforting delusion: either our liberal minds have conquered the violent instincts of the human animal, or our modern ideologies (whether Nazism, Marxism, Imperialism, Neo-Conservatism or Islamism) or our powerful nation states have a peculiar talent for blood-curdling murder and total war.
Alas, neither is true. The pages of history are littered with massacres and community violence. Of course, the history reader need not give their attention to these stories. There are so many other threads to follow – the glories and diversity of culture, the grandeur of art, the suffering of ordinary people, the conflicts over resources, power, status, belief, or the blooming and fading of faiths. But all those threads are mixed with blood on the wattle.
It is difficult to face this squarely. The wound to human pride caused by the repeated violence of our kin is deep, and we naturally seek to numb the pain. Either we turn away to more pleasant thoughts, or we develop elaborate denials of the common humanity of the perpetrators of violence. They become dictators, monsters, barbarians. Or we pursue an absurd nobility in fighting for justice – bandits, thugs, and rebel yells so become freedom fighters, poetic champions of a noble cause wrapped in mystic illusions, like Byron going to fight for the Greeks.
The greatest affront is to our idea of progress, which accompanies our modern culture like an ever-vigilant chaperone. Darker thinkers know this. John Gray’s work has long taken apart the modern belief in human progress. In reviewing Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Gray zeroes in on this necessary illusion:
Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible. John Gray, The Guardian, 2015
Gray compares the elaborate theories of Pinker and similar liberal optimists, with their reliance on big data and google, to Tibetan prayer wheels, turned forever to produce an assurance of meaning in life, progress in history, and the goodness of humanity. With such a prayer wheel, the bloodied pages of history that tell of massacres and communal violence, the descent of civilised people into barbarism, can be carefully, mindfully willed away.
For whatever fortuitous reason, I came across one such bloodied page last night in reading Richard J. Evans, The pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914 (2016). The story concerned the struggle for Greek independence, or release from the “cruel yoke of Ottoman power” in the 1820s.
The Greeks held a national assembly at Epidauras in 1822 where they declared, despite the fractious rumblings within their own ranks, a “holy war” against the Muslim Ottoman overlords, who had ruled since 1453. Like many holy wars, the Greeks’ fight for a separate, Christian nation soon justified massacres. A British observor recoiled at the violence of the rebels when they killed the local Muslim population:
“Women and children were frequently tortured before they were murdered. After the Greeks had been in possession of the city for forty-eight hours, they deliberately collected together about two thousand persons of every age and sex, but principally women and children, and led them to a ravine in the nearest mountain where they murdered every soul.” (George Finlay, quoted in Evans, p 55)
The Ottoman rulers and the Muslim local population responded with massacres of their own. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul was hanged on his cathedral’s gate. At Salonica local crowds massacred the Christian population turning it into a “boundless slaughterhouse.” On the island of Chios, Greek rebels were besieging a Ottoman garrison, which itself held hostage many of the wealthy Greek Christian merchants of the island. When Ottoman troops and boats arrived to reinforce the garrison, the balance of the siege turned. The Ottoman soldiers tortured their hostages to reveal the hidden locations of their treasures, and then massacred them. The island’s town streets were littered with corpses, and its buildings burned to the ground. Nearly 30 000 Christians were killed. Others were sold into slavery. The island’s population was quartered, falling from 120 000 to 30 000.
Yet this next link in the chain of communal violence inspired a humanitarian response to fight to defend the birthplace of Western civilisation. Eugene Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824) [the featured image of this post, with image credit to Le Louvre] rallied the educated classes of Europe, seeped in the love of classical cultures. Across Europe idealistic young men, full of civilised illusions, went to fight for the divided and compromised Greek rebels, if in their own mind they were in a struggle for justice for a civilised nation. One observor noted that “All came expecting to find the Peloponnesus filled with Plutarch’s men and all returned thinking the inhabitants of Newgate [London’s main prison] more moral.”
Of course one of the famous foreign fighters was the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. He left behind the ravages of his incestuous and treacherous relationships in England, and dedicated himself to his great Cause, a greater delusion. He told an aristocratic friend (Marguerite, Countess of Blessington) of his motives: “he who is only a poet has done little for mankind” so that he would therefore “endeavour to prove in his own person that a poet may be a soldier.”
He died there at Missolonghi in April 1824. And the Romantic martyr was born from his 36 year old corpse. Today he is considered a national hero in Greece. The phenomenon of young men and women fighting and dying uselessly in a civilisational struggle, drunk on dreams of justice and glory and romance and martyrdom, are older than the Islamic rebels of ISIS.