As a graduate of St. John’s College, Annapolis (Master of Arts, 2013), I am proud be associated with a college that is home to such a national treasure as Eva Brann. Whimsical yet sometimes dense, Ms. Brann’s writing is always a pleasure to read, even when it requires the reader to put in hard work—and it often does. Her latest book, Then and Now: the World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne, consists of two long essays: one entitled “Comprehended by Herodotus: How the Greek Center is Defined by the Barbarian Periphery,” and the second entitled simply “Imaginative Conservatism.” The first essay is an extended reflection on Herodotus’ History; the second seeks to explicate just how we should think about what “imaginative conservatism” means.
“Comprehended by Herodotus” looks at the various ways in which Herodotus seeks to define the Greeks through comparison with the surrounding Barbarian nations: Egypt to the south (and Greece’s upside-down mirror image), the Scythians to the northeast and north, the Hyperboreans further north, the Lydians to the east, and, further east, “the Barbarians of the History, the Persians” (p. 39). The organizing structure, then, is to examine the way in which Herodotus places Greece, and specifically Athens, at the center of the world. All other civilizations are seen in contrast to Greece, and it is those borders and contrasts that give definition to what Greece is.
But this is not simply a reflection on Herodotus’ History. Rather, Ms. Brann skillfully shows how we, as modern Westerners and heirs of Greek ideas, have a stake in the events described by Herodotus. Herodotus’ account, she notes, is what might be called “ethnocentric” today. That is, he presumes the centrality of his own culture, understanding everything else as (in the currently popular academic jargon) “Other.” Still, the title of the essay plays on a double meaning of “comprehended”: in the first place, it means “to be surrounded by”; in the second “to understand”—Herodotus seeks to show how the Greeks are surrounded and therefore constitute the center, as well as to understand the essence of both the Greeks and the barbarians by contrast.
So, there is another way in which Ms. Brann thinks Greece—and especially Athens—is considered the center: it is a sort of middle ground between the extremes represented by the surrounding cultures. Egypt, for Herodotus, is full of hide-bound traditionalism. The Greeks, on the other hand, are dedicated to memorial, but not to dead tradition: “The Egyptians, who are rigor mortis incarnate, past-devoted, show the Greeks by antithesis what it is to be alive” (p. 48). For the Greeks, “custom is not king—or perhaps rather an elected king, subject to recall” (p. 49). The Greeks are able to accommodate and integrate newness into their culture, which allows for the development of two important foundations for the Western world: science and democracy. According to Herodotus, the Greeks borrow geometry from Egyptian land-measuring techniques (the Greek word γεωμετρία [geometria] means literally “earth measure”), though they develop it into an abstract science, thereby supplying the first foundation for the modern world. The second foundation is democracy, which the Greeks developed, and which Herodotus claims—at almost the precise center of the History, as Ms. Brann notes—is a “serious asset.” This development stands in distinction to another barbarian civilization, the Scythians, who are nomadic, and hence have no politics as such (they have no polis). This also implies that they have no shared memory rooted in place, as do the Greeks (Hannah Arendt famously defines the polis as a place of “organized remembrance,” or a place where the great deeds and words of a people are memorialized and handed down from generation to generation). Hence, the Greeks occupy a middle ground—a center—between the hide-bound Egyptians on one hand, and the transient Scythians on the other.
The Persians, however, are the primary foil for the Greeks. They are the primary adversaries in battle, and they represent the opposite of the Greeks in terms of the dichotomy of liberty versus despotism. The Athenians are a free and democratic people (though, it is true, not “free” or “democratic” in the sense that we think of them now: freedom is always freedom in law and in relation to the polis, and everyone does not have a vote in this democracy).
The Spartans, while not free in the sense of the Athenians (their laws and customs are strict, and their society almost machine-like), nevertheless do not fight for fear of the lash, but rather for honor and for the love of their city. Sparta’s laws, though strict, are not written, but instead constitute an “inward ordinance, not written law but one taken in, learned ‘by heart’ from word of mouth” (p. 73). Hence, even the Spartans, famous for their harsh discipline and plain, rugged lifestyle, were “free” in the sense that they did not have to be driven in order to perform in battle. They were free at least in the sense that they were self-governed, once the law was instilled. The Persians, on the other hand, are driven to fight by force, and by the tyranny of their king. The Persians are “without a tradition of liberty” (p. 72).
Ms. Brann, then, is trying to demonstrate how, through the writings of Herodotus, the beginnings of the modern world and its emphasis on liberty can be seen. This contrasts somewhat with the standard account of ancient Greeks and Romans as obsessed with virtue at the expense of freedom (and, this theme overlaps somewhat with another recently published book: Baylor University professor of political science Mary Nichols’ Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, published in early 2015. Ms. Brann and Ms. Nichols both examine early Greek histories in order to explicate a tradition of liberty in Greek thought). However, this concept of freedom differs from modern freedom significantly, not least in the sense that it requires attachment to a polis, and it consists in liberty in law (it is not, by and large, an individualistic liberty or a licentious liberty). Even Themistocles, one of the protagonists of Brann’s essay, is attached to Athens, and, though exiled and though he excels through great deeds wherever he finds himself (including in the court of the Persian king), he “was a true citizen of Athens to the last” just as Odysseus, a wanderer who “never met a woman he couldn’t (and wouldn’t) charm, yet was, even in his wanderings, true husband to only one, Penelope” (p. 83).
At two points in the text, Brann compares Herodotus to Alexis de Tocqueville. In the first, she compares America to the barbarian lands, in that both Herodotus and Tocqueville write accounts of these foreign parts, and attempt to understand them though from the vantage point of their own culture (p. 40). In the second, she compares America to Athens in that both are “destiny-laden with freedom and equality” (p. 87). Just as Tocqueville looks at America in contrast to France to understand what makes her tick, so Herodotus looks at the barbarian lands in contrast to Greece, and especially Athens, to understand the essence of each. Greece is the center of the world, hemmed in by—and in that sense defined by and in contrast to—the barbarians.
The second essay, “Imaginative Conservatism,” was penned by Ms. Brann in response to, and as a reflection on, her being asked by Winston Elliott to become a senior contributor to this online journal. In it, she offers some thoughts on whether she is, in fact, a conservative at all. After deciding that yes, she is a conservative of the imaginative sort, she sets out defining exactly what it might mean to be an “imaginative conservative.” She offers twelve characteristics that might be said to move toward a loose definition of this somewhat counterintuitive creature, this “imaginative conservative,” and gives some brief commentary on what precisely she means by each, and how it fits with her larger definition.
At first blush, it is unclear exactly why these two essays should be placed together. Just what might a close reading of Herodotus have to do with understanding imaginative conservatism? Some reflection suggests an answer. In seeking an essence for the Athenian character, Herodotus defines a center or a core, defined by Athens: one that stands at the “golden mean” between the extremes of the barbarians: respectful of tradition but not hide-bound; disciplined but not servile; free but not licentious.
In a similar way, Ms. Brann understands imaginative conservatism to be, by disposition, a sort of moderate position between extremes. For example, she distinguishes between the unconservative “questioning” and the imaginatively conservative “question-asking.” The former she calls a “secular inquisition… Its intention is to skewer the object and barbecue it” (p. 98). The latter, on the other hand, “affirms, at least as a starting point, the matter asked after” (p. 98). This “question-asking,” then, is a median between the disruptive, hostile “hermeneutic of suspicion” that seeks to unmask and overturn, and a staid and simple deposition that refuses to engage the world through asking questions: “The conservative is always in the middle of things, betwixt and between, interestedly engaged in the world’s paradoxes and oppositions” (p. 98, emphasis in the original). The conservative disposition understands that contradictions and paradoxes are, to a certain extent, in the nature of things, and allows them to cause wonder and puzzlement; to appreciate the complexity of things, while refusing to either reductionistically squeeze all things into an icy rationalism, or to allow the complexity to overwhelm our inquisitiveness in hopeless unintelligibility.
But it is not just that it represents a median. Rather, it is also that it represents a median in a particular way: it is a median that seeks to preserve both liberty and equality, held in a certain tension, even in the face of ideologies push to prioritize one at the expense of the other (at one point Ms. Brann even councils that “imaginative conservatives should prepare to resist, though they probably can’t expect to have their political operatives in this battle” [p. 120]. Imaginative conservatism is not a passive disposition when given sufficient provocation). It seeks to create and preserve space for question-asking and deliberation in liberty amongst equals, and to contemplate with gratitude the complexity of the given world.
This book, taken as a whole, then, is an interesting and compelling inquiry into the origin of this imaginative conservatism (with Herodotus’ Athens), and its continued legacy in the political tradition of the United States, especially in those who consider themselves imaginative conservatives. For those who are unsure as to whether they can identify with imaginative conservatism, I suspect reading Ms. Brann’s account will come as a surprise to many. Suffice to say, this is not the ideology that often goes by the name “conservative” in American political discourse. Rather, this is a thoughtful, humble, and inquisitive disposition toward the world, toward each other, and toward all that is.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.