Vikshepa Blog

Mental Distractions

05 Mar 2022

2022-03-05 - Thucydides

" A man who has the knowledge but lacks the power clearly to express it is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all."

Since the Ukraine war started I have been feeling a bit powerless to express anything. Times of war usually bring out the latent philosopher in all of us, as we try to get our head around the latest atrocities and rail at or reconcile ourselves to them. Some people don't go much beyond boosting a hearty "Fuck you Putin"s on Twitter. Others are more expansive.

" When one is deprived of one's liberty, one is right in blaming not so much the man who puts the shackles on as the one who had the power to prevent him, but did not use it."

There is an urge to do something, to speak out against injustice, and to call up people-power. No doubt leaders around the world are worried how their reactions will be judged during this latest humanitarian disaster - the catastrophe of a generation in fact, and they are in a mode of listening to their plebeians, for once.

" We Greeks believe that a man who takes no part in public affairs is not merely lazy, but good for nothing."

The mood of the times, both for leaders and ordinary Athenians is to make our opinions heard. Yet in my heart I know no one will hear me. I'm a stateless good-for-nothing with no possible influence on anybody. No one is going to listen to me. Least of all Putin.

"The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

Here is the most famous Thucydides quote of all. I'm definitely on the side of the weak, and have a strong tendency to accept whatever shit they throw at me.

Maybe on account of this weakness, I have a growing cynicism towards nations. I'm not exactly bitter, because I haven't done so badly by them. But I know that when people group together, the larger their number, the greater their tendency to make stupid, life-altering decisions that affect all individuals in the group. The greater is the likelihood that some out-of-touch leader will arise who will drag everybody into a reckless war. The greater are the chances that huge resources will be squandered or swindled. The more it becomes likely that identity politics will arise and wreck the lives of minorities. It can go differently, no doubt, but these are the usual dynamics.

Smaller groupings have serious problems too; it's just that they have less power to do damage. I have less difficulty in identifying as a member of my small community than with a larger group like a nation. This may partly be because I am not a citizen of the nation in which I happen to live. In times of war, people of differing ethnicities, weak national allegiances or foreigners are the first to run away. This is what we have been seeing in Ukraine. In terms of defending their domicile, they are worse than useless.

But women, children and old people have been leaving Ukraine too. They are certainly not useless. It is just that those who are most vulnerable drain resources at a time when food calories need to be converted into active defence.

" It is useless to attack a man who could not be controlled even if conquered, while failure would leave us in an even worse position."

Looking at their history, I have no doubt that Ukrainians will resist Russian occupation even if they are conquered, and that Russia will ultimately fail to subdue them. Like Palestinians, they have the power of sumud. It's going to get really costly - already has been. Putin has wrought a full-on catastrophe; no half-measures for him. This goes further than a small vengeance at being slighted and ignored by the west all these years. It has a destructive power that can change the world permanently.

Ultimately, I don't feel as powerless as Thucydides would have me feel. My cynicism extends also to him, with all his manly moralistic heroism that helps to carry us from warfare to warfare, from generation to generation.

It has not been proven that following principles of nonviolence would make the world better. I can't say for sure whether if I were in Ukraine I would remain a pacifist. Like most people I have been feeling "up-in-arms" about the invasion - if you put me in spitting distance of Vladimir Putin currently I might do more than spit.

Inherently we are free. Whether I take a gun and shoot invading Russians or stay home and meditate on my navel, my enemies can take away everything except my freedom. Freedom has no dependencies. It depends on who we are rather than what we have. We are, and will always remain, free.

Tags: philosophy
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