A tale of two cities
A quote I read years ago said, “The family surname of the betrothed says much about the success of the marriage.” That idea may come near to a singular truth in a general way, despite plenty of examples to contradict it. Yet, I dare suggest something similar, but in a political sense.
How a man or woman identifies his or her citizenship–to what city he or she claims allegiance–tells much about his or her innermost thoughts, ideas, conclusions, and reasoning skills. In other words, tell me the name of your city, and I can predict the ideas that you think and believe.
Yet, not always. Again, outliers who think for themselves.
There were two cities in ancient Greece: Athens and Sparta. The Athenians practiced trade, they valued art and culture, and they ruled themselves by democracy of voters, legislators, and written laws. The Spartans though encouraged a militant society, based on farming and conquering.
Edith Hamilton, a twentieth-century writer, pointed out the distinction between the ancient Greeks, the Athenians, and the rest of the ancient world’s cities, in the first chapter of her book The Greek Way.
“The ancient world bears everywhere the same stamp. In Egypt, Crete, in Mesopotamia, we find the same conditions: a despot enthroned, whose whims and passions are the determining factor in the sate; a wretched, subjugated populace; a great priestly organization, to which is handed over the domain of the intellect. This is what we know as Oriental state today.”
Hamilton then lays down a series of striking, original sentences. “The ancient Greeks were the first Westerners,” “With them, something completely new came into the world.” “The spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is Greek discovery.”
“The same cannot be said of Rome, Athens and Rome had little in common.” “The Greeks were the first intellectualists.” “The world we live in seems to us a reasonable and comprehensible place. It is a world of definite facts.” “The East found a way to endure the intolerable.”
“The Greeks were the first people in the world to play”
Hamilton titles her book’s first chapter, “East and West.” Oriental vs. Occidental. The world cleaved into two parts, between tyranny and free-thinking, between autocratic and democratic. Western people think differently, are not anxious to fall into line and, like lemmings, follow a tyrant into the sea.
Charles Dickens compared and contrasted two cities on the first pages of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities: London and Paris. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…
“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”
In April of 1775, Boston’s citizens dared to confront with muskets London’s red-coated soldiers at two villages: Lexington and Concord. Then, in July of 1776, in Philadelphia, representatives form the thirteen English colonies declared their independence from London’s Parliament and King George III.
In the 1860s, the United States divided into two parts, each headed by two men in two cities. It was Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C., and Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. The former favored union and rejoining; the latter was for division, secession, and absolute separation.
Lincoln wanted to prohibit slavery from expanding into the western territories, but Davis and his fellow Southern planters wanted to extend slavery west, as far as the Pacific Ocean. A great civil war was fought to determine which set of ideas would prevail in the United States of America.
In the 1930s, Germany voted a tyrant into office, who ignited the world into a second world war. Two cities and two men fought it out: the unnamed tyrant in Berlin, and Winston Churchill in London.
Presidents seated in Washington D.C. have taken a number of cities over the decades: Tokyo, Pyongyang, Moscow during the Cold War, Hanoi, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, and now Moscow again. Without fail, it is West vs. East. Now, it is Biden in Washington D.C. and Putin in Moscow.
Or rather, it is Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, in Ukraine, and Putin in Moscow.
Zelenskyy and his fellow Ukrainians are fighting for their land, their government, their people. He and they are caught in the crosshairs of that ideological battle between East and West. Who will win?
When given a choice, common and ordinary people will, for the most part, choose West thinking, the way the ancient Greeks thought and played, but certain leaders are often driven to consolidate their positions of power and beat down all threats to their authority and rule, the East way of thinking.
Hamilton wrote, “The East found a way to endure the intolerable.” She also wrote, “The spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is a Greek discovery,” and like a magnet that spirit attracts free-thinking people all over the world, both from East and West.