I have been struggling with depression for much of the past week and probably for much longer than that if I am honest with myself. It’s not a debilitating depression. I can get out of bed. I can pursue my routines of reading, writing, walking, picture making, picture editing, and more. Still it’s a bit like I am moving through a viscous solution as I try to do these things.

Relative to Ukrainians, I have little to be depressed or anxious about, except, I feel deeply that their existential struggle is mine too. The loss of freedom they are threatened with is a loss I am being threatened with.

One of my prime thoughts this week is that the last seven years has been a firehose-shit-stream of angering, worrisome and depressing news. The most salient feature of this news has been the steady decline of Liberalism and Democracy and the steady rise of illiberal Authoritarian tendencies within the United States and around the globe. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it put an exclamation point on this trend towards Authoritarianism.

A vast struggle has broken out into the open in a dramatic way. There is no guarantee of the outcome, though, if we can avoid World War III, I am hopeful that Putin’s aggression will end with his loss of power and serve as a rebuke to Authoritarianism everywhere.

Among the many other thoughts revolving in my head these days:

  • Will it ever be possible to have a world free of nuclear sticks?
  • Is it possible to construct a world in which bullies don’t exist or can never acquire big sticks?

In The Greeks, H. D. F. Kitto describes the golden age of the Greek Polis, the pinnacle of which occurred in Athens towards the end of the 5th century BCE and lasted for a little more than 100 years. The Polis was a reasonably well balanced democratic organization of society where everyman’s opinion mattered, everyman’s participation was expected and status depended on the “excellence” of a man, not as determined by his wealth, but as determined by his character. One cannot overlook that there was slavery, limitations on the rights of foreign citizens and that women had no rights. But among the male citizens there was a relatively small (by today’s standards) distance between the wealthiest and poorest citizen, a common education around the principles of good character as illuminated by the Homeric epics and decision making by consensus. This is the foundational example of democracy, a more inclusive form of which Liberalism pursues today.

H. D. F. Kitto writes this in The Greeks:

It is an interesting, though idle, speculation, what would be the effect on us if all our reformers, revolutionaries, planners, politicians and life-arrangers in general were soaked in Homer from their youth up, like the Greeks. They might realize that on the happy day when there is a refrigerator in every home, and two in none, when we all have the opportunity of working for the common good (whatever that is), when Common Man (whoever he is) is triumphant, though not improved – that men will still come and go like the generations of leaves in the forest; that he will still be weak, and the gods strong and incalculable; that the quality of a man matters more than his achievement; that violence and recklessness will still lead to disaster, and that this will fall on the innocent as well as on the guilty. The Greeks were fortunate in possessing Homer, and wise in using him as they did.1

The truth is that humans get enough right about how to arrange and conduct themselves such that golden ages happen now and again, but, so far, only for brief periods of time. We seem only ever to glimpse utopia, never fully achieve it.

Heraclitus came closest to an accurate description of humankind’s condition, proclaiming fire to be the foundational element of the universe and that flux is the norm. He thought wars (fire) inevitable and even necessary as a change agent. History is a churning beast and nothing lasts for very long. What is good eventually becomes bad which eventually becomes good again.

I don’t know what Heraclitus would have though if nuclear weapons existed in his day. Would he still champion fire? What do we do with a bully carrying a nuclear stick? My deepest fear and sadness at the moment is that it is conceivable to me that the nuclear stick will get used. If not this time, then sooner or later.

Bertrand Russell2 points out in The History of Western Philosophy that since the time of the pre-socratic philosophers a main endeavor of religion and philosophy in the western world has been to establish something, anything, eternal and relevant to the condition of humankind. The nuclear stick is a definitive refutation that anything eternal for humankind exists.

Enter my sadness.

  1. Kitto, H.. The Greeks (Penguin History) (p. 64). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. ↩︎

  2. It is interesting to note that Russell and Kitto both published their books in the aftermath of the Second World War and they are both, to an extent, nostalgic lamentations through the vehicle of history. ↩︎