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Reading J. E. Lendon's writerly Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (Basic Books, 2010) took me back to the eventful days of my youth at Price Elementary School, or rather to the large yard on which we had recess. We called it a "playground." But we did not play on it. We did battle.
We did not fight for treats or for love or for sport. These things were trivial to us. No, we fought for honor. One achieved honor not by getting good grades, or by having the best lunch, or by making the most friends. Everyone knew that these things were the spoils of honor, not the causes of it. Rather, one gained honor by physical intimidation and, if necessary, combat. Honor was fair: it paid regard to neither sex, nor race, nor class. Girls and boys, blacks and whites, rich and poor could all have whatever honor they could earn. But honor was also brutal: the strong and brave (or should we say "reckless") usually had it, while the weak and timid (or should we say "sensible") usually did not. Interestingly, the former did not "bully" the latter very often. At least at Price Elementary School, humiliating a much weaker opponent was considered, somehow, dishonorable. But among the strong and brave there were constant contests of honor, often violent. The "hegemons," if we may so speak, enjoyed high honor. But they also suffered from constant fear that they might lose it. And so anxious class champions would challenge one another, fight, and the victor would humiliate the vanquished ("Say 'uncle'!"). For the defeated party, eager to regain his or her honor, there was only one honorable course: revenge--swift, ruthless, and public.
So it went, day in and day out on the "playground" at Price Elementary School. And so it went, year in and year out, on the battlefields of fifth-century Greece.
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