Culture and Nationhood in the World of Herodotus: An Evolutionary Analysis, Part 4

Maladaptive Culture: Herodotus on Luxury, Effeminacy, and Decadence

The ancients considered the maintaining of martial virtue and hardiness to be a supreme imperative—not surprising given that if any frailty led to defeat, one’s people could not only lose their self-government, but their very existence. Like Homer and Plato, Herodotus has much to say on the perils of luxury, effeminacy, and decadence. Herodotus is acutely aware of the fragility of nations and civilizations. He says at the beginning of the Histories:

I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place. (1.5)

Herodotus suggests a cycle of rise and fall of civilizations: as one becomes wealthy and powerful, one tends to lose over the generations the manly virtue which made this possible, becoming at once effeminate and arrogant. This cycle of decadence, which was later famously analyzed by the Andalusian historian Ibn Khaldun, is a common feature of human history. Moderns are apt to forget that until quite recently primitive and nomadic virile barbarians periodically conquered more culturally advanced but decadent sedentary civilizations. One need only mention the ancient Germans, Huns, Vikings, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols.

Herodotus’ characters repeatedly comment on the debilitating effects of luxury and effeminacy, in a word, of being over-civilized. The Persians’ rise to power in the century prior to Herodotus’ writing is explained by their initial Spartan-like ruggedness and simplicity, while their decline is due to their indulgence in comfort and wealth since the passing of Cyrus the Great in 530 BC. Overly rich and arrogant empires seeking ever-more land repeatedly come to grief by attacking impoverished but still-manly free peoples.[1]

The Greeks are famously said to be a free people though “poverty” is always with them, overcoming their enemies through courage, intelligence, and adherence to law (7.102). The Spartans, who had an extremely simple diet whose staple was a black broth, are said to have laughed upon being shown a magnificent Persian meal. The Spartan king Pausanias is supposed to have said: “how stupid the Persian king is. Look at the way he lives and then consider that he invaded our country to rob us of our meager portions!” (9.82). For the Greeks, freedom was synonymous with the manly virtue necessary to ensure secure against hostile powers. Conversely, the Ionian Greeks under Persian rule are repeatedly shamed for their supposed effeminacy, making them fit to be slaves rather than free men.

Interestingly, Herodotus explicitly mentions a case of a hostile ruling elite consciously promoting maladaptive, feminizing culture among their subjects in order to reduce their power of resistance. Fearing that Cyrus would completely destroy his rebellious Lydian subjects, their former king, Croesus, advised the following:

You can be lenient towards the Lydians and still issue them a directive to ensure that they never rebel and are no threat to you. Send a message that they are forbidden to own weapons of war, that they are to wear tunics under their coats and slippers on their feet, to raise their sons to be retailers. Before long, my lord, you will see them become women instead of men, and so there will be no danger of them rising up against you. (1.155)

Cyrus agreed to these measures. Thus, the conqueror might not necessarily exterminate the conquered biologically, but ruin them culturally.

Significantly, Herodotus concludes his Histories with a flashback warning from Cyrus the Great. The King was advised to move away from his current rugged territory to one of the more gentle regions of the Persian Empire. Herodotus says:

Cyrus was not impressed with the proposal. He told them to go ahead—but he also advised them to be prepared, in that case, to become subjects instead of rulers, on the grounds that soft lands tend to breed soft men. It is impossible, he said, for one and the same country to produce remarkable crops and good fighting men. . . . they chose to live in a harsh land and rule rather than to cultivate fertile plains and be others’ slaves. (9.122)

The message could not be clearer: a prosperous and civilized people is precisely the most vulnerable to creeping weakness—a message that resonates today as the West is suffering population replacement by Africans, Muslims, and Mestizos as a result of the treason of our hostile elites. Herodotus says elsewhere, though admittedly in a context referring to oracles and religious omens: “There are invariably warning signs given when disaster is going to overwhelm a community or a race” (6.27).

Conclusion: King Nomos’ Children

The Histories deliver a bounty of information on the ancient world eminently compatible with an evolutionary perspective. We comfortable moderns can never be reminded enough of the violence and desperation of the struggle for existence in past times. A man’s livelihood was his land, and stability and law were often nowhere to be found. In this brutal environment, one lost battle against foreign invaders could make the difference between freedom and slavery, life and extermination. If one were not exterminated, being conquered meant, at the least, the end of a people’s self-determination, their ability to decide their own way of life.[2] In this context of constant struggle, one would expect peoples with maladaptive cultures—cultures which do not promote the survival and reproduction of the individual and the group—to be gradually replaced by peoples with adaptive cultures.

What, however, are the traits of an adaptive culture? I propose that an adaptive culture must:

  • Hold a powerful sway over the society;
  • Be able to maintain itself in the face of both time and foreign influence;
  • Put a supreme value on kinship, both familial and ethnic, as reflecting relative genetic similarity;
  • Create a solidary in-group (with eventual assimilation of genetically-close, reciprocating, and compatible out-groups);
  • Promote reproduction;
  • Promote martial prowess and manliness.

By this definition, many of the traits of traditional cultures can be identified as evolutionarily adaptive. Reverence for ancestral tradition, cultural chauvinism, in-group loyalty, familial and ethnic solidarity, a religious duty of reproduction, and the shaming of effeminacy in males are extremely common among traditional cultures across the world, not least in the cultures described by Herodotus. Much of what liberals and Marxists condemn as purely arbitrary and oppressive is revealed to have an evolutionary logic in that much in these cultures clearly promoted the survival and flourishing of the peoples who bore them.

With Herodotus, we see that circumstances change but certain fundamental laws remain. Tribalism and love of kin are as old as humanity itself. The history of the human species is that of the rise and fall of nations and civilizations—more prosaically, the spread and recession of genetic and cultural memes. At the very beginnings of recorded history, Herodotus himself is acutely conscious that values and habits of weakness can lead to the fall of one’s people. The struggle within a people’s soul between manly virtue and luxurious decadence goes back at least to the dawn of civilization.

[1] Examples include:

  • The kingdom of Lydia was quite wealthy and decided to attack the virtuous Persia of Cyrus’s early reign, whose food consisted “of what they can get, not what they might want, because of the ruggedness of their land” (1.155).
  • The Persian attack on the Massagetae, a Scythian people who would defeat and behead Cyrus: “a Persian-style good life and anything approach real luxury is, I hear, something with which the Massagetae have no acquaintance or familiarity” (2.207).
  • During Cambyses’ failed invasion of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian king gave the Persian king a longbow saying: “When the Persians can draw bows of this size as easily as I do now, then he can march against the long-lived Ethiopians” (3.21).

[2] The Jews and the Gypsies are of course spectacular exceptions in this respect, having proven capable of maintaining their identity, culture, and in-group loyalty as minorities in other societies. Most human populations, however, evidently require sovereignty over their own territory to maintain their way of life and identity.

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