Saturday, June 09, 2007


The Anabasis of Decision Making

By John Taylor; 2007 June 09

Somebody in an Internet discussion group, talking about how useful studying the classics is to the training of a modern military officer, lately wrote:

"`The March of Ten Thousand', also known as the `Anabasis', one can read the incredible story of a rear-guard action unfolding over a period of many months through hostile terrain, circa 400 B.C.. The leadership by Zenophon was nothing short of amazing. Here too, strategic principles are imparted."

I have been listening to an audio book reading of the Anabasis in a modern translation over the past few days and I could not agree more with that assessment, except maybe his calling it a "rear-guard action." What happened was not precisely a rear guard action; it was hair-raising adventure on a colossal scale. Some director should invest a few hundred million dollars and turn this into a sword and sandal epic, for this adventure is gripping and hair-raising, as worthy as any of a modern retelling. It is the story of a would-be Captain Kirk on a five year mission of exploration, plunder and profit, which suddenly turned into Star Trek Voyager.

The Ten Thousand Hellenic mercenaries, who had come to help out Cyrus the Great deal with a challenge to his rule, were suddenly stuck after Cyrus was accidentally killed and the political situation reversed itself. Here they were, friendless, foreign, lost, on the other side of the galaxy -- okay, it was really the middle of the Persian Empire, right where Baghdad stands today, between the Tigris and Euphrates river. They had vast tracts of hostile territory to cross peopled by dozens of strange peoples (some of whom were so weird that they enlisted their women to fight as soldiers along with men in their defense), none of whom was all that friendly to a large number of hungry men constantly looking for provisions to survive. They had nothing to get them home to Greece but their own determination. The author was Zenophon; we on the Badi list know him well as the dirty street urchin who was picked out of the gutter by Socrates and transformed by the greatest teacher in history into one of the most eloquent speakers, writers, generals and men of action of all time.

Zenophon had asked Socrates whether he should go on this expedition, and he was advised to consult the oracle. He did, but he phrased the question in such a way that no matter what it said, he would still be going. Typical young whippersnapper. What surprised me, having read the introductions to the Anabasis, was that Zenophon did not start off as a general. He just came along for the ride and to get a hand in the booty. He was mostly an observer and adviser until the boot of fate swung in and knocked him into a position of leadership.

It happened this way.

Not long after Cyrus had been killed in battle, Cyrus's surviving rival showed himself extremely suspicious of this Greek mercenary force. He did not know what to do with them, and forbade them to move forward or back. A long, tense truce ensued. The treacherous Persian toyed with them and finally tricked the generals into a parley, where he had them all murdered. The expectation was that cutting off the head would spell doom for the body of the army. He did not reckon that there would be a former student of Socrates among them. The men were demoralized and lay around in a torpor, ready to be tortured and killed by a vengeful enemy. They would have been soon enough, but Zenophon stood up and gave them a speech that even if you hired a script writer with the eloquence of Shakespeare I doubt if it could be much improved upon.

From then on Zenophon lends the contentious Hellenes in spirit, if not always outwardly. More experienced generals take them through the many battles, but always with Zenophon's advice, example and assistance. He is so eloquent, intelligent and capable a leader that he would put to shame any of our present politicians. He was what they now call a "sparkplug," somebody behind the scenes who makes things happen. But one thing distinguishes his thought from the best of modern thinkers: divination.

Everything had to have an augury. And birds enter into it.

By a linguistic fluke the Greek word "Oionos" means both "lone flying bird" and "omen." Thus if you saw a bird flying by itself, it was a portent of things to come. I do not know if you have noticed this too, but birds tend to fly alone. A lot. If I were to take every lone flying bird as an indication of what decision to take, I would probably do things very differently. Nor I would derive comfort from my insights into what is to come; in fact I would be confused most of the time.

Anyway, after many trials, much betrayal and infighting, finally it began to look like the men were going to elect Zenophon general for good. But in order for him to accept, he had to consult the auguries to see if the gods wanted this to happen. The voting was about to be taken. Here is how he describes what happened next (the original was written anonymously in the third person; the audio book changes it to the first person, which is I think a good idea. This etext keeps it as written.),

"These and the like considerations elated him; he had a strong desire to hold the supreme command. But then again, as he turned the matter over, the conviction deepened in his mind that the issue of the future is to every man uncertain; and hence there was the risk of perhaps losing such reputation has he had already acquired. He was in sore straights, and, not knowing how to decide, it seemed best to him to lay the matter before heaven. Accordingly, he led two victims to the altar and made sacrifice to Zeus the King, for it was he and no other who had been named by the oracle at Delphi, and his belief was that the vision which he had beheld when he first essayed to undertake the joint administration of the army was sent to him by that god."

"He also recalled to mind a circumstance which befell him still earlier, when setting out from Ephesus to associate himself with Cyrus; -- how an eagle screamed on his right hand from the east, and still remained perched, and the soothsayer who was escorting him said that it was a great and royal omen; indicating glory and yet suffering; for the punier race of birds only attack the eagle when seated. `Yet,' added he, `it bodes not gain in money; for the eagle seizes his food, not when seated, but on the wing.'"

The particular way that Zenophon arrived at his opinion that the gods did not favor his taking the generalship at that time certainly seems strange to the modern mind, but are we that more assured? Do we know any better whether one choice will lead to disaster or good fortune? No. We are making decisions all the time, whether we realize it or not. The Qu'ran points this out fairly often,

"For the day of decision! and what shall make thee know what the decision is? Woe on that day for those who say it is a lie!" (Qur'an 77, E.H. Palmer tr)

As do the earlier prophets,

"Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of Yahweh is near, in the valley of decision." (Joel 3:14, WEB)

A social worker last year interviewed Silvie, eleven years old at the time, and asked a standard question: what would you do if two friends had a dispute and each had equal claim to a given toy, and they asked you to decide between them? Needless to say, if you asked Zenophon that question he would look up to see if there is an Oionos in the sky. Silvie's answer was, "I would flip a coin." The social worker was impressed, but I answered that I had taught her that, and the Bible in turn had taught me. Casting lots is the most ancient alternative to divination, and it still has its uses, even today. God is every bit as capable of confirming decisions based upon randomness as reasoned ones, especially since our reason is finite, and most often flawed anyway. The Bible says,

"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from Yahweh." (Prov 16:33, WEB)

Zenophon does not tell us what the "two victims" were that sacrificed before calling upon Zeus for a ruling, whether they were Oionos, chickens, goats or what. But sacrificing was definitely part of the process of arriving at a decision. It sanctified it, cleared the mind, or so it was thought. Sounds cruel, but you can bet that we sacrifice far more animals per capita today than the Ancients ever did, and our reasons are utterly frivolous. We kill them not to find out the future but for profit and pleasure.

Zenophon's idea that animals have to die to help us make the right choice reminded me of something I had just read in Robert Stockman's "Baha’i Faith in America."

In the early chapters of this history Stockman aims to point out to us arrogant contemporary believers that the first Baha'is were not the primitive ignoramuses that we think. Thanks to a strict Protestant upbringing, they prayed more and longer than we do now. True, they got the first obligatory prayer, a new, inadequate translation of the medium obligatory prayer, and through a misunderstanding thought that you are supposed to say it in the morning. But they also learned of the Law of the Aqdas that requires repetition of the Greatest Name 95 times every day, and they actually followed it; this is something that many Baha'is today seem to honor more in the breach than the observance, even after the House made it a law at the turn of the millennium.

In any case, after the defection of Kheiralla, the American believers were in disarray, and the Master sent some relatively learned Iranian believers to give them some coaching. Of them, Stockman writes,

"Persians gave interpretations of Christian subjects that usually ignored the Christians' centuries of discussion of them and that pared a Christian doctrine down to the very core of its meaning." (Robert Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America, Vol. II, p. 42)

Among the first wave of these teachers was Mirza Asadu'llah, who arrived in 1900 and stayed 18 months. His lectures were perhaps the first pamphlets published by the new Chicago Publishing Trust. Here is part of one of these pamphlets, discussing the history of baptism, as exerpted by Stockman. This is what reminded me of Zenophon's hang-up for divination,

"... in the time of Abraham, baptism was instituted under the form of circumstances [circumcision], in the day of Moses it appeared in the form of sacrifices, in the ages of the Israelitish prophets it was anointing, and in the day of John the Baptist it consisted of bathing in water, in the day of Jesus Christ baptism was by the Spirit, during the age of Mohammed it was through reciting the Formula of Unity - 'There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet!' - and in the day of the First Point (the Bab) it was in sanctifying one's hearing, seeing and the whole body, heart and soul. But in the day of the Appearance of the Beauty of EI-Baha, the Greatest Manifestation, baptism was instituted under the form of sacrificing one's life in the Path of the Beloved of all creatures." (Id.)

I do not know by what authority Asadu'llah said this, or how historically accurate his thesis is. But it is an interesting idea that the animal sacrifices so common in prehistory were subsumed into later, more advanced religious practices, some of which have equivalents in laws of the Aqdas. Maybe, and this is just an idea, maybe we could say our 95 repetitions of the Greatest Name at the time when we are called upon to make that day's most important decision. Or our obligatory prayers. Why not? That way we could make prayer into a substitute for Zenophon's Oionos, an act of consecration designed to help us detect, when sufficiently sensitive, whether a choice of path is well or ill-omened.


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