Power, Knowledge and Virtue

I was working on a powerpoint presentation on the history of the Greek Revolution and came across the Memoirs of John Makriyiannis. This was an important fighter and leader who sacrificed everything for the cause of freeing Greece from its abominable Turkish tyrants.

Makriyiannis was illiterate. However, he had a broad knowledge of Greek and European history. He understood the value of being able to read and write. After the Greek Revolution and at age thirty-two, he mastered writing and reading primarily in order to tell us his story.

That story was the voice of an angry general who had won battles against the Turks, risen to the highest military ranks, and lived through the extreme humiliations of the Turkish tyrannical rule of his country. Furthermore, he was a witness of how the European powers treated Greeks and Turks.

He shamed the European states for siding with the Turkey in the early 1820s: perpetually bringing food and ammunition to Turkish troops in forts surrounded by winning Greek irregulars. He said imagine in those early winning years, 1821 to 1823, where would the Greek fighters be if only European states had not been supplying the Turks with food and weapons.

Makriyiannis reminded the Europeans that ancient Greeks had stripped men of evil and dressed them with virtue. So, he wondered, why would these European pupils of ancient Greeks not be grateful and, at least, help the fighting descendants of ancient Greeks.

Makriyiannis was not entirely right. The European Great Powers did sign on Greek  freedom. In 1827, the combined fleets of Russia, France and England smashed the warships of Turkey and Egypt in the Bay of Navarino in Peloponnesos, thus assuring the independence of Greece.

Greeks dressed men with knowledge and virtue

Despite the Greek Revolution, European scholars in early nineteenth century were, in fact, devoting lots of energy in studying and appropriating classical Greece. They and educated politicians knew of Greek achievements. Makriyiannis was telling the truth. Ancient Greeks had dressed men with knowledge and virtue.

However, with the exception of a few intellectuals, neither knowledge nor virtue had changed the European states to see the world differently. Selfishness and military power filled the brains of European leaders. They knew of the impoverished but heroic descendants of ancient Greeks. Ambassadors, merchants and spies reported on them.

Only Philhellenes were struck by the light of virtue. They joined the Greek fighters and fought against the Turks..

The European state agents who assisted Turkish soldiers in military forts besieged by Greeks fighting their War of Independence did not have the slightest interest in knowledge or virtue for guiding their policies. They probably had doubts the Greeks fighting the Turks were descendants of the ancient Greeks. Their sole preoccupation was temporary gains in their relations with Turkey and with each other.

Knowledge, virtue and power

This example illustrates the long struggle scholars and politicians have been having with knowledge, virtue and power. Why two-and-a-half millennia after Plato and Aristotle, who dressed men with virtue, men continue being indifferent to these noble ideals.

This is not because of lack of knowledge. If anything, knowledge is coming out of universities, research institutes, governments at an unprecedented rates. This knowledge congestion is forcing more and more specialization to the point specialists talk primarily to each other, remaining alien to society that pays them to keep splicing atoms and cells.

As a result of this willful ignorance, humanity as a whole is on an accelerated path to more wars, increased poverty, and possible catastrophes from environmental pollution, ecological impoverishment, animal and biological warfare pandemics, and consequences of climate change and, possibly, nuclear war.

Scholars from the Renaissance to our times have been preoccupied by this deadly dilemma. Hundreds of books try to make sense of this extraordinary reality: here we are knowing that, for example, the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change and very possibly our death and extinction, and, yet, the world is moving silently on the path of petroleum suicide.

Why? Don’t we have the moral courage to resist the fossil fuel billionaires and their bought-and-sold politicians? Solar power is available and, in contrast to fossil fuels, it is forever.

A Greek-American engineer, Themi Demas, is returning to Renaissance thinkers and other modern experts in support of his marvelous if ancient suggestion that combining knowledge with virtue empowers humans for their own good and that of the natural world. This would be the ultimate answer for resolving the planet’s worst nightmares: climate change and nuclear war.

An engineer looks at our endangered world

Demas received his PhD in engineering from the University of Illinois. He worked for more than thirty-five years for the Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon) and Atmel, a semiconductor company, and other high technology companies. No doubt, working for these war companies changed his thinking about the conventional ways of how the world works.

A friend from Los Angeles, Peter Demopoulos, brought me in touch with Demas, saying I should read his book: With Knowledge and Virtue: To Save the Earth from Global Warming and Nuclear War.

The title of the book alone attracted me. Here’s a revisiting of all I had dome in the past several decades: Greek philosophy and science, Renaissance and modern thinkers interested in the Greek idea of using knowledge but guided by wisdom.

History of knowledge and progress

Demas starts his book with a review of the growth of knowledge by citing famous thinkers from the Renaissance to our times. His quotations alone are extremely telling of the human effort to understand the Greeks, even though these thinkers pretend originality in their seeing the world.

Despite what we like to believe about Western or other civilization, that process of creation has a long way to go.

In addition, Demas examines the idea of progress. I see progress as an illusion. He quotes Reason Awake, the 1970 book of R. Dubos in which Dubos admits that progress no longer has anything to do with an advanced degree in education, more refined tastes, or better health. Rather, progress is associated with more manufacture goods, weapons, or satellites circling the planet.

Climate change and nuclear weapons

“Two of our biggest threats,” Demas says, “are global warming and nuclear war, and we must eliminate these threats. Fortunately, cost-effective technology exists to reduce global warming, but we must be smart enough to use it.”

Demas avoids political power responsible for our present predicament, the force that wrecks the gears of a potential solar world.

He offers a detailed if conventional proposal for combating climate change. He wants “a more robust economy by creating jobs, eliminating oil imports, stabilizing energy prices, and cutting back on pollution and its detrimental effects on society-all by using clean, renewable energy.”

He speaks enthusiastically about an unstoppable revolution in renewable energy connected to the Sun: “Our thermonuclear reactor 92 million miles away.”

He is right that reducing the threat of nuclear war will require the taming of the savageness of man. He is certain that international institutions, cooperation, and a commitment to shared values are necessary for tackling nuclear weapons.

The importance of this book may not be in its specific proposals, but in the context it creates for understanding our world, not a small achievement. Demas read widely and spent five years writing this insightful and timely book. Read it.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.