Are we children of the land or children of the sea? This may be an odd question to ask, especially in our modern malaise which is so thoroughly detached from the deep insights of ancient mythology, from the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh to Homer and beyond. After all, Aristotle said that the “love of myth is also the lover of wisdom.”
Mytho-ontology is the study of the relationship between mythology and ontology, especially as it relates to elemental ontology (it may also go by the name elemental ontology). Thales, the most famous pre-Socratic philosopher, declared that all the world was water. What he meant by that was that not only is water the springboard from which everything else emanated from, including land which rested above the water, but that water as the first principle of existence also meant that everything was in a constant state of change and nothing was orderly: For water is always in a state of flux and a constant threat to orderly life on land. In the larger elemental sense that Thales was drawing from land, indeed, sits atop the water which can burst forth at any moment. For the central claim of Thales was that land was no guarantor of order.
Perhaps the most common of the ancient myths is the wrestling of the gods in order to bring about the creation of humanity. The chaos god or goddess, generally of the sea, is confronted by a land god so that order can come to the world whereby humanity can toil away as slaves of the gods or be free to flourish and multiply. Perhaps the most famous of those stories is captured in the Enuma Elish where Marduk fires an arrow into the mouth of Tiamat to slay her, and from her blood he mixes it with the clay of the earth to form humanity. And while the Genesis account is much more calm, the struggle against Leviathan is not lost to the Psalmist who praises God in declaring “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.”
The ancient mythological accounts are clear as to what element humanity belongs to: the clay of the earth. There is a perpetual fear, however, that the firmament above and the land beneath our feet will collapse at any moment and the chaos monsters will return to wreak a terrible vengeance upon mankind.
The question of land and sea is one, in history and politics especially, that can be definitely traced back to Thucydides. In that most dense of ancient texts, Thucydides highlights the role of land and water to explain the alliances and political motivations of Greek city-states. Sparta, the great land power, seeks alliances from other land powers. Athens, the great sea power, seeks alliances from other sea powers. The very genesis of the war is one in which a land power (backed by Sparta) and a sea power (which comes begging to Athens) are embroiled in a conflict with each other: Corinth and Corcyra respectively. Thucydides recounts the debate before Athens in which the Corcyraean representatives implore Athens that it is in their interest to come to their aid because, “we are, after you, the greatest naval power in Hellas.” The Corinthian representatives, in their rebuttal, even attack this geopolitical connection by arguing that Athens shouldn’t be tempted by the fact that Corcyra is offering them a “great naval alliance.”
Even the most famous dialogue of the History of the Peloponnesian War has land and sea geopolitics at its core: the Melian Dialogue. Melos was an island nation, which made it a natural sea power. Athens, of course, was the greatest of the sea powers.
Part of the dialogue includes a penetrating commentary on the nature of self-interest and self-preservation. In other words, Melos needs to come to terms with the fact that it is a polity of the sea precisely because it is an island nation. Thus, it is in their interest—and would only be natural—to join with Athens. The inability of Melos to recognize this, Thucydides suggests, is part of the reason for Melos’s inevitable destruction. The Melian representatives placed their hope in Sparta and chance. Sparta, as a land power, was not capable of coming to the aid of Melos. And chance is no foundation by which politics should rest on. Melos was a sea power trying to align herself with the land power—as such, she was irrational in her actions when she should have naturally joined Athens as part of the sea power alliance. The Athenian representatives are upfront about why they came to the island nation in the first place, and why it is they don’t concern themselves with the neutral land powers.
But why was Athens, as Pericles so poetically states, a city open to the world? Athens was open to the world precisely because she was a sea power. Her merchants travelled afar, courageously exploring and taming the wild seas and bringing back goods from faraway lands as a result of their daunting heroism. Even in Book I, part of the Athens’s exceptionalism was her heroism and bravery on the sea—not in just defeating Persia, but in the very conflict that humans have with the sea. After all, Homer and Virgil go to great lengths in showing what dangers the sea poses to humans travelling on it. Heroism and audacity are necessary when one travels the domain of Leviathan. And so it is, Pericles tells all of Athens, that it is because of her openness and heroism that “she deserves to be admired.”
Yet, as Thucydides informs us at other stages of the History, Athens’s sought expansion of her empire from Ionia to Libya, and from Sicily to Carthage. The city that is open to the world can never have enough and always seeks to transform the world so that it becomes a mirror image of itself. The sea knows of no boundary, and neither did Athens in seeking the consummation of her supposedly just empire because she had acquired it in coming to the defense of Greece in her time of need. This is one of the greater tragedies and ironies of sea powers, despite their pretension to openness, tolerance, and commercialism, from Athens to the great empires that stretched across the seas of just the last century, the sea peoples always engage in imperialism. “Enough” is never enough. The sea always beckons one for more. It was Athens’s dream of consummating an empire across the Mediterranean that was the real cause of the war.
If man’s historical mode of existence is the land then to become a people of the seas is tantamount to a rejection of what it means to be human. It is the greatest sin man can engage in as it is a rejection of who he is. From the dust of the earth man came and to the dust of the earth man shall return.
The contest between land and sea people is a recurrent theme in ancient history: From the sea peoples invading Egypt and the Levant during the Bronze Age collapse, Carthage and Rome during the Punic Wars, Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars, and the Byzantines and Arabs during Late Antiquity. Carthaginian domination of the Western Mediterranean became something they were willing to defend. Having conquered the sea and establishing its vast commercial network, the intrusion of foreign merchants and ships into their tamed sea was met with hostility. While the First Punic War was something of a tragic accident between Carthage and Rome both of whom got embroiled in local Sicilian disputes, but the effects had profound consequences.
Roman continental dominance meant that Carthage looked to her navy to secure her interests against the Romans. The Romans, humiliated at Lipari, understood that they could not match the Carthaginians in naval warfare. Their expertise, as a land power, was land warfare. What followed at Mylae was not a conventional naval battle at all. The Romans deployed ships with bridges that would latch onto an enemy ship which would permit the Roman soldiers to cross over and fight the Carthaginian sailors as if they were fighting on land. Rome’s “naval” triumph was really a land victory fought atop the waves of the Mediterranean.
The Punic Wars transformed the Roman state. From a great land power Rome slowly transformed in a sea power. This was reflected in the declaration of the “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea), and a change in Rome’s founding mythology which coincided with the transition of land based republic to sea-going empire: Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas, after all, is introduced on the seas of the Mediterranean fleeing a destroyed Troy and having to overcome the hardships of the sea fostered by the malevolent jealously of Juno. Aeneas may have conquered Latium and slaughtered Turnus on the plains of Italy, but he began as a child of the sea just as Rome was now the great sea power having displaced Carthage.
Of course, the turning to being children of the sea meant that the Romans set their sights outward for greater plunder and domination. The sea invites conquest; it beckons the heroism of men to tame her and claim her as her own. Adventure and conquest are the consequences of becoming people of the sea, not to mention a vengeful jealously and militancy in guarding the sea once it has been tamed from those who seek to wrestle it away from you. The sea tempts man’s fallen nature, his ego and pride, to be the god who triumphs over the chaos monster and enthrones himself at the head of the pantheon. The sea offers to feed one’s boastful pride above all else.
But the sea belongs to empty nothingness; it is the void that the Spirit had to calm before calling the order of the earth into existence. The conquest of the sea, then, takes on quasi-theological temptation in man seeing himself as the Spirit from which creative order and flourishing flows. But if the sea is a void of nothingness, man’s attempt to satiate his pride and ego by becoming a child of the sea is that he falls into nothingness. Only conquest and domination can follow, as has been the tragedy of sea powers throughout history.
Athens, for whatever nobility and romanticism one likes to give her, became an imperial power that pushed for war with Sparta to consummate an empire across the eastern and central Mediterranean (and perhaps beyond). Rome transitioned from land republic to sea-going empire, brutalizing those whom it subjugated and harshly crushing opposition to her rule. England too, despite the Whig mentality of glossing over this fact, established the Atlantic Slave Trading network and her ships which ruled the waves would bomb the harbors and ports of any power that didn’t repay their loans to the British Crown. The conquest of the sea demands infinite power, the destruction of nature to provide the tools and technology to control that which had been said to be uncontrollable, to be people of the sea is to embrace libido dominandi and veil it behind noble and heroic rhetoric just as Pericles’ funeral eulogy does, and the lyrics to “Rule Britannia.”
But the conscious mythmaking of Virgil’s Aeneid is not the only pristine example of a change in world historical being. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest of the German romantic poets, altered that picture of the sea. “Those who have never seen themselves surrounded on all sides by the sea can never possess an idea of the world, and of their relation to it.” That master of the German peoples also declared, contrary to the ancient mythologists, “Deep quiet rules the waters; motionless, the sea reposes, and the boatsman looks about with alarm at the smooth surfaces about him. No wind comes from any direction! A deathly, terrible quiet! In the vast expanse not one wave stirs.”
Goethe fundamentally altered the portrait of the sea from that chaotic force and void of nothingness to that gentle calm, full of beauty, inviting contemplation, and implying that those who have never seen the sea and looked over its great horizon have no knowledge of what it means to be human. One can forgive Goethe for his poetic romanticism in which the landlocked German looked over to England and France and saw their great outstretched arms spanning the globe across multiple continents with free exchange and travel open to those who could afford it. The sea offered to man a new beginning.
And yet, not all of the German Romantics shared Goethe’s sentiments. Johann Fichte, that unfortunate middle-man philosopher between Kant and Hegel, wrote an important treatise on political economy called The Closed Commercial State (Der geschlossene Handelsstaat). If Goethe looked over to Britain and saw a civilization he envied for its promises of offering humanity a new path of being – a secularized hope of redemption – Fichte looked over to Britain and saw Leviathan spreading its tentacles around the globe and threatening the land people everywhere those tentacles reached.
Rather than embrace becoming a people of the sea Fichte offered a dialectical alternative; the antithesis to the sea-going thesis. The Germans are people of the land, they should be people of the land, and Fichte was offering to Germany the path forward to becoming the great land power to challenge Britain who was the great sea power. Fichte, during his time in Berlin after being ousted from the University of Jena, also had the ear of the Prussian finance minister Carl August von Struensee to whom his aforementioned work was dedicated to.
Fichte felt that nations had to find their natural geographical boundaries. From there they could pool their labor sources and work the land, be attached to the land, implant deep and fertile roots in the land, from which the wellspring of pure civilization would commence. Martin Heidegger’s conception of deep indwelling is very Fichtean in its understanding in some respects. The idea of Kultur, that “pure” civilization of the Germans with its deep rootedness was Heidegger’s fusion of Fichte’s earthly politics with Friedrich Schelling’s naturphilosophie.
But this is not to eulogize people of the land who are just as capable (as history has also shown) to be cruel oppressors and tyrants in their own right. But the breadth of the land only goes so far. And the land has been apportioned to many tribes and peoples who often have a certain recognition of the other’s spatial territoriality. After all, as the Israelites crossed over into Canaan God decreed to them not to move the boundary stones of their neighbors (Deut. 19:14).
Fichte’s antithesis to the openness of sea-power was but a re-rendering of the ancient dialectic between land and sea. What the land offers, what land power embodies, is an orderliness and stability from which life can emerge and flourish with a certain elimination of the anxieties that plagued early humans concerning the imminent rupture of the firmament above and giving way of the ground below to deluge. What the sea power embodies is a return to the chaos of the old sea monsters—coming forth and bursting down those walls erected by the spatial revolution. Thus, the old anxieties of humanity are opened anew.
America as a great continental power or a great sea power is a driving wedge in American culture, life, and politics whether people realize it or not. Did America begin as a people of the land or sea? What is her relationship to the world that abounds around her?
The question of Manifest Destiny in America history was really a question of whether America was going to be a nation of the land or a nation of the sea. Indeed, part of the split between Jefferson and Hamilton was in their perceptions of the American people and their relationship to the rest of the continent. Jefferson, ever the agrarian and intellectual of the people of land, saw the westward frontier as a beacon for democracy and the industrious yeoman whom Jefferson called the “chosen people of God, if ever he had chosen a people” in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The American continent was virgin and fertile, uncorrupted, the solid ground on which the experiment of American democratic self-rule would flourish. The task of the American government, in Jefferson’s eyes, was to aid the great and vast multitude of yeoman and frontier pioneers who stake their fortunes and lives in laboring the land.
Hamilton, on the other hand, saw America’s future contained to the coasts—and in particular, the major commercial hubs and seafaring centers: Boston, New York, Philadelphia. America already had what she needed, now she needed to spread her tentacles far and wide. Protection of nascent industry would eventually give way to an Americanized version of the British trading network. Hamilton’s vision was the quintessential embodiment of “kicking down the ladder.” America would be a people of the sea, conquering vast swaths of the tumultuous horizon with her gallantry and audacity. To be people of the sea would demand industrialization, technological innovation, a rigorous merit system, and the onslaught of financiers would be unleashed. The American government should be primarily concerned with such things and such people instead of the frontier farmer and pioneering pilgrim whom Frederick Jackson Turner—in embodying the Jeffersonian ideal—considered the main engine of American democracy.
The ramifications of land and sea impacts community to the extreme. People of the land, in their attachment to the land which raised them and nurtured them, would be instinctively patriotic. Patriotism, the love of the fatherland, is agrarian in its nature. It is, literally, the love of the land which nurtures you and becomes a sort of adopted mother or father. People, attached to the land, would grow bonds with one another in common goal and common good.
People of the sea, in their attachment to the horizon, are instinctively self-centered and self-glorifying just as the Athenians were in the proud boosts of having contributed the most to the war effort against Persia and that it was through their primary leadership that Persia was defeated and the empire she acquired therefore just. The need of technology to tame the seas ensured a technologized alienation from nature. It would drive men mad in pursuit of their self-interest and glory, much like Ahab in Moby-Dick. All of the machinery and tools of man are needed in the conquest of the open sea which also reduces humanity to commodities in this grand endeavor. As Ahab hauntingly proclaimed, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” But as the people of the sea set forth into that stormy horizon that called them—unlike Goethe’s calm sea—they would turn their back to the land which they and their families had treaded.
American politics, in some sense, always oscillated between this geopolitical division and dream established by Jefferson and Hamilton. Westward over the hills and land? Or eastward across the Atlantic back to Europe? Was America to be a continental “empire of liberty” as Jefferson famously expressed in a letter to George Clark, or was America to be a modeled imitation of the British Empire as Hamilton hoped? To whom was the American government primarily going to serve: The laborers of the land or the merchants and bankers whose hands and pockets were fed from across the sea? Is America the city on her hill, or is she the noble crusader bringing the gospel of capitalism, democracy, and liberty to faraway lands and awakening the sleeping multitudes of oppressed peoples everywhere to their hopes and dreams?
What the Punic Wars had done for Rome the Second World War did for America. The chance to reset history—to forge a new destiny and decide a new mode of existence was offered up to America in much the same way too that Athens was handed her seafaring empire. America, of course, chose to become a nation of the sea. Isolationism, laborism, and “America First” were rejected. The coasts, and especially the West Coast, would be the new nexus of the new American nation. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. would become the centers of the world, bypassing London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin in the process; the tentacles of Leviathan would spread from these new cities to the rest of the world.
And this is what the Second World War thrust upon America. The great sea powers had dissipated: Britain in the Europe and Japan in Asia. Land powers still abounded: Soviet Union and China in Europe and Asia respectively. Just as history has had the dialectic between land and sea America had become the antithesis to the remaining land powers on both continents – thereby shedding her continental past and transforming into the new great Leviathan. Those old school conservatives from the heartland, and even those mid-century progressives from the Mountain West, were all condemned as fellow travelers or closet communists and contesting that America should remain a people of the land rather than a people of the sea. The new establishment of the sea, which had finally defeated its land nemeses because of the war, would have none of it for their moment of destiny had arrived at long last.
This moves us to the final point concerning the dialectic of land and sea. There are two civilizational archetypes: land (i.e. continental) and sea (i.e. marine). Continental civilization tends to be conservative; orderly, rooted, agrarian and industrious, aristocratic, filial. Marine civilization tends to be “liberal”; open, expansive, adventurous, commercial, individualistic, meritocratic. Much of history is moved by the clash of land and sea, continental and marine civilizations and polities. This is not always the case as marine civilizations sometimes clash with each other as do continental polities clash with each other; but it is often the case that the two come into conflict—especially when one tries to become like the other or the other is a barrier to the other.
Sparta was the land power of ancient Greece. Her allies were also the great continental polities of the Peloponnese. Athens was the great sea power of ancient Greece. Her allies were generally the marine polities. After all, Corcyra came to Athens on the pretense of it being in Athens’ interest to align with her struggle for independence against Corinth. Corcyra was the second largest sea power in Greece at the time. Corinth a mighty land polity and ally of Sparta. Sparta and her land alliance stymied Athenian dreams of a marine empire stretching from the coast of Turkey through the eastern Mediterranean: The Aegean, Libya, Sicily, and even Carthage.
As Rome transformed from continental to sea polity the inevitability of conflict with Carthage sealed the destiny of both powers. Rome became the great sea power—mare nostrum, “our sea”—after their long and brutal victory. Carthage, having lost her initial maritime advantage, tried to outfight Rome on land but to no avail. Hannibal could not capitalize on his victories because Carthage, as a sea power at heart, could never defeat Rome at Rome’s own game. Roman manpower and military professionalism dwarfed Carthage’s semi-professional army dependent upon foreign mercenaries. And anyone who has read Machiavelli knows that polities dependent upon foreign mercenaries will never defeat a polity drawing its military from its own committed citizenry.
In some ways the recent upheavals to the American political system is the new contest of land and sea mixed with the increasing anxiety of the degradation of the spatial revolution due to technological advancements breaking down old walls, immigration and globalization only putting further pressure on the land as if the firmament above and the ground below is ready to give way at any moment. Where is the katechon that holds back the tides and sea monsters from overwhelming the clay of the earth?
This reality animates the elemental dialectical politics of the United States. The interior heartlands, even in states that boarder the coast (like interior California or New York), exhibit the politics of land: generally traditional, isolationist, and integralist. The coastal regions, and the transnational cities that are effectively coastal through global financial networking connecting them outward (Chicago being a perfect example), exhibit the politics of the sea: always transforming, internationalist, and “open.”
What modernity hath wrought is the destruction of the spatial revolution that humans had become busily engaged in constructing and taking part in for tens of thousands of years. It has expelled man from his garden naked and made him angst-ridden. Away with clay and up with the sea! But where does the sea end? The sea opens up to the possibility of the boundless cosmopolitan maritime utopia—the New Atlantis. Coincidentally, it is also the maritime cities—or the global maritime city—which is so fervent in its support for the global, cosmopolitan, and multicultural city too. But not everyone lives in a maritime city, not everyone is a child of the sea, even if most elites and educated persons are.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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