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Dr. Larry Arnn on Plutarch’s Comparison Of Lysander And Sulla

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HH: “And having finished in one hour a war, which had been protracted in its continuance and diversified in its incidents and its fortunes to a degree exceeding belief, compared with all before it. After the destruction of more commanders than all the previous wars of Greece put together, it was now put to an end by good counsel and a ready conduct of one man.” In one hour. So who is that man and what is that hour? Well, if you listen to the Hillsdale Dialogue today, you’ll find out it’s the weekly ascent into the higher realms with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his colleagues at the wonderful Hillsdale College. Dr. Arnn, a good summer afternoon to you.

LA: And to you, Hugh. How are you doing?

HH: Good. I have just spent the last hour talking to Davis Gaines, a man of great accomplishment in the American musical theater. I’m curious, does Hillsdale do much theater?

LA: We have a big drama department, and they put on three big plays and a bunch of little plays every year. And we’ve got several kids working in drama in their lives now who are graduates. And if you go and watch a movie, and you see lightning in the movie, the lightning was made by a Hillsdale graduate named David Pringle.

HH: Oh, that’s fun.

LA: His company is called Lightning Strikes. So like, go watch or think of the scenes in the movie where the guy, The Perfect Storm…

HH: Yeah.

LA: He did all the lightning, he basically does all the lightning.

HH: Oh.

LA: He invented the big, bright, amazing lights that can produce lightning in a film.

HH: Well then, I have a second question for you, which is also related to what just is going on today. The 50 most amazing college campuses for 2013 is a list over at Wonderful, beautiful Hillsdale is not on it, neither for that matter is Miami of Ohio, which I’ve always ranked as number three in the United States. These sorts of lists, though, are proliferating, Dr. Arnn. What do you make of such things?

LA: Well, there’s 2,000 colleges, and so you know, I’m in the commodity business. Just think, there are 450 congressmen, and they’re not all impressive. There are just too many of them. There are 2,000 college presidents. What are they like? What am I like? Yeah, so yeah, of course, people are interested in colleges, but for the same reason people are interested in the Hillsdale Dialogues. There’s beautiful stuff that goes on in the good ones. So yeah, of course, there’s a lot of lists. And also, people send their kids to them. That’s really important.

HH: Yes, and I just don’t like them being ranked so, well, haphazardly. No one could possibly have visited even a tenth of all of the colleges, which they then purport to rank.

LA: You know how the U.S. News rankings work? I think 25% of your grade is peer evaluation. And so they send college presidents and admissions officers lists every year. Not lists, they ask you to fill out to rank them all. Well, I don’t know them all, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: I can’t, I’m like anybody else. I can name a hundred, probably, because there are 50 that are named after states, and there are secondary ones, right? That’s a 100. And then I can probably name most of the Ivy League colleges, and then I can name the famous ones who are not Ivy League. I can name Hillsdale. Most people can. And I can name ones I’ve come in contact with, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And so I might get to 150.

HH: Yes.

LA: And so how can I rank them?

HH: You can’t. In fact, the picking has to be selective in any listing, like Plutarch’s lives, which we have spent many weeks in, and that he picks from every person who had lived before him, and he comes up with these 40 pairs of lives. And it’s a remarkable selection process, but it’s always somewhat random. Today, though, Dr. Arnn, you picked this pair, and I must say I’m pretty good on Sulla. I know Sulla well, in fact.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I don’t know much about Lysander, and I had forgotten what I knew, and it’s a pretty remarkable life.

LA: Amazing guy. Amazing guy. And more a mixed, like his evils are better offset with his virtues than, in my opinion, the case of Sulla. He was a heck of a guy, and he did, the battle you’re talking about, what happened to end the Peloponnesian war that lasted 27 years and destroyed Athens, and eventually destroyed Sparta, too, the victory is what destroyed Sparta. And Lysander had something to do with that. We’ll talk about that. It ended with a naval battle, because finally, Pericles was right when he said they’ll never beat us unless they can break our navy. And Lysander did that. And he did it by three means that are foreign to Sparta, which means he was changing Sparta. One means was he went and got a lot of money, and he got it into Sparta. And the Spartan code was money was heavy and made of iron, and treated with vinegar so that it would never become shiny. And it was, it took a lot of it to buy anything, because the Spartans wanted to discourage money. And because of the alliances he made and the conquest he and other Spartans made, Sparta became awash in money, and that changed things. The second thing was Lysander was a very clever and adaptable man, not the Spartan way. I want to say a word about the money. In one place, he took a lot of money, and he sent a hero home with it, and that hero is named Gylippus…

HH: Yes.

LA: And we talked about him, because he was the entire Spartan relief force that was sent to Syracuse to destroy the Athenian army, and he did that.

HH: He did that.

LA: And Gylippus was entrusted to bring home these riches, and darned if he didn’t get caught stealing some of it. So this man of incredible, and you know, it’s, what is it? Is it 2,600 years later?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And you know the name of Gylippus, and we’re talking about him today, and he did heroic and mighty deeds, and his life ended in disgrace because of money, which Lysander’s, by the way, did not.

HH: No, in fact, he was adjudged worthy of his poverty by his colleagues in Sparta when he died, and I guess they rummaged through the estate and they find he’s got nothing.

LA: Got nothing, and toward the end of his life, he was the most powerful man, Plutarch says, ever in Greece, to his time, and Alexander surpassed him, of course. But so people were courting him, and his daughters, and loved to…and then word got around that he didn’t seem to be as rich as he ought to be, and they started jilting his daughters. And so after he died and they discovered and proved that this rumor of poverty was in fact true, they fined all the people who had jilted his daughters.

HH: I put a note in the margin. It’s on the last page of Lysander, the poverty being discovered by his death made his merit more manifest. And I wrote in the margin, not L.B.J.

LA: Not L.B.J.

HH: Have you been to the Lyndon Baines Johnson ranch?

LA: I never have.

HH: Well, it is this vast expanse of land, and got money, obviously, elicited through a life in “public service”. And you know, this is not extraordinary anymore.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I don’t know if Lincoln, if Mrs. Lincoln went back to Illinois impoverished. I simply don’t know the biography. I know that Churchill always lived by writing and scrabble…you know, he did not, I don’t know if he ended up in near luxury or living off of the state or anything at the end. But this is relatively new.

LA: Yeah, Churchill at the end, Churchill made enormous amounts of money which he managed to spend almost entirely, mostly, working, living well, too. He had teams of secretaries, 16 hours a day, and people working all over his house all the time. And he worked and worked and worked, and he lived well. And then he lost lots of money in the American stock market twice, but Churchill, and then after the war, Churchill was a famous man, and Henry Luce paid him a million bucks for the serialization rights to the Second World War. And Churchill was pretty well to do. But he was also known as a man of great accomplishment, because you can only earn money by writing if people buy the writings.

HH: Yeah. Let me read for you a line of which I made a note about Churchill. This is early in the Lysander entry in Plutarch. “Aristotle, who says all great characters are more or less atrabilious as Socrates and Plato and Hercules were, writes that Lysander, not indeed early in life, but when he was old, became thus affected.” I had to look it up. And it’s melancholy-related.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: And I wrote down Churchill. Do you agree with that?

LA: Well, no, but with a caveat. Great men, you know, here’s what I think it means, and I’ll apply it to Churchill. Look at what Churchill achieved. It’s incredible what he achieved. But you know, a lot of it, as far as political career goes, he was close to achieving by the time he was 35 years old. And when he finally became prime minister, it was a desperate situation, he was 65, and the country might fall any day. And then, fought that great war and lost the election in 1945, later won and drove the socialists out for 20 years, and then he watched the rise of the Soviet Union. And so the last book, you know, the last famous book, some of the History of the English-Speaking Peoples actually came out later than this. But in the last volume of the Second World War is called Triumph And Tragedy. And that means his book title ends with the word tragedy.

HH: Oh, interesting.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, yesterday on this program, Senator Ted Cruz was my guest. And I had him on because he had been assailed the day before by Joe Scarborough, and often assailed, and often attacked as being something of a bomb-thrower, or not disciplined. And of course, I know Senator Cruz to have an extraordinary mind. And I asked him, I elicited from him the fact that he had argued nine times before the United States Supreme Court, and that perhaps this was unique, and unappreciated by television commentators. But they say he is ambitious, and ambition is a grievous fault. And these two men we are studying today, the whole theme of Lysander and I say Sulla, but you said Sulla, so I’ll defer to you, of their lives, is that they were extremely ambitious from the moment they entered the lists as young men, same about Ted Cruz.

LA: They were.

HH: Good or bad in a leader?

LA: Well, in the classical world, ambition is a virtue, and in my opinion, in the modern world, too. But like all virtues, it has its extremes. And failure of ambition is a kind of weak-spiritedness, and excessive ambition is willingness to do wrong things to get ahead. And that would certainly apply to Sulla or Sulla, and probably not to Lysander. But they were very ambitious, and both of them were on the edge, I think Sulla over it. And so yeah, and about Cruz, I happen to know him, I think he’s a tremendous guy. And you know, Aristotle’s doctrine is power shows the man. If he gets more power, we’ll find out more about him. I would approach that test with some confidence.

HH: What would be interesting to me, and I sent a note today, that if in fact the GOP debates of 2016 are a three-way affair between Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, or perhaps a four-way affair and you throw in Marco Rubio, that would be good for everyone.

LA: Yeah, and put Mike Pence in there, too.

HH: Yes, well, if he is yet resolved, that will conflict with a rerun for governor.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. I don’t know what he’s going to do.

HH: Yeah.

LA: I know him, and he’s a capable man.

HH: Very, but I always thought he…

LA: That’d be quite a lineup.

HH: It would, and it would be good for the country, because it would be serious. And the argument I made to Joe Scarborough, that Washington, D.C. doesn’t understand, and I disagree with Senator Cruz on the shutdown issue, but that he’s making arguments. He had an argument with Dianne Feinstein, and she took umbrage at it, because, not because he was wrong, but because he was quite obviously smarter, better prepared and equipped to make a Constitutional argument than she was.

LA: Well, it probably wouldn’t be her account of it, but I agree with you.

HH: Well then, but smart people give offense.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And both Lysander and Sulla, I kept thinking of this as I read these things last night again coming back from Sacramento where Dennis Prager and I did an event, that very great talent gives offense. And Lysander and Sulla are not really perfect people by a long stretch, but they make a lot of enemies. This guy who takes over the admiralty from Lysander, would you set up how he came to triumph over Athens?

LA: Well, I was saying there was three things, and I mentioned the money. The second one was he was this adaptable, cosmopolitan, skillful guy, and he could make alliances including with the dread, hated Persians. So of course, that’s an alliance with the barbarians against other Greeks. And he could do that. And the third thing he did that changed Athens, I was saying, was he tried to change its constitution. And I’ll talk about that at the end. Well, the way he put this together was he started winning sea battles, and he was, as you say, obviously ambitious and obviously smart, and they resented him. And they put another guy in his place. And then the first thing that happened is the Persian alliance fell apart. He went and asked Persia for money the way Lysander had been doing it, and he didn’t get it, because he was awkward and stupid. And so next thing you know, the navy doesn’t have any people, they can’t pay their sailors, the sailors go over to Athens. It’s falling apart, and they send him back again, and they send Lysander back again, and he puts it all back together and just as he did once before. And then he was a very brilliant naval commander, and especially naval. Plutarch thinks that Sulla is more, you see, you’ve got me saying it your way now, is more proven a commander than Lysander. But Lysander was something. And at this battle of Aegos Potami, that’s a, it means Potomos is river, so it’s up in the north across from Turkey, and the Athenian navy is along the shore. And they have relieved Alcibiades, who’s also very brilliant, of command. And he keeps warning these Athenians, you’d better keep up preparedness, because what Lysander did day after day for weeks was he would sally out his forces, and he would row at the Athenians as if an attack, and they would martial themselves up, and he’d row away. And he noticed that they dismissed the troops and sent them ashore, the sailors.

HH: Yes.

LA: And they would go do what sailors do when they go ashore, you know, attend prayer meetings and deepen their worship (laughing). They were not available, and Alcibiades warned them about this repeatedly. And then, I should stop and say that’s a tactic of war. The Soviets at a place along the Fulda Gap, which is one of the openings through Germany to Western Europe, used to have mass maneuvers every year or every other year, and they would charge the Fulda Gap and then stop. And so you get used to them charging the place that they would actually come if they met an attack on Western Europe and on the NATO forces.

HH: Yes.

LA: Well, that’s what Lysander was doing. And sure enough, he did that one day, and then he left, and then he got a report. He had spies that the Athenians had gone ashore, and he just turned around and went in and he destroyed the Athenian navy. And that was the end of it.

HH: And Sulla, Plutarch says of Sulla at the end in the comparison, “But of the potentates, counsels, commanders and demagogues to pass by all the rest who opposed themselves to Sulla, who amongst the Romans so formidable as Marius? who among the kings was more powerful than Mithridates? who among the Italians was more warlike than Lamponius and Telesinus? Yet of these, one he drove into banishment, one he quelled, and the others, he slew.” He’s saying that Lysander really wasn’t up against the first team, and I’m reminded of how Patton was upset he never got to fight Rommel, and Lysander never went head to head with Alcibiades, did he?

LA: No, and that’s right. There’s a Patton story. Forever, you know, Winston Churchill was captured in war in the South African war, and Louis Botha, later the president of South Africa, was in the vicinity. And so Churchill came to think that he was captured by Louis Botha, and when he was, and he told the story forever. And when he was presented with definite evidence that it wasn’t Louis Botha, he refused to believe it.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And you know, I should be captured by someone else? And Patton wouldn’t believe that it wasn’t Rommel in North Africa when he first attacked and overcame the German army.

HH: Yeah, because he…

LA: No, and then one of his aides, and they show this in the movie and it’s true, one of his aides says well, if the General had just left, it was the General’s plan that you defeated then, wasn’t it? And only because of that could Patton be brought to believe it.

HH: We’ll be right back.

— – – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, did Churchill ever know George Patton? I mean, did they connect? Or were they too far apart in the chain of command?

LA: Well, they did connect, and they met each other. And there’s an interesting, there’s some interesting evidence in the Cabinet Papers, because there was a big brawl going on about where the resources should go after the second invasion in 1944. Should they go south where Patton was really moving? Or should they go north toward Montgomery? And Montgomery tended to win the day, because there were these rockets coming from up there in the northern part of the Western assault that were hammering London. And the way they controlled it was who got the fuel, because fuel was a precious commodity, and the tanks had to have it to run. But Churchill would speak up for Patton in these war cabinet meetings sometimes, because Patton was moving, and Churchill really admired that. Patton was hell on wheels. Churchill had a more extensive correspondence with MacArthur, who was far away. So the only way was a correspondence, and MacArthur was in charge of the whole Pacific theater, and he was getting fantastic results.

HH: Yeah, Churchill said of MacArthur landing in Japan at Atsugi Air Force base there, the single most singularly courageous act of the war, because he was basically unarmed. He had a few pistols in the middle of thousands of kamikaze and barely disarmed Japanese, but he did it. Speaking of courage, here’s the, not the opposite, but sometimes not thought of in Lysander. Plutarch says of him, “He seemed cunning and subtle, managing most things in the war by deceit, extolling what was just when it was profitable, and when it was not, using that which was convenient instead of that which was good, and not judging truth to be in nature better than falsehood, but setting a value upon both according to interest.” Now what interested me about that is I go way back to my Gov 103 days with Harvey Mansfield, and I can distinctly remember that great teacher saying that Machiavelli invented that theory. But here’s Plutarch recognizing it thousands of years earlier.

LA: Well, Machiavelli just turned it into a theory. In other words, Machiavelli changed things by proclaiming that was the way to go as a principle of right. But you wouldn’t hear Lysander stand up and make a speech to say this is what I am doing, because that would destroy the effect. And Machiavelli didn’t think that the prince should make such speeches, but Machiavelli made them.

HH: Yes. All right, now, because we’ve got to get to Sulla in the next segment. I want you to talk a little bit about what Lysander did to Athens. It wasn’t that he just tore down their walls and he burned their fleets. He changed their government.

LA: He was a big time constitution maker, both for Athens and for Sparta. And so what he did was he found a bunch of oligarchs, rich and well-born men, and he gave them complete power. And he told them you depend on me to handle these rebellious Athenians. You get to rule them. You have to do what I say. And it broke down a couple of times, and both times, they sent Lysander back up there to fix it again, and he could do it in a heartbeat. And that means he changed the nature of the regime. His ambition was to alter the nature of the regime. That’s what constitution making is. And by regime, we mean the things that produce certain human types, you see. And he had the same ambition for Sparta. He tried to convert Sparta from a place where you had to be a member of one of the few greatest and oldest families to ever be king. He tried to change that so it was open to merit.

HH: And that story is fascinating. He was doing it by deceit when he died in battle, and he wanted to maintain the form. It was interesting, he wanted to raise up this son of Apollo by using trickery and the Oracle of Delphi, very long advanced in his thinking. But I think Plutarch commends him over Sulla for doing it licitly as opposed to brutally.

LA: Yeah, in other words, he wasn’t prepared to just go and kill the Spartans. What he did was he, you know, he was a very devious man, he used their piety, because what principle would mean that only the few, in a regime like Sparta, where the noblemen are great warriors all their lives, all of them, all of the free citizens, what principle would mean that only a few of them would ever be eligible to be king? That principle is piety, the commands of the gods, right? And that means that Sparta for hundreds of years was bowing to that command. But what Lysander did was he created a story from the gods with the Oracle of Delphi that this young man not born in one of the families, was a child of Apollo, so he could have it.

HH: And thus, using that form. And when I come back from break, I’m going to play a President Obama quote from this week, which is very similar to this.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, President Obama greeted the president of Vietnam last week, and in his relaying of what they discussed, the president of the United States said this.

BO: The president saying, shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman. And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States, and the president saying, indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, obviously I’m jumping 2,600 years, but what the President did rhetorically is not dissimilar from what Lysander was attempting to do through the Delphic Oracle.

LA: Yeah, what, this communist is…

HH: Isn’t that amazing? (laughing)

LA: I mean, he was like Thomas Jefferson except for his belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat and his practice of murder.

HH: Yeah, on an epic scale.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Except for that, it’s the same thing.

LA: It is.

HH: And so except for the fact you’re not one of those kings, you get to be the king.

LA: That’s it. That’s it. It was very clever. Very clever.

HH: All right, let me turn to Sulla, who I love not only for Plutarch, I found him there first, but then Colleen McCullough wrote some wonderful books about him, and his crystal blue eyes. What does Plutarch say? “By nature, so addicted to raillery.” He would converse freely with players and profess jesters and join them in all their low pleasures. He was a serial philanderer, he was bisexual, he was a ferociously brave guy, and he destroyed the Roman republic. He marched on Rome.

LA: That’s right. The reason to study these two guys is that they’re both at the point of regime changes in Greece and in Rome, responsible for them, Sulla very directly, because Caesar was not the first to cross into Rome with legions. Sulla did it twice, and he did it, you know, he had a simple reason. He wanted power. And he was very fierce. He destroyed in the east the worst enemies of Rome, and was extremely good in war. And that’s on his good side. And also on his good side is after he had destroyed the Roman republic, he reestablished the form of it, and tried to strengthen the constitution, especially to strengthen the Senate so that you would have a stronger Senate against the plebs and the tribunes. And so he was, he had some long term interest of Rome at stake. But of course, he invaded it twice, and both times, he arrested and executed thousands of high born and low born people, everybody who was an enemy of his. And then there’s this fact about him that he loved the night life, and he was notorious at being prodigious in the pursuit of it.

HH: Yeah, it’s detailed in Plutarch, and people can understand, other sources confirm it. Dr. Arnn, from Plutarch, “Sulla remarks in his memoirs that of all of his well-advised actions, none proved so lucky in the execution as what he had boldly enterprised not by calculation, but upon the moment. And he destroyed a republic, so I guess it’s incumbent upon all republicans, small r, maybe even large R, to always be aware of the capacity for the greatly ambitious to do radical things, because he did. And they worked, and he did them without warning.

LA: Yeah, and you know, I fear, I fear for the fact in this country that we have lost our sense of the basis of republican rule, little r, very much little r. and that means that we’re vulnerable to that kind of thing, too, because what the government is supposed to do, and its spirit is supposed to be, is that we pass judicious laws to empower the people to serve the public good and live in freedom. And more and more, our idea is to do it for them, and in a violent way that we’ve been spared in America. That’s what Sulla was doing.

HH: And to close the conversation, people have to read this. Do you have any admiration for Sulla at all?

LA: Well, I’m like Plutarch, right? You’ve got to admire him on a battlefield, but otherwise, you know, I think his attempts to restore Rome and protect its old ways are laughable, because you can’t, you know, convert people to free government by killing thousands of them. And that was, you know, things weren’t as bad in his time as they became for Caesar’s time. Caesar, I think, was presented with harder choices than Sulla, but they were the same choices.

HH: He did, he also invented prescription, or if he didn’t invent it, he certainly perfected its practice, which became, you just put up a list, and anyone was encouraged to go and kill whoever’s name was on the list, and you’d get a reward.

LA: Yeah.

HH: He was just bloody-minded.

LA: Yeah.

HH: …of the sort that nature…at the end of this, in the comparison, Plutarch says, “Sulla performed the more glorious deeds, but Lysander committed the fewer faults, as likewise by giving to one the preeminence for moderation and self-control, to the other for conduct in valor.” And it makes you think 2,600 years later how rare it is to find the Washington or the Churchill who will deny themselves that ultimate ambition, though they must have had it very close.

LA: Yeah, yeah, and you know, just think what instruction there is. People should go read these two lives. They should read all the lives, but you can just see that great affairs turn on individual people extensively, not wholly, and these people are people. And they’re mixed up. And you know, there’s a bunch of elements in them. And the ones who have really powerful qualities that can change worlds, those are likely, also, to have qualities that are dangerous. And that’s one reason why constitutionalism is the necessary complement to statesmanship.

HH: One minute to expand on that.

LA: Well, it’s a simple thing. Churchill was very aware of this argument and made it himself a lot. I’ll put it in my own terms. Statesmanship is the willfulness, the things that individual people choose to do. And constitutions are laws, grand laws written far in advance, and they constrain what people do. How do you get those two things together, because when you do, then you get political greatness.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, another wonderful, and thank you for it, Hillsdale Dialogue. It’ll be available at, at, and a quick link at

End of interview.


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