Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Martian Named Heinlein in Old Greece
A Narrow Look at an Aspect of my favorite writer

Robert A. Heinlein: He’s loved, he’s hated.
He was a giant, the first (and only?) writer to put that silly space fiction into the respectable pages of the Saturday Evening Post. This at a time when people said “jet propulsion laboratory” because saying “rockets” sounded crazy. I won’t repeat his biography to you here, not in this age of new exciting search engines.

Who was he?
To some, “the dean of science fiction writers” is the longhaired liberal who wrote the college cult classic about the orphan raised by Martians who comes to earth, Stranger in a Strange Land. To others, he is the shorthaired fascist who wrote the novel about the boy who earns his right to vote by doing military service in Starship Troopers. Then again, he’s that older bald free-thinker, the crank who believes in libertarianism and in keeping the government out of the nation’s bedrooms. (Gay rights, equality for women)

Some call Robert A. Heinlein their favorite author, (Me!) others find him distasteful, even disgusting. Increasingly, as the 20th century recedes, some even find him irrelevant and boring: a smart teenage girl was unable to finish his rousing “boy’s own adventure” story of Starman Jones. This “weirds me out” since I loved that book as a boy. (My mother read it too, back in the day)

I hate to sound like an English teacher, but I am an avid reader of books, including books published before I was born, and so I just have to say: I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate the writings of Robert Heinlein if you are “locked in” to your 21st century. I hate to sound like a lover of history, but I do believe time travel broadens the mind: If you don’t know your country’s past then you don’t know your own country.

My goal: To put Heinlein, a man only 12 years older than my father, into historical perspective, by sketching his generation’s belief in classical schooling and citizenship. His generation, I fear, is now history. And it’s a history we don’t know. This I can say because, according to the Internet, some readers despise Heinlein for having a character say a man should be able to do A, B, C, et cetera… ending with saying “…specialization is for ants.” I would tell angry readers to relax: The character was repeating a Greek ideal, while in the real world Heinlein’s peers, and he himself, had specialized jobs.

Well Rounded
I suspect most people, including the readers mentioned above, are not, as a physician would say, “well oriented as to time and space.” Instead, they are trapped in their own decade. Easy for me to say: I know what young people are missing out on, for I have lived across two centuries. Born in the 1950’s, I still get homesick reading Ray Bradbury’s 1940’s The Martian Chronicles.

History is more than just grim battles and changing national frontiers. History is literature; history is popular culture, new inventions and funny movies. Remember the 1970’s and Monty Python’s Traveling Circus? And John Cleese? Recently I enjoyed the comedian’s insightful book, “So, Anyway…” about his life. It was in 1960 that he went away to university. With, I think, humorous detachment, Cleese wrote: (page 120)  

“What did matter at Cambridge was professional reputation. There were the grand jobs—like being a surgeon, or a barrister, or a professor—and there were the more mundane occupations, like being a solicitor or an accountant or a general practitioner. The aim in life was to become very good at whichever category of job you went for, and to earn the respect of your colleagues, and enough money to lead a very comfortable life. It was also vital to have a few cultural interests outside your work. The aim was to be “well rounded.” Educated, accomplished, well informed and comfortably off.”

Back in the U.S., having a university department specializing in “business,” or “commerce,” totally separate from economics and sociology, did not arise until after the post-war business writings of Peter Drucker. As I see it, from reading memoirs and old fiction, (“The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can.”—Edith Hamilton) in the U.S., even as late as 1960, university students and professors still had similar ideals to the British: To be “well rounded,” with “cultural interests,” and “educated.” And yes, to get a job.

The “well rounded” ideal was a part of our culture back in Heinlein’s day. We felt knowing about Greco-Roman times was important, and we knew the Greeks were famously well rounded in the schooling they provided their children—how else could they have a healthy democracy? You may recall that besides the three R’s, Greek children were expected to be outdoors under a bright sun, to participate in sports, dancing, music, rhetoric and art. To the Greeks, learning the flute was anything but frivolous. They had a slogan, “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.” …It was as if Greeks thought uncritical drudges, “without a life,” might someday be suckered into glorious torchlight parades by the Reichstag.

Greek Values
I have a good idea of the “natural” beliefs of Heinlein’s era, if only because, in the basement as I grew up, there were three high school history textbooks from the 1930’s.

High school kids, as you may recall from the headmaster in the Hollywood movie Dead Poet’s Society, are to be properly taught, regardless of what some of the free-thinking adults surrounding them may actually believe, taught “the official norms” of society. From the school texts, I know what Heinlein’s generation “officially” believed: They believed in some of the values of what my Rand McNally historical atlas called “the classical world.”

Classical Values
Needless to say, we stopped believing in these classical values, lessons, stories and proverbs well before the 21st century. I once came across a splendid book by best selling author Rita Mae Brown, Writing From Scratch, where she opined that our western culture used to have a heritage of three streams: Hebrew, Christian and Greco-Roman. Now, she says, we are down to two streams because our Greco-Roman heritage was dropped after the First World War. As writers, this means she and I lose a number of powerful symbols and references. But we can still refer to the baby myths such as Medusa. Brown’s viewpoint that we have lost a mighty stream makes sense to me.

I recall an old 1930’s version of Dale Carnegie’s excellent How to Win Friends and Influence People where a man portrayed his wife as uneducated: He said she “…didn’t know who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.” I’m sure that fellow’s words are not allowed into 21st century versions of Carnegie’s book. No point in embarrassing today’s readers. (The Greeks came first, and before them came the Egyptians)

Whatever we of today might or might not believe, no doubt the reader’s of Heinlein’s boyhood saw nothing wrong with citizens going off to war as a part of the larger society; (Unlike Darth Vader’s storm troopers being apart from the people) they saw nothing wrong with citizens being freely deputized to go catch criminals, (as in a posse) or with citizens “legislating” common law, (as in case law) through their jury trials. As for me, like my dad’s generation, I’m not rigidly against uniforms or politicians, but I also know, as a Heinlein character put it, that “civil servants” should not become “civil masters.”

For most locations of time and space, of course, government officials, with their armed “federales” are indeed the masters. I am thinking of the times of kings, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or China’s Communist rule.

U.S. President Harry Truman, around the year 1950, said, in my own words, that when he would step down from being president he would at the same time step back up into the highest honor in the land: Citizen.  Former US. presidents, still entitled to the simple honorific “Mr. President,” are never to be called something grand like “Your Excellency.” As the proverb says, the president puts his pants on one leg at a time: As in Greece, citizens all share equality; we can't download responsibility onto our leaders by saying they are better that us. Truman told news reporters he could have been happy as an historian. I’m sure Truman understood: If a man does not feel as if he is a citizen, if between his ears he is a despairing peasant, feeling no reason to become informed or participate, then his being able to vote every few years, as they do in Russia, is pretty useless.

Hopeless Apathy
Heinlein’s peers would have seen individual men lose their jobs, and get depressed, and lose their sense of “personal agency.” But could an entire nation somehow come to believe in apathy, in leaving everything to the rulers, and thereby losing their sense of being masters of their fate? Heinlein’s peers knew the horrifying answer was “Yes!”

For one thing, they saw the Germans of the democratic Weimar republic, a republic where (I once read) it was against the law for a German to say anything against, say, Arabs, even in a private conversation on the sidewalk —Yes, the Germans, after “the war to end all wars,” had ideals! Heinlein’s generation had seen those same Germans proceed to transform themselves into a Nazi state. But to be clear: If Americans knew the horrible answer was “Yes an entire state could decline,” and if they realized the dangers of surrendering a sense of citizenship, then it wasn’t merely from anything the Americans had seen it their own lifetime. Americans knew of classical history, from long before the Weimar government was voted out of office in favor of Nazis. (Yes, Hitler got in legally)

Heinlein’s generation shared a cultural memory: They knew a sense of citizenship could be lost because they knew about the strong and virtuous Romans. The Romans transformed. They went from living in a first world noble republic, just like Corinth or Athens, into a third world Roman Empire, exchanging their citizenship for apathetic decadence, in only one to two generations. There they were, like so many couch potatoes, just lying there eating grapes. The Roman senators, now having a constituency of wimps, in place of active citizens, now had no power to be a check on the emperor. The textbooks in my basement explained that while Roman Empire continued to expand for several generations, it was merely “running on momentum.” The republican virtues were gone.

Heinlein alludes to Rome’s decline and fall in his Stranger In a Strange Land where the rulers in Washington lean on astrology; the police wear black like the SS, and they deliberately land their flying police cars to show their superiority: not on a man’s driveway, not on his lawn, but right onto his flower beds. (The Man from Mars makes sure the police never do that again)

In The Puppet Masters (1951) Heinlein shows an invader from space talking to an old man, offering to have the invaders be the rulers, offering to “take care of” the old man, and the whole U.S. republic, removing everyone’s burden of responsibility and decisions, to make everyone’s lives “easier”—if only the invaders are allowed to rule. The old man glares, like a 1790 French citizen would glare at an aristocratic parasite, and answers that humans have had that offer made to them in various times and places in history—it never works out well.

No Draft or Conscription
Citizenship is the smart choice, but not the comfortable choice. Edith Hamilton passed judgment on the young men of Greece by writing, “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

Today some folks forget that in the U.S. the peacetime draft (conscription) was brought in as a cold wartime defense, to avoid the slow building of an army as happened in WWII: to be able, instead, to form a big army quickly if the communists, like the fascists had done, launched another “Pear Harbor.” To me, the draft goes with having air raid sirens. (Yes, I remember hearing them wail in despair; they used to test them on Sundays) The Greeks and Romans had no draft—although I suppose the young men would be dreadfully shamed by the old women if they stayed back in the city. No draft meant consequences: The classical city-states had to earn the people’s loyalty on an on-going basis. The state must always stay democratic enough, with people feeling active and responsible enough, to always produce enough volunteers for defense.

I’m not surprised, given the classical teachings of his time, the author of Starship Troopers was very strongly against having a draft. Heinlein once compared the draft to a sleigh being chased by hungry wolves, with people being thrown off, one by one, as a contemptible sacrifice. Contemptible.  

Worthy of Volunteers
Forget the young men of Athens-in-decline wanting comfort: Heinlein’s generation was taught that during the republic the Roman legions were unpaid volunteers. (While the army would of course supply the rations and catapults) Each one of my old textbooks stress this, each asks the students to ponder whether hired armies (mercenaries) can fight as well as volunteers. I don’t think young people of today have the same textbooks: They don’t realize the Romans were volunteers.

I’m no sociologist, but I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of psychological reason as to why people of the 21st century don’t know basic history.

An army with drafted soldiers, in war and peace, only works if they have lots of peers, not drafted, also serving, meaning: only if society is healthy. This happens when the public is serving democracy or some great cause. Otherwise? “I only work here,” the servicemen will say, it’s a “job” they will say, replicating the poor caliber of soldiers of Iraq and South Vietnam.  

Now, despite what you read in the newspaper, —stupid Yankee journalists must be sleeping on the job—further U.S. training for the Iraqi army is NOT the solution to Iraq’s problem. As I see it, even if every single man and women in the entire U.S. forces went over to Iraq to train the Iraqi’s, even if for as many years as they had trained the South Vietnamese, then, once they left, the Iraqi army, as part of the Iraqi society, would still be no dam good. No little squads of competent Iraqi soldiers will ever dash down deadly streets under scathing fire, in quick maneuvers… not as a part of an incompetent society, not if each man regards that society as being undeserving of his death.

The Arab surprise attack of the Yom Kipper war in 1973 is instructive: When the Israeli army, fleshed out by reservists, was outnumbered and surrounded by Muslim mechanized armies, the world saw the difference between armies where the leaders push from behind, and an army where the leaders lead from the front.

Historical Lessons
Down the years, as my culture has changed around me, my reading tastes have changed too. I’m no longer acclimatized to the 1950’s, but in my nostalgia? The ’50’s remains my favorite decade… and that’s my favorite decade of Heinlein’s writing. (As an avid reader, I always check a book’s copyright date) I don’t mix up Heinlein’s 1950’s work with his later novels where’s he’s changed, tending towards being too soft. I don’t hold his later novels against him, any more than I hold the reputation of the later Roman Empire, where the legions were paid, against the earlier Roman republic.

As long as you don’t get the two cities mixed up, Rome’s sprawling third world empire cannot tarnish the eternal glory of the republic on the seven hills. —By the way, the so-called “powerful” Roman emperors desperately needed an equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard: The Romans called theirs the Praetorian Guard.

To 21st century readers, Robert A. Heinlein can be as hard to understand as a Martian or an ancient Greek. Today I have tried to explain the classical foundations for his generation’s belief in citizenship. He remains my favorite author: Not only did he publically conform with what his 1950’s culture believed, he also had slid into his novels beliefs that were ahead of his time, such as hating sexism and racism. I won’t explain any of his other beliefs just now: My laptop is losing power, and I’m getting tired. Next week is another essay.

Sean Crawford


“I don’t know why people… don’t know basic history.” I wonder if it has something to do with denial and Star Trek’s Prime Directive, as I talked about near the end of my essay The Madness of Michael Moor archived March 2016.

For your further reading, in the forward by Ken McLeod to Heinlein's novel Doublestar, now on bookshelves, McLeod contrasts Doublestar to Starship Troopers. Doublestar is Heinlein's most democratic book, portraying a functioning democracy under a constitutional monarchy (Like Canada). The hero finds himself among people who are party members but not politicians, and they have their adventures between elections.      


  1. Hello Sean,
    What are your thoughts on this? One of my students just told me that she's grounded for 3 weeks from reading any novels, any books. BUT, she's allowed to have her tablet and phone. Umm. Wow, eh? That is so weird.

  2. My thought is: that's weird.
    Maybe her father is psychologically against nerds, for as we all know, real nerds read. Many people go on computers a lot but I don't regard those folks as smart, because I don't regard them as having the attention span or deep curiosity of a reader. (Yes, I've read Neil Postman)

    Then again, maybe mother thinks devices are indeed for being smart, and thinks that if she removes them then her daughter will watch merely TV with her as a couch potato.

    I know devices are not smart because the sort of kids who in my day would ride the bus without reading anything are the same ones who now look at their devices such as phones.

    Of course, being a member of the older generation, I am way out of touch. Not like you.

    Nice to hear from you.