What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom

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The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”

 

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