Before the fall of Greek democracy, Athens began as a center of education and humanity. The best honey and the most deadly hemlock were produced there.
According to Jacob Burckhardt, the great 19th century historian, the Athenians loved progress; they were quick to make decisions and execute them; they never hesitated; they were keen for foreign adventures and forays, and pursued advantage for themselves as much as possible.
Plans not carried out were counted as failures. Every gain seemed to them trivial compared to what remained to be done, and after a failure, they set to work to obtain some new success. They never paused to enjoy what they had. They were also incessant meddlers who gave no peace to themselves or their neighbors.
The best of the Greeks pursued excellence (‘arte’’), an honorable existence, but the din of the mob drove the excellent underground. Homer said that the ambition of noble people was “to be first, and outshine the rest.” He called them “the Virtuous Few,” and they were to be a guiding, living force in the democracy.
But those who were outstanding in any way faced envy, an undermining hatred of anyone who was better than the rest, delighting in their misfortunes, making incessant efforts to thwart and humiliate them at every turn. Homer depicts the jeering of a victor and the pain it inflicts.
The problem was that as the polis expanded the more ruthless and unprincipled it became. Greek democracy laid claim to excellence in ethics and morals, but there was little concern about the happiness or suffering of others. Slaves had no rights, yet they were expected to have morals. Morals were mere tools for subjugation.
The polis claimed it was working for the common good, but it had developed in a way that embraced mutual aggression and nasty feuding. Its citizens were easily provoked and led astray by strong passions of the commonplace. Hesiod in his masterpiece “Works and Days” pronounced the Greek democracy “unrighteous.”
The Virtuous Few Depart
Democracy had a stormy history in Greece. After much quarreling, the Greeks replaced the old constitution, and Greece became a full democracy under Pericles. The bitterest struggle occurred between the laws and the constitution.
Before democracy came, Solon, the great lawgiver that Plutarch so much admired, was about to go on a journey. He had just gotten approval for a complex legislative program, and the Athenians were bound by solemn vows to leave it as it was – they were not to change a word. But after democracy came, one prominent and dangerous feature emerged: the polis was obsessed with revision. So much for Solon.
The letter of the constitution might be loudly praised and honored, while at the same time it was being completely undermined by the endless promotion of popular decrees. In addition, anything in the polis was subject to the most merciless cutthroat competition. In his “Politics,” Aristotle said that it was not the law that ruled – it was the masses that by nature were lawless.
Even after the introduction of democracy, the fight still raged over the power of the laws versus the popular will. The power of the state was inescapable because the polis was the engine of education for the Greeks, and it always claimed that it was the only true representative of the State.
The mentally gifted, men of stunning intellect, suffered a bleak fate under this. They found they were outnumbered by the truculent and ignorant, yet even as they strove to gain power in the State, their way was always blocked by some political faction that claimed it represented the whole polis, not just a portion of it, and it would then declare it was justified in exerting the state’s full authority to further its aims. This was entirely dishonest.
Whatever their toil or danger, the energy of the Greeks was undiminished throughout their lives. But what has been overlooked was a sordid, seamy and corrupt side of their democracy, flaws that led Greece to ruin. The Greeks were a self-comparing, envious people. I once wrote, “It is a fact that the ordinary Greek was very envious of any individual who was deemed exceptional, hence they invented ostracism to humble the city’s great. They banished Miltiades, the victor of Marathon, Cimon, Themistocles and other heroes.” The intent was ostensibly to forestall tyranny, but in fact it was used to weaken or crush the prominence of a particular citizen.
If a citizen, usually someone of great excellence of character, got 6,000 votes against him, he was banished from five to ten years, which was a life-threatening sentence. As Burckhardt says, here was manifest the ingrained hatred, not of the mob – the mob admires the unscrupulous ambitious, unless it is incited against them – but by those who are impotently envious of excellent and unique abilities.
The conflict over power among the political parties and programs was now carried on with new weapons that were remorseless, brutal, impious, and predatory, especially when compared with the simple honesty of earlier generations.
These lofty principles of the reign of Pericles disguised a lot of the inner rot in the Greek’s social compact. For example, as democracy became more widespread, it exerted a great deal more influence on the individual Greek life. The masses spent more and more time in public meetings and the courts, and they skipped the calming effect of steady work. The power wielded formerly by tyrants, aristocrats and kings passed to the mob and ordinary citizens, and they meddled incessantly in everything.
The Greeks were a supremely gifted people, which can be seen in paintings, art, culture, and its vast literature; but alongside these gifts, the Greeks were prey to evil passions, and one of these was a greed for pleasures of all sorts. As the lowest among them clamored for more participation, political power began to weigh more heavily on the lives of individuals. The public, including its worst factions, had to be appeased at all costs.
It didn’t take long for the “virtuous few” to be overwhelmed. The noble, free individual was quickly outnumbered by the superior numbers of the masses. The origin of antagonism within the polis was envy. Said a Greek historian, “The demos, haughty of spirit and made confident by its victory at Marathon, was envious of anyone of more than common fame and reputation.”
Envy had toxic side effects. The resentment of another’s superiority prompted rivals to smear and defame the person. In the beginning the “virtuous few” earned their sterling reputation by giving, not taking, but as time passed, Greek political life began to resemble ours.
Over time, the Greeks became completely indifferent to the means they used to obtain success against every type of opponent. The Greeks were very competitive: their chief motive for any action was the hope of success. The Greek orators of the fourth century experienced the wildest personal attacks, and the authorities meekly submitted to these as long as they were not mentioned personally. (So much for moral courage.)
The majority stopped respecting oaths. Scrupulousness and truthfulness in speeches was continually weakened. (It was never much respected.) The Greeks, no longer respected truthfulness and sincerity as they once had. They had no respect for facts. A fact, of course, is a statement based on proven evidence.
Ordinary people took pride in using rumor or falsehood to inflict damage on rivals. By the fourth century B.C. politics was dominated by contempt, mockery and incessant scandal mongering. Self-seekers used flatterers and sycophants, a whole class of informers, talebearers, slanderers, and servile intriguers; they made their living selling other people out for money.
The sense of “mean, servile flatterer” is first recorded in English in the 1570s. “Showing the fig” was a vulgar gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which was a symbol of a vagina (sykon). The attacks of these people were so acidic that some of the targets went home to hang themselves.
The prominent politicians in ancient Greece were aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents with them.
Many a Greek witness coming forward to speak was animated by malicious intent, and they could care less about what an oath required of them when they spoke. More and more, Greeks manifested deceit and untrustworthiness.
A speaker’s object was to win, using any dishonorable means he could. Truthfulness became a joke. The historian Polybius described the age as “sadly vicious” in general. One Greek did a treatise on it, “Stratagems of Polyanus.”
Over time, a lack of sensitivity became a philosophical virtue. Utter shamelessness reigned. Slurs, ridicule, jeering, insults became a form of argument, and they soon got out of hand. A rival could savage any opponent without a second thought. Many outstanding men felt they were always under siege. Pericles was constantly dragged down by numerous lawsuits.
Punishments were directed not only at the Greek exiles, they extended to the exile’s children, and were unleashed on the ancestors, often laying waste family tombs. The Greek rivals wielded a harsh logic: either they will destroy us or we will destroy them. Dog eat dog. They had no alternative.
A chief feature of this terrorism was its desire for false elevation, a manic desire for honors and prizes that an individual didn’t deserve. The fact is that tyrannicides, if they survived their deeds, might still receive the highest honors and be commemorated after death with monuments and rites. The consequence was that obscure cutthroats were often renamed as the benefactors of society, granted citizenship, and were publicly crowned at the great Dionysisian festival, etc.
If the man was later found to be a rogue and a traitor, like Phynihus of 411 B.C, would have his accomplices have their names inscribed on the memorial column and be rewarded in other ways.
The more corrupt the Greeks became, the more ignorant they became. At one point a group of Greeks denied that there had been a Trojan War, despite incontrovertible evidence that there was, and they fined Homer 50 drachmas because they thought him mad.
Why bother to write this? Because all empires are mortal. Think of the Hittites; think of the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greek and Roman Empires. ,They were all mighty yet they all died. Why? Because the processes of time produce a relentless sifting and testing of anything they achieved. Over time, a seamy side of a political order begins to emerge. Over time, the faultiness of a system begins to come clear.” He took s big drag on his cigarette “What we really need these days is a deeper kind of self-questioning, but no one is doing it, not in America these days.”