The Legacy of Ancient Greece

The Greek View of Life


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BYSTANDER. Just my idea!

PRAX. Why should there be any?

BLEPS. Why! for reasons enough, heaven knows! For instance, a man might repudiate his debts.

PRAX. In that case, where did the man who lent the money get it from? Clearly, since everything is in common, he must have stolen it!

BLEPS. So he must! An excellent idea! But now tell me this. When fellows come to blows over their cups, where are the damages to come from?

PRAX. From the rations! A man won't be in such a hurry to make a row when his belly has to pay for it.

BLEPS. One thing more! Will there be no more thieves?

PRAX. Why should any one steal what is his own?

BLEPS. And won't one be robbed of one's cloak at night?

PRAX. Not if you sleep at home!

BLEPS. Nor yet, if one sleeps out, as one used to do?

PRAX. No, for there will be enough and to spare for all. And even if a thief does try to strip a man, he will give up his cloak of his own accord. What would be the good of fighting? He has only to go and get another, and a better, from the public stores.

BLEPS. And will there be no more gambling?

PRAX. What will there be to play for?

BLEPS. And how about house accommodation?

PRAX. That will be the same for all. I tell you I am going to turn the whole city into one huge house, and break down all the partitions, so that every one may have free access to every one else. [Footnote: Aristoph. Eccles. 590.]

The "social problem," then, had clearly arisen in ancient Greece, though no doubt in an infinitely simpler form than that in which it is presented to ourselves; and it might perhaps have been expected that the Greeks, with their notion of the supremacy of the state, would have adopted some drastic public measure to meet it. And, in fact, in the earlier period of their history, as has been indicated above, we do find sweeping revolutions effected in the distribution of property. In Athens, Solon abolished debt, either in whole or part, by reducing the rate of interest and depreciating the currency; and in Sparta Lycurgus is said to have resumed the whole of the land for the state, and redivided it equally among the citizens. We have also traces of laws existing in other states to regulate in the interests of equality the possession and transfer of land. But it does not appear that any attempt was made in any state permanently to control by public authority the production and distribution of wealth. Meantime, however, the problem of social inequality was exercising the minds of political theorists; and we have notice of various schemes for an ideal polity framed upon communistic principles. Of these the most important, and the only one preserved to us, is the celebrated "Republic" of Plato; and never, it may be safely asserted, was a plan of society framed so consistent, harmonious and beautiful in itself, or so indifferent to the actual capacities of mankind. Following out what we have already indicated as the natural drift of Greek ideas, the philosopher separates off on the one hand the productive class, who are to have no political rights; and on the other the class of soldiers and governors. It is the latter alone with whom he seriously concerns himself; and the scheme he draws up for them is uncompromisingly communistic. After being purged, by an elaborate education, of all the egoistic passions, they are to live together, having all things in common, devoted heart and soul to the public good, and guiltless even of a desire for any private possession or advantage of their own. "In the first place, no one," says Plato, "should possess any private property, if it can possibly be avoided; secondly, no one should have a dwelling or store house into which all who please may not enter; whatever necessaries are required by temperate and courageous men, who are trained to war, they should receive by regular appointment from their fellow-citizens, as wages for their services, and the amount should be such as to leave neither a surplus on the year's consumption nor a deficit; and they should attend common messes and live together as men do in a camp: as for gold and silver, we must tell them that they are in perpetual possession of a divine species of the precious metals placed in their souls by the gods themselves, and therefore have no need of the earthly one; that in fact it would be profanation to pollute their spiritual riches by mixing them with the possession of mortal gold, because the world's coinage has been the cause of countless impieties, whereas theirs is undefiled: therefore to them, as distinguished from the rest of the people, it is forbidden to handle or touch gold and silver, or enter under the same roof with them, or to wear them in their dresses, or to drink out of the precious metals. If they follow these rules, they will be safe themselves and the saviours of the city: but whenever they come to possess lands, and houses, and money of their own, they will be householders and cultivators instead of guardians, and will become hostile masters of their fellow-citizens rather than their allies; and so they will spend their whole lives, hating and hated, plotting and plotted against, standing in more frequent and intense alarm of their enemies at home than of their enemies abroad; by which time they and the rest of the city will be running on the very brink of ruin." [Footnote: Plato, Rep. III. 416.--Translation by Davies and Vaughan.]

The passage is interesting, if only as an illustration of the way in which Plato had been impressed by the evil results of the institution of private property. But as a contribution to political theory it was open to severe attack from the representatives of experience and common sense. Of these, the chief was Aristotle, whose criticism has been preserved to us, and who, while admitting that Plato's scheme has a plausible appearance of philanthropy, maintains that it is inapplicable to the facts of human nature. To this conclusion, indeed, even Plato himself was driven in the end; for in his later work, the "Laws," although he still asserts that community of goods would be the ideal institution, he reluctantly abandons it as a basis for a possible state. On the other hand, he endeavours by the most stringent regulations, to prevent the growth of inequalities of wealth. He distributes the land in equal lots among his citizens, prohibiting either purchase or sub- division; limits the possession of money to the amount required for daily exchange; and forbids lending on interest. The object of a legislator, he declares, is to make not a great but a happy city. But only the good are happy, and goodness and wealth are incompatible. The legislator, therefore, will not allow his citizens to be wealthy, any more than he will allow them to be poor. He will seek to establish by law the happy mean; and to this end, if he despair of the possibility of a thorough-going communism, will legislate at least as indicated above. The uncompromising idealism of Plato's scheme, with its assumption of the indefinite plasticity of human nature, is of course peculiar to himself, not typical of Greek ideas. But it is noticeable that Aristotle, who is a far better representative of the average Greek mind, exhibits the same mistrust of the accumulation of private property. In the beginning of his "Politics" he distinguishes two kinds of money-

making, one natural, that which is pursued for the sake of a livelihood,
the other unnatural, that which is pursued for the sake of accumulation.
"The motive of this latter," he says, "is a desire for life instead of

for good life"; and its most hateful method is that of usury, the unnatural breeding of money out of money. And though he rejects as impracticable the compulsory communism of Plato's "Republic", yet he urges as the ideal solution that property, while owned by individuals, should be held as in trust for the common good; and puts before the legislator the problem: "so to dispose the higher natures that they are unwilling, and the lower that they are unable to aggrandise themselves." [Footnote: Aristotle, Pol. ii. 7. 1267 b 6.--Translation by Welldon.]

Such views as these, it may be noted, interesting though they be, as illustrating how keenly the thinkers of ancient Greece had realised the drawbacks of private property, have but the slightest bearing on the conditions of our own time. The complexity and extent of modern industry have given rise to quite new problems, and quite new schemes for their solution; and especially have forced into prominence the point of view of the producers themselves. To Greek thinkers it was natural to approach the question of property from the side of the governing class or of the state as a whole. The communism of Plato, for example, applied only to the "guardians" and soldiers, and not to the productive class on whom they depended; and so completely was he pre-occupied with the former to the exclusion of the latter, that he dismisses in a single sentence, as unworthy the legislator's detailed attention, the whole apparatus of labour and exchange. To regard the "working-class" as the most important section of the community, to substitute for the moral or political the economic standpoint, and to conceive society merely as a machine for the production and distribution of wealth, would have been impossible to an ancient Greek. Partly by the simplicity of the economic side of the society with which he was acquainted, partly by the habit of regarding the labouring class as a mere means to the maintenance of the rest, he was led, even when he had to deal with the problem of poverty and wealth, to regard it rather from the point of view of the stability and efficiency of the state, than from that of the welfare of the producers themselves. The modern attitude is radically different; a revolution has been effected both in the conditions of industry and in the way in which they are regarded; and the practice and the speculation of the Greek city-states have for us an interest which, great as it is, is philosophic rather than practical.

Section 9. Sparta.

The preceding attempt at a general sketch of the nature of the Greek state is inevitably loose and misleading to this extent, that it endeavours to comprehend in a single view polities of the most varied and discrepant character. To remedy, so far as may be, this defect, to give an impression, more definite and more complete, of the variety and scope of the political experience of the Greeks, let us examine a little more in detail the character of the two states which were at once the most prominent and the most opposed in their achievement and their aim-- the state of Sparta on the one hand, and that of Athens on the other. It was these two cities that divided the hegemony of Greece; they represent the extremes of the two forms--oligarchy and democracy--under which, as we saw, the Greek polities fall; and from a sufficient acquaintance with them we may gather a fairly complete idea of the whole range of Greek political life.

In Sparta we see one extreme of the political development of Greece, and the one which approaches nearest, perhaps, to the characteristic Greek type. Of that type, it is true, it was an exaggeration, and was recognised as such by the best thinkers of Greece; but just for that reason it is the more interesting and instructive as an exhibition of a distinctive aspect of Greek civilisation.

The Spartan state was composed of a small body of citizens--the Spartiatae or Spartans proper-encamped in the midst of a hostile population to whom they allowed no political rights and by whose labour they were supplied with the necessaries of life. The distinction between the citizen class on the one hand and the productive class on the other was thus as clearly and sharply drawn as possible. It was even exaggerated; for the citizens were a band of conquerors, the productive class a subject race, perpetually on the verge of insurrection and only kept in restraint by such measures as secret assassination. The result was to draw together the small band of Spartiatae into a discipline so rigorous and close that under it everything was sacrificed to the necessity of self-preservation; and the bare maintenance of the state became the end for which every individual was born, and lived, and died. This discipline, according to tradition, had been devised by a single legislator, Lycurgus, and it was maintained intact for several centuries. Its main features may be summarised as follows.

The production and rearing of children, to begin at the beginning, instead of being left to the caprice of individuals, was controlled and regulated by the state. The women, in the first place, were trained by physical exercise for the healthy performance of the duties of motherhood; they were taught to run and wrestle naked, like the youths, to dance and sing in public, and to associate freely with men. Marriage was permitted only in the prime of life; and a free intercourse, outside its limits, between healthy men and women, was encouraged and approved by public opinion. Men who did not marry were subject to social and civic disabilities. The children, as soon as they were born, were submitted to the inspection of the elders of their tribe; if strong and well-formed, they were reared; if not, they were allowed to die.

A healthy stock having been thus provided as a basis, every attention was devoted to its appropriate training. The infants were encouraged from the beginning in the free use of their limbs, unhampered by swaddling-clothes, and were accustomed to endure without fear darkness and solitude, and to cure themselves of peevishness and crying. At the age of seven the boys were taken away from the charge of their parents, and put under the superintendence of a public official. Their education, on the intellectual side, was slight enough, comprising only such rudiments as reading and writing; but on the moral side it was stringent and severe. Gathered into groups under the direction of elder youths-- "monitors" we might call them--they were trained to a discipline of iron endurance. One garment served them for the whole year; they went without shoes, and slept on beds of rushes plucked with their own hands. Their food was simple, and often enough they had to go without it. Every moment of the day they were under inspection and supervision, for it was the privilege and the duty of every citizen to admonish and punish not only his own but other people's children. At supper they waited at table on their elders, answered their questions and endured their jests. In the streets they were taught to walk in silence, their hands folded in their cloaks, their eyes cast down, their heads never turning to right or left. Their gymnastic and military training was incessant; wherever they met, we are told, they began to box; under the condition, however, that they were bound to separate at the command of any bystander. To accustom them early to the hardships of a campaign, they were taught to steal their food from the mess-tables of their elders; if they were detected they were beaten for their clumsiness, and went without their dinner. Nothing was omitted, on the moral or physical side, to make them efficient members of a military state. Nor was the discipline relaxed when they reached years of maturity. For, in fact, the whole city was a camp. Family life was obliterated by public activity. The men dined together in messes, rich and poor alike, sharing the same coarse and simple food. Servants, dogs, and horses, were regarded as common property. Luxury was strictly forbidden. The only currency in circulation was of iron, so cumbrous that it was impossible to accumulate or conceal it. The houses were as simple as possible, the roofs shaped only with the axe, and the doors with the saw; the furniture and fittings corresponded, plain but perfectly made. The nature of the currency practically prohibited commerce, and no citizen was allowed to be engaged in any mechanical trade. Agriculture was the main industry, and every Spartan had, or was supposed to have, a landed estate, cultivated by serfs who paid him a yearly rent. In complete accordance with the Greek ideal, it was a society of soldier-citizens, supported by an inferior productive class. In illustration of this point the following curious anecdote may be quoted from Plutarch. During one of the wars in which Sparta and her allies were engaged, the allies complained that they, who were the majority of the army, had been forced into a quarrel which concerned nobody but the Spartans. Whereupon Agesilaus, the Spartan king, "devised this expedient to show the allies were not the greater number. He gave orders that all the allies, of whatever country, should sit down promiscuously on one side, and all the Lacedaemonians on the other: which being done, he commanded a herald to proclaim, that all the potters of both divisions should stand out; then all the blacksmiths; then all the masons; next the carpenters; and so he went through all the handicrafts. By this time almost all the allies were risen, but of the Lacedaemonians not a man, they being by law forbidden to learn any mechanical business; and now Agesilaus laughed and said, "You see, my friends, how many more soldiers we send out than you do." [Footnote: Plut. Agesilaus.--Translation by Clough.]

And certainly, so far as its immediate ends were concerned, this society of soldier-citizens was singularly successful. The courage and efficiency of Spartan troops were notorious, and were maintained indeed not only by the training we have described, but by social penalties attached to cowardice. A man who had disgraced himself in battle was a pariah in his native land. No one would eat with him, no one would wrestle with him; in the dance he must take the lowest place; he must give the wall at meetings in the street, and resign his seat even to younger men; he must dress and bear himself humbly, under penalty of blows, and suffer the reproaches of women and of boys. Death plainly would be preferable to such a life; and we are not surprised to hear that the discipline and valour of Spartan troops was celebrated far and wide. Here is a description of them, given by one of themselves to the Persian king when he was projecting the invasion of Greece:

"Brave are all the Greeks who dwell in any Dorian land; but what I am about to say does not concern all, but only the Lacedaemonians. First, then, come what may, they will never accept thy terms, which would reduce Greece to slavery; and further, they are sure to join battle with thee, though all the rest of Greece should submit to thy will. As for their numbers, do not ask how many they are, that their resistance should be a possible thing; for if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet thee in battle, and so will any number, be it less than this, or be it more.

"When they fight singly, they are as good men as any in the world, and when they fight in a body, they are the bravest of all. For though they be freemen, they are not in all respects free; Law is the master whom they own; and this master they fear more than thy subjects fear thee. Whatever he commands they do; and his commandment is always the same: it forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes, and requires them to stand firm, and either to conquer or die." [Footnote: Herodotus vii. 102, 4.--Translation by Rawlinson.]

The practical illustration of this speech is the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans kept at bay the whole Persian host, till they were betrayed from the rear and killed fighting to a man.

The Spartan state, then, justified itself according to its own ideal; but how limited that ideal was will be clear from our sketch. The individual, if it cannot be said that he was sacrificed to the state-- for he recognised the life of the state as his own--was at any rate starved upon one side of his nature as much as he was hypertrophied upon the other. Courage, obedience, and endurance were developed in excess; but the free play of passion and thought, the graces and arts of life, all that springs from the spontaneity of nature, were crushed out of existence under this stern and rigid rule. "None of them," says Plutarch, an enthusiastic admirer of the Spartan polity "none of them was left alone to live as he chose; but passing their time in the city as though it were a camp, their manner of life and their avocations ordered with a view to the public good, they regarded themselves as belonging, not to themselves, but to their country." [Footnote: Plut. Lycurgus, ch. 24.] And Plato, whose ideal republic was based so largely upon the Spartan model, has marked nevertheless as the essential defect of their polity its insistence on military virtue to the exclusion of everything else, and its excessive accentuation of the corporate aspect of life. "Your military way of life," he says, "is modelled after the camp, and is not like that of dwellers in cities; and you have your young men herding and feeding together like young colts. No one takes his own individual colt and drags him away from his fellows against his will, raging and foaming, and gives him a groom for him alone, and trains and rubs him down privately, and gives him the qualities in education which will make him not only a good soldier, but also a governor of a state and of cities. Such a one would be a greater warrior than he of whom Tyrtaeus sings; and he would honour courage everywhere, but always as the fourth, and not as the first part of virtue, either in individuals or states." [Footnote: Plato Laws, II. 666 e.--Translation by Jowett].

The Spartan state, in fact, by virtue of that excellence which was also its defect--the specialising of the individual on the side of discipline and rule--carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. The tendencies which Lycurgus had endeavoured to repress by external regulation reasserted themselves in his despite. He had intended once for all both to limit and to equalise private property; but already as early as the fifth century Spartans had accumulated gold which they deposited in temples in foreign states; the land fell, by inheritance and gift, into the hands of a small minority; the number of the citizens was reduced, not only by war, but by the disfranchisement attending inability to contribute to the common mess-tables; till at last we find no more than 700 Spartan families, and of these no more than 100 possessing estates in land.

And this decline from within was hastened by external events. The constitution devised for a small state encamped amidst a hostile population, broke down under the weight of imperial power. The conquest of Athens by Sparta was the signal of her own collapse. The power and wealth she had won at a stroke alienated her sons from her discipline. Generals and statesmen who had governed like kings the wealthy cities of the east were unable to adapt themselves again to the stern and narrow rules of Lycurgus. They rushed into freedom and enjoyment, into the unfettered use of their powers, with an energy proportional to the previous restraint. The features of the human face broke through the fair but lifeless mask of ancient law; and the Spartan, ceasing to be a Spartan, both rose and fell to the level of a man.

Section 10. Athens.

In the institutions of Sparta we see, carried to its furthest point, one side of the complex Greek nature--their capacity for discipline and law. Athens, the home of a different stock, gives us the other extreme--their capacity for rich and spontaneous individual development. To pass from Sparta to Athens, is to pass from a barracks to a playing-field. All the beauty, all the grace, all the joy of Greece; all that chains the desire of mankind, with a yearning that is never stilled, to that one golden moment in the past, whose fair and balanced interplay of perfect flesh and soul no later gains of thought can compensate, centres about that bright and stately city of romance, the home of Pericles and all the arts, whence from generation to generation has streamed upon ages less illustrious an influence at once the sanest and the most inspired of all that have shaped the secular history of the world. Girt by mountain and sea, by haunted fountain and sacred grove, shaped and adorned by the master hands of Pheidias and Polygnotus and filled with the breath of passion and song by Euripides and Plato, Athens, famed alike for the legended deeds of heroes and gods and for the feats of her human sons in council, art, and war, is a name, to those who have felt her spell, more familiar and more dear than any of the few that mark with gold the sombre scroll of history. And still across the years we feel the throb of the glorious verse that broke in praise of his native land from the lips of Euripides:

"Happy of yore were the children of race divine

the sons of old Erechtheus' line Who in their holy state With hands inviolate

Gather the flower of wisdom far-renowned, Lightly lifting their feet in the lucid air

the sacred nine, the Pierid Muses, bare Harmonia golden-crowned.

There in the wave from fair Kephisus flowing Kupris sweetens the winds and sets them blowing Over the delicate land;
And ever with joyous hand Braiding her fragrant hair with the blossom of roses, She sendeth the Love that dwelleth in Wisdom's place That every virtue may quicken and every grace In the hearts where she reposes." [Footnote: Eurip. Medea, 825.]

And this, the Athens of poetry and art, is but another aspect of the Athens of political history. The same individuality, the same free and passionate energy that worked in the hearts of her sculptors and her poets, moulded also and inspired her city life. In contradistinction to the stern and rigid discipline of Sparta, the Athenian citizen displayed the resource, the versatility and the zeal that only freedom and self- reliance can teach. The contrast is patent at every stage of the history of the two states, and has been acutely set forth by Thucydides in the speech which he puts into the mouths of the Corinthian allies of Sparta:

"You have never considered," they say to the Lacedaemonians, "what manner of men are these Athenians with whom you will have to fight, and how utterly unlike yourselves. They are revolutionary, equally quick in the conception and in the execution of every new plan; while you are conservative--careful only to keep what you have, originating nothing, and not acting even when action is most necessary. They are bold beyond their strength; they run risks which prudence would condemn; and in the midst of misfortunes they are full of hope. Whereas it is your nature, though strong, to act feebly; when your plans are most prudent, to distrust them; and when calamities come upon you, to think that you will never be delivered from them. They are impetuous, and you are dilatory; they are always abroad, and you are always at home. For they hope to gain something by leaving their homes; but you are afraid that any new enterprise may imperil what you have already. When conquerors, they pursue their victory to the utmost; when defeated, they fall back the least. Their bodies they devote to their country as though they belonged to other men; their true self is their mind, which is most truly their own when employed in her service. When they do not carry out an intention which they have formed, they seem to have sustained a personal bereavement; when an enterprise succeeds, they have gained a mere instalment of what is to come; but if they fail, they at once conceive new hopes and so fill up the void.

"With them alone to hope is to have, for they lose not a moment in the execution of an idea. This is the lifelong task, full of danger and toil, which they are always imposing upon themselves. None enjoy their good things less, because they are always seeking for more. To do their duty is their only holiday, and they deem the quiet of inaction to be as disagreeable as the most tiresome business. If a man should say of them, in a word, that they were born neither to have peace themselves nor to allow peace to other men, he would simply speak the truth." [Footnote: Thuc. i. 70.--Translated by Jowett.]

The qualities here set forth by Thucydides as characteristic of the Athenians, were partly the cause and partly the effect of their political constitution. The history of Athens, indeed, is the very antithesis to that of Sparta. In place of a type fixed at a stroke and enduring for centuries, she presents a series of transitions through the whole range of polities, to end at last in a democracy so extreme that it refuses to be included within the limits of the general formula of the Greek state.

Seldom, indeed, has "equality" been pushed to so extreme a point as it was, politically at least, in ancient Athens. The class of slaves, it is true, existed there as in every other state; but among the free citizens, who included persons of every rank, no political distinction at all was drawn. All of them, from the lowest to the highest, had the right to speak and vote in the great assembly of the people which was the ultimate authority; all were eligible to every administrative post; all sat in turn as jurors in the law-courts. The disabilities of poverty were minimised by payment for attendance in the assembly and the courts. And, what is more extraordinary, even distinctions of ability were levelled by the practice of filling all offices, except the highest, by lot.

Had the citizens been a class apart, as was the case in Sparta, had they been subjected from the cradle to a similar discipline and training, forbidden to engage in any trade or business, and consecrated to the service of the state, there would have been nothing surprising in this uncompromising assertion of equality. But in Athens the citizenship was extended to every rank and calling; the poor man jostled the rich, the shopman the aristocrat, in the Assembly; cobblers, carpenters, smiths, farmers, merchants, and retail traders met together with the ancient landed gentry, to debate and conclude on national affairs; and it was from such varied elements as these that the lot impartially chose the officials of the law, the revenue, the police, the highways, the markets, and the ports, as well as the jurors at whose mercy stood reputation, fortune, and life. The consequence was that in Athens, at least in the later period of her history, the middle and lower classes tended to monopolise political power. Of the popular leaders, Cleon, the most notorious, was a tanner; another was a baker, another a cattle- dealer. Influence belonged to those who had the gift of leading the mass; and in that competition the man of tongue, of energy, and of resource, was more than a match for the aristocrat of birth and intellect.

The constitution of Athens, then, was one of political equality imposed upon social inequality. To illustrate the point we may quote a passage from Aristophanes which shows at once the influence exercised by the trading class and the disgust with which that influence was regarded by the aristocracy whom the poet represents. The passage is taken from the "Knights," a comedy written to discredit Cleon, and turning upon the expulsion of the notorious tanner from the good graces of Demos, by the superior impudence and address of a sausage-seller. Demosthenes, a general of the aristocratic party, is communicating to the latter the destiny that awaits him.

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