The Legacy of Ancient Greece

The Greek View of Life


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Set these poor wares aside; and now--bow down To the ground; and adore the powers of earth and heaven.

S.-S. Heigh-day! Why, what do you mean?

DEM. O happy man!

Unconscious of your glorious destiny, Now mean and unregarded; but to-morrow, The mightiest of the mighty, Lord of Athens.

S.-S. Come, master, what's the use of making game?

Why can't ye let me wash my guts and tripe, And sell my sausages in peace and quiet?

DEM. O simple mortal, cast those thoughts aside!

Bid guts and tripe farewell! Look here! Behold!

(pointing to the audience)

The mighty assembled multitude before ye!

S.-S. (with a grumble of indifference).

I see 'em.

DEM. You shall be their lord and master,

The sovereign and the ruler of them all, Of the assemblies and tribunals, fleets and armies; You shall trample down the Senate under foot, Confound and crush the generals and commanders, Arrest, imprison, and confine in irons, And feast and fornicate in the Council House.

S.-S. Are there any means of making a great man

Of a sausage-selling fellow such as I?

DEM. The very means you have, must make ye so,

Low breeding, vulgar birth, and impudence, These, these must make ye, what you're meant to be.

S.-S. I can't imagine that I'm good for much.

DEM. Alas! But why do ye say so? What's the meaning

Of these misgivings? I discern within ye A promise and an inward consciousness Of greatness. Tell me truly: are ye allied To the families of gentry?

S.-S. Naugh, not I;

I'm come from a common ordinary kindred, Of the lower order.

DEM. What a happiness!

What a footing will it give ye! What a groundwork For confidence and favour at your outset!

S.-S. But bless ye! only consider my education!

I can but barely read.... in a kind of way.

DEM. That makes against ye!--the only thing against ye--

The being able to read, in any way: For now no lead nor influence is allowed To liberal arts or learned education, But to the brutal, base, and underbred. Embrace then and hold fast the promises Which the oracles of the gods announce to you.

[Footnote: Aristoph. Knights. 155.--Translation by Frere.]

We have here an illustration, one among many that might be given, of the political equality that prevailed in Athens. It shows us how completely that distinction between the military or governing, and the productive class, which belonged to the normal Greek conception of the state, had been broken down, on the side at least of privilege and right, though not on that of social estimation, in this most democratic of the ancient states. Politically, the Athenian trader and the Athenian artisan was the equal of the aristocrat of purest blood; and so far the government of Athens was a genuine democracy.

But so far only. For in Athens, as in every Greek state, the greater part of the population was unfree; and the government which was a democracy from the point of view of the freeman, was an oligarchy from the point of view of the slave. For the slaves, by the nature of their position, had no political rights; and they were more than half of the population. It is noticeable, however, that the freedom and individuality which was characteristic of the Athenian citizen, appears to have reacted favourably on the position of the slaves. Not only had they, to a certain extent, the protection of the law against the worst excesses of their masters, but they were allowed a license of bearing and costume which would not have been tolerated in any other state. A contemporary writer notes that in dress and general appearance Athenian slaves were not to be distinguished from citizens; that they were permitted perfect freedom of speech; and that it was open to them to acquire a fortune and to live in ease and luxury. In Sparta, he says, the slave stands in fear of the freeman, but in Athens this is not the case; and certainly the bearing of the slaves introduced into the Athenian comedy does not indicate any undue subservience. Slavery at the best is an undemocratic institution; but in Athens it appears to have been made as democratic as its nature would admit.

We find then, in the Athenian state, the conception of equality pushed to the farthest extreme at all compatible with Greek ideas; pushed, we may fairly say, at last to an undue excess; for the great days of Athens were those when she was still under the influence of her aristocracy, and when the popular zeal evoked by her free institutions was directed by members of the leisured and cultivated class. The most glorious age of Athenian history closes with the death of Pericles; and Pericles was a man of noble family, freely chosen, year after year, by virtue of his personal qualities, to exercise over this democratic nation a dictatorship of character and brain. It is into his mouth that Thucydides has put that great panegyric of Athens, which sets forth to all time the type of an ideal state and the record of what was at least partially achieved in the greatest of the Greek cities:

"Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. We do not copy our neighbours, but are 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 the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognised; 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 a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour 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 intercourse, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for authority and for the laws, having an especial regard for those which are ordained for the protection of the injured, as well as for those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

"And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; at home the style of our life is refined; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish melancholy. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us, so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own.

"Then again, our military training is in many respects superior to that of our adversaries. Our city is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management and trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are ready to face the perils which they face.

"If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the gainers? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; and thus too our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness.

"Wealth we employ, not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy. The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who have the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, but do not on that account shrink from danger.

"To sum up, I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state. For in the hour of trial Athens alone among her contemporaries is superior to the report of her. No enemy who comes against her is indignant at the reverses which he sustains at the hands of such a city; no subject complains that his masters are unworthy of him. And we shall assuredly not be without witnesses; there are mighty monuments of our power which will make us the wonder of this and of succeeding ages: we shall not need the praises of Homer or of any other panegyrist, whose poetry may please for the moment, although his representation of the facts will not bear the light of day. For we have compelled every land, every sea, to open a path for our valour, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity." [Footnote: Thuc. ii. 37.--Translated by Jowett.]

An impression so superb as this it is almost a pity to mar with the inevitable complement of disaster and decay. But our account of the Athenian polity would be misleading and incomplete if we did not indicate how the idea of equality, on which it turned, defeated itself, as did, in Sparta, the complementary idea of order, by the excesses of its own development. Already before the close of the fifth century, and with reiterated emphasis in the earlier decades of the fourth, we hear from poets and orators praise of a glorious past that is dead, and denunciations of a decadent present. The ancient training in gymnastics, we are told, the ancient and generous culture of mind and soul, is neglected and despised by a generation of traders; reverence for age and authority, even for law, has disappeared; and in the train of these have gone the virtues they engendered and nurtured. Cowardice has succeeded to courage, disorder to discipline; the place of the statesman is usurped by the demagogue; and instead of a nation of heroes, marshalled under the supremacy of the wise and good, modern Athens presents to view a disordered and competitive mob, bent only on turning each to his own personal advantage the now corrupt machinery of administration and law.

And however much exaggeration there may be in these denunciations and regrets, we know enough of the interior working of the institutions of Athens to see that she had to pay in licence and in fraud the bitter price of equality and freedom. That to the influence of disinterested statesmen succeeded, as the democracy accentuated itself, the tyranny of unscrupulous demagogues, is evidenced by the testimony, not only of the enemies of popular government, but by that of a democrat so convinced as Demosthenes. "Since these orators have appeared," he says, "who ask, What is your pleasure? what shall I move? how can I oblige you? the public welfare is complimented away for a moment's popularity, and these are the results; the orators thrive, you are disgraced.... Anciently the people, having the courage to be soldiers, controlled the statesmen, and disposed of all emoluments; any of the rest were happy to receive from the people his share of honour, office, or advantage. Now, contrariwise, the statesmen dispose of emoluments; through them everything is done; you, the people, enervated, stripped of treasure and allies, are become as underlings and hangers-on, happy if these persons dole you out show- money or send you paltry beeves; and, the unmanliest part of all, you are grateful for receiving your own." [Footnote: Dem. 01. iii.-- Translation by Kennedy.]

And this indictment is amply confirmed from other sources. We know that the populace was demoralised by payments from the public purse; that the fee for attendance in the Assembly attracted thither, as ready instruments in the hands of ambitious men, the poorest and most degraded of the citizens; that the fees of jurors were the chief means of subsistence for an indigent class, who had thus a direct interest in the multiplication of suits; and that the city was infested by a race of "sycophants", whose profession was to manufacture frivolous and vexatious indictments. Of one of these men Demosthenes speaks as follows:

"He cannot show any respectable or honest employment in which his life is engaged. His mind is not occupied in promoting any political good; he attends not to any trade, or husbandry, or other business; he is connected with no one by ties of humanity or social union: but he walks through the market-place like a viper or a scorpion, with his sting up- lifted, hastening here and there, and looking out for someone whom he may bring into a scrape, or fasten some calumny or mischief upon, and put in alarm in order to extort money." [Footnote: Demosth. in Aristogeit. A. 62.--Translated by C. R. Kennedy.]

From all this we may gather an idea of the way in which the Athenian democracy by its own development destroyed itself. Beginning, on its first emergence from an earlier aristocratic phase, with an energy that inspired without shattering the forms of discipline and law, it dissolved by degrees this coherent whole into an anarchy of individual wills, drawn deeper and deeper, in pursuit of mean and egoistic ends, into political fraud and commercial chicanery, till the tradition of the gentleman and the soldier was choked by the dust of adventurers and swindlers, and the people, whose fathers had fought and prevailed at Marathon and Salamis, fell as they deserved, by treachery from within as much as by force from without, into the grasp of the Macedonian conqueror.

Section 11. Sceptical Criticism of the Basis of the State.

Having thus supplemented our general account of the Greek conception of the state by a description of their two most prominent polities, it remains for us in conclusion briefly to trace the negative criticism under whose attack that conception threatened to dissolve.

We have quoted, in an earlier part of this chapter, a striking passage from Demosthenes, embodying that view of the objective validity of law under which alone political institutions can be secure. "That is law," said the orator, "which all men ought to obey for many reasons, and especially because every law is an invention and gift of the gods, a resolution of wise men, a correction of errors intentional and unintentional, a compact of the whole state, according to which all who belong to the state ought to live." That is the conception of law which the citizens of any stable state must be prepared substantially to accept, for it is the condition of that fundamental belief in established institutions which alone can make it worth while to adapt and to improve them. It was, accordingly, the conception tacitly, at least, accepted in Greece, during the period of her constructive vigour. But it is a conception constantly open to attack. For law, at any given moment, even under the most favourable conditions, cannot do more than approximate to its own ideal. It is, at best, but a rough attempt at that reconciliation of conflicting interests towards which the reason of mankind is always seeking; and even in well-ordered states there must always be individuals and classes who resent, and rightly resent it, as unjust. But the Greek states, as we have seen, were not well-ordered; on the contrary, they were always on the verge, or in the act, of civil war; and the conception of law, as "a compact of the whole state, according to which all who belong to the state ought to live," must have been, at the least, severely tried, in cities permanently divided into two factions, each intent not merely on defeating the other, but on excluding it altogether from political rights. Such conditions, in fact, must have irresistibly suggested the criticism, which always dogs the idea of the state, and against which its only defence is in a perpetual perfection of itself--the criticism that law, after all, is only the rule of the strong, and justice the name under which they gloze their usurpation. That is a point of view which, even apart from their political dissensions, would hardly have escaped the subtle intellect of the Greeks; and in fact, from the close of the fifth century onwards, we find it constantly canvassed and discussed.

The mind of Plato, in particular, was exercised by this contention; and it was, one may say, a main object of his teaching to rescue the idea of justice from identification with the special interest of the strong, and re-affirm it as the general interest of all. For this end, he takes occasion to state, with the utmost frankness and lucidity, the view which it is his intention to refute; and consequently it is in his works that we find the fullest exposition of the destructive argument he seeks to answer.

Briefly, that argument runs as follows:--It is the law of nature that the strong shall rule; a law which every one recognises in fact, though every one repudiates it in theory. Government therefore simply means the rule of the strong, and exists, no matter what its form, whether tyranny, oligarchy, or democracy, in the interests not of its subjects but of itself. "Justice" and "Law" are the specious names it employs to cloak its own arbitrary will; they have no objective validity, no reference to the well-being of all; and it is only the weak and the foolish on whom they impose. Strong and original natures sweep away this tangle of words, assert themselves in defiance of false shame, and claim the right divine that is theirs by nature, to rule at their will by virtue of their strength. "Each government," says Thrasymachus in the Republic, "has its laws framed to suit its own interests; a democracy making democratic laws; an autocrat despotic laws, and so on. Now by this procedure these governments have pronounced that what is for the interest of themselves is just for their subjects; and whoever deviates from this, is chastised by them as guilty of illegality and injustice. Therefore, my good sir, my meaning is, that in all cities the same thing, namely, the interest of the established government is just. And superior strength, I presume, is to be found on the side of government. So that the conclusion of right reasoning is, that the same thing, namely, the interest of the stronger, is everywhere just." [Footnote: Plato, Rep. 338.--Translated by Davies and Vaughan.]

Here is an argument which strikes at the root of all subordination to the state, setting the subject against the ruler, the minority against the majority, with an emphasis of opposition that admits of no conceivable reconciliation. And, as we have noticed, it was an argument to which the actual political conditions of Greece gave a strong show of plausibility.

How then did the constructive thinkers of Greece attempt to meet it?

The procedure adopted by Plato is curiously opposed to that which might seem natural to a modern thinker on politics. The scepticism which was to be met, having sprung from the extremity of class-antagonism, it might be supposed that the cure would be sought in some sort of system of equality. Plato's idea is precisely the contrary. The distinction between classes he exaggerates to its highest point; only he would have it depend on degrees, not of wealth, but of excellence. In the ideal republic which he constructs as a type of a state where justice should really rule, he sets an impassable gulf between the governing class and the governed; each is specially trained and specially bred for its appropriate function; and the harmony between them is ensured by the recognition, on either part, that each is in occupation of the place for which it is naturally fitted in that whole to which both alike are subordinate. Such a state, no doubt, if ever it had been realised in practice, would have been a complete reply to the sceptical argument; for it would have established a "justice" which was the expression not of the caprice of the governing class, but of the objective will of the whole community. But in practice such a state was not realised in Greece; and the experience of the Greek world does not lead us to suppose that it was capable of realisation. The system of stereotyping classes--in a word, of caste--which has played so great a part in the history of the world, does no doubt embody a great truth, that of natural inequality; and this truth, as we saw, was at the bottom of that Greek conception of the state, of which the "Republic" of Plato is an idealising caricature. But the problem is to make the inequality of nature really correspond to the inequality imposed by institutions. This problem Plato hoped to solve by a strict public control of the marriage relation, so that none should be born into any class who were not naturally fitted to be members of it; but as a matter of fact the difficulty has never been met; and the system of caste remains open to the reproach that its "justice" is conventional and arbitrary, not the expression of the objective nature and will of all classes and members of the community.

The attempt of Aristotle to construct a state that should be the embodiment of justice is similar to Plato's so far as the relation of classes is concerned. He, too, postulates a governing class of soldiers and councillors, and a subject class of productive labourers. When, however, he turns from the ideal to practical politics, and considers merely how to avoid the worst extremes of party antagonism, his solution is the simple and familiar one of the preponderance of the middle class. The same view was dominant both in French and English politics from the year 1830 onwards, and is only now being thrust aside by the democratic ideal. In Greece it was never realised except as a passing phase in the perpetual flux of polities. And in fine it may be said that the problem of establishing a state which should be a concrete refutation of the sceptical criticism that "justice" is merely another name for force, was one that was never solved in ancient Greece. The dissolution of the idea of the state was more a symptom than a cause of its failure in practice to harmonise its warring elements. And Greece, divided into conflicting polities, each of which again was divided within itself, passed on to Macedon and thence to Rome that task of reconciling the individual and the class with the whole, about which the political history of the world turns.

Section 12. Summary.

We have now given some account of the general character of the Greek state, the ideas that underlay it, and the criticism of those ideas suggested by the course of history and formulated by speculative thought. It remains to offer certain reflections on the political achievement of the Greeks, and its relation to our own ideas.

The fruitful and positive aspect of the Greek state, that which fastens upon it the eyes of later generations as upon a model, if not to be copied, as least to be praised and admired, is that identification of the individual citizen with the corporate life, which delivered him from the narrow circle of personal interests into a sphere of wider views and higher aims. The Greek citizen, as we have seen, in the best days of the best states, in Athens for example in the age of Pericles, was at once a soldier and a politician; body and mind alike were at his country's service; and his whole ideal of conduct was inextricably bound up with his intimate and personal participation in public affairs. If now with this ideal we contrast the life of an average citizen in a modern state, the absorption in private business and family concerns, the "greasy domesticity" (to use a phrase of Byron's), that limits and clouds his vision of the world, we may well feel that the Greeks had achieved something which we have lost, and may even desire to return, so far as we may, upon our steps, and to re-establish that interpenetration of private and public life by which the individual citizen was at once depressed and glorified.

It may be doubted, however, whether such a procedure would be in any way possible or desirable. For in the first place, the existence of the Greek citizen depended upon that of an inferior class who were regarded not as ends in themselves, but as means to his perfection. And that is an arrangement which runs directly counter to the modern ideal. All modern societies aim, to this extent at least, at equality, that their tendency, so far as it is conscious and avowed, is not to separate off a privileged class of citizens, set free by the labour of others to live the perfect life, but rather to distribute impartially to all the burdens and advantages of the state, so that every one shall be at once a labourer for himself and a citizen of the state. But this ideal is clearly incompatible with the Greek conception of the citizen. It implies that the greater portion of every man's life must be devoted to some kind of mechanical labour, whose immediate connection with the public good, though certain, is remote and obscure; and that in consequence a deliberate and unceasing preoccupation with the end of the state becomes as a general rule impossible.

And, in the second place, the mere complexity and size of a modern state is against the identification of the man with the citizen. For, on the one hand, public issues are so large and so involved that it is only a few who can hope to have any adequate comprehension of them; and on the other, the subdivision of functions is so minute that even when a man is directly employed in the service of the state his activity is confined to some highly specialised department. He must choose, for example, whether he will be a clerk in the treasury or a soldier; but he cannot certainly be both. In the Greek state any citizen could undertake, simultaneously or in succession, and with complete comprehension and mastery, every one of the comparatively few and simple public offices; in a modern state such an arrangement has become impossible. The mere mechanical and physical conditions of our life preclude the ideal of the ancient citizen.

But, it may be said, the activity of the citizen of a modern state should be and increasingly will be concerned not with the whole but with the part. By the development of local institutions he will come, more and more, to identify himself with the public life of his district and his town; and will bear to that much the same relation as was borne by the ancient Greek to his city state. Certainly so far as the limitation of area, and the simplicity and intelligibility of issues is concerned, such an analogy might be fairly pressed; and it is probably in connection with such local areas that the average citizen does and increasingly will become aware of his corporate relations. But, on the other hand, it can hardly be maintained that public business in this restricted sense either could or should play the part in the life of the modern man that it played in that of the ancient Greek. For local business after all is a matter of sewers and parks; and however great the importance of such matters may be, and however great their claim upon the attention of competent men, yet the kind of interest they awaken and the kind of faculties they employ can hardly be such as to lead to the identification of the individual ideal with that of public activity. The life of the Greek citizen involved an exercise, the finest and most complete, of all his powers of body, soul, and mind; the same can hardly be said of the life of a county councillor, even of the best and most conscientious of them. And the conclusion appears to be, that that fusion of public and private life which was involved in the ideal of the Greek citizen, was a passing phase in the history of the world; that the state can never occupy again the place in relation to the individual which it held in the cities of the ancient world; and that an attempt to identify in a modern state the ideal of the man with that of the citizen, would be an historical anachronism.

Nor is this a conclusion which need be regretted. For as the sphere of the state shrinks, it is possible that that of the individual may be enlarged. The public side of human life, it may be supposed, will become more and more mechanical, as our understanding and control of social forces grow. But every reduction to habit and rule of what were once spiritual functions, implies the liberation of the higher powers for a possible activity in other regions. And if advantage were taken of this opportunity, the inestimable compensation for the contraction to routine of the life of the citizen would be the expansion into new spheres of speculation and passion of the freer and more individual life of the man.

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