Sunday, August 17, 2008

Athens (4th Century); Will Durant; Plato; Aristotle; Dionysus; Philip of Macedon; parallels to 21st Century U.S.

I have recently read portions of Will Durant's Life of Greece, written in 1939. I was struck by common themes appearing in the book and our own era. These excerpts contain dire warnings for our own time. Remember two things as you read these passages:

(1) Will Durant wrote these words before our current political, economic and moral problems had fully taken shape. He was not taking sides in our current battles. He had never heard of George W. Bush. He might have anticipated, but had not experienced, the modern state of the 21st Century Democrat party. He had no axe to grind in our modern day political wars. If anything, Durant was a liberal, having left the Catholic Church due to his atheism and having adopted socialism in his youth (he had also affiliated with many of the leftist icons of the early 20th Century such as Margaret Sanger and John Dewey). Durant described the decline of ancient Athens from a purely historical perspective without anticipating how this description could be used in our century.

(2) This story ends badly.

In the 4th Century B.C., the Golden Age of Athens had recently ended. Athens had entered into a period of decline. Athens was beset by many problems that will sound familiar to those of us that must endure the 21st Century A.D.

First of all, decades of class warfare incited by demagogues finally took their effect on government policy [including tax policy]:

In this conflict more and more of the intellectual classes took the side of the poor. They disdained the merchants and the bankers whose wealth seemed to be in inverse proportion to their culture and taste; even rich men among them, like Plato, began to flirt with communistic ideas...finally the poorer citizens captured the Assembly, and began to vote the property of the rich into the coffers of the state for redistribution among the needy and the voters through state enterprises and fees. The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue. They doubled the indirect taxes...they resorted
every now and then to confiscations and expropriations; and they broadened the field of the property-income tax to include lower levels of wealth...the result of these imposts was a wholesale hiding of wealth and income. Evasion became universal, and as ingenious as taxation. In 355 Androtion was appointed to head a squad of police empowered to search for hidden income, collect arrears, and inprison tax invaders. Houses were entered, goods were seized, men were thrown into jail. But the wealth still hid itself, or melted away...the middle classes, as well as the rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor began to distrust it as a sham equality of votes staultified by a gaping inequality of wealth. The increasing bitterness of the class war left Greece internally as well as internationally divided when Philip [Macedonian King] pounced down upon it...
[pp. 465-466]

The class warfare, resulting welfare state, inevitable confiscatory taxation and widespread tax evasion amounted to only one aspect of Athenian decline.
Moral disorder accompanied the growth of luxury and the enlightenment of the mind. The masses cherished their superstitions and clung to their myths; the gods of Olympus were dying, but new ones were being born; exotic divinities like Isis and Ammon, Atys and Bendis, Cybele and Adonis were imported from Egypt or Asia, and the spread of Orphism brought fresh devotees to Dionysus every day. The rising and half-alien bourgeoisie of Athens, trained to practical calculation rather than to mystic feeling, had little use for the traditional faith; the patron gods of the city won from them only a formal reverence, and no longer inspired them with moral scruples or devotion to the state. Philosophy struggled to find in civic loyalty and a natural ethic some substitiute for divine commandments and surveillant deity; the state religion lost its hold upon the educated classes, the individual freed himself more and more from the old moral restraints-the son from parental authority, the male from marriage, the woman from motherhood, the citizen from political responsibility...[S]exual and political morality continued to decline. Bachelors and courtesans increased in fashionable co-operation, and free unions gained ground on legal marriage...the voluntary limitation of the family was the order of the day, whether by contraception, by abortion, or by infanticide...the old families were dying out; they existed, said Isocrates, only in their tombs;...
[pp. 467-468]

As religion and demographics declined, other aspects of Athenian life changed also:
Atheletics were professionalized; the citizens who in the sixth century had crowded the palaestra and the gymnasium were now content to exert themselves vicariously by witnessing professional exhibitions.
[p. 468]

Athenian ruins

In 4th Century B.C. Athens, there was little distinction between lawyers and politicians - and little apparent distinction from our own modern politicians:
...the rhetors or hired orators who in this century became professional lawyers and politicians. Some of these men, like Lycurgus, were reasonably honest; some of them, like Hypereides, were gallant; most of them were no better than they had to be. If we may take Aristotle's word for it, many of them specialized in invalidating wills. Several of them laid up great fortunes through political opportunism and reckless demagogy. The rhetors divided into parties and tore the air with their campaigns. Each party organized committees, invented catchwords, appointed agents, and raised funds; those who paid the expenses of all this frankly confessed that they expected to "reimburse themselves doubly." (Citation omitted.) As politics grew more intense, patriotism waned; the bitterness of faction absorbed public energy and devotion, and left little for the city.
[p. 469]


Durant had a way of summing up diverse elements into a powerful conclusion:
As civilization develops, as customs, institutions, laws, and morals more and more restrict the operation of natural impulses, action gives way to thought, achievement to imagination, directness to subtly, expression to concealment, cruelty to sympathy, belief to doubt; the unity of character common to animals and primative man passes away; behavior becomes fragmentary and hesitant, conscious and calculating; the williness to fight subsides into a disposition to infinite argument. Few nations have been able to reach intellectual refinement and esthetic sensitivity without sacrificing so much in virility and unity that their wealth presents an irresistable temptation to impecunious barbarians. Around every Rome hover the Gauls; around every Athens some Macedon.
[p. 470]

And around the United States hover Islam, Mexico, etc.

The conditions about which Durant wrote ended when Athens was conquered by the Macedons later in that century. Athens could no longer resist foreign enemies. Its economy was weakened by taxation, its population depleted and demoralized by Athens' own sexual revolution and its civic life destroyed by political activity in which Athenians regarded each other with more hostility than any foreign enemy. Athens would disappear (and with it its contributions to art, science, literature, etc.) as it was absorbed into the Macedonian empire of Philip and Alexander. While the Macedonian empire would briefly rule the known world, it, too, ultimately ended as Greece, itself, would disappear from the world map for 2000 years.

Moral decay, high taxes, redistribution of wealth, government programs, class warfare, etc. have consequences. Those consequences last far beyond the temporary political advantage that one faction may gain in the present. Future archeologists may find names like Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons or John Edwards in the ruins of our civilization. But those names and their "achievements" will pale in comparison to the story of our own decline and its consequences.

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