The roots of freedom: Athens

Freedom has been a scarce commodity in history.  As late as mid-twentieth century, around the time I was born, only a handful of countries were truly democratic, and several of those hung by a thread.  The vast bulk of the human race suffered under various forms of despotism.  That’s the way it had always been.  We should remember this fact, as we pursue, as a nation, “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

We are told by anthropologists that our ancestral folk, as hunter gatherers, lived relatively free lives.  But from the first human settlements, the first large populations, we have organized in hierarchies, at the top of which was a Big Man, or a Chief, or a Pharaoh, who monopolized brute power, and whose word couldn’t be questioned.  The rise of civilization accelerated the process:  socially as well as architecturally, complex communities tended to begin with a pyramid age.

The first break in this pattern took place in ancient Greece:  specifically, in Athens.  Now, let’s dispense the apologetics:  yes, Athenian women were treated only marginally better than Saudi women are today, and yes, 100,000 slaves did the work that allowed Athenian citizens the leisure to rule themselves.  (Actually, the slaves, if they could avoid being sent to the mines, had a far better existence than African slaves in the American South, whereas the women of Athens were less free than those of Sparta.)  But unfreedom had been the human condition for thousands of years.  The miracle of Athens was that it devised a system of government in which power was subservient to the citizenry.

We should not feel too superior to the Athenians when it comes to freedom.  We object to their women and their slaves; they, with equal justice, may wonder across the gulf of time how a citizen class that abdicates power to a few individuals can call itself free.

Read The Classical Athenian Democracy, by David Stockton.  The reach and influence of the average Athenian citizen was astonishing, far beyond the possibilities of most citizens in a modern democracy.  Brought together in the Assembly, they decided all matters of state; brought together as jurors, they dispensed justice, which was, to an Athenian, the supreme goal of a free way of life.  Stockton observes that there were no plebeian secessions or working-class riots in Athens.  The only subversives were aristocrats.

How, in a world of Oriental despotism, did the Athenians manage to become free?  This question can be phrased more pointedly:  How does freedom happen?  I’m aware of no research on the subject.  It may be that, under the spell of Locke and Jefferson, we have come to assume that freedom is a natural condition, and it is tyranny rather that needs explaining.  Yet what may be true in nature is surely not true in history:  we still need an explanation of how, historically, freedom can arise in a despotic world.

One can take a Cromwellian approach (possibly shared by President Bush), and discern in every outbreak of freedom something providential.  This would be tough to prove from the early history of Athens.  Freedom there seems wholly accidental.  A chaotic series of breakdowns, reforms, populist tyrants, wars, and further reforms led in a zigzag line to democracy.

Government in the city was never dedicated to a “proposition,” an idea that would have sounded ludicrous to Athenians.  They believed in their way of life:  in their customs and traditions, not in theoretical abstractions.  Consequently, unlike the American Founding Fathers, they became free before they were aware of it.

Is freedom an accident?  If that is the case, then the President’s “freedom policy” is doomed from the start:  duplicating the twists and turns of Athenian fifth-century politics, including the violence, would be a nonstarter from any number of perspectives.  I believe this is the wrong question to ask.  Most of history is accidental:  in a generous mood, Machiavelli granted that “fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves.”

At the same time, freedom isn’t an absolute, to be toggled on and off with a switch:  it’s gained or lost by degrees.  The key question, not only for Athens but also for places like the Middle East today, is:  what transpires when more and more people in a community are given an ever larger set of choices?   If we look to the effects of freedom, rather than its causes, an unmistakeable pattern emerges.

Freedom of action and the outpouring of human genius are intimately related.  Classical Athens was the first and greatest demonstration of this link.  The city began as a backwater.  It grew more prosperous, more powerful, more brilliant in the arts and sciences; it single-handedly defeated the Persians at Marathon, and led the Greek cities in a kind of mini-empire after the defeat of the second Persian invasion.

The Athenians, who were nothing if not inquiring, asked themselves:  how did this change from backwater to greatness come about?  The answer was obvious.  As freedom advanced, so did Athenian greatness in every field of human activity.

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.  . . . 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.

Thus Pericles in the funeral oration.  His generation, and those that came immediately before and after, saw an explosion of genius unparalleled in history down to our time.  In politics, history, mathematics, moral philosophy, art, architecture, drama, comedy, Athenian invention broke through the crust of custom to new ways of thinking and living, which remain woven into our moral and intellectual fabric today.  Genius, after all, thrives in freedom because freedom makes room for the new.

Can American democracy learn anything from Athens?  The two systems could not be more unlike.  In America, we separate the “powers” yet delegate all power to “representatives,” whether elected or appointed.  In Athens, the people maintained undivided sway over all aspects of government, yet did so directly and with great distrust of individuals, whom we would call representatives:  the Council was chosen by lot, for example, and no one could hold office more than once in a lifetime.  Such distrust of representatives was based on a natural fear of corruption.

The wisdom of representative democracy is, I think, beyond dispute.  The United States has succeeded with its system, much as Athens did, rising from a backwater to become the greatest and most prosperous nation ever.  From a practical standpoint, in any case, it would be impossible for the 120 million voters who participated in the 2004 elections to somehow assume direct control of the government.

Still, the problem of corruption is no less serious for us than for the Athenians.  They worried about leaving one person in office for too long; maybe we should too.  We should, in that case, revisit the idea of term limits for congressmen, Senators, and magistrates, and we should wholeheartedly support the California reapportionment initiative that will be voted on November of this year, to remove the right of elected officials to draw uncompetitive districts.

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