Feb

10

I sympathize with this view.

Donald Morris, writing in June of 1993: "If all of the Greek islands were merged with the mainland, it would be about the size of Alabama; there are 10 million Greeks - and perhaps another 4 million living throughout the world who still think of themselves as Greek. They are, thanks to their history, magnificent patriots and nationalists - and abominable citizens, who deeply mistrust every government they've ever had. Essentially they are fierce individualists, who mistrust not so much whatever government happens to be in power as the very idea of government. The have almost no sense of civic responsibility - Pericles complained about this at length - and History has never given them much of a chance to work out a stable system of government. Democracy, yes (the Greeks invented it!), but stability, no."

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Mr. Morris is stretching the truth a bit about Pericles. These are the words about democracy that Thucydides puts in Pericles' mouth: "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace." Those are hardly criticisms of democracy. Neither are these (from Isocrates): "For those who directed the state in the time of Solon and Cleisthenes did not establish a polity which in name merely was hailed as the most impartial and the mildest of governments, while in practice showing itself the opposite to those who lived under it, nor one which trained the citizens in such fashion that they looked upon insolence as democracy, lawlessness as liberty, impudence of speech as equality, and license to do what they pleased as happiness, but rather a polity which detested and punished such men and by so doing made all the citizens better and wiser.""…and preferring rather that which rewards and punishes every man according to his deserts, they governed the city on this principle, not filling the offices by lot from all the citizens, but selecting the best and the ablest for each function of the state; for they believed that the rest of the people would reflect the character of those who were placed in charge of their affairs.""Furthermore they considered that this way of appointing magistrates was also more democratic than the casting of lots, since under the plan of election by lot chance would decide the issue and the partisans of oligarchy would often get the offices; whereas under the plan of selecting the worthiest men, the people would have in their hands the power to choose those who were most attached to the existing constitution.""The reason why this plan was agreeable to the majority and why they did not fight over the offices was because they had been schooled to be industrious and frugal, and not to neglect their own possessions and conspire against the possessions of others, and not to repair their own fortunes out of the public funds, but rather to help out the commonwealth, should the need arise, from their private resources, and not to know more accurately the incomes derived from the public offices than those which accrued to them from their own estates." Mr. Morris has confused the historical figure with the historian. Thucydides had very good reasons to dislike "the people"; they had exiled him from Athens for his having a case of the "slows" (see McClellan, George) in coming to relief of Amphipolis. Blaming the Greeks for having "almost no sense of civic responsibility" - i.e. trust in civil servants - is a bit like blaming Israelis for worrying about the peaceful intentions of Muslims. For all but 150 years of the 2300 since the death of Pericles the Greek peninsula has been under the rule of an autocratic government that was not Greek. As with Jews in the Diaspora Greeks learned the hard way to save their sense of civic responsibility for their clans and their religion. In that regard, they have been a model of stability; their Orthodox Christianity has the oldest unbroken lineage of ecclesiastical authority of any of the world's religions. Mr. Morris also gilds over the worst part of Greek history, which does go back to Pericles and Isocrates and, indeed, the Iliad. Factions have been all too ready to slaughter other Greeks, in the name of patriotism and nation-hood. It is that aspect of Greek history that our Constitution Founders were wary of seeing America repeat. Washington warned against "faction", not against democracy. He wanted the citizens to mistrust all parties and all exercise of government authority that was not essential for the preservation of liberty.

 


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