Thursday, April 01, 2010

Adverso Athens I

Statute from the Erechtheion
Acropolis, Athens

One of the great intellectual clichés in the Western intellectual tradition is the anti- Democratic tradition which as it roots in, and is part and parcel of the anti-Athenian mythos, that demonizes Athenian Democracy and celebrates intellectual contempt for it.

Of course up front or barely behind a thin screen the anti-Athenian intellectual tradition can barely hide its utter contempt for Democracy. From Plato to the present day, with Philosophers like Leo Strauss,1 so many cannot hide their contempt if not out and out hatred of Democracy.

Plato, a disciple of Socrates, was clear and above board with his hatred of Athenian Democracy and contrary to popular and intellectual superstition it was not the result of his anger over the death of his teacher Socrates. Rather what infuriated Plato about Athens was that it was a Democracy. The very fact that in Athens a large section of the “unwashed” masses participated in government was anathema to Plato and many of his successors.

The result was the demonization of Athens as an example of corrupt mob rule. Thus the crimes and atrocities of the Athenian Democracy were trumpeted and played up as an example of the weakness of Democracy of the incapacity of the “mob” for self rule; of the inherent wickedness of Democracy.

Thus Plato rated Democracy as the worst form of government except for Tyranny and in fact considered Democracy a form of Tyranny.2 In Plato’s eyes rule by the “mob” was a tyranny over the “best”, who a Democracy treated un-fairly because in a Democracy all were treated alike and of course this is unfair to the “best”. Equal treatment of un-equals was to Plato a self-evident absurdity and not very different from unbridled one man Tyranny.

Thus we have the anti-Athenian tradition which has mutated into so many forms and serves so many needs, but at bottom it is nothing more than contempt for and fear of Democracy.

For centuries after the demise of Athenian Democracy it was transfigured into the great bugaboo of “mob” rule; its excesses, dwelled upon and its memory recalled with horror. It was so obvious to so many intellectuals for so many centuries that rule by the “mob” was a self evident evil of the highest sort to be fought against and crushed if anything like it emerged again.3 Of course the real bugaboo was the terror that various political elites, and their intellectual lap dogs had of losing power to the “mob”.

Of course the emergence of modern Democracy has led to a re-evaluation of Athenian Democracy, but this re-evaluation is only partial, beneath the lip service to Democracy is barely concealed contempt, in some cases amounting to hatred.

Thus we have people like the Philosopher Leo Strauss, whose writings exert a baneful influence on modern day intellectual discourse. Leo Strauss made the usual lip service noise of approval for the modern Democratic state, yet behind his lip service was nothing but derision and contempt.

Leo Strauss was not concerned with Democracy or the rights of the “mob” but with those rare individuals of “special nature”, Philosophers. Leo Strauss was concerned about protecting the interests and protection of this elite which he “knew” was superior to everyone else. Thus the Philosopher must do everything to protect this elite. And what was the chief fear of this elite? Why persecution at the hands of the “mob”. Thus Philosophers must disguise their true opinions, which are only fit for a small superior elite anyway, from the “mob”. Also the “mob” must be deluded, deceived and denied those truths which the Philosopher knows least they rise up and destroy the philosophers and the quiet repose they need. (Much of which seems to consist of contemplating their own superiority)4

Thus Democracy must be emptied of content and the “mob” manipulated and lied too so that the Philosophical elite can have the quiet contemplative life it needs. So the “mob” must be deceived, tricked and manipulated with pious lies like religion, etc, because otherwise if it knows the truth all hell will break loose. To Leo Strauss Religion, God etc, are lies but necessary lies so that society can function, so too is patriotism. All are designed to keep the “mob” at bay so that the Philosopher can contemplate how much better he is than the common man.5

Other variations of this hatred of Democracy involve such things as certain types of Libertarianism, whose radical individualism contemplates giving to courts enormous power and a radical distrust of humans doing things collectively. It is remarkable that whereas some Libertarians believe that people acting collectively in the form of government is almost always Tyranny, decisions made by courts to settle disputes in the anarchic, Darwinian world they favour is just peachy. The fact that if anything Judicial Tyranny under those sorts of arrangements, to say nothing of Economic Tyranny, would be both unbridled and unchecked.6

Another example of the hatred of Democracy is the nostalgia for a rural Democracy. This is evident in the works of Victor Davis Hansen. Victor Davis Hansen is a Classicalist of some renown and the author of several fairly good books about the Classical world. He is however also an intellectual fool when it comes to Democracy. Strong in his writings about Ancient Greece is contempt for Athenian Democracy because it involved, horror of horrors!, City dwellers, Artisans, Day labourers, the great unwashed city “mob”. Victor Davis Hansen’s ideal Democracy is of stout Yeoman Farmers, who are models of integrity and self-reliance.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the simple-minded country nostalgia of this image. It is a fantasy constructed out of late twentieth and early twenty-first century fantasy about country life combined with the hoary myth of the corruption of city life. It is simply reactionary wish fulfillment. Thus Victor Davis Hansen is not impressed at all with Athenian Democracy, it is too commercial, too urban for him, instead he fantasizes about ancient Thebes in Greece as a sturdy farmers Democracy. The climax of this fantasy is Hanson’s opinion that the foundation of American Democracy is stout, self reliant farmers. Victor Davis Hansen owns a farm and considers himself a farmer. Of course he is basically just a businessman running an enterprise, not the mythical sturdy farmer Yeoman. That is pure illusion. Of course Victor Davis Hansen forgets that farmers make up less than 2% of the work force in the United States. He also forgets that the self-reliance of the American Farmer is a joke, in that they benefit from subsidies etc., galore. Many of them are in fact massive suckers on the public teat. Another subsidy is of course the massive use of foreign labour, both legal and illegal. Victor Davis Hansen does mention the foreign workers he exploits, but only to disparage them.7

Another variation of the anti-Athenian tradition is the one that concentrates on Athens being male dominated, macho and oppressive to women and others. Unlike the other variation on this tradition this one has the virtue of actually having some truth in it. Yes Athenian society was very oppressive to women. It was not particularly pleasant being a woman in Classical Athens. Exactly how this translates into a condemnation of Athenian Democracy is beyond me.8

The sins of Athens are not forgiven or excused or even understood in this tradition they are simply condemned. The terrible fear of “mob” rule is behind all that. Athens is the example of Democracy out of control or unbridled “mob” rule. It is a warning that Democracy must be contained and channelled so that it does not get out of control and do terrible things.

Thus we read that Athens is a living example about the dangers of Democracies going to war and how they are generally “incompetent” at it.9

All in all the anti-Athenian tradition as many variations but at bottom it is contempt for Democracy. Later in other postings I will discuss other aspects of the anti-Athenian tradition.

1. The best overview of the Political opinions of Leo Strauss that indicate his profound contempt for Democracy is Drury, Shadia, B., The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Updated Edition, Palgrave, New York, 2005, see pp. 90-113, 170-181.

2. Popper, Karl, R., The Open Society and Its Enemies, v. 1: The Spell of Plato, pp. 35-56, see also Plato, Great Dialogues of Plato, The Republic, Mentor Books, New York, 1956, pp. 118-422.

3. Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert, Athens on Trial, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994, pp. 97-118, 137-155.

4. Drury, pp. 193-202.

5. IBID, pp. 151-181.

6. There are many Libertarian Websites see for example the Cato Institute Here. For a brief Critique of Libertarian ideas see Chomsky, Noam, Understanding Power, The New Press, New York, 2002, p. 200.

7. Hanson, Victor Davis, The Western Way of War, Second Edition, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, The Soul of Battle, Anchor Books, New York, 1999, Fields Without Dreams, Free Press, New York, 1997.

8. See Keuls, Eva C., The Reign of the Phallus, Second Edition, University of California Press, 1993.

9. for examples of the idea that Democracies are incompetent at war making see Kagan Donald, The Fall of the Athenian Empire, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1987. Kagan believes that Athens was at its best when it was ruled by Pericles so that it was in effect ruled by one man, or so he thinks. See also Fuller, J.F.C., A Military History of the Western World, v 1, 3, Da Capo Press, New York, 1954, 1956, v. 1 pp. 53-80, (The siege of Syracuse 415-413 B.C. E.) v. 3, pp. 229-264 (Gallipoli 1915-1916 C.E.). Fuller believes that Democracies are incompetent in waging war. Fuller does not explain how then Democracies managed to win both the First and Second World Wars.

Other Sources, including Information on Athenian Democracy and how it worked see:

Aristotle, (Attributed too), The Athenian Constitution, Penguin Books, London, 1984. The primary ancient source on Athenian Democracy.

Finley, M. I., Democracy Ancient and Modern, Second Edition, The Hogarth Press, London,1985, Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 60-87.

Ober, Josiah, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1989.

Rhodes, P. J., (Editor), Athenian Democracy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004.

Wiseman, T. P., Classics in Progress, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.

De Ste. Croix, G.E.M., The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1981, pp. 284-288, 300-326.

Ehrenberg, Victor, From Solon to Socrates, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 1973, pp. 90-102, 209-231.

Davies, J. K., Democracy and Classical Greece, Second Edition, Fontana Press, London, 1993, pp. 87-116.

Buckley, Terry, Aspects of Greek History: 750-323 BC, Routledge, London, 1996, pp. pp. 126-143, 241-273.

Powell, Anton, Athens and Sparta, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2001, pp. 271-347.

Pierre Cloutier

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