There is much profit in our study of the rise and fall of classical Greek – or Athenian – culture and imperial power. The Greeks were, in many ways, emblematic of “the human as such” – both individually and communally – and their chief artists and philosophers seem, uncannily, to have been cognizant of their paradigmatic-archetypal character as events were unfolding. Witness Thucydides’ remarks about his own History of the Peloponnesian War:
The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (I, 22)
Cleisthenes (b. 570 B.C.E.), a born aristocrat, recognized that without the backing, or at least the compliance, of “the people” (the demos), the old, traditional aristocracy was doomed. The democratic reforms – giving those who had hitherto been excluded from policy-making a real stake in political-cultural affairs – were absolutely crucial to the astonishing victories against the gigantic and hegemonic Persian Empire, which led, in turn, to the growth of the Athenian commercial-naval-political empire.
The unleashing and canalization of all that untapped power and talent in the common people made all of this possible, and after Pericles’ death during the plague at Athens (in the middle of the expansionist war against Sparta), the mad scramble to fill the power vacuum on the part of unwise, demagogic flatterers of the people led eventually to the disintegration and defeat of the empire (with the disastrous Sicilian expedition).
In more recent times, we can see an analogous pattern played out with the weakening of aristocratic privilege and power – after the French Revolution – and the rise of empowered commoners via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism-consumerism. The power and talent that were needed to produce the economically obsessed, technocratic world we live in today were excited and liberated by thinkers and reformers who, for the most part, challenged aristocratic institutions and privileges. These thinkers and reformers (Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, etc.) seem, in retrospect, to have been far more concerned with material and mundane issues than with spiritual and (traditionally) moral questions. The lures of power (individual/national) and personal freedom (usually understood in political and economic terms) were employed – either deliberately or automatically – to appeal to those commoners whose formerly frustrated/religiously prohibited ambitions and desires could provide the propulsive force needed to build the consumerist (consuming) world we now inhabit. This is the only world that most of us have ever known or will ever know. This sort of society depends, for its continued survival, upon the arousal, mobilization, and conscription of the collective desires and cravings of the more or less compliant and obedient masses.
After the devastating and exhausting defeats suffered by the reckless, over-reaching Athenians during the long war against the Spartans, things would never be the same. After Socrates – who had been sharply critical of his fellow Athenians for their follies and injustices – had been snuffed out by the very democracy that had tolerated him for 70 years, a chastened Athens was gradually transformed into the renowned cradle of arts and learning for which we remember her after all these centuries. But this renown was earned by courageous and profoundly reflective minds – figures like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and others – who, rather than allowing themselves to become dizzily intoxicated and thrown off balance by the enormous power surge that was produced during Athens’ democratic-imperial rise, chose the path of wisdom and virtue rather than the path of excess and worldly gain that most others chose. Who is our Sophocles? Our Socrates? Who, on our televisions and in our universities, sounds even remotely similar to Thucydides or Plato? Do we not, instead, see only Alcibiades, Cleon, Callicles, and Thrasymachus?