The Primacy of Politics in Classical Greece

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"The Primacy of Politics in Classical Greece", by Paul A. Rahe, The American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 265-293. This is a good essay on how for the ancient Greeks, the meaning of life was found in civic participation. It gave a man a way to join great things, and to make his mark. To do this, one had to have independent-- you could not depend on customers, I think, or have a boss-- and you had to have enough leisure to think and to talk about public affairs.

Here are various sentences, not consecutive:

The citizen intent on mentioning the good things in life can think only of eros, poetry, and politics while the slave in precisely the same situation ponders nothing but subsistence and the pleasures of filling his belly. The root of servility was taken to be an obsessive and degrading love of mere life.

Privacy is privative and that a life centered on domestic concerns-on Mr. Dooley's family quarrels and his drinking bouts, on love, marriage, and the never-ending struggle to make ends meet-is a life of deprivation.

This is the theme of Hannah Arendt's The Human. Condition (Chicago, 1958).

To suppose, as many scholars have, that political liberty was for the ordinary citizen of the Greek p6lis merely or even primarily instrumental is to surrender to the very incredulity that so blinded Mr. Dooley.

Much the same outlook colored the Greek view of poverty. What the Greeks feared most from penury was not the discomfort but the indignity, not the lack of security but the loss of independence.

In Greece a proud straitened circumstances was able to choose day labor over begging, but, for the sake of his freedom, he was expected to sacrifice every prospect of receiving support when weak and no longer fit for work and to prefer the instability of the labor exchange to dependency bred of prolonged employment in the service of another.45 To be brief: the ancient hierarchy is the reverse of the modern. The Greeks did not value political freedom for the sake of life, liberty, and property; they valued the last three for the sake of the first.

Of citizens of modern democracies he writes:

They possess freedom of speech, but the very size of the polities in which they reside generally robs that speech of consequence. As a result, the citizens develop a taste for domesticity. They are quick to resent any invasion of the broad realm of privacy that the regime guarantees them.

On Ferguson, Essay on the Histomy of Civil Society:

Adam Ferguson sounded the warning on the eve of the American Revolution. Perhaps because he was a Gaelic-speaker reared among the clans in the wild highlands of eighteenth-century Scotland, perhaps because he had passed nearly a decade in service as chaplain to the Black Watch, Ferguson was more acutely aware than his friends and colleagues David Hume and Adam Smith that the emergence of commercial society would inevitably be accompanied by a decline in the martial fervor that was the ultimate guarantor of political freedom. Ferguson feared "that remissness of spirit, that weakness of soul, that state of national debility, which is likely to end in political slavery." "Every successive art, by which the individual is taught to improve on his fortune, is, in reality," he observed, "an addition to his private engagements, and a new avocation of his mind from the public."

"If to any people it be the avowed object of policy, in all its internal refinements, to secure the person and property of the subject, without any regard to his political character, the constitution indeed may be free, but its members may likewise become unworthy of the freedom they possess, and unfit to preserve it.... If the pretensions to equal justice and freedom should terminate in rendering every class equally servile and mercenary, we make a nation of helots, and have no free citizens." 48 Ferguson, Essay on the Histomy of Civil Society, pt. 4, sect. 2, pt. 5, sect. 3, and pt. 6 sect. 4.