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The Tragedy of Democracy without Authority: A Reflection on Maritain and Thucydides | Jose Maria J. Yulo, Ed.D. | May 5, 2011 | Ignatius
Insight | Part Two | Part One
Not content with
this obfuscation, the Athenians continued: "Nature always compels gods (we believe)
and men (we are certain) to rule over anyone they can control" (p. 106).
Providing a new wrinkle in this exchange, the Athenians no longer lowered the
gods to their level of conduct, but allotted to the amorphous nature the obeisance of both mortal and
immortal. What this particular nature proves is a mystery, at least in its
ability to compel the earthly and divine to parallel paths of dominion. Perhaps
the closest approximation of this was Socrates' take on piety in the Euthyphro.
Plato wrote of his teacher's asking whether what was right depended on the
gods, or whether the gods were themselves bound by something beyond their
prodigious strength. Yet, what the Athenians conjured was not something binding
gods and men to loftier standards of virtue. Rather, this mysterious nature
merely compelled, and gave license to both parties to pursue their own inner
claim, the Athenians forwarded, "We did not make this law, and we were not the
first to follow it; but we will take it as we found it and leave it to
posterity forever..." (p. 106). Washing their hands of the culpability their
ambitions impelled them to, Athens apparently indicts all future generations,
claiming "...we know that you would do the same if you had our power, and so
would anyone else" (p. 106). Few occasions elsewhere have had protestations of
guiltlessness so revealing. The Athenians feign the virtue of the world-weary;
jaded paladins bequeathing to the uninitiated the resignation of those simply
following the irresistible dictates of nature. What they do not reveal, perhaps
because they are incapable of doing so, is how the newfound barrenness of their
ideals blinds them to any other possible course of action.
The story of
Melos ended tragically, if not predictably. A siege ensued, as the Melians
ultimately refused Athens's terms of capitulation. It may never be divined, in
this particular day and age, why exactly the islanders held their ground
against such impending doom. However, they did resist, and in a bizarre
parallel to Leonidas' 300 at Thermopylae, the Melians succumbed not to armed
might, but in bitter irony to treachery from within. The Athenians breached
their defenses, killing off their able-bodied men. As was customary, all their
remaining women and children were sold into slavery.
It is nowhere
written that men ought to prey and fall upon each other due to political
disputes, despite garbled protestations from both Hobbes and Nietzsche. This
state manifests itself as the sole alternative only when those who choose it
(especially by virtue of being the majority) have rejected any foundation apart
from sheer, supposedly enlightened numbers. When democracy rejects (and hence
lacks) a transcendent authority, something else must step in to occupy the forsaken
space. The belief that majorities are not only valid arbiters of a city's
ethos, but morally superior ones at that is much older than the
eighteenth-century writings of Rousseau. To trace the roots of broken
democracies, one must turn from war between Athens and Melos, to the civil
strife, or stasis on the former Corinthian colony of Corcyra.
earlier, Corcyra disputed Epidamnus with Corinth, a Spartan ally in the
Peloponnesian League. This would inevitably bring Athens over in support of
Corcyra. What intrigues most about this clash was not its broad scope, but
rather the political machinations viewed in micro on Corcyra itself. In 427
B.C., tensions on the island led to an open conflict between the oligarchs of
the city, and its more egalitarian democrats. Shortly after this, a
Peloponnesian fleet arrived, striking fear into the democrats. Yet, as the
tides of war would have it, a larger Athenian naval contingent dispersed its
Peloponnesian counterpart. This in turn gave free reign to the city's democrats
to begin blood purging all those allied with the oligarchs.
One of the
locations for such a purge was in its symbolism shocking, yet ultimately
foreboding of atrocities to come. With the presence of Athenian ships granting
a moral autonomy, the democrats "came to the temple of Hera and persuaded fifty
of the oligarchic sympathizers there to submit themselves to a trial; then they
condemned them all to death" (p. 90). Viewing this, the remaining oligarchs
threw themselves into despair, killing "one another right there in the temple;
some hanged themselves on trees, and everyone made away with himself by what
means he could" (p. 90). While the Athenian ships stared impassively, yet in
acquiescence, the Corcyreans continued the onslaught. Although political
ideology was propped up as a convenient aegis, "...there was nothing people would
not do, and more; fathers killed their sons, men were dragged out of temples
and then killed hard by..." (p. 90).
It is natural to
ask why men would perform acts so unnatural. Civil wars have always been tragic
throughout history. This nation's own fraternal conflict saw brothers fighting
each other, each believing their side held moral sway. Yet, in this particular
Hellenic conflict, the act of fathers killing sons was not described as one
spurred on by idealistic stances on complicated issues. Rather, the tale reeks
of a desperation and abandonment of all this sad society once held as true and
of value. The backdrop of temples is telling as well. It is as if piety to the
gods, once revered as a cardinal virtue among the Greeks, itself was a casualty
in this turmoil. The Spartans once refused to aid Athens against Persia at
Marathon, for reasons wherein faith trumped thoughts of survival. At Corcyra,
survival not only trumped faith, it called for the latter's begrudging silence
and submission to the new godhead of power.
give possible reasons for this tragedy. In peaceful times "...cities...are not
plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their own will; but war is
a violent teacher: it gives most people impulses that are as bad as their
situation..." (p. 90). Perhaps it was the intrinsic nature of a civil war, since
Thucydides posited such a conflict "brought many hardships to the cities, such
as happen and will always happen as long as human nature is the same..." (p. 90).
This may have been the case, but the peculiar nature of urban strife is not
strictly war, rather a state of embittered persecution when most
Within the polis
of the fifth century before Christ, political alignments vying for power did so
with the thought of not merely defeating an opposing faction, but eradicating
it from the root. The oligarchs, motivated by their desire to keep and maintain
their power and influence, saw the democrats as upstarts that needed to be put
down with the aid of Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. On the other hand,
democrats saw what they were attempting as anything but perpetuating the status
In the final act
of this sad affair, the Corcyrean democrats captured a number of their rivals
and confined them to a building where they were to emerge at the rate of twenty
at a time. Then, the captives were bound and made to run the gauntlet in
between two rows of armed hoplites. Many of the prisoners cried out to the
Athenians for a quick death, unwilling to leave the relative protection of the
building. Not to be denied, the democrats began tearing off the dwelling's roof
in order to assail the oligarchs with brick and arrow. Driven to despair, the
prisoners began taking their own lives with the very projectiles meant for
them. In the aftermath and in a repeat of Melos, "...the Corcyreans threw them
criss-cross on wagons and carted them out of the city. The women they captured
at the fort and were made slaves" (p. 95).
repeat of Melos would be more of a parallel if not for one troubling factor.
The Athenians, in typically insular Greek fashion, saw the Melians as what they
were: non-Athenians allied with Sparta. There always would be room for such
aggression, in even the most stringent of justifications, since what was being
destroyed was foreign and autonomous of the destroyer. At Corcyra, there were
no two separate Greek city states such as in the Melian Dialogue, nor two
nations such as the United States of America and the Confederate States of
America. At Corcyra were citizens of the same city, torn apart not by the
presence of political differences, but rather by the absence of anything other
than politics binding its citizens. In a vein attributed to one of Thucydides'
students, it was described what lay at the heart of the democratic purge: "Most
of these acted from a passionate desire for their neighbor's possessions...but
there were also those who attacked the wealthy not for their own gain, but
primarily out of a zeal for equality..." (p. 93). It was this egalitarian zeal
that led to the Corcyrean democrats being "the most carried away by their
undisciplined anger to commit savage and pitiless attacks" (p. 93). There is
great tragedy here, as well as irony.
held that societies in which authority resided solely by virtue of collective
number would lead to the "exercise of power over men, without having authority over them" (p. 93). In such a state,
"...where nature is violated, such power tends to become infinite" (p. 93). There
is ample evidence in Thucydides' history for the dangers inherent when such
democratic societies give full sway to this unquenchable thirst for power; a
thirst made more nagging by the imperative bestowed by the collective whole.
foresaw a more deeply troubling tendency within democracies ungoverned by
authority. The collective "...is by hypothesis the subject proper of sovereignty
and yet lacks political discernment, except in quite simple and fundamental
matters where human instinct is surer than reason" (p. 96). Inevitably, an
ambiguity arises when, though the collective appoints a select number to do
their political bidding, the latter in actuality has primacy over the former
under the guise of the collective ruling itself. When the ambiguity arises,
"...the exercise of sovereignty under such conditions will require myths" (p. 96).
Power and greed
were potent muses in Thucydides' age, as they are in this one. The two are
limited however in their capacity to self-sustain human fervor past the point
of political gratification. A zeal for material equality, and the vision of a
world where this was humanly possible, was and is such a myth that fills the
void of democracies bereft of authority. There have been few myths so
non-egalitarian than the desire to—by fiat or self-professed, less than
heavenly mandate—impose egalitarianism on an unwilling citizenry. Here
perhaps is the ultimate tragedy underlying Greek culture, wherein a people
gifted in all but revelation, sought to level the heavens so man's collective
will would be done.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library (2001).
Kagan, D. On the Origins of war.
New York: Anchor Books (1996).
Maritain, J. Scholasticism and Politics.
Garden City, NY: Image Books (1960).
Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: Selections from The History of
the Peloponnesian War (P. Woodruff, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company (1993).
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Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization,
United States history, and public speaking at the Academy
of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education
from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy
of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication
from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical
liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD.
Originally from Manila
in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the
histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of
J. R. R. Tolkien. He has written several articles for IgnatiusInsight.com.
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