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 cravings.
Augmenting this 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.
As discussed 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.
Thucydides would 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 opportunistically available.
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 quo.
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).
Perhaps this 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.
Maritain once 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.
Yet, Maritain 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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