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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
Editor's note: This essay was
presented to The American Maritain Association at the 2010 Annual Meeting, held
at Walsh University, North Canton, Ohio.
fear of the gods is the very thing which keeps the Roman Commonwealth together.
To such an extraordinary height is this carried among them, both in private and
public business, that nothing could exceed it. –Histories, Polybius
doth still neglect all office
health is bound; we are not ourselves
being oppressed, commands the mind
with the body. – King
In the Poetics, Aristotle described the distinctly
Hellenic medium of tragedy thusly. It was "the imitation of an action that is
serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself...with incidents
arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions"
(p. 1460). From Aeschylus to Sophocles and finally Euripides, there can be
observed certain unspoken dynamics within tragedy. The tragic figures of
Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Pentheus all share a binding doom which can be traced
to the ramifications of their chosen actions in the course of their respective
tales. There are subtle differences between what brings about suffering and
pathos to each of these men. Aeschylus' Agamemnon agrees to divinely mandated
sacrifice of his own Iphigenia. Pentheus refuses to bow to the new god from the
east. Oedipus is the unhappy mean between these two in his having complicity,
albeit unknowing, leading to his father's death. To study tragedy, it seems, is
to attempt to understand humanity's role in bringing it about.
In keeping with
this introspection, there can be found in antiquity separate accounts,
historical rather than theatrical, telling of even greater tragedy than the
abovementioned tomes. The Athenian general Thucydides, with keen and sobering
perspective, wrote of the greatest of all Hellenic falls, that of a war to end
Greece's golden age. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
described the descent of Greece from its height of victory over Persia and into
a horrific conflict between its two powers, Athens and Sparta. This civil war
will provide a link between tragedy and the study of politics, most
specifically the politics of democracy.
outlined some potentially marring elements to particular democracies.
Democracies were acutely problematic when they did not collectively comprehend
the necessity of legitimate authority permeating the polis. Lacking this
understanding, power was elevated in authority's absence. Ultimately, this led
to the degeneration of societies thus constructed because, "To separate power
and authority is to separate force and justice" (p. 94). Thucydides told of two
accounts wherein this descent, or tragic fall, is most evident. These are the
accounts of the Melian Dialogue, and the siege of Corcyra. In examining these
accounts, Maritain's championing of democracies wed to legitimate authority has
special import nearly twenty centuries ago. Toward this end, a brief discussion
of the causes and outcomes of the Peloponnesian War will commence, followed by
the two narratives abovementioned, and finally a particular perspective from
Maritain's political thought will be discussed.
There are few
scholars today who have written as much on the subject of Thucydides' histories
as Yale's Donald Kagan. The Sterling Professor of History and Classics is noted
for his four-volume opus on the Peloponnesian War, and his ability to draw
parallels from this saga to more recent and contemporary world conflicts. It is
precisely this that Kagan produced in his On the Origins of War (1996).
emphasized the irony of this conflict by placing it in close proximity, within
a half century, to a once united Greece's stand against an onslaught from the
East. With astonishing success against Xerxes' Persia, the Greeks succeeded in
"preserving their independence and liberty by driving its armies and navies out
of Europe..." (p. 15). This surprising victory, punctuated by the valor of
Leonidas and the guile of Themistocles, birthed "a time of extraordinary
cultural achievement, probably unmatched in its originality and fecundity in
all of human history" (p. 15). Not the least of the apogees reached during this
period included the development of particularly Hellenic media such as tragedy
and comedy as the tragedians mentioned earlier and the noted Aristophanes put
forth. In the realm of the mind, natural philosophers such as Democritus and
Anaxagoras gamely "used unaided human reason to seek and understanding of the
physical world..."(p. 15). Kagan summarized it best by calling the age "a time of
great progress, prosperity, and confidence...To all this the great conflict put
an end" (p. 15).
One of the
festering causes of this conflict was not necessarily the ancient animosity
between the superpowers of Sparta and Athens, but rather the internal conflicts
between smaller city states aligned with the two. In a situation somewhat
analogous to the Cold War, the larger powers would have considered direct
confrontation too costly, allowing for a more volatile and combustible set of
dynamics for each city's satellite polis. In this particular case, the city of
Epidamnus was at the heart of spiteful bickering and machinations engineered by
a Spartan ally, the city state of Corinth, and its colony Corcyra, now modern
day Corfu. Corinth saw the civil strife on Epidamnus as an opportunity to
humble its now prominent offspring, with an alliance with Sparta in the
Peloponnesian League as its unspoken, but unmistakable weapon. Corcyra, as
Kagan wrote, "would not accept the humiliation of surrendering to the
Corinthians. Rather than that, they would seek an alliance with the Athenians
and fight" (p. 40). Lost in this lead up to the clash between Sparta and
Athens, but foreboding more subtle ills, was that the core of the struggle
began not militarily on Epidamnus, but rather politically, in a clash between
camps espousing oligarchy and democracy. These camps and their champions would
soon discard whatever virtues they once purported to possess as they vied for
supremacy in a Hellenic world adrift with no moral harbor.
example of this degeneration of ideals came via the Athenians and their chosen
wartime strategy of conquering Spartan satellite states in an effort to
surround and isolate the sons of Lacedaemon. This would be accomplished by
deliberately avoiding land-based confrontation with Sparta, with Athens' navy
instead being sent out to island hop its way to hegemony. In the end, it was
the game's final design to render Sparta impotent not by one climactic victory,
but rather by subsuming its former allies as newly acquired Athenian vassals.
One of the
chosen ports of call on this tour of subjugation was the Spartan colony of
Melos. To this task, the Athenians did not cheaply venture. They sailed to
Melos with a combined three thousand hoplites, archers and horsemen, a force
that dwarfed the island's military capabilities. Tellingly, the Melians, though
a Spartan colony, took efforts to stay at peace with the warring parties. This
initial neutrality was deemed either insufficient by Athens, or rather a sign
of weakness to be readily exploited. Upon landing, the Athenian commanders sent
emissaries to the polis, emissaries met, in characteristically laconic fashion,
by town elders instead of the general citizenry. What followed was an example
of realpolitik so
stark, it would bring blush to Machiavelli's taught visage.
hesitation born of scruple, the Athenians declaimed, "For our part, we will not
make a long speech...full of fine moral arguments – that our empire is
justified because we defeated the Persians, or that we are coming against you
for an injustice you have done to us" (Thucydides, 1993, p. 103). Here, the
reference to Persia is most illuminating.
earlier, Athens stood with Sparta as the Greeks thwarted and eventually threw
off the massive onslaught of the Persian king Xerxes, a monarch fixated on
punishing Greek independence and expanding his own already prodigious empire.
There were seemingly very few things which could have bound notoriously
stubborn and autonomous Greek city states together except a threat from a
foreign power. Oddly enough, although the Spartans and Athenians manifested
polar opposite understandings and appreciations for freedom, the yoke imposed
by Xerxes would be worse than any preferred fate. Sparta fought for its freedom
to keep its own polis perennially the way it was, satisfied its native virtues
would withstand both time and Xerxes. Athens on the other hand, was the Greek
embodiment of a democratic state. It too fought to be free, yet time would
reveal Athens was not content with simply maintaining its independence, but
later, in a mock-Persian manner, would yearn to expand on its cardinal virtue.
continued, "...we both know that decisions about justice are made in human
discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion; but when one side
is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that" (p.
103). So much for multilateral diplomacy. Athens dispenses with justice, a
virtue one of its sons fighting for her during the war, the vaunted Socrates,
will opine quite memorably about in The Republic. The reason for this dispensation is
plain. Justice was only relevant in a discussion among equals. Melos was
clearly the lesser of the two, and more importantly, since there was nothing greater than Athens, it need not bother invoking
the ideals of heaven, when gesturing to the laws of earth will do just fine.
It ought not be
missed that the particular polis dispensing with justice happens to be a
democratic one—one where equality among the citizenry is of vital
importance. As put forth by the aforementioned Socrates in The Republic, a just state, as with a just soul, must
be ordered in a manner where the superior faculties preside over the baser.
Thus, applying a democratic model to the ideal city would inevitably lead to
the rule of artisans, as it would in the soul lead to the reign of the
appetites over the intellect and drives. Perhaps Socrates, who fought in and
witnessed this great conflict, and his student Plato took this bitter irony to
heart. To them, democracy and justice would appear to be incompatible. When
Athens plays at being an Eastern king, justice is even further from its grasp.
Because it cannot rule over its own imperial ambitions, it cannot ultimately
and legitimately rule over others.
The rebuke of
Athenian pretensions was voiced by the representatives of Melos. The Melian
elders affirmed the numerical, logistical, and tactical superiority of the
Athenians, claiming "You can be sure we think it hard to contend against your
power and good fortune, unless we might do so on equal terms" (p. 106). Yet, in
this moment of sobering bleakness, the islanders turned to sources higher than
earthly might to buttress their stoic resolve. They professed, "Nevertheless, we
trust that our good fortune will be no less than yours. The gods are on our
side, because we stand innocent against men who are unjust" (p. 106). Here, two
points deserve to be raised.
Melians claimed the gods of Greece to be on their side. Implicit in this
sentiment is a belief somehow in the arbitrating rectitude of Olympus. As
Hector stood against the maelstrom that was Achilles, ultimately knowing he
could not best his Greek foe, the Melians remind that physical force is not
always the purveyor of virtue. Rather, many times over, force is the pretender
to virtue. Athens did not, given its differing political viewpoints regarding
democracy, believe in alternative gods than those of the Melians. Thus, the
judgment of the gods in view of which side was the more just would be
universal, and less favorable to Athens.
Melians stated that their own cause, one of thwarting aggressive political
expansion, was akin to the aegis of innocence held aloft above the din of
injustice. This aegis, if viewed head on, would possess a mirror patina,
reflecting back to the Athenians the gravity and perfidy of their actions. As
was mentioned before, all Greeks, and especially Athenians were the bulwarks
against Persia's assault a half century earlier. Ironically, it was Athens'
standing with freedom-proclaiming Greek colonists on Asia Minor against Xerxes'
father Darius which preceded the Greco-Persian War to begin with, highlighted
by the famed battle of Marathon. Athens claimed earlier to not reserve for
itself a justification for its ambition because it defeated Persia. This
allusion perhaps betrays the bitter juxtaposition of Athens now acting as a new
Persia, and the Melians resisting them with the remembrance of what their polis
and their democracy once were.
the calls to Olympian judgment and reminders of virtues past were as a spring
shower upon the formidable Long Walls of Athens. Taking particular emphasis on
the Melian attempts to align with godly rectitude, the Athenians scoffed, "the
favor of the gods should be as much on our side as yours. Neither our
principles nor our actions are contrary to what men believe about the gods, or
would want for themselves" (p. 106). Interestingly, instead of refuting the
Melian claim of being, by dint of their innocence on the elevated plane of the
heavens, the Athenians employ a tactic all too common today, the lowering of
heaven to meet situational ethics. This ploy may be due to simple arrogance on
the part of Athens. However, upon reflection, the ploy redirects and obscures
rather than confronts and defeats. The only reason for this, aside from mere
sloth in argumentation, would be at its most basic level, a lacuna of
justification spawned by the effects of self-anointing, not to mention self-intoxicating
power. Power, after all, was what Athens now shared with the gods, and
therefore its imperial thirst must inevitably and unceremoniously be slaked.
Read Part Two of "The Tragedy of Democracy without Authority"
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