The Tragedy of Democracy without Authority: A Reflection on Maritain and
Thucydides | Jose Maria J. Yulo, Ed.D. | May 5, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
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.
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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