Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy
If we are to understand the Greeks' experience we must recognize that it was a freakish exception to that of the overwhelming number of human beings and societies that came before and after. Earlier civilizations—like those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine-Syria, India, and China—and those that came later in South and Meso-America resemble one another in basic ways, even as they sharply and fundamentally differ from the Greeks. They had complex, highly developed societies, usually built around urban centers dominated by kings and a caste of priests. Most developed difficult systems of writing that only a small class of professional scribes could master. They had strong, centralized, monarchical systems of government ruling relatively vast areas with the aid of large, tightly organized bureaucracies. They had hierarchical social systems, professional standing armies, and a regular system of taxation to support it all. To one degree or another, they tended toward cultural uniformity and stability.
Hellenic civilization sharply departed from this pattern. Emerging not long before 1000 B.C. from the collapse of the Mycenaean culture, a civilization influenced by Egypt and the Near East, it was born in a world of poverty and of almost primitive culture. Cities were swept away and replaced by small farm villages. Trade was all but ended, and communication not only between the Greeks and other peoples but even among the Greeks themselves was sharply curtailed. The art of writing was lost for more than three centuries. The matrix of Hellenic civilization was a dark age in which a small number of poor, isolated, illiterate people were ignored by the rest of the world and left alone to develop their own society.
During the three centuries from about 1050 to 750 B.C, the Greeks set the foundations for their great achievements. Neighboring families, clans, and tribes joined together for protection against outside enemies and to maintain peace among themselves. The unit they developed for their new way of life was the polis, the Greek city-state. There were hundreds of them, and each evoked a kind of loyalty and attachment from its citizens that made the idea of dissolving one's own polis and merging it into some larger unit unthinkable. The result was a dynamic, many-faceted, competitive, sometimes chaotic world in which the achievement of excellence and victory had the highest value. This agonal, or competitive quality, marked Greek life throughout the history of the polis and has played an unusually prominent role in Western civilization. It also brought forth extraordinary achievements in literature and art, where competition, sometimes formal and organized, spurred on poets and artists, just as in political life the same ethos encouraged individual participation and freedom.
Kings had been swept away along with the Mycenaean world, so the poleis were republics. Since the Greeks were so poor, the differences in wealth among them were relatively small. Distinctions of class were less marked and important than in the civilizations of the East. The introduction of a new mode of fighting some time after 700, when the predominance of cavalry gave way to warfare between serried masses (phalanxes) of heavy infantrymen (hoplites), had a further leavening effect. It removed the chief responsibility for the defense of the state from the few wealthy men, who alone could afford to keep horses, and turned it over to the average farmer, who had wealth enough to buy the body armor that allowed him to hold his own in the hoplite phalanx. At the same time, the shift in military organization emphasized a common effort by most of the people. Greek armies were made up of unpaid citizen-soldiers who returned to their farms after a campaign. As independent defenders of the common safety and interest, they demanded a role in the most important political decisions: in this way political control came to be shared by a relatively large portion of the people, and participation in political life was highly valued.
Such states needed no bureaucracy, for there were no vast state holdings that needed management and oversight, and not much economic surplus to support a bureaucratic class. Most states imposed no regular taxation. There was no separate caste of priests and little concern with life after death. In this varied, dynamic, secular, and remarkably free context there arose for the first time a speculative natural philosophy based on observation and reason, the root of modern natural science and of philosophy.
It may seem unlikely that the career of the leader of a tiny state on the border of the Aegean Sea that lost its independence and importance more than two thousand years ago can illuminate and inform our understanding of politics in the modern world. Yet many who devote their lives to the study of politics, diplomacy, and warfare in our own time believe that the contemplation of the experience of Pericles and his contemporaries has practical value. Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, our most important source for the career of Pericles and for the Athens of his time, is more influential now than at any time since it was written. Today's political scientists derive their theories of international relations from his work. International congresses of historians and political scientists continue to meet to discuss the Athenians and the Spartans and the meaning of their conflict for our world. No university course in international relations or in the history of warfare is likely to ignore that war. The subject is a staple at the military academies and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. When promising officers are told that they have been given the coveted assignment to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, a key step in the career of flag officers, they are at the same time given a copy of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War, the first topic in the course entitled 'Strategy and Policy.'
Pericles was one of those extraordinary people who placed his own stamp on his time and shaped the course of history. He was the leading citizen of a great democracy that had a keen sense of its own special role in history and of the special excellence of its constitution and way of life. It had a booming economy producing wealth and prosperity previously unknown, a combined military and naval power made possible only by such wealth, and international responsibilities that stretched its resources to the limit but could not safely be ignored. It was a democracy confronted by an opposing state with an entirely different constitution and character, which regarded the Athenian power and way of life as a deadly menace to its own ambitions and security. The life of Pericles and the democratic society he led indeed have much to teach the citizens of free lands in our own time.
Pericles was an Athenian aristocrat who possessed no great private fortune. The citizen of a democratic republic, he held no office higher than that of general (strategos), one often, none of whom had greater formal powers than any of the others. He controlled no military or police forces, and he could expend no public money without a vote of the popular assembly of citizens. Unlike the presidents and prime ministers of modern representative democracies, he had no well-established, well-organized political party machinery on which to rely. Each year he had to stand for reelection and was constantly subject to public scrutiny and political challenge.
Pericles also differed from later leaders in the variety of his responsibilities and in his direct and personal execution of them. Elizabeth, Louis, and in our own time such great leaders as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, were titular heads of their armed forces. But Pericles, like Caesar and, to a lesser extent, Augustus, repeatedly commanded armies and navies in battle. He was also a constitutional reformer who radically expanded Athenian democracy and brought it to fulfillment. As a diplomat, he negotiated public treaties and secret agreements and produced imaginative proposals to advance his city's fortunes. Throughout his career, he managed the public finance with unmatched skill and integrity.
Like Augustus, Lorenzo de' Medici, and Elizabeth, Pericles also sponsored a great outburst of artistic and intellectual activity. It was his idea. to crown the Acropolis with the temples and statues that have made it the wonder of the world for two millennia; he also selected the architects and sculptors, and found the vast sums of money to pay for their works. He was the producer of Aeschylus' tragedy Persians; the friend and colleague of Sophocles; the friend of Phidias, the greatest sculptor of his day, who devised the master plan of the Parthenon. He commissioned Hippodamus of Miletus, the first city planner, and befriended Herodotus, the father of history. In moments of leisure, he debated with Zeno, Anaxagoras, and Protagoras, the leading teachers and philosophers of his time. His patronage of the arts and his personal support and encouragement of thinkers and their activities made Athens a magnet that drew to it the leading creative talents from the entire Greek world.
Two millennia after the Athenians' defeat we still marvel at what they achieved. But the visible remains, impressive as they are, do not constitute their most important legacy. Pericles confronted the problem that faces any free and democratic society: How can the ritizens be persuaded to make the sacrifices necessary for its success? Tyrants and dictators can rely on mercenaries and compulsion to defend their states. Rare states like Sparta—a closed authoritarian society—could inculcate in their people a willingness to renounce their private lives almost entirely. But democracies cannot use such devices. Instead, democratic leadership involves a freer kind of public education. Pericles sought to teach the Athenians that their own interests were inextricably tied together with those of their community, that they could not be secure and prosper unless their state was secure and prosperous, that the ordinary man could achieve greatness only through the greatness of his society. All that he did and all that he sought for Athens was part of that education. Pericles tried to shape a new kind of society and a new kind of citizen, not by the use of force or terror but by the power of his ideas, the strength of his personality, the use of reason, and his genius as a uniquely persuasive rhetorician.
In ancient Athens, the people decided policy in oral debate in the open air. Skill in public speaking was essential, and Pericles was the greatest orator of his day by common consent. One of his ablest political opponents, a famous wrestler, wryly complained of his rival's skill: 'Whenever I throw him,' he said, 'he argues that he was not thrown and convinces the very people who saw the fall.' (Plutarch, Pericles 8.4)
Most democratic politicians are tempted to seek popularity by telling the people only good news, or by appealing to their desires and prejudices. Yet because their opinions have a strong effect on the state's actions, the people in democracies need more than in other regimes to understand and face reality. Even so great and powerful a leader as Franklin Roosevelt challenged the popular mood rarely, briefly, and usually indirectly, though protected by a four-year term of office. Winston Churchill, perhaps the most Periclean leader of modern times, paid a price for his political courage. But as prime minister in wartime, even he was shielded by special emergency powers and an extended term of office. Pericles, on the other hand, held office for one year at a time and could be recalled by public vote at least ten times during that year. Yet he refused to flatter the people and appeal to their prejudices. Instead, when the occasion demanded, he informed them of the realities and advised them how to cope; he called upon them to rise above their fears and short-range self-interest, and inspired them to do so. When necessary, he was willing to chastise them and risk their anger.
And provoke their anger he did. Like all democratic leaders, Pericles engaged in the rough and tumble of popular politics and was subject to every kind of attack. Throughout his year in office he confronted political conflict at home and war abroad. Domestic enemies accused him of tyranny on the one hand and demagogy on the other. Comic poets lampooned him in the public theater, made fun of the shape of his head, his Olympian aloofness, and even the woman he loved. He was forced to endure legal actions against her and many of his friends and associates, even seeing some of them driven into exile. He was accused of bringing on war to please his mistress and of imposing an inadequate and cowardly strategy on his people.
Although he successfully overcame all these trials, Pericles' career took a tragic turn, and in his last year he had reason to doubt the value of his life's work. Athens was engaged in a terrible war that he had urged the people to undertake. Then plague broke out and killed a third of the citizens. The people of Athens held him responsible for all their miseries and removed him from office. The antidemocratic Plato could therefore dismiss him in a way that was both plausible and crushing: Pericles had sought to make the Athenians better, Plato said, yet 'they imposed no shameful punishment on him when they were "worse"; but after he had made them "noble and good" at the end of his life they condemned him for embezzlement and almost put him to death because they thought he was a scoundrel.' (Gorgias 515e)
Plato's judgment has influenced all subsequent opinion about Pericles and the democracy he led. Indeed, after Pericles' death, and especially after Athens had lost the war, it was easy to look upon both as a terrible failure. The Athenians lost their empire and the wealth and power that went with it; for a while they even lost their democracy and their liberty. Yet the defeat in war and the loss of empire did not mean the failure of Pericles' enterprise. He had, in fact, foreseen the possibility himself, and in a dark moment of the war urged the Athenians not to be discouraged by the prospect:
Even if we should ever be forced to yield (for everything that grows great also decays) the memory of our greatness will be bequeathed to, posterity forever; that we of all the Greeks ruled over more Greeks than anyone, that in the greatest wars we held out against enemies in alliance and individually, and that we lived in a city that was the most ingenious and the greatest. (2.64.3)The paradox inherent in democracy is that it must create and depend on citizens who are free, autonomous, and self-reliant. Yet its success—its survival even—requires extraordinary leadership. It grants equal rights of participation to citizens of unequal training, knowledge, and wisdom, and it gives final power to the majority, which is certainly inferior in those qualities to an elite. It gives free rein to a multiplicity of parties and factions, thereby encouraging division and vacillation rather than unity and steadiness. In antiquity, this led critics to ridicule democracy as 'acknowledged foolishness'; in the modern world, it has been assailed as inefficient, purposeless, soft, and incompetent. Too often in this century its citizens have lost faith in times of hardship and danger and allowed their democracies to become tyrannies of the right or left.
Germany's Weimar Republic fell victim to the Great Depression because it had no time for democratic institutions to take root and, further, because even its supporters lacked the passionate devotion to fight for their democracy in a time of crisis. They have accordingly been called Vernunftrepublikaner, intellectually attached to their democratic republic but not committed in soul and spirit. A major reason for the failure of the Weimar democracy was the absence of leaders who understood and could provide the special vision needed by a democratic state.
Thucydides reports Pericles' own summary of the qualities necessary for a statesman: 'to know what must be done and to be able to explain it; to love one's country and to be incorruptible.' These same qualities will be needed by the leaders of the world's fragile and emerging democracies. They will have the difficult task of instilling in their people the love for their nation and the enthusiasm for their constitution that will lead them to accept risks and dangers, to endure unavoidable hardships and make necessary sacrifices. At the same time, they must restrain the people's passions, moderate their anger and ambition, and persuade them to be sober, if not rational. It was Pericles' genius to recognize the democratic leader's obligation to educate his people in civic virtue and to have the skills needed to do so. His policies, to be sure, brought the Athenians prosperity and the practical advantages of empire. But his success and that of Athens rested on more than prosperity and rhetoric. He also had a vision for his city that offered the meanest of its citizens the opportunity to achieve, through common effort, personal dignity, honor and the fulfillment of their highest needs.