Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

N. Types of self-government or the unity of mankind

Ancient Greece went through many different types of governments, from tribal rulership depending upon one strong man called the king to the 'rule of the law' or democracy. The way there was very difficult. It was not easy to overcome all kinds of tyranny while fear of war, and thus prospect of real loss of life, kept many silent, or else accept their fate.

Many statements of those time reflect a tremendous effort to rationalize or to lie as to why it was needed to go into battle. Only theatrical plays started to reflect what happens once tragedy triumphs. It was a different kind of anticipation of things to come, hence not really heeded. The arts, reflections thereof, were not taken seriously because they were considered to be of no practical relevance. But after a self-defeating battle victory of Epirus over the Romans this kind of tragedy was named appropriately 'Pyrrhic victories'. It was fulfilled already by the Athenian democracy entering the Peloponnesian war without thinking through all the consequences. According to Thucydides, this tragic mistake was commited due to not listening to the 'voice of reason'. That war ended the Golden Age and the dream of man to attain self-government.

Self-government is closely linked to democracy as the rule of the law. It has as a basis a well known kind of abstention by people from all kinds of dictatorships, including aristocratic forms known since Platon as the rule by philosopher kings.  A key insight into democracy was given by Pericles in his famous funeral speech:

"We do not become extravagent in the pursuit of beauty or soft in the pursuit of wisdom. Wealth is for us an opportunity for acting rather than a subject for boasting. To admit to poverty brings no disgrace, but disgrace is attached to a failure to take practical steps to escape from it. Our citizens are involved alike in private and public activities; close involvement in your own affairs is not incompatible with being politically well-informed. We are the only people who regard the man who takes no interest in politics as useless rather than harmless. We personally decide or have a proper debate on public issues. We do not think that words get in the way of actions. What is disastrous is to enter into an action without working out the consequences beforehand. We show a rare combination of qualities, a capacity for adverturous action and for deliberation about our undertakings. Other people's bravery is ignorance: reflection breaks hesitation. Spiritual power comes from a clear knowledge and just evaluation of what lies ahead, danger and glory alike and going forward undeterred....In a word, I affirm that our city is an education to Greece."

Pericles (Thucydides, 2.40-1)

Something must have happened in the history of mankind why so many have turned against words and away from politics in the belief that the latter is mere words, but not actions. The argument of Pericles, that words do not stand in the way of actions, is not heard nor heeded. Thus what enables man to reflect upon the consequences of his actions, that seems never to be a matter of further concern. Instead nowadays people turn away in disgust from politics and cultivate the ideology of pleasure in their own personal lifes. But once trapped in such a ficticious world, they do not want to hear in moments of private enjoyment, anything else which would upset them or force them to think about other things than themselves. This is perhaps the reason why the seeking of a self-unity divorced from the political process itself usually ends up in a hedonistic, self-centred or egoistical position preventing man from seeing all the negative consequences of one's own actions inflicted upon society, including threats to his own freedom.

Since Ancient Greece, it has become a negative corner stone of all societies that people would say 'it is all good and fine in theory, but in practice...' as if the one could be divorced from the other, that is actions from the need to think through the consequences prior to undertaking them. Interesting is that Pericles beliefs that 'reflections break hesitations', a most significant thought, for often there is fear not to come to decisions and, therefore, practical actions.

As elements of political culture and freedom of the many becomes more complex, democracy faces the task of bringing together such structures of public life that suit the mentalities of different people and which do not violate the needs of the body of man as related to the physis of the world. If the access to both is denied, then matters of discours become inappropriate moments of truth rather than being a liveable present with historical significance. If upheld as a negative reality, it would leave choices of self-unity outside the reflections of philosophy, and in terms of the 'community of man', place such terrible burdens upon man, that he would break down and with him the community. If nothing is done really to relieve man of his self-inflicted pain, then there would not be brought about any convincing alternative to the one of living in blindness.

Why then abstain from both reason and reflections when listening to voices, in particular those heard in the streets, but foremostly in debates mattered most in terms of knowing what was going on? Again, the Persian fable of the king descending from the throne in disguise, in order to know what people were saying about him and the state of affairs, indicates this prevailing notion of high and low culture as forming reality. It would mean the classical division of reality into that of rulers and common people who do not understand the complexities of life. Thus while there is a declared dependency upon knowing what people think, they are equally denied as having any abilities needed for self-governance. That was not the case in Ancient Greece during the times of Pericles. At that time, citizens of the Polis and strangers mattered as to what was being said, and stress is put upon the rule of the law, for justice prevails only if both are treated equally. As said at the beginning, this determines which values would prevail and hence rule accordingly the daily lives of the people.

Poetically speaking, democracy in Ancient Greece was not only a short grasp of truth. It meant conceptual thinking, and not merely the unknown prevailed as made evident by these thoughts remaining until today very modern. This philosophy of government is a matter of the rule of the law. Human beings can convey it through the conviction their voices carry forth when debating with others. Such convictions is not a reflection of strength linked to all kinds of of power, e.g. wealth, land, slaves, battle fame etc., but is based itself on the conviction in man himself. If denied as being reasonable and capable of showing practical wisdom when it comes to making decisions, then the sharing of power is effectively made impossible. Abuse of power can then only be questioned often more indirectly than directly, e.g. when the women of Troy started to refuse to go along with what the men were doing, namely to continue fighting. As the women in Aristophenes' play show, such an alternative to self-governance was not the rule, but an exception and hence a reflection of a tragic flaw in real life. It is here where most voices either abstained or faded away into the darkness, never to be heard again, because they failed to speak up in time. Thus the poetic reflection finds it remorseful what is happening in a world of strange silences:

My heart darkens at the thought

of so many being silent

as if someone had come

and cut out their tongues,

or else they would speak with no other thought

but to gain that little money

which had been promised to them,

if they would look the other way

or else not seek justice, but let

power decide for them what was best

in the meaning of words

not to be heard while men

went on killing themselves,

thus too many went silent

to their graves not having said a word.

Refusal to listen, and failure to speak up, all that ends up as a negligance of language. Subsequently thoughts of men are reduced immediately to what is defined negatively as being the capacity of man to understand things. It makes man to be but a pawn in wakes of changes leaving either no or only terrible traces in history.

Heavy are the deeds, even if light the armours of most foot soldiers who were send in first. Wave after wave they entered battle to meet the enemy head on, and while sacrifices had been offered at the beginning of the battles to the Gods, it was their blood that drenched first the earth. A terrible tragic element is mixed into whatever man does, eats and drinks, for he does not see how many efforts to seek justice were wasted in sheer nonsensical pursuits of some greater dreams than that of the freedom of man to live peacefully with others. That is why in seeking to live together in the true form of a community, there were left along the path many broken vases and other things destroyed since in not finding the right 'measures of things to come', they had also not found the courage to apply them to their own lifes. Therefore, communities are marked by this failure to come to reason in time, and to understand life as being more than just a mere and odd mixture of the irrational with the rational, since values belong to man as he does to the community of man.

Since the coming of the stranger, life altered or rather changes in the constitution were affected by different rulers and various interpretations of the 'rule of the law'. Unfortunately, in search of a method to overcome unreconciable differences, even greater differences of various natures emerged. Efforts were undertaken to suppress them, but not very successfully. Above all the mind-body, individual-community relationship continues to suffer under structural discrepancies and the abilities to act together, in order to find just solutions.

Socrates denied the world of the 'physis' so much that he hated really the dependency of his mind upon the body needing sleep, food and movement without wondering whether it suited the mind or not. On the other hand, Aristotle tried to find some key understanding for what is a 'good' constitution. He came to the conclusion that some elements must not come together in the soul of man as certain people should not be brought together, for otherwise there would be an explosion, that is violence: a kind of negativity destroying completely that what the constitution intends to do, namely to bring and to hold together people in the spirit of the community of mankind and not just by the rule of fear and intimitation.

But while this quest for knowledge was going on, many resorted simply to some artificial solution and ignored the importance of analytical thought needed when trying to keep unreconciable things apart. The dictators and aristocrats, but also the Spartans and other militant oriented societies resorted sometimes even for mere demonstrative purposes to teach others one of those famous lessons of which the history of mankind is unfortunately so full of, that is by measures such as burning down entire cities and selling women and children off to slavery while keeping their own children strictly apart from those made into slaves: 'helots'. It was a violent act upon the own, often through battle distorted heroic character when in fact strength was called for by the wish to face the truth.

It is important to understand why so many of the political experiments at self-governing failed during that time. There was not sufficient knowledge nor intelligence by which the rule of the law could be applied, hence every ruler, including those kings described by Shakespeare, had to rely on something else than political reasoning. It is called manipulation. The latter is linked to ways by which things can be connected, in particular those things which matter apparently most to people, but only indirectly. To attain that, people are forced to do things like going against their own will, and then they begin to hate themselves, become blind out of both fear and envy, while seeking only to gain advantages over the others, a sort of foolish compensation for their feelings of inferiority. Heroism and heroic leaders appear then to rectify the situation when in fact they help only to cover up that specific, very own weakness. Agreements can then no longer be reached due to that fake weakness covered up by strong words of power, not of wisdom and conviction.

If practical wisdom prevails, then a kind of speech prevails in which wise guidance helps select such words that can give faith rather than persuade, even discourage and intimidate. At the beginning of Ancient Greece it was Homer who gave to the Greeks through language and an enlightened metaphorical version of mythology faith in themselves. At the end, it was Alexander the Great who tried to take the Greeks over and beyond the Polis to a world flung wide open, that is a world of many different people living together in one culture, that is the Hellenistic one. In trying to persuade his Macedonians to work side-by-side with the Persians, Alexander the Great chided them in a decisive moment of mutiny with cunning words meant to provoke a courageous response:

"Go, all of you, and when you reach your homes, tell them how you deserted your king who led you from victory to victory across the world, and abandonedhim to the conquered barbarians! No doubt your words will win you the praises of men and the rewards of Heaven. Go!"

cited by Robert Payne, Ancient Greece, p. 432-3

Such an appeal is still different from the kind of political speeches in which principles of pure power manifest themselves, and pervert things by trying to bring one man into conflict with the other. Then, there is nothing to be shared with anyone else, except the spoils of the victory. In such speeches treacherous words lurk suddenly forth like rocks on which any boat, and may it be navigated by the best sailor, can smash. Such is the power of subtle hints that entire communication processes are disrupted since no one is capable of believing, never mind imagine that what was said, is true, and was meant in the sense of every word that was spoken.

The turning point was certainly the battle between Alexander and Darius, and thus can be linked to Altdoerfer's painting as much as to the Buddha sculptures resembling the Macedonian who came to Asia and Minor Asia without ever returning home. Restless spirits, reckless youth, evaporated dreams and still a long way to find something to be called home, but in the crisis there were build cities like Alexandria and other nodal points to keep the unrest at bay, to safeguard the own energies and to still live like a king. It was a far escape from the barren grounds back home and the villages hugging slopes of mountains or else hidden in valleys running through fields to the sea. Longing for the world was never matched by belonging to something confined and local. It meant to expand, and it broke the spirit of the ideology 'small is beautiful' related to Ancient Greece. The loss of its innocence is felt until today.


^ Top

« M. The economy of thought expressed in so many words | O. :Lessons to be learned from Ancient Greece »