Thursday, July 23, 2015

regime change, Athenian style

Pisander, in the midst of much opposition and abuse, came forward, and taking each of his opponents aside asked him the following question: In the face of the fact that the Peloponnesians had as many ships as their own confronting them at sea, more cities in alliance with them, and the King and Tissaphernes to supply them with money, of which the Athenians had none left, had he any hope of saving the state, unless someone could induce the King to come over to their side? Upon their replying that they had not, he then plainly said to them: “This we cannot have unless we have a more moderate form of government, and put the offices into fewer hands, and so gain the King’s confidence, and forthwith restore Alcibiades, who is the only man living that can bring this about. The safety of the state, not the form of its government, is for the moment the most pressing question, as we can always change afterwards whatever we do not like.”

The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way.

...the authors of the revolution were really to govern. However, the Assembly and the Council of the Bean still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers and reviewed in advance what they were to say. Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues. An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralized the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were. For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust. Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.
--Thucydides, Crawley translation.

5 comments:

  1. boy that reverberates! the only persons ever to effectively unite groups of people seem to have been fanatics communicating fanaticism. without that driving emotion to instill others with the real truth, organizations fall into internecine squabbles and end up hopelessly bound up in tangled wrestling matches. temporary solutions can and have been arrived at but they appear to eventually break down. the only solution i can see is mandatory universal education. not likely to happen in this world...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, that's the Socratic thinking, that good means intelligent, and virtue means wisdom. Unfortunately, education does not bring morality or compassion or even foresight: one of Socrates' pupils was a guy named Alcibiades, a rich and educated guy who played a major role in the final downfall of Athens. He was the man behind the dismantling of the democracy mentioned in the passages above. I don't know if the common people, had they been better educated, would necessarily have recognized their true best interests in 411 BC. It seems like political instability and disaster is inevitable. I confess that I have no faith at all in mankind's chances of solving the problems of civilization; I don't think we are a rational species and I don't actually believe that the problems of self-aware and intelligent social beings are solvable anyway. We will never get things sorted out, there is no real progress, etc. Thucydides wrote a great book, but I'm kind of glad to be shut of it. It was making me awfully twitchy.

      Delete
    2. true about education. alcibiades as i remember led the country into about five hundred years of off again on again tyranny. i agree that the human race looks a bit hopeless. but as a geologist i view it as just evolution at work on yet another species outliving it's environment. i don't think a meteor will be necessary for this extinction event.

      Delete
  2. Your posting (again) reminds us all that anyone who wants to buy into the myth of ancient Athens as the idyllic democracy in which everything was wonderful needs to read Thucydides and other ancient chroniclers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One wonders what they'll say about us in 2500 years.

      Delete