The Atlantic Makes ReConsider Great Again

by Xander Snyder and Erik Fogg

The Atlantic’s April 2017 issue just came out, and it has a doozy of an article: “Making Athens Great Again.” It’s a powerful read that speaks at length about the faltering and subsequent renewal of Athens following the execution of Socrates and Plato’s creation of the Academy. It discusses why a nation with a sense of exceptionalism must include self-criticism and self-questioning to be worthy of itself. It is an article recounting an ancient history with contemporary relevance.

But it has some problems.

We actually took on Athens back in January 2016, with our podcast episode, “Demagogues in History.. And Today.” First, we do hope that The Atlantic got to listen to our recounting of Cleon demanding that the Assembly let him “Make Athens Great Again” (sound familiar?), and that we were a source of inspiration. More importantly, however, we think the article missed a few things.

Athens’ Principles

The Atlantic tells a tale of a city that turned on its own values when it killed Socrates. The subtitle to the article reads thus:

“How does a citizen respond when a democracy that prides itself on being exceptional betrays its highest principles? Plato despaired, but he also pointed the way to renewal.”

This suggests (and it’s later expanded) that by killing Socrates, Athens turned on what it believed. But is that true?

Goldstein (the author) spends a great deal of time discussing the Athenians’ sense of exceptionalism and moral superiority. She quotes Pericles (451 BC and 432 BC) a few times, who goes as far as to say that Athens’ conquered enemies should be almost proud to have been defeated by such a worthy opponent. What is illustrated in pre-Socratic Athens is a twofold principle:

  1. Your life is worth living if you do something extraordinary, worthy of admiration of others.

  2. With the achievement of power comes the right to undertake extraordinary measures to obtain exceptional extraordinary goals. Might makes right.

With those principles in hand, Athens colonized and dominated most of Greece. Athens carried the divided multitude of Greek cities to victory, defeating  the invading Persian army in an unforgettable example of an underdog’s success that few at the time anticipated. The Athenians then rebuilt their city that had been burned to the ground by the invaders, and turned it into a symbol of power and, to some, justice. It sought to be the city admired by the world over, and it was. To quote Pericles:

“This is not merely a boast in words for the occasion, but the truth in fact, as the power of this city, which we have obtained by having this character, makes evident. For Athens is the only power now that is greater than its fame when it comes to the test … We are proving our power with strong evidence, and we are not without witnesses: we shall be the admiration of people now and in the future.”

This belief in power and glory was so great that it is quoted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War, in the famous Melian Dialogue (the first instance of realpolitik in history):

“The strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Socrates had an altogether different outlook. He believed that a life should be lived virtuously; that man should seek to be just (and question what is just), rather than be glorious. Greatness came in living well, in self-examination, in seeking understanding and loving wisdom.

Socrates’ principles clashed directly with those of Athens. And killing him did not at all run counter to the power-centric principles of the Athenian Democracy, despite Goldstein’s assertion that “the 501 citizen-jurors did not do the institution proud.” Athens was not a liberal democracy--it was highly illiberal, and always had been. Every year it would exile its most popular citizen out of fear that they would gain too much power. The practice was called ostracism. When generals or admirals failed or showed “cowardice,” they could be fired, exiled, or killed by a majority vote of the Assembly. It was a strange place, one that was always very willing to cut down anyone that didn’t fit in the mold, so long as the Assembly could obtain a majority vote.

Goldstein asks: “What happens when a society, once a model for enlightened progress, threatens to backslide into intolerance and irrationality—with the complicity of many of its own citizens?” But in killing Socrates, there was no backslide. Athens’ commitment to its own power and glory--and its intolerance of anything that might threaten it--had been the name of the game since the victory over Persia (and even before). Athens was always willing to sacrifice its own children to cling to that sense of glory--this may well be why it foolishly destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War.

Killing Socrates was no great surprise--and very much not a betrayal of principles. When we think of Athens, we may think of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but these men ran very contrary to the thinking in Athens before Plato’s Academy was well established. Historical nostalgia is built into modern America's cultural memory of Athens, for the role it played in the conception of our own institutions. But America was built on a framework of Republican principles borrowed from Roman, not Athenian, governing structures, since the founders were well aware of the dangers that came from granting absolute power to a single body of individuals where a simple majority decided all outcomes.

The Demagogues

Goldstein fails to mention some of the critical demagogues that brought Athens to its low point. She skips briefly over the Peloponnesian War, which was responsible for destroying Athens' regional hegemony. In the beginning of the essay she writes:

“A war-weary citizenry, raised on democratic exceptionalism but disillusioned by its leaders, wanted to feel great again—a recipe for unease and raw vindictiveness, then as now. The populace had no strongman to turn to, ready with promises that the polis would soon be winning, winning like never before.”

But Athens had already experienced demagogue-strongmen throughout the Peloponnesian War (which Socrates fought in, by the way--he was apparently adept at holding a line in retreats). The much-vaunted Pericles had multiple opportunities to meet with Spartan emissaries to hold off war, but he appealed to Athenian pride and kept the war going. After his death followed Cleon, who rose to power by spewing hatred of the nobility and of Sparta and fomenting anger in the Athenian population. Cleon likely closed the door on the last opportunity to make peace with Sparta and return to safety and prosperity. After his gusto sent him to his own death in battle against the Spartans, Nicias was able to make a temporary peace. But Alcibiades (ironically a student of Socrates) whipped up even more Athenian glory-seeking idealism, promising wealth and power in a poorly-hatched Sicilian Expedition. (Nicias spoke out against it, but lost out to Alcibiades’ golden tongue, because in a direct democracy that’s all the separates the polis from rash, unconsidered action) The Expedition ruined Athens economically and militarily, sealing their fate to defeat by Sparta.

These three demagogues led Athens through its political collapse. The Peloponnesian War ended just five years before Socrates’ death, and left Athens not only humiliated, but politically and economically reduced to a backwater power. Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war permanently crippled its ability to project power throughout Greece, paving the way for the rise of the nearly-barbarian Greek Kingdom of Macedon and the historic march east of a young monarch named Alexander.

It was not the betrayal of lofty principles that led to Athens’ disillusionment, but its massive defeat in a war that its democratic body voted for. The same very same sense of exceptionalism that led Athens into the war carried it into the arms of demagogues and defeat by Sparta. Athens was true to its democratic principles throughout the conflict; it was those very principles that led to its near destruction and, subsequently, Socrates’ execution.

This narrative is important because of the critical role demagogues played in Athens’ degradation and turn towards bitterness. Throughout the war, Athens had opportunities to make peace, or at least not shoot (or in this case stab) itself in the foot. The Athenians had become so intoxicated by  their own pride and thirst for ever-greater glory that they forgot their mortality and ignored their vulnerabilities. It was throughout this particularly grueling time that Socrates ran about embarrassing just about every Athenian big-wig he came across. Here a was a man supremely unwelcomed by Athenian elites whose disappearance would make their lives much easier. Again, his death was neither a surprise nor an indication of “backslide.”

Renewal from Crisis

It is not ironic--though it seems to be--that the greatest achievements of Athens came from this time. As beautiful as are Greek sculpture, art, architecture, and drama, the greatest gifts it gives us are those that came during and after its terrible defeat--rather than its post-Persian War glory.

Socrates’ gadfly-ing had legs--and stung so much--because he started questioning the value of Athenian glory at a time when it was unraveling. People like Plato and Xenophon were likely more willing to listen because the pride their grandfathers had was no longer with them. They needed something new. When Athens no longer had the power to cast itself towards military and political ambition, it turned to thinking. Plato started the Academy, Hippocrates founded western medicine, and Thucydides launched western political theory. All of these men, and the society around them, were shaped by the downfall of Athens and the identity crisis that came with it. Only after decades of giving into demagoguery and blind nationalism were the Athenians ready to practice Socratic self-examination.

Had the Athenians not been brought low by their own short-sightedness and self-ingratiation, perhaps these figures that we continue to idolize as figureheads of Western thought  may have never have generated their most important work. Herein lies a feature of Athenian history that Goldstein misses: before Socrates, Athens was never all that “great”--at least, it was still far away from the unimaginable (and unreplicated) heights it achieved. Athens was rich, beautiful, and cultured, yes, but many other cities during and before its time were as well. The most incredible gifts that Athens gave us came only after it hit rock bottom. The principles that we admire from Socrates and Plato were not “betrayed” at his death: their seeds had just then been planted.

What Goldstein describes as Athenian greatness - the elevation of critical thinking as a way of evaluating purpose and ethical intuitions - did not end with Socrates. Rather, it was within the crucible of the illiberalism Goldstein bemoans that Socrates founded the line of philosophical inquiry that subsequently came to be recognized as a foundational element of Western civilization and thought.

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Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.