Saturday, November 20, 2010

History may not actually repeat, but it does seem to rhyme quite a bit

Here are some quotes from Will Durant's Life of Greece (1939) that seems to echo our current dilemmas in the US. It is important to recognize that Will Durant was not a right-wing demagogue. Although he had been raised a Catholic, he became an atheist and a proponent of socialism.  And yet, his comments seem to blame collectivist intellectualism for much of the fall of Athens in 338 BC.

Athens, in the 4th century BC was at the height of its Golden Age of wealth, power, and intellectual development. Tensions were building between the rich and the poor, the intellectuals and the businessmen:
In this conflict more and more of the intellectual classes took the side of the poor. They disdained the merchants and the bankers whose wealth seemed to be in inverse proportion to their culture and taste; even rich men among them, like Plato, began to flirt with communistic ideas...finally the poorer citizens captured the Assembly, and began to vote the property of the rich into the coffers of the state for redistribution among the needy and the voters through state enterprises and fees.

The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue. They doubled the indirect taxes...they resorted every now and then to confiscations and expropriations; and they broadened the field of the property-income tax to include lower levels of wealth...the result of these imposts was a wholesale hiding of wealth and income. Evasion became universal, and as ingenious as taxation. In 355 Androtion was appointed to head a squad of police empowered to search for hidden income, collect arrears, and inprison tax invaders. Houses were entered, goods were seized, men were thrown into jail. But the wealth still hid itself, or melted away...the middle classes, as well as the rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor began to distrust it as a sham equality of votes staultified by a gaping inequality of wealth. The increasing bitterness of the class war left Greece internally as well as internationally divided when Philip [of Macedon] pounced down upon it.
Durant goes on to talk of corrupt lawyers, expensive political campaigns that employed catchy phrases and vast promises to lure voters (and funding). He describes endemic moral decay, the rise of professional spectator sports that replaced participatory sports, the isolation of people from nature and the natural state, and the passage of numerous restrictive laws. All ate away at the soul of Athens. He finishes his discussion with this:
Possibly subtler factors entered in the weakening of Athens. The life of thought endangers every civilization that it adorns. In the earlier stages of a nation's history there is little thought; action flourishes, men are direct, uninhibited, frankly pugnacious and sexual.

As civilization develops, as customs, institutions, laws, and morals more and more restrict the operation of natural impulses, action gives way to thought, achievement to imagination, directness to subtly, expression to concealment, cruelty to sympathy, belief to doubt; the unity of character common to animals and primative man passes away; behavior becomes fragmentary and hesitant, conscious and calculating; the williness to fight subsides into a disposition to infinite argument. Few nations have been able to reach intellectual refinement and esthetic sensitivity without sacrificing so much in virility and unity that their wealth presents an irresistable temptation to impecunious barbarians.

Around every Rome hover the Gauls; around every Athens some Macedon.

Later in the century, Athens was defeated by Philip of Macedon at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. Democracy was abolished.


The great Athenian intellectual Isocrates was 98 years old when Athens lost its freedom. He went on a hunger strike in protest of Philip's conquest, and died to no avail shortly thereafter.

The Golden Age was over.

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