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FYI-FTR: The lesson of how Athens — the first great democracy — fell by march of folly

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Athens, the first great democracy — the city state and naval power that in company with the great Greek land power Sparta led Greece in its successful defense against Persian aggression — foolishly and arrogantly grasped for empire and wealth; so it fell due to its hubris. By march of folly [I add, cf vid lectures here]:

Of Lemmings, marches of folly and cliffs of self-falsifying absurdity . . .
Of Lemmings, marches of folly and cliffs of self-falsifying absurdity . . .

For, when Persia made its second major move against Greece, it was naval power at Salamis that broke the Persians’ ambitions. And Athens then led in forming the Delian League, which:

>> . . .  founded in 477 BC, was an association of Greek city-states . . . under the leadership of Athens, whose purpose was to continue fighting the Persian Empire after the Greek victory in the Battle of Plataea at the end of the Second Persian invasion of Greece. The League’s modern name derives from its official meeting place, the island of Delos, where congresses were held in the temple and where the treasury stood until, in a symbolic gesture, Pericles moved it to Athens in 454 BC [–> that is, the League was now effectively an Empire].

Shortly after its inception, Athens began to use the League’s navy for its own purposes. [–> what does this already tell us about the challenge of good governance for entangling alliances, out of control international or regional bodies, or even parliaments or cabinets and the like? NATO, the late Warsaw Pact, EU, UN, even FIFA etc?]  This behavior frequently led to conflict between Athens and the less powerful members of the League. By 431 BC, Athens’ heavy-handed control of the Delian League prompted the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; the League was dissolved upon the war’s conclusion in 404 BC under the direction of Lysander, the Spartan commander. [Wikipedia, for convenience]>>

So, the very first great democracy teaches us how progressive, culturally refined, enlightened, apparently prosperous democracies can fall into marches of folly and fail, shatteringly fail. (Indeed, it is patently no accident that Luke, a Greek physician, made sure to incorporate the account of the shipwreck at Malta in his Acts [in Ch 27], drawing out how money interests and bought and paid for technicos were able to manipulate the general opinion in the teeth of prudence and warning, leading to sailing out at a dangerous time of year in hopes of quickly getting to a more prosperous harbour; only to be hit by the shattering force of an early winter nor’easter and driven for a frantic fortnight such that it was a hope to be wrecked on the shores of Malta.)

Such failures arise, as democratic majorities are prone to be manipulated by money and by clever domineering voices who gain control of key institutions or factions. Thence, they too often go into marches of folly and ruin.

No wonder Cicero, in his early work on rhetoric, Invention (written at age twenty-one), would observe:

>> . . . when I consider the disasters of our own republic [Rome], and when I call to mind also the ancient calamities of the most important states, I see that it is by no means the most insignificant portion of their distresses which has originated from the conduct of the most eloquent men. But, at the same time, when I set myself to trace back, by the aid of written memorials and documents, affairs which, by reason of their antiquity, are removed back out of the reach of any personal recollection, I perceive also that many cities have been established, many wars extinguished, many most enduring alliances and most holy friendships have been cemented by deliberate wisdom much assisted and facilitated by eloquence. And as I have been, as I say, considering all this for some time, reason itself especially induces me to think that wisdom without eloquence is but of little advantage to states, but that eloquence without wisdom is often most mischievous, and is never advantageous to them.>>

Nor is representative democracy (the modern form) exempt from such concerns. Edmund Burke, in his Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll, warned:

>> . . .  it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. [The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), pp. 446–8.]>>

The repeated, hard-bought lesson of history that democratic opinions can become marches of folly to ruin, was so stringent that the founders of the first modern constitutional democratic republic, the Americans, were emphatic that they founded a republic not a democracy, and put in place many checks and balances to restrain the dangerous tendency of democracies to deteriorate into marches of folly and/or mob rule leading to ruin.

It is in this sort of context of thought that an observation sometimes attributed to Tytler has gained significant currency:

>>A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.>>

An actual, properly sourced, observation by Tytler is almost as telling:

>>It is not, perhaps, unreasonable to conclude, that a pure and perfect democracy is a thing not attainable by man, constituted as he is of contending elements of vice and virtue, and ever mainly influenced by the predominant principle of self-interest. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted, that there never was that government called a republic, which was not ultimately ruled by a single will, and, therefore, (however bold may seem the paradox,) virtually and substantially a monarchy. [Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser (1854). Universal History: From the Creation of the World to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century, Vol. I. Petridge and Company. p. 216.]>>

We thus find that there is a longstanding concern about the inherent instability and vulnerability of democracies that need to be kept in control through an educated, concerned, public spirited, virtue minded public.

Indeed, in the very work that led to the successful American model for modern democracy, the second treatise of civil government Ch 2 sec. 5, Locke famously cites “the judicious [Anglican Canon Richard] Hooker”:

>>. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant . . . [Hooker then continues, citing Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 8:] as namely, That because we would take no harm, we must therefore do none; That since we would not be in any thing extremely dealt with, we must ourselves avoid all extremity in our dealings; That from all violence and wrong we are utterly to abstain, with such-like . . . ] [Eccl. Polity,preface, Bk I, “ch.” 8, p.80, cf. here. Emphasis added.]>>

We here see manifestly evident core first principles of the natural moral law in action, pivoting on recognising our nature, worth, and mutuality as morally governed creatures. Hooker emphasises that these principles are evident to all men, citing Aristotle, Plato’s pupil and tutor in turn of Alexander of Macedon. That is, contrary to the canons of self-referentially incoherent, self falsifying and inescapably amoral evolutionary materialism, core morality — the foundation of the civil peace of justice in the community — is credibly objective. We are not hopelessly locked up to might/manipulation make ‘right,’ ‘truth,’ ‘worth,’ ‘value,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘justice’ etc. — the very credo of destructive nihilism.

Eighty or so years later, these principles and their roots in the reformation era dual covenant view of nationhood and government under God (cf. here on) provided the core rationale for the US Declaration of Independence, 1776, the charter of modern democratic self-government of and by a free people:

>>When . . . it becomes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, [cf Rom 1:18 – 21, 2:14 – 15], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security . . . .

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions [Cf. Judges 11:27 and discussion in Locke], do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.>>

However, such a democracy is inherently unstable and was only feasible when, from 1400 – 1700, the printing press was invented, the Bible — bulwark of liberty and recognition of equality as made in God’s image and as responsible, rational, morally governed creatures — was put in the hands of the ordinary man, and there arose a regular, responsible, free press. Also, the theology and philosophy of liberty and self government had to be worked out and communicated to the people.

Allow me to illustrate the challenge:

U/d b for clarity, nb Nil

The modified seven mountains analysis championed by Lance Wallnau et al will help:


as will this picture of the window of opportunity/challenge for change:


and a picture of the dynamics that move that Overton Window back and forth:


Such changes took generations, and it is no surprise that as these ideas and supports became more and more established, democracy, the central importance of liberty, abolition of the kidnapping based slave trade and then the institution it supported and other important reforms were able to move ahead.

Often, carried on the wings of revival.

Yes, it is extremely politically incorrect to highlight such unwelcome facts, but here is the call to prayer issued by the US Congress itself in May 1776, on the eve of the DoI:

>>May 1776 [over the name of John Hancock, first signer of the US Declaration of Independence]: In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.. . . Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God’s superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprizes, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; . . . that it may please the Lord of Hosts, the God of Armies, to animate our officers and soldiers with invincible fortitude, to guard and protect them in the day of battle, and to crown the continental arms, by sea and land, with victory and success: Earnestly beseeching him to bless our civil rulers, and the representatives of the people, in their several assemblies and conventions; to preserve and strengthen their union, to inspire them with an ardent, disinterested love of their country; to give wisdom and stability to their counsels; and direct them to the most efficacious measures for establishing the rights of America on the most honourable and permanent basis—That he would be graciously pleased to bless all his people in these colonies with health and plenty, and grant that a spirit of incorruptible patriotism, and of pure undefiled religion, may universally prevail; and this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty, and enabled to transmit them inviolate to the latest posterity. And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and abstain from servile labour on the said day.>>

Democracy must be sustained by a people fit to support it.

Or, it will fail.

So, it is appropriate to make a case study of the very first great democracy and how it fell, as a lesson of history bought with blood and tears, a lesson that we would do well to heed in all times, lest we repeat some awful chapters from Thucydides — one of the fathers of History as an academic discipline. (Indeed, one is led to wonder why this lesson in capsule form is not a part and parcel of essentially every introductory history course or civics course.)

Therefore, let us now hear Thucydides’ summary in his classic history of the Peloponnesian war:

>>Not many years after the deposition of the tyrants, the battle of Marathon was fought between the Medes and the Athenians. Ten years afterwards, the barbarian returned with the armada for the subjugation of Hellas. In the face of this great danger, the command of the confederate Hellenes was assumed by the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] in virtue of their superior power; and the Athenians, having made up their minds to abandon their city, broke up their homes, threw themselves into their ships, and became a naval people. This coalition, after repulsing the barbarian, soon afterwards split into two sections, which included the Hellenes who had revolted from the King, as well as those who had aided him in the war. At the end of the one stood Athens, at the head of the other Lacedaemon, one the first naval, the other the first military power in Hellas. For a short time the league held together, till the Lacedaemonians and Athenians quarrelled and made war upon each other with their allies, a duel into which all the Hellenes sooner or later were drawn, though some might at first remain neutral . . . . The policy of Lacedaemon was not to exact tribute from her allies, but merely to secure their subservience to her interests by establishing oligarchies among them; Athens, on the contrary, had by degrees deprived hers of their ships, and imposed instead contributions in money on all except Chios and Lesbos. Both found their resources for this war separately to exceed the sum of their strength when the alliance flourished intact . . . .

The Median War, the greatest achievement of past times, yet found a speedy decision in two actions by sea and two by land. The Peloponnesian War was prolonged to an immense length, and, long as it was, it was short without parallel for the misfortunes that it brought upon Hellas. Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate, here by the barbarians, here by the parties contending (the old inhabitants being sometimes removed to make room for others); never was there so much banishing and blood-shedding, now on the field of battle, now in the strife of faction . . . The real [as opposed to proximate] cause [of the war] I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.>>

That is a good backdrop, but a more modern summary will help us also. Wikipedia is again convenient:

The Peoloponnesian war

>>The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases. In the first phase, the Archidamian War, Sparta launched repeated invasions of Attica, while Athens took advantage of its naval supremacy to raid the coast of the Peloponnese attempting to suppress signs of unrest in its empire. This period of the war was concluded in 421 BC, with the signing of the Peace of Nicias. That treaty, however, was soon undermined by renewed fighting in the Peloponnese. In 415 BC, Athens dispatched a massive expeditionary force to attack Syracuse in Sicily; the attack failed disastrously, with the destruction of the entire force, in 413 BC. This ushered in the final phase of the war, generally referred to either as the Decelean War, or the Ionian War. In this phase, Sparta, now receiving support from Persia, supported rebellions in Athens’ subject states in the Aegean Sea and Ionia, undermining Athens’ empire, and, eventually, depriving the city of naval supremacy. The destruction of Athens’ fleet at Aegospotami effectively ended the war, and Athens surrendered in the following year. Corinth and Thebes demanded that Athens should be destroyed and all its citizens should be enslaved but Sparta refused.

The Peloponnesian War reshaped the ancient Greek world. On the level of international relations, Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war’s beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection, while Sparta became established as the leading power of Greece. The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The war also wrought subtler changes to Greek society; the conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, each of which supported friendly political factions within other states, made civil war a common occurrence in the Greek world.

Greek warfare, meanwhile, originally a limited and formalized form of conflict, was transformed into an all-out struggle between city-states, complete with atrocities on a large scale. Shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities, the Peloponnesian War marked the dramatic end to the fifth century BC and the golden age of Greece.>>

In the aftermath of this war, Athens was shattered as a power to be reckoned with, Persian interference was an established pattern, and Sparta’s own mis-leadership led to its defeat and the weakening of Greece that led to Philip of Macedon conquering Greece. His son, Alexander then conquered Persia.

A generation after the Athenian defeat, Plato as an older man would write in The Laws, Bk X:

>>Ath. . . . [The avant garde philosophers and poets, c. 360 BC] say that fire and water, and earth and air [i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only. [ –> In short, evolutionary materialism premised on chance plus necessity acting without intelligent guidance on primordial matter is hardly a new or a primarily “scientific” view! Notice also, the trichotomy of causal factors:  (a) chance/accident, (b) mechanical necessity of nature, (c) art or intelligent design and direction.] . . . .

[Thus, they hold that t]he Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.– [ –> Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke’s views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic “every man does what is right in his own eyes” chaos leading to tyranny. )] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [ –> Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [ –> Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here],  these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [ –> such amoral factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless tyranny], and not in legal subjection to them. >>

Notice, Plato’s concern about clever young men led into nihilistic amorality and ruthless factionism, which leads to domineering and eventually to ruin. A point emphasised in this relevant speech by George (and cf the underlying landmark paper here):

[youtube my_FrkFIwzk]

Such are sobering lessons of history, but those who ignore, reject, or refuse such lessons doom themselves to repeat its worst chapters. Too often we are tempted to do exactly this, and that is why no less a figure than Karl Marx observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

In our day, I must speak under the right of fair comment: we are tempting fate. END

PS: This is a backgrounder FYI, so there is not a provision for comments below. This live thread seems somewhat relevant, so it is linked.