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What Our World Owes To The Ancient Greeks: Self-Rule And A Focus On The Common Good


The ancient Greeks made major contributions to the world, West, and United States, but sifting what aspects of their culture deserve replicating, as America’s founders did, remains an open question. The ancient Greeks coined the antecedent of our word “barbarian,” barbaroi, to mockingly describe foreigners’ speech — as in, “It just sounds to me like ‘bar bar bar.'” Yet many of the ancient Greeks’ own practices Americans and Westerners today consider barbaric. For example, as in pockets of Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries today, among the ancient Greeks pederasty was common.

So studying our intellectual ancestors, as we are in this series listening along with Hillsdale College’s free online Western Heritage course, doesn’t mean wholesale acceptance of their ideas or culture. Neither does it mean wholesale, cynical rejection, but an openness to understand them on their own terms and to work out what is true and good so we can live out and encourage those things in our own day. You can sign up for the course for free here.

The third in this lecture series is by history professor Paul Rahe, a prolifically published Yale and Oxford graduate highly regarded in his field. He focuses on what he calls “the Greek miracle”: the emergence of a political form we typically call democracy, but is more accurately described as “self-rule.” Rahe contrasts it with the typical form of rule at the time, kingship undergirded by bureaucrats.

Among the Greeks, however, who at the time were a series of loosely connected tribes beginning to form an archipelago of cities, a “species of self-government” emerged. Their governments began to consist of councils that met to determine the agenda for a larger decision-making assembly, and replacing kings with magistrates who served for limited terms.

This growth in self-government, Rahe points out, coincided with the development of the hoplite phalanx, a military form that armed “ordinary people” and required them to work in unison for victory. Hoplites were citizen soldiers with that era’s equivalent of day jobs — what we might today call a militia. Arming the common man and making him equal to his peers in battle, as well as honoring his choice to risk his life for his city, created political expectations of self-rule.

“Political communities depend on people being willing to lay down their bodies for the common good,” Rahe says. Thus ancient Greeks considered courage the first virtue, since one can’t practice any other virtues without it. They also considered politics a prime activity that all citizens were duty-bound to participate in. Those who focused instead on their own private lives were condemned as uninterested in pursuing and preserving the common good. Rahe quotes the famous Athenian orator Pericles on this point: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.”

This may be another departure, at least in emphasis, from the American tradition, in which politics was engaged with as a necessary precursor to peace at home. As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

In his study of the early American character, Alexis de Tocqueville described Americans as notably concerned about public affairs, but typically as closely related with local communities’ needs, with an emphasis on those affairs’ effects on home and hearth. Americans’ disposition is to go to war when it is an unavoidable route to returning to peace. For the ancient Greeks, on the other hand, war was an opportunity to win their civilization power and glory, not so much a necessary evil, as Americans tend to see it.

While this is obviously a very different cultural practice than pederasty, here also I prefer the American view to the Greeks’. But there is also something to be said and learned from their disposition in this regard, given that an utter lack of concern for one’s community and political affairs is indeed the mark of a self-focused person, and contributing to cultural decline in the United States, as writers such as Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and J.D. Vance have illustrated.

“Words, reflection, and rumination lead to glorious deeds, and those deeds take place on the battlefield, in the hoplite phalanx,” Rahe says of Greeks’ view of the close connection between politics and war. For the Greeks, the “centerpiece of politics” was speech. Speech is, of course, the main alternative to war. We talk things out so we don’t fight. The Greeks considered man’s rational and verbal capacities to be a mark of their descent from the gods, as contrasted with animals, which neither speak nor reason.

This “assumes we can rise to the occasion and make better decisions deliberating together,” Rahe notes. “…You listen to other people because you take for granted that they are also interested in the common good. To rise to the common good requires the virtue whereby we overcome our diversity of interests.”

The Greeks had to get together to make their decisions about public life, meaning that their form of government worked particularly well because it centered on the city level, rather than the large, nation-state level. Obviously, the United States’ 350 million people can’t get together to talk through a disagreement: “Communities where everyone knows everyone are more favorable to talk, to conversation, to rational speech, to assembling and making decisions by consensus,” Rahe says in the question and answer video that accompanies this lecture.

While themselves deliberating in small groups over how to create the United States, America’s founders criticized the Greeks freely and attempted to improve upon their model of government for a larger territory. They obviously emulated their military strategy of investing in the common man the power for his own and communal self-defense, and the accompanying political freedom that respects citizens’ use of that power. We also have historically shared another concept Rahe articulates as: “Greeks make no distinction between the government and themselves. The government is us.”