ancient civilizations

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 54

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Ancient Greece -- Privilege Ruined Independence

The southeast wind has sprung up at sunset. It blows freely over the stern and swells the sails. The vessel leaps forward. As she rounds Cape Sounion and enters the Saronic Sea, Athens - superb, imperious, beloved Athens - though more than a score of miles away, shimmers through the crystalline atmosphere. There, distant, soft and mellow, is the temple-crested citadel of the violet-crowned city. There the matchless Parthenon rises, and beside its columns and pediment shine flamelike the golden helmet and spear-head of the colossal goddess, Athene Promarchus - "she who fights in the foremost rank." Behind the city lies Mount Hymettus, "violet-bathed" in the sunset. Later, as the vessel speeds on, ranges into view "rosy-tinted" Mount Pentelicus; and then Mount Lycabettus, as in a "furnace glow."

How the traveler's heart beats and leaps before him as he gazes! Never before has his native city seemed so radiant, so majestic, so inspiring, so heaven-endowed. Returning from travels through the civilized world, he realizes beyond all cavil and peradventure that in art, in feats of arms, in intellect, Greece is preeminent. And Greece is led by Attica, while Attica is ruled by Athens, the mistress of the world.

It is the Golden Age of Pericles. Greece leads civilization. Take Athens alone, and where is the nation with names to compare with her sons? What sculpture can rival the works of Phidias and Praxiteles; what painting that of Polygnotus? Is not the architecture of Ictinus and Callicrates the despair of the world? Has not dramatic poetry come to exquisite flower in the persons of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes? Where are there orators like Demosthenes, Aeschines, Isocrates and Lysias; historians like Thucydides and Xenophon? Who of the living has surpassed the generalship of Miltiades and Nicias; will mortal memory forget the sea fight of Themistocles at Salamis? Where in the sweep of civilization is a statesmanship comparable with that of Pericles and of Cimon; where have the gods raised philosophy and morals to the heights of Socrates and Plato; where paralleled Aristotle's formulation of knowledge?

All these men are citizens of the state of Attica. Other Greek states have sons whose names are likewise monuments to art, to learning, to literature, to statecraft, to military prowess, to philosophy, to morals. Does not intellect govern the world? How then can Greek supremacy fail? Other civilizations have faded and gone out. But with such a constellation of genius, how can Greek progress falter?

Thus with natural pride might have reasoned the Greek traveler as he eagerly pressed homeward.

Yet even then, with all her dazzling splendor, Greece, and particularly Athens, was as a statue with head of gold and feet of clay. An aristocracy held as their private property the soil and all the avenues of production. The mass of the population was composed part of slaves and part of dependent freemen who had to compete with slaves for subsistence. The community was divided into mutually hating classes - those who possessed special privileges, and those who possessed them not; those who basked in appropriated riches, and those who toiled in poverty. Plato called these classes the "hares and lions."

"Even poor Athenians kept a slave or two," says Professor Mahaffy in his Critical Introduction to Duruy's "History of Greece." "They were saved the worry of all the more troublesome or degrading manual labor, and so the Athenian . . . was in a serious sense an aristocrat as well as a democrat. He belonged to a small minority ruling a far greater population."

And as Athens and Attica were, so was all Greece. Her people were not truly free. They were organized into democratic states, but each of those states was part bond and part free. Each was an imperial democracy, where, indeed, there was a free and equal citizenship, but where below that citizenship was a mass of slaves who labored the fields, conducted the manufacturing, and engaged in menial toil.

Aristotle, the master intellect of antiquity, relegated all manual labor to the slaves, whom he called "the living machines which a man possesses"; while the master moralist, Plato, in his disgust of the war of factions among the upper, or citizen class for control of the state and of the privilege-making powers, eschewed Agora, Senate, tribunals, laws, decrees, political parties and candidatures. As he says through the mouth of Socrates in the "Theaetetus," and suggests elsewhere, he would have the state governed by "the lords of philosophy."

This was not democratic. It was the theocratic idea. It was the revolt against things that the moral philosopher's penetrating eyes saw about him: below, a multitude so degraded that they appeared beneath the estate of man; above them, the members of the ruling-citizen class grappling with each other for power and riches.

This ruling class, not content with dominance at home, sought dominion abroad. It conducted foreign wars and drew upon Greece's best blood to plant colonies and hold subject territories. Large revenues flowed from without into the coffers of private citizens, but all the while Greece grew weaker. Her slave and dependent population increased, while more and more of her free citizens, who in former days had carried her arms so gloriously against the hosts of the Great King, became scattered to the four winds.

What booted all her civilization, all her enlightenment? Says Professor Mahaffy: -

Of course, where the historian speaks of "classes" he means the factions among the citizens. He does not include the slaves, most of whom had been freemen taken in war and many of whom were white, like the Greeks themselves. And when he speaks of the "discontented classes" he means those elements among the citizens who did not enjoy all the privileges possessed by other citizens.

The factions among the privileged class fought among themselves over privileges and the riches flowing from them. Even as early as the never-to-be-forgotten days of Salamis and Plataia, "rich citizens" were ready to sell the general freedom to the Great King for security of their "property" and peace to enjoy it. Like the privileged classes everywhere, they were guilty of a long line of treasonable acts against liberty, such as it was - that narrow class liberty which was the only kind of liberty Greece ever knew.

Through the perspective of time, and in light of her subsequent career, we can see how impossible it was for the Greek nation to hold its separate and independent station in the world. But could the Greeks themselves realize it in the time of their outward glory and fruitage?

Behold in the plains of Olympia the quadrennial games in honor of Zeus. Under the unclouded, transparent sky lies the great stadium, a ninth of a mile long, packed with a vast multitude of pilgrims from all the states of Greece and their colonies, and with travelers from distant parts of the outside world. Only free-born Greeks of unblemished name may enter the contests.

Each state sends her fleetest, strongest, handsomest. Even now a roar of acclamation greets the six-horse chariot victor. The judge gravely awards the prize - not money, not lands, not even a fillet studded with gems. It is a simple wreath of wild olives to crown the victor's head and a palm branch to carry in his hand. Of all earthly trophies, these are highest. If the victor chances to be a son of Sparta, that state will decree him an additional and supreme honor -- the post of greatest danger in her next war. The proudest Greeks struggle for the glory of transmitting to their remotest posterity trophies won in the Olympian games.

Stop a man, any one in the concourse pouring forth as the games cease for the day. Ask him if he thinks Greece can have but a short career of independence. He will, perhaps, stare at you for a moment, and pass on.

Turn and wander to the sacred grove - the grove inclosed by Hercules, containing, among the exquisite sacred buildings, the temple of Zeus, with its wondrous figure in gold and ivory from the hand of Phidias. Or go to the quiet spots where poets sing - and such poets! - or where historians relate the heroic exploits of the little states, or where, in small groups, are discussed the intricate, word-fencing systems of philosophy. Pluck this one or another by the gown and, chatting in an easy strain, venture presently to observe that Greece at last may sink into the dust before freer peoples! What would such a one think of you? That you had taken leave of your senses. As well expect to witness the current of the Alpheios run toward its source or Mount Phellon cast itself into the sea, as the fall of incomparable Greece!

And yet, after having reached such heights of knowledge and wisdom and wealth and power, Greece, led by Athens, declined and fell. The reason is plain. The law of civilization is association in a condition of equality. It is not a man-made, but a natural law; and it is as inexorable as are the other laws of nature. A nation that disregards it courts death. It matters not how poor in material things a community shall remain or how rich it may become. Its units must be equals. As equals they will rise in concord from plane to plane. Each link of the chain will cling to each other link, and all will bear an equal strain. This is the law of human progress.

But when inequality arises in a community, community defects develop. The links change relatively in power. Some strengthen, some weaken. Discord mars harmony. Aristocracy and a mob supplant a general, enlightened and serene democracy. The state rushes to self-destruction or becomes an easy prey to conquerors from without.

The Greek people were part free and part slave. There was no general social harmony. Class hated class. The clay feet crumbled under the gold head. Soon, very soon, Greece was overborne by those whom she had scorned as barbarians. She bowed under the yoke of successive conquerors, and the glory of her civilization passed as a priceless heritage to other and freer peoples.

Next Week: If peerless Greece fell, shall the American nation escape?

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