Democracies were acutely problematic when they did not collectively comprehend the necessity of legitimate authority permeating the polis. Lacking this understanding, power was elevated in authority’s absence.
Scrupulous fear of the gods is the very thing which keeps the Roman Commonwealth together. To such an extraordinary height is this carried among them, both in private and public business, that nothing could exceed it. —Histories, Polybius
Infirmity doth still neglect all office
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body. —King Lear, Shakespeare
In the Poetics, Aristotle described the distinctly Hellenic medium of tragedy thusly. It was “the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (p. 1460). From Aeschylus to Sophocles and finally Euripides, there can be observed certain unspoken dynamics within tragedy. The tragic figures of Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Pentheus all share a binding doom which can be traced to the ramifications of their chosen actions in the course of their respective tales. There are subtle differences between what brings about suffering and pathos to each of these men. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon agrees to a divinely mandated sacrifice of his own Iphigenia. Pentheus refuses to bow to the new god from the east. Oedipus is the unhappy mean between these two in his having complicity, albeit unknowing, leading to his father’s death. To study tragedy, it seems, is to attempt to understand humanity’s role in bringing it about.
In keeping with this introspection, there can be found in antiquity separate accounts, historical rather than theatrical, telling of even greater tragedy than the above-mentioned tomes. The Athenian general Thucydides, with keen and sobering perspective, wrote of the greatest of all Hellenic falls, that of a war to end Greece’s golden age. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the descent of Greece from its height of victory over Persia and into a horrific conflict between its two powers, Athens and Sparta. This civil war will provide a link between tragedy and the study of politics, most specifically the politics of democracy.
Jacques Maritain outlined some potentially marring elements to particular democracies. Democracies were acutely problematic when they did not collectively comprehend the necessity of legitimate authority permeating the polis. Lacking this understanding, power was elevated in authority’s absence. Ultimately, this led to the degeneration of societies thus constructed because “To separate power and authority is to separate force and justice” (p. 94). Thucydides told of two accounts wherein this descent, or tragic fall, is most evident. These are the accounts of the Melian Dialogue, and the siege of Corcyra. In examining these accounts, Maritain’s championing of democracies wed to legitimate authority has special import nearly twenty centuries ago. Toward this end, a brief discussion of the causes and outcomes of the Peloponnesian War will commence, followed by the two narratives above mentioned, and finally a particular perspective from Maritain’s political thought will be discussed.
There are few scholars today who have written as much on the subject of Thucydides’ histories as Yale’s Donald Kagan. The Sterling Professor of History and Classics is noted for his four-volume opus on the Peloponnesian War, and his ability to draw parallels from this saga to more recent and contemporary world conflicts. It is precisely this that Kagan produced in his On the Origins of War (1996).
Kagan first emphasized the irony of this conflict by placing it in close proximity, within a half-century, to a once united Greece’s stand against an onslaught from the East. With astonishing success against Xerxes’ Persia, the Greeks succeeded in “preserving their independence and liberty by driving its armies and navies out of Europe” (p. 15). This surprising victory, punctuated by the valor of Leonidas and the guile of Themistocles, birthed “a time of extraordinary cultural achievement, probably unmatched in its originality and fecundity in all of human history” (p. 15). Not the least of the apogees reached during this period included the development of particularly Hellenic media such as tragedy and comedy as the tragedians mentioned earlier and the noted Aristophanes put forth. In the realm of the mind, natural philosophers such as Democritus and Anaxagoras gamely “used unaided human reason to seek and understanding of the physical world” (p. 15). Kagan summarized it best by calling the age “a time of great progress, prosperity, and confidence…To all this the great conflict put an end” (p. 15).
One of the festering causes of this conflict was not necessarily the ancient animosity between the superpowers of Sparta and Athens, but rather the internal conflicts between smaller city-states aligned with the two. In a situation somewhat analogous to the Cold War, the larger powers would have considered direct confrontation too costly, allowing for a more volatile and combustible set of dynamics for each city’s satellite polis. In this particular case, the city of Epidamnus was at the heart of spiteful bickering and machinations engineered by a Spartan ally, the city-state of Corinth, and its colony Corcyra, now modern-day Corfu. Corinth saw the civil strife on Epidamnus as an opportunity to humble its now prominent offspring, with an alliance with Sparta in the Peloponnesian League as its unspoken, but unmistakable weapon. Corcyra, as Kagan wrote, “would not accept the humiliation of surrendering to the Corinthians. Rather than that, they would seek an alliance with the Athenians and fight” (p. 40). Lost in this lead up to the clash between Sparta and Athens, but foreboding more subtle ills, was that the core of the struggle began not militarily on Epidamnus, but rather politically, in a clash between camps espousing oligarchy and democracy. These camps and their champions would soon discard whatever virtues they once purported to possess as they vied for supremacy in a Hellenic world adrift with no moral harbor.
The prime example of this degeneration of ideals came via the Athenians and their chosen wartime strategy of conquering Spartan satellite states in an effort to surround and isolate the sons of Lacedaemon. This would be accomplished by deliberately avoiding land-based confrontation with Sparta, with Athens’ navy instead being sent out to island hop its way to hegemony. In the end, it was the game’s final design to render Sparta impotent not by one climactic victory, but rather by subsuming its former allies as newly acquired Athenian vassals.
One of the chosen ports of call on this tour of subjugation was the Spartan colony of Melos. To this task, the Athenians did not cheaply venture. They sailed to Melos with a combined three thousand hoplites, archers and horsemen, a force that dwarfed the island’s military capabilities. Tellingly, the Melians, though a Spartan colony, took efforts to stay at peace with the warring parties. This initial neutrality was deemed either insufficient by Athens, or rather a sign of weakness to be readily exploited. Upon landing, the Athenian commanders sent emissaries to the polis, emissaries met, in characteristically laconic fashion, by town elders instead of the general citizenry. What followed was an example of realpolitik so stark, it would bring blush to Machiavelli’s taught visage.
Without hesitation born of scruple, the Athenians declaimed, “For our part, we will not make a long speech…full of fine moral arguments—that our empire is justified because we defeated the Persians, or that we are coming against you for an injustice you have done to us” (Thucydides, 1993, p. 103). Here, the reference to Persia is most illuminating.
A half-century earlier, Athens stood with Sparta as the Greeks thwarted and eventually threw off the massive onslaught of the Persian king Xerxes, a monarch fixated on punishing Greek independence and expanding his own already prodigious empire. There were seemingly very few things which could have bound notoriously stubborn and autonomous Greek city-states together except a threat from a foreign power. Oddly enough, although the Spartans and Athenians manifested polar opposite understandings and appreciations for freedom, the yoke imposed by Xerxes would be worse than any preferred fate. Sparta fought for its freedom to keep its own polis perennially the way it was, satisfied its native virtues would withstand both time and Xerxes. Athens, on the other hand, was the Greek embodiment of a democratic state. It too fought to be free, yet time would reveal Athens was not content with simply maintaining its independence, but later, in a mock-Persian manner, would yearn to expand on its cardinal virtue.
The Athenians continued, “we both know that decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion; but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that” (p. 103). So much for multilateral diplomacy. Athens dispenses with justice, a virtue one of its sons fighting for her during the war, the vaunted Socrates, will opine quite memorably about in The Republic. The reason for this dispensation is plain. Justice was only relevant in a discussion among equals. Melos was clearly the lesser of the two, and more importantly, since there was nothing greater than Athens, it need not bother invoking the ideals of heaven, when gesturing to the laws of earth will do just fine.
It ought not be missed that the particular polis dispensing with justice happens to be a democratic one—one where equality among the citizenry is of vital importance. As put forth by the aforementioned Socrates in The Republic, a just state, as with a just soul, must be ordered in a manner where the superior faculties preside over the baser. Thus, applying a democratic model to the ideal city would inevitably lead to the rule of artisans, as it would in the soul lead to the reign of the appetites over the intellect and drives. Perhaps Socrates, who fought in and witnessed this great conflict, and his student Plato took this bitter irony to heart. To them, democracy and justice would appear to be incompatible. When Athens plays at being an Eastern king, justice is even further from its grasp. Because it cannot rule over its own imperial ambitions, it cannot ultimately and legitimately rule over others.
The rebuke of Athenian pretensions was voiced by the representatives of Melos. The Melian elders affirmed the numerical, logistical, and tactical superiority of the Athenians, claiming “You can be sure we think it hard to contend against your power and good fortune, unless we might do so on equal terms” (p. 106). Yet, in this moment of sobering bleakness, the islanders turned to sources higher than earthly might to buttress their stoic resolve. They professed, “Nevertheless, we trust that our good fortune will be no less than yours. The gods are on our side, because we stand innocent against men who are unjust” (p. 106). Here, two points deserve to be raised.
First, the Melians claimed the gods of Greece to be on their side. Implicit in this sentiment is a belief somehow in the arbitrating rectitude of Olympus. As Hector stood against the maelstrom that was Achilles, ultimately knowing he could not best his Greek foe, the Melians remind that physical force is not always the purveyor of virtue. Rather, many times over, force is the pretender to virtue. Athens did not, given its differing political viewpoints regarding democracy, believe in alternative gods than those of the Melians. Thus, the judgment of the gods in view of which side was the more just would be universal, and less favorable to Athens.
Second, the Melians stated that their own cause, one of thwarting aggressive political expansion, was akin to the aegis of innocence held aloft above the din of injustice. This aegis, if viewed head-on, would possess a mirror patina, reflecting back to the Athenians the gravity and perfidy of their actions. As was mentioned before, all Greeks, and especially Athenians were the bulwarks against Persia’s assault a half-century earlier. Ironically, it was Athens’ standing with freedom-proclaiming Greek colonists on Asia Minor against Xerxes’ father Darius which preceded the Greco-Persian War to begin with, highlighted by the famed battle of Marathon. Athens claimed earlier to not reserve for itself a justification for its ambition because it defeated Persia. This allusion perhaps betrays the bitter juxtaposition of Athens now acting as a new Persia, and the Melians resisting them with the remembrance of what their polis and their democracy once were.
Nevertheless, the calls to Olympian judgment and reminders of virtues past were as a spring shower upon the formidable Long Walls of Athens. Taking particular emphasis on the Melian attempts to align with godly rectitude, the Athenians scoffed, “the favor of the gods should be as much on our side as yours. Neither our principles nor our actions are contrary to what men believe about the gods, or would want for themselves” (p. 106). Interestingly, instead of refuting the Melian claim of being, by dint of their innocence on the elevated plane of the heavens, the Athenians employ a tactic all too common today, the lowering of heaven to meet situational ethics. This ploy may be due to simple arrogance on the part of Athens. However, upon reflection, the ploy redirects and obscures rather than confronts and defeats. The only reason for this, aside from mere sloth in argumentation, would be at its most basic level, a lacuna of justification spawned by the effects of self-anointing, not to mention self-intoxicating power. Power, after all, was what Athens now shared with the gods, and therefore its imperial thirst must inevitably and unceremoniously be slaked.
Not content with this obfuscation, the Athenians continued: “Nature always compels gods (we believe) and men (we are certain) to rule over anyone they can control” (p. 106). Providing a new wrinkle in this exchange, the Athenians no longer lowered the gods to their level of conduct, but allotted to the amorphous nature the obeisance of both mortal and immortal. What this particular nature proves is a mystery, at least in its ability to compel the earthly and divine to parallel paths of dominion. Perhaps the closest approximation of this was Socrates’ take on piety in the Euthyphro. Plato wrote of his teacher’s asking whether what was right depended on the gods, or whether the gods were themselves bound by something beyond their prodigious strength. Yet, what the Athenians conjured was not something binding gods and men to loftier standards of virtue. Rather, this mysterious nature merely compelled and gave license to both parties to pursue their own inner cravings.
Augmenting this claim, the Athenians forwarded, “We did not make this law, and we were not the first to follow it; but we will take it as we found it and leave it to posterity forever” (p. 106). Washing their hands of the culpability their ambitions impelled them to, Athens apparently indicts all future generations, claiming “we know that you would do the same if you had our power, and so would anyone else” (p. 106). Few occasions elsewhere have had protestations of guiltlessness so revealing. The Athenians feign the virtue of the world-weary; jaded paladins bequeathing to the uninitiated the resignation of those simply following the irresistible dictates of nature. What they do not reveal, perhaps because they are incapable of doing so, is how the newfound barrenness of their ideals blinds them to any other possible course of action.
The story of Melos ended tragically, if not predictably. A siege ensued, as the Melians ultimately refused Athens’s terms of capitulation. It may never be divined, in this particular day and age, why exactly the Islanders held their ground against such impending doom. However, they did resist, and in a bizarre parallel to Leonidas’ 300 at Thermopylae, the Melians succumbed not to armed might, but in bitter irony to treachery from within. The Athenians breached their defenses, killing off their able-bodied men. As was customary, all their remaining women and children were sold into slavery.
It is nowhere written that men ought to prey and fall upon each other due to political disputes, despite garbled protestations from both Hobbes and Nietzsche. This state manifests itself as the sole alternative only when those who choose it (especially by virtue of being the majority) have rejected any foundation apart from sheer, supposedly enlightened numbers. When democracy rejects (and hence lacks) a transcendent authority, something else must step in to occupy the forsaken space. The belief that majorities are not only valid arbiters of a city’s ethos, but morally superior ones at that is much older than the eighteenth-century writings of Rousseau. To trace the roots of broken democracies, one must turn from war between Athens and Melos, to the civil strife, or stasis on the former Corinthian colony of Corcyra.
As discussed earlier, Corcyra disputed Epidamnus with Corinth, a Spartan ally in the Peloponnesian League. This would inevitably bring Athens over in support of Corcyra. What intrigues most about this clash was not its broad scope, but rather the political machinations viewed in micro on Corcyra itself. In 427 B.C., tensions on the island led to an open conflict between the oligarchs of the city, and its more egalitarian democrats. Shortly after this, a Peloponnesian fleet arrived, striking fear into the democrats. Yet, as the tides of war would have it, a larger Athenian naval contingent dispersed its Peloponnesian counterpart. This, in turn, gave free reign to the city’s democrats to begin blood purging all those allied with the oligarchs.
One of the locations for such a purge was in its symbolism shocking, yet ultimately foreboding of atrocities to come. With the presence of Athenian ships granting a moral autonomy, the democrats “came to the temple of Hera and persuaded fifty of the oligarchic sympathizers there to submit themselves to a trial; then they condemned them all to death” (p. 90). Viewing this, the remaining oligarchs threw themselves into despair, killing “one another right there in the temple; some hanged themselves on trees, and everyone made away with himself by what means he could” (p. 90). While the Athenian ships stared impassively, yet in acquiescence, the Corcyreans continued the onslaught. Although political ideology was propped up as a convenient aegis, “there was nothing people would not do, and more; fathers killed their sons, men were dragged out of temples and then killed hard by” (p. 90).
It is natural to ask why men would perform acts so unnatural. Civil wars have always been tragic throughout history. This nation’s own fraternal conflict saw brothers fighting each other, each believing their side held moral sway. Yet, in this particular Hellenic conflict, the act of fathers killing sons was not described as one spurred on by idealistic stances on complicated issues. Rather, the tale reeks of a desperation and abandonment of all this sad society once held as true and of value. The backdrop of temples is telling as well. It is as if piety to the gods, once revered as a cardinal virtue among the Greeks, itself was a casualty in this turmoil. The Spartans once refused to aid Athens against Persia at Marathon, for reasons wherein faith trumped thoughts of survival. At Corcyra, survival not only trumped faith, it called for the latter’s begrudging silence and submission to the new godhead of power.
Thucydides would give possible reasons for this tragedy. In peaceful times “cities…are not plunged into the necessity of doing anything against their own will; but war is a violent teacher: it gives most people impulses that are as bad as their situation” (p. 90). Perhaps it was the intrinsic nature of a civil war, since Thucydides posited such a conflict “brought many hardships to the cities, such as happen and will always happen as long as human nature is the same” (p. 90). This may have been the case, but the peculiar nature of urban strife is not strictly war, rather a state of embittered persecution when most opportunistically available.
Within the polis of the fifth century before Christ, political alignments vying for power did so with the thought of not merely defeating an opposing faction, but eradicating it from the root. The oligarchs, motivated by their desire to keep and maintain their power and influence, saw the democrats as upstarts that needed to be put down with the aid of Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. On the other hand, democrats saw what they were attempting as anything but perpetuating the status quo.
In the final act of this sad affair, the Corcyrean democrats captured a number of their rivals and confined them to a building where they were to emerge at the rate of twenty at a time. Then, the captives were bound and made to run the gauntlet in between two rows of armed hoplites. Many of the prisoners cried out to the Athenians for a quick death, unwilling to leave the relative protection of the building. Not to be denied, the democrats began tearing off the dwelling’s roof in order to assail the oligarchs with brick and arrow. Driven to despair, the prisoners began taking their own lives with the very projectiles meant for them. In the aftermath and in a repeat of Melos, “the Corcyreans threw them criss-cross on wagons and carted them out of the city. The women they captured at the fort and were made slaves” (p. 95).
Perhaps this repeat of Melos would be more of a parallel if not for one troubling factor. The Athenians, in typically insular Greek fashion, saw the Melians as what they were: non-Athenians allied with Sparta. There always would be room for such aggression, in even the most stringent of justifications, since what was being destroyed was foreign and autonomous of the destroyer. At Corcyra, there were no two separate Greek city-states such as in the Melian Dialogue, nor two nations such as the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. At Corcyra were citizens of the same city, torn apart not by the presence of political differences, but rather by the absence of anything other than politics binding its citizens. In a vein attributed to one of Thucydides’ students, it was described what lay at the heart of the democratic purge: “Most of these acted from a passionate desire for their neighbor’s possessions…but there were also those who attacked the wealthy not for their own gain, but primarily out of a zeal for equality” (p. 93). It was this egalitarian zeal that led to the Corcyrean democrats being “the most carried away by their undisciplined anger to commit savage and pitiless attacks” (p. 93). There is great tragedy here, as well as irony.
Maritain once held that societies in which authority resided solely by virtue of collective number would lead to the “exercise of power over men, without having authority over them” (p. 93). In such a state, “where nature is violated, such power tends to become infinite” (p. 93). There is ample evidence in Thucydides’ history for the dangers inherent when such democratic societies give full sway to this unquenchable thirst for power; a thirst made more nagging by the imperative bestowed by the collective whole.
Yet, Maritain foresaw a more deeply troubling tendency within democracies ungoverned by authority. The collective “is by hypothesis the subject proper of sovereignty and yet lacks political discernment, except in quite simple and fundamental matters where human instinct is surer than reason” (p. 96). Inevitably, an ambiguity arises when, though the collective appoints a select number to do their political bidding, the latter in actuality has primacy over the former under the guise of the collective ruling itself. When the ambiguity arises, “the exercise of sovereignty under such conditions will require myths” (p. 96).
Power and greed were potent muses in Thucydides’ age, as they are in this one. The two are limited however in their capacity to self-sustain human fervor past the point of political gratification. A zeal for material equality, and the vision of a world where this was humanly possible, was and is such a myth that fills the void of democracies bereft of authority. There have been few myths so non-egalitarian than the desire to—by fiat or self-professed, less than heavenly mandate—impose egalitarianism on an unwilling citizenry. Here perhaps is the ultimate tragedy underlying Greek culture, wherein a people gifted in all but revelation, sought to level the heavens so man’s collective will would be done.
This essay was first published here in April 2012.
This essay was presented to The American Maritain Association at the 2010 Annual Meeting. It was originally published on Ignatius Insight and appears here by permission of the author.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library (2001).
 Kagan, D. On the Origins of War. New York: Anchor Books (1996).
 Maritain, J. Scholasticism and Politics. Garden City, NY: Image Books (1960).
 Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: Selections from The History of the Peloponnesian War (P. Woodruff, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company (1993).
The featured image is a photograph of Jacques Maritain c. 1930 and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.