Some quick thoughts from Athens

I spent the last week and a half in Greece (mainly Athens and other historical sites in the Peloponnese) thanks to the Reason, Individualism and Freedom Institute, and explored ancient political philosophy in a modernly turbulent state. I’m writing this in Naples. Here are a few thoughts I had from the first couple days in Athens.

There is a strong antifa presence (at least judging from graffiti, small talk with some locals and the bios of Grecian Tinder girls). I can’t help but imagine the American antifa pales in comparison. Our black bloc — thrust into the spotlight in mostly superficial college campus debates — tends to be enthusiastic, whereas the antifa in Hellas, culturally sensitive to millennia of dictatorships, entrenched aristocracies, Ottoman annexation, great power puppeteering and a century of neighbouring fascist regimes, must be somber and steadfast. Our antifa crowd has so little targets to find Ben Shapiro a worthy protest, whereas Golden Dawn, the ultranationalist, Third Reich-aesthetics Metaxist party gets 7% in the Hellenic Parliament. Nothing here is spectacle. (Moreover, the extreme-right in Greece, according to our tour guide, has been known to worship and deify mainstream Christian figures as well as the ancient gods spawned of Uranus and Gaia. Umberto Eco’s immortal essay Ur-Fascism explained phenomena like this as the ‘syncretic’ element of fascist traditionalism.)

Moving past the fascists and antifa, in general Greece is left. The Communist Party of Greece, KKE, gets about 5% of the votes and displays a sickle and hammer. More telling still, plenty of the leftist graffiti is actually representing the KKE. Political parties tend to de-radicalize, or are supposed to in theory, and the fringe ideologues disavow the party for centrism or weakness (it’s funny to think of American socialists spray-painting the initials of the CPUSA). The graffiti stretches all the way to Lesvos, of Aristotle’s biology and Sappho’s poetry, and to Corinth of the cult of Aphrodite, but is most prominent in downtown Athens.

Athens has an anarcho-friendly district with a rich history called Εξάρχεια, Exarcheia. Antifascist tagging is complimented by antipolice, antistate, antiborders and LGBT designs, the Macedonian question is totally absent, and posters about political prisoners stack on each other like hotels on ruins. Our friends at KEFiM warned us about Exarcheia — it has a history of political/national xenophobia, and one member had been violently assaulted — but I had already visited on the first day. Aside from a recently blown-up car, it wasn’t too different from Berkeley — nice apartments and restaurants juxtaposed with street art and a punk crowd, drug dealing, metal bars on windows. Granted, this was in daylight and I saw only what was discoverable with Google maps. Still, I had the fading remains of a black eye and my usual clothing is streetwear, so maybe I wasn’t too out of place — even as an American and thus most hated representative of that target of so much antifascist graffiti, NATO.

Much of the larger politics of Greece were not easy to discover from our various tour guides. Just like the ancient myths of the country, they constantly contradict each other.

The Athens underground metro was incredibly clean and modern — infinitely more than in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. — while their roads are constipated and chaotic. Duh, the city itself is one of our most ancient settled, and so roads have proceeded in a particularly unorganized fashion. But it did cause me to consider the beauty that on a planet where our civilizations literally build on each other generation after generation — and, in an uncommon historical epoch where conquering is out of fashion — sometimes the only place to go is down. Humans have expanded our surface area in dimensions completely unfathomable to the diasporic colonizers from ancient Crete.

The syncretic chaos of the streets, though nauseating to the newcomer, lends itself to almost divine levels of flânerie, such that one can walk hours without reaching any particular destination and feel accomplished. Nothing much looks the same when Times Square melts into an ancient agora melts into a Byzantine church melts into the beach. Attica is wildly heterogeneous and beautiful; modernist adherents to classical Greek conceptions of precision-as-beauty should be humbled.

I should add also that my first impressions of Athens (and Catania) was how much it looked like something out of a videogame. The condition of 21st century man is that, upon visiting foreign cities for the first time, he will invariably compare them to Call of Duty maps.

On a few occasions, enough for me to notice but not enough for me to declare it a custom, my server (who sits me, takes my order and waits on me) gave me extra food on the side. This only happened at small restaurants that aren’t overly European and might be an orange juice, fruit bowl or something small and similar. Every time, of course, I left a larger tip. These actions put us in a sort of gamble. For the waiter to bring me something periphery, he might expect a grander gratuity. Then, when I notice the extra item, I have to assume that it’s not just a mistake — that he didn’t think I ordered something extra which will appear on my tab. He and I are both sort of gambling our luck. Of course, it’s not a real gamble — in every instance we were at least partially sociable prior and lose nothing substantial if it doesn’t work out. What is interesting is that we’ve removed ourselves just a little from the law — I am only legally obligated to pay for what I ordered; he is only legally obliged to bring me what I paid for. Still, without the legal backdrop, everyone leaves happy. Left-libertarians would like it.

(As everyone knows, the Greeks are very hospitable and friendly, and this is a testament to that. A counter-example: I went to a gay club for the first time in the rainbow district of Athens. I can’t speak enough of the tongue to talk to women anyway, and there is at least a chance that some guy will buy us drinks. Nobody buys us drinks. The only conclusions are that we’re not handsome enough or the Greeks are not as friendly. It has to be the latter.)

I should quickly add something about coffee. Where it not for the drought of drip coffee, I could easily stay in the Mediterranean forever. Alas, to literally order an “iced coffee” — kafe frappe — you are ordering a foamy concoction with Nescafé. To order a Greek coffee (known as a “Turkish coffee” before tensions in the 1960’s) means an espresso-type shot with grounds/mud at the bottom. But, the coffee culture is fantastic — the shops are all populated with middle-aged dudes playing cards, smoking rollies, and shooting the shit. I don’t think I need to describe the abominable state of American coffee culture. Entrenched in their mud, the Greeks resisted American caffeine imperialism. Starbucks tried and failed to conquer the coffee market: there were already too many formulas, and the Greeks insisted on smoking inside.

Reading the Laws, Part 2

I am writing this in the shadow of Annapurna II, one of the five peaks of the great mountain, and the first that any trekker will see. Annapurna is roughly at the latitude of Florida, and so even in November, the weather is relatively mild at lower elevations. However, at 11,000 feet, the slightest wind leaves one bitterly cold. Coincidentally, this forced exile from the outside has enabled me to continue my writer’s diary. I apologize for the brevity.

To summarize the foregoing, the nameless Athenian has refuted Klitias the Kretan’s argument, that the firmest foundation of a family is in enmity. For if the Kretan accepts the idea that the role of the lawgiver is to legislate for the highest good of his people, the highest good could never be obtained in a state of enmity, because it would result in the dissolution of the family – the highest evil. The Athenian continues by extrapolating the analogy of the family outwards, to the group, the village, and the state.

628b: The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.

628c-628e: Transitioning from this, the Athenian asks, “ἆρα οὖν οὐ τοῦ ἀρίστου ἕνεκα πάντα ἂν τὰ νόμιμα τιθείη πᾶς;” or “So would he [the lawgiver] not in all his laws [notice, τὰ νόμιμα, those things according to custom] aim at the highest good [τοῦ ἀρίστου, the excellent, related to the words ἀρέτη or surpassing excellence, and aristocracy].” The Athenian’s position is eudaimonistic, in that it sees the highest good, whatever it may be, as the ultimate goal of all law, as Aristotle saw it as the ultimate goal of all life. It is worth considering what the highest good could be in this case. Because for “highest good” Plato has written τοῦ ἀρίστου, the genitive form of τό ἀριστόν, the excellent, the particular valence of this word is vitally important. Aristotle saw the exercise of virtue as the highest ἀρέτη, or goodness, leading to the state of ultimate human flourishing, εὐδαιμονία. Aristotle most certainly drew from Plato, but it must be noted, ἀρέτη is much narrower, much more connoting moral goodness, while ἄριστος or τὸ ἄριστον can be the best of anything: the best morality, the best athlete, the best lawgiver. Thus, the highest good of the lawgiver could be amoral, but the Athenians staves off this interpretation by the extrapolation of his family analogy.

For the family, the highest good is the peaceful cooperation of its members, and by extension, so too with the group, the village, the state, and even amongst states. Thus, so far, peace is the highest good, because peace is most conducive to the flourishing of personal and civic excellence. Of course, peace need not be born out of moral considerations. A good peace, speedily and well concluded, is often the pinnacle of good statecraft. A good example of this is Diocletian’s concord with the Persians, after he installed an Armenian upstart on his ancestral throne and routed the Persian forces all the way into Mesopotamia. This peace held for generations, and was a lasting memory of the Illyrian’s illustrious reign. His considerations were certainly not moral, but pragmatic; securing the borders of the empire allowed for the peaceable exercise of commerce, which in turn allowed for Diocletian’s oppressive taxes. Diocletian reflects the Athenian’s injunction, that “ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ πρὸς πόλεως εὐδαιμονίαν ἢ καὶ ἰδιώτου διανοούμενος οὕτω τις οὔτ’ ἄν ποτε πολιτικὸς γένοιτο ὀρθῶς, πρὸς τὰ ἔξωθεν πολεμικὰ ἀποβλέπων μόνον καὶ πρῶτον, οὔτ’ ἂν νομοθέτης ἀκριβής, εἰ μὴ χάριν εἰρήνης τὰ πολέμου νομοθετοῖ μᾶλλον ἢ τῶν πολεμικῶν ἕνεκα τὰ τῆς εἰρήνης.” or “Just as with regards to the flourishing [εὐδαιμονίαν, a good daimon, or human flourishing] of a city-state and of a private citizen, the man keeping in mind only what concerns war will not become a good statesman, nor a complete lawgiver [the usual translation of ἀκριβής is strict or precise, but I am loosely translating it in the sense of completeness], if he does not lay down laws concerning war with an eye to peace, rather than lay down his laws concerning peace with an eye to war.”

629a-630e: Here the Athenian begins an extended analysis of a poem by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, which basically states that regardless of a man’s other virtues, if he is not proficient in war, he does not merit the attention of the poet. The Athenian, along with Klitias and Megillos, declares himself in accord with Tyrtaeus, and then begins his “gentle interrogation” of the poet’s ideas.

First, there are two kinds of wars, no? Civil and foreign. It is assumed that Tyrtaeus praises the warriors of foreign wars, which is probably not far off the mark. Civil wars require military prowess, but they never yield military glory: the famous and comical case of Crassus, throwing himself into the Third Servile War due to insecurity at the glory of his fellow triumvirs Caesar and Pompey, failing to garner even a modest triumph after putting down Spartacus. Civil wars carry no interest, and so it is foreign wars that the poet, and the Athenian, are interested in. Yet, even more than foreign wars, there are foreign wars of great importance: the war against the Persians holds greater weight in the poet’s mind than, say, a border skirmish with some Thracians.

Second, if foreign wars impart glory, but important foreign wars the greatest glory, does it not follow that there is a hierarchy of glory, that “the union of prudence, wisdom, and courage is greater than the presence of courage alone?” That, the unity of virtues is superior to a single virtue? The point of this extended discourse becomes immediately clear when the Athenian continues his point that war, of all things, is not the basis of the state – the virtue of war, courage, is only one of many virtues necessary for the proper functioning of the state. Indeed, even evil and mercenary types can gain glory in war, fighting only for the salary or plunder they will receive, and not for the civic virtue that the lawgiver has venerated. The lawgiver and the poet, in honoring the soldier, honor him as part of the state, but not the core of the state. Thus, we must speak of the lawgiver “ὥσπερ τό τε ἀληθὲς οἶμαι καὶ τὸ δίκαιον ὑπέρ γε θείας διαλεγομένους λέγειν, οὐχ ὡς πρὸς ἀρετῆς τι μόριον, καὶ ταῦτα τὸ φαυλότατον, ἐτίθει βλέπων, ἀλλὰ πρὸς πᾶσαν ἀρετήν, καὶ κατ’ εἴδη ζητεῖν αὐτῶν τοὺς νόμους οὐδ’ ἅπερ οἱ τῶν νῦν εἴδη προτιθέμενοι ζητοῦσιν. οὗ γὰρ ἂν ἕκαστος ἐν χρείᾳ γίγνηται, τοῦτο ζητεῖ νῦν παραθέμενος, ὁ μὲν τὰ περὶ τῶν κλήρων καὶ ἐπικλήρων, ὁ δὲ τῆς αἰκίας πέρι, ἄλλοι δὲ ἄλλ’ ἄττα μυρία τοιαῦτα ἡμεῖς δέ φαμεν εἶναι τὸ περὶ” or “In this way, as what is true and the honorable to say when discussing a divine hero: that he placed the laws not looking only to the welfare of a certain part, and that the most lazy of them, but to the whole excellence, and according to classes created the laws themselves, but not according to those classes which the current propounders created [the laws].” NB: I am unsure what Plato/the Athenian means by the “current propounders.” Perhaps the poets, or the lawgivers, which he had just mentioned, or perhaps it is in reference to some political factions current in his city-state at the time.

Reading the Laws

Correctly interpreting a Platonic dialogue is less a science than an art, one conditioned by many conditions obvious and abstruse. In reading Plato, we must keep in mind the time in which the dialogue was supposedly written, for such will help us determine whether Plato wrote in the mold of his teacher Socrates, or according to the dictates of his own ruling reason. We must keep in mind the structure of the dialogue, which unlike a treatise, is ended not by a logical summation of the foregoing argument, but by mundane occurrences such as the break of day, or the calling of a friend; which does not explicitly endorse a single opinion, but plays with multiple viewpoints; which may be written ironically or seriously; and which gains great meaning from its setting and its cast of characters, which are never unintentional but always carefully chosen. We must keep in mind that the Ancient Greek language, which had a literary life in excess of 1500 years, possesses far greater shades of meaning than does Modern English, and that the translation we have recourse to is invariably imperfect, and must always be corrected by frequent and prudent retreats to the original text.

With requisite humbleness, and bearing these thoughts in mind, I will attempt to elucidate some things as I read through Plato’s “Laws,” the more mature fruit of the great philosopher’s mind, but the less widely read in comparison to his magnum opus, “The Republic.” As I have not completely read the Laws as of this first writing, this will be more of a reader’s diary than a fully-fledged analysis. Unless otherwise noted, I have furnished all the translations myself. Perhaps at the end of my enquiry I will tie together my thoughts, but as of now, I will limit myself strictly to what I have read up to this point. Throughout, I will refer to portions of the text according to the accepted notation, as I have a digital rather than a print edition at my disposal.

***

624a-625b: In every literary work, the first and last words, or the opening and closing lines, are extremely important. They act as the brackets of a literary work, in which everything is contained, thereby crafting the tone of all therein. The greatest example of this is Homer’s Iliad, which begins with the accursed and divine wrath of Achilles, “μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά Πηληῑάδεω Ἀχιλλῆος οὐλομενήν,” and ends with that wrath’s natural result, the destruction of Troy’s greatest hero, Hektor: “ὣς οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο,” or “and so was the funeral of Hektor, tamer of horses.”

In similar fashion, Plato frames the beginning of his dialogue with a most important but also peculiar question: “θεὸς ἤ τις ἀνθρώπων ὑμῖν, ὦ ξένοι, εἴληφε τὴν αἰτίαν τῆς τῶν νόμων διαθέσεως;” or “Was it a god, or some man, o strangers, to whom you ascribe the origin of the ordering of your laws?” Here, Plato does not concern himself with what the best laws are, or what they should be, but rather who has given them. The words he chooses have an interesting meaning. Αἰτία has the sense of responsibility or guilt, and thus a rather negative connotation, in its earliest Homeric usages, and this usage tends to predominate in all except philosophy, where it has the denotation of a cause or an originating point. Whether Plato is playing off both meanings, or whether he means only the later, is hard to say. Διαθέσις is a compound of the prefix διά meaning by or through, and the noun form of the verb τίθημι, to place, so it is literally a “placing through,” an ordering. Finally, νομός is generally translated as law, but has a much more expansive meaning than the English term, encompassing notions of custom, religious propriety, and overall civic life. When Socrates is arguing with his disciples about whether to flee, or to die in his cell, he invokes the specter of the Laws personified, reproaching him for abandoning his duty to protect and uphold them, as they have protected and upheld him: these are the νομοί. Laws are not something that merely govern a polity, they create, maintain, and nurture such a polity. Taken together, Plato is not just asking who has laid down a set of laws, but who was it, a singular human being or a force of nature, that created the entire basis for your civic life? Who was it that set in motion the entire apparatus of your society?

Here, the speaker is not identified except by the demonym Ἀθηναῖος, Athenian. He mimics the role of Socrates in many Platonic dialogues, and indeed engages in the same process of elenchos, but is here considered only as an avatar of Platonic thought. His two interlocutors, Klinias and Megillos, come from Crete and Lakedaimon respectively, and are treated as representatives of their constitutional arrangements. They find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.

625c-627b: Of course, this is immediately overthrown when the Athenian asks Klinias to explain his Cretan customs. The warlike nation is so only because of the providence of the lawgiver, who saw “ἄνοιαν δή μοι δοκεῖ καταγνῶναι τῶν πολλῶν ὡς οὐ μανθανόντων ὅτι πόλεμος ἀεὶ πᾶσιν διὰ βίου συνεχής ἐστι πρὸς ἁπάσας τὰς πόλεις,” or “In my opinion, he [the lawgiver] condemned the lack of understanding amongst the masses, as not knowing that war against all states is always a lifelong vocation for all people.” Furthermore, “ἣν γὰρ καλοῦσιν οἱ πλεῖστοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰρήνην, τοῦτ’ εἶναι μόνον ὄνομα, τῷ δ’ ἔργῳ πάσαις πρὸς πάσας τὰς πόλεις ἀεὶ πόλεμον ἀκήρυκτον κατὰ φύσιν εἶναι,” or “For the multitude of men call peace, to be just that name, and every state is, according to nature, involved in a perpetual informal war with every other state.”

The Athenian interprets this philosophy as follows: the properly organized state is one in which the laws, civic practices, and religious ordinances are oriented to ensure victory through force of arms, “δοκεῖς μοι λέγειν οὕτω κεκοσμημένην οἰκεῖν δεῖν, ὥστε πολέμῳ νικᾶν τὰς ἄλλας πόλεις.” The Cretan agrees, whereby the Athenian shows him the folly of his ways through a reductio. If states are always at war with other states, then this implies that the constituents of states are always at war with the other constituents of that state, for it would be strange to say that the behavior of a large group is violent according to nature, but the behavior of smaller groups is not. The Cretan concedes, and the Athenian continues by saying that if state will fight state, and group group, then why not individual and individual? Or even further, an individual within himself? The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.

Plato through the mouthpiece of the Cretan articulates a Hobbesian picture of human nature, where all are stained red with the blood of their compatriots and enemies alike, and such is not an evil, but indeed the flower of a nation’s laws properly organized by a lawgiver, in this case, the Gods themselves. Anyone familiar with the Euthyphro might chuckle here, for in that dialogue Socrates skillfully showed how a conflicting pantheon of gods could never be true moral arbiters, for their laws are always sunk in a morass of contradiction. It is dangerous to ascribe to the early Plato and his Socratic mouthpiece the same opinions as the late Plato here, but the parallel seems striking nonetheless. It is also strengthened by the Athenian’s victory over Klinias in this contest of wits.

627c-628a: The Athenian brings home the thrust of his argument by reorienting the idea of a proper state introduced by Klinias earlier, viz. as a ragged collection of armed militants, constantly seeking to kill or usurp the other, instead asking his interlocutors to consider the state through the metaphor of the family. Here, the Athenian is implicitly asking us, the readers, to consider a proper state not as a collection of individuals, but as a corporate unit that should act in concert for the mutual benefit of all. If we think back to the earlier metaphor of the state, group, and individual red in tooth and claw, they were conceived not as unified groups, but as individuals looking solely to their own gain. This defies the very definition of νομοί, which depend on mutual civic engagement, and also was exposed by the Athenian as an absurdity of logic, as it was exposed later by Hobbes as an absurdity of reason.

With this new metaphor of a family of warring brothers, the Athenian presents us with a new situation: the members of a single group quarrel with each other, and because they will fall into the absurdities of individual conflict, they require an arbitrator who is above them, a judge. The Athenian presents three choices: “πότερος οὖν ἀμείνων, ὅστις τοὺς μὲν ἀπολέσειεν αὐτῶν ὅσοι κακοί, τοὺς δὲ βελτίους ἄρχειν αὐτοὺς αὑτῶν προστάξειεν, ἢ ὅδε ὃς ἂν τοὺς μὲν χρηστοὺς ἄρχειν, τοὺς χείρους δ’ ἐάσας ζῆν ἄρχεσθαι ἑκόντας ποιήσειεν; τρίτον δέ που δικαστὴν πρὸς ἀρετὴν εἴπωμεν, εἴ τις εἴη τοιοῦτος ὅστις παραλαβὼν συγγένειαν μίαν διαφερομένην, μήτε ἀπολέσειεν μηδένα, διαλλάξας δὲ εἰς τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, νόμους αὐτοῖς θείς, πρὸς ἀλλήλους παραφυλάττειν δύναιτο ὥστε εἶναι φίλους,” or “So, which of the two is better, one who destroyed all the wicked of them [the brothers], and appointed the good ones to rule themselves, or one who would appoint the good to rule, and allowing the wicked to live, made them willingly submit? But there is a third we must mention, best according to excellence, if such a one could be found among them, who would not destroy anyone, but in dealing with a future time, would give them laws, and have the power to ensure that each of them is able to live in amity.”

Both Klitias and Megillos agree that the third judge is by far the best, for he is able through the use of his art to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and thus ensure a lasting peace. Thus, the goal of laws is not to inflame the martial passions of individuals, villages, groups, or states, but rather to cool them, and thereby create the basis for concord between moral actors. Plato does not deny that animosities exist between people, or even that the basis of Klitias’ philosophy is wrong. Rather, he argues that his conclusions are wrong: that the existence of a state according to nature is not a sanction for its continuance; that life by the sword is not the foundation of proper law, but rather the reason for law’s existence, and the object of its restrictions; that unbridled individualism is inferior to the moderation of a wise judge, or set of laws.

***

This is all the work I have energy for at the moment. After a harrowing three day journey on bone-rattling mountain roads, I made it to Pokhara, a backpacker’s Shangri La in the foothills of Annapurna. Tomorrow I will tackle the famed Annapurna Circuit, and hopefully will be able to blog more on this fascinating book from one of the tea houses there. Until then, χαίρετε!

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Euripides’ Tragedy Ion

Euripides lived from about 480 BCE to 406 BCE. Though he is one of the three great figures of Athenian tragedy, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, who have already been discussed, he may have been born outside Athens and died outside Athens.  This relatively mobile life is itself an issue at a time when identity with the city of one’s both and ancestors was  taken very seriously, and it was very difficult for anyone not born of parents of that city on both sides to become a citizen and participate in politics. It is an issue considered in the play considered here.

Euripides’ way of writing is distinct from that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in that it is more discursive, with long prologues and characters speaking in short essays sometimes. There is less of the feeling than in Aeschylus and Sophocles of writing that is purely poetic and arises unreflectively from a world of myth, gods, and heroes. We should not think of Aeschylus and Sophocles as spontaneous poets of a mythical world view, there is a reflective designed element. Anyway, in Euripides we are likely to feel more part of a world of conscious reflection and debate on the limits of the customs and laws of the time. The mythical is not absent, but is more open to question. The writing style is more like an assembly of short essays joined by dramatic action, which is a slightly harsh way of distinguishing Euripides from the more continuous intense poetry of the other two great Attic tragedians.

More plays survive by Euripides than the other two writers of tragedies, and I hope to turn to some of those later in this series. For an entry in the Euripidean world, Ion is ideal form the point of view of questioning of the politics and religion of the time. The background to the play is that the God Apollo, also referred to as Phoebus, made the young woman Creusa pregnant.  She abandoned the resulting baby boy and believes him to have died. Apollo arranges for the boy to be raised as a servant at his temple in Delphi. The temple is connected with the Delphic Oracle, one of the major institutions of the ancient Greek world and one of the few things giving some unity to the great number of Greek states, along with the Olympic games. The oracles was a woman speaking in a riddling manner, whose words were interpreted  by priests. People came from all over the greek world to hear the prophecies and use them as advise. This include state representatives considering issues like war, so the Oracle has a political function, and may have been manipulated to serve political purposes.

Euripides does not engage directly with the political role of the  Oracle, but the story of Ion revolves around the mythical history of Athens and the early Greek states. Ion is the name of the boy abandoned by Creusa. Creausa comes to the temple with her husband Xuthus when Ion is a young man, with no idea of what has happened to him. Xuthus is a powerful man in Athens, who came from outside the city, but became an important citizen after helping the city to victory in war.

When Xuthus sees Ion at the temple, he is misled by a prophecy of Apollo into believing that Ion is his son, by a brief liaison at a festivity. He makes this belief clear to Ion and invites him to come to Athens as his son and heir, since he has had no children with Creusa. Ion has doubts about going to Athens because of the issue f excluding foreigners from public life, but is assured that that he will be able to speak in public debates. So we see an indication of how citizenship was seen in Athens in the time of the great tragedies, which is to say as participating in public affairs on the basis of a right and duty to speak one’s mind as far as it is directed to issues of the public good.

Creusa does not realise that Ion is her son and when he realises that Xuthus will take him up as his son and heir is angered that a stranger is taking over her family.  She plots to kill Ion with poison. This looming crime and its motives refers both to an ancient Greek tendency to see women as driven by uncontrolled dangerous passions, and to an expectation that the woman has some rights in the marriage and the family that should not be violated. When Ion discovers her murderous intentions, she flees to an alter where she cannot be killed without sacrilege, indicating the role that ideas of divine force and protection had in the  Greek understanding of law. Apollo sends Athena, the goddess associated with Athens, to prevent the sacrilegious murder by explaining that Ion is the son of Creusa and not Xuthus. Ion and Creusa are reconciled, but Xuthus is not informed of the truth. He is allowed to continue to believe that Ion is his biological son. The lie is excused with the suggestion that Ion is his son  by a gift of Apollo.

The play suggests that the interventions of the gods are full of deception and force, so casts some doubt on the perfection of the gods, and on divine justice. That is practice means casting doubt on the foundation of customs and laws, suggesting that they can be debated according to the rights of citizens in Athens that concern Ion. The idea of a city unified by common ancestry rather than residence and citizenship is questioned.

It is the mother who links Ion to Athens through descent and though she is portrayed as murderous, her son’s anger is no less demented and dangerous, so at least suggesting some sense that both men and women need to restrain their most destructive impulse.  she is allowed to known the truth and bears the burden of Apollo’s seduction, or even rape, and subsequent abandonment. It is the priestess of the temple who starts to lead Creusa towards the truth, which is fully explained by Athena.

Euripides expresses the need to question the grip of myth, archaic law, and ancestral custom if there is to be public truth and political justice. He shows some awareness that a community rests on the participation of women not just their subordination to men, even if he does not erectly challenge that subordination. He suggests that violent revenge must be constrained not just by the divine order, which also sets up cycles of revenge, but more by recognition of truth, rational discussion, and debate about the public good, with the possibility of integration of outsiders into a community of free debate about laws and the good of the city.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aristotle

Apparently  some people have enjoyed the posts on ‘Another Liberty Canon’, so I will keep going on that tack, but with a revision to the heading as I ‘ll be covering some thinkers already accepted into the liberty canon, or at least some of the various canons. I’ll continue to discuss what I think should be brought into the canon, and push the boundaries a bit on those already generally accepted into the canon. I’ll be giving coverage to major figures, with regard to their work as a whole, but at some point I’ll start doing some relatively detailed readings of individual classic works.

I’ll start at the beginning, more of less with Aristotle. I’m sure there are texts and thinkers within the Greek tradition, and certainly in the Near East, southern and eastern Asia, and so on worthy of attention, but for substantial books clearly devoted to the nature of politics, and which have a focus on some idea of liberty, Aristotle seems as a good a place as any to start.

There is maybe a case for starting with Aristotle’s teacher Plato, or even Plato’s teacher. I think Plato should be rescued from the persistent image, never popular with Plato scholars, of forerunner of twentieth century totalitarianism, because just to start off the counter-arguments, Plato’s arguments refer to a reinforcement, albeit radical and selective, of existing customs rather than the imposition of a new state imposed ideology, and certainly do to suggest that arbitrary state power should rise above law.

However,  on the liberty side, Plato’s teacher Socrates was the promoter in his own life style of a kind of individualist strength and critical spirit who fell foul of public hysteria. We know very little about Socrates apart from the ways Plato represents him, but the evidence suggests Socrates was more concerned with a kind of absolutism about correct customs, laws and philosophical claims, in his particular critical individualistic attitude than what we would now recognise as a critical individualistic attitude.

It looks like Socrates was an advocate of the laws and constitutions in Greek states, like Sparta that were less respectful of individuality, liberty and innovation than Athens. Though Aristotle does not look like the ideal advocate of liberty by our standards, he was critical of Plato (often referring to him though Socrates, though it looks like he is reacting to Plato’s texts rather than any acquaintance with Socratic views different to those mentioned by Plato) for subordinating the individual to the state and abandoning private property, presumably referring to the Republic which does seem to suggest that for Plato, ideally the ruling class of philosopher-guardians should not own property, and that the lower classes composed of all those who accumulate money through physical effort, a special craft,  or trade, should be completely guided by those guardians.

It is not clear that Plato ever meant the imaginary ideal state of the Republic to be implemented, but it is clear that it reflects the preference Plato had for what he sees as the changeless pious hierarchies and laws of the Greek states of Crete and Sparta, and the already ancient kingdom of Egypt, in which power goes to those who at least superficially have detached themselves from the world of material gain in some military, political, or religious devotion to some apparently higher common good.

Plato and (maybe) Socrates had some difficulties in accepting the benefits of the liberties and democracy associated with fifth and fourth century BCE Athens that fostered commercial life, great art, great literature, and great philosophy. I will discuss the explanation and promotion of the values of Athens in a future post on the most distinguished leader of democratic Athens, Pericles, so I will not say more about it here.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) came from outside Athens, he was born in monarchist Macedon which lacked the republican institutions of participatory government in the city states of Greece. Aristotle’s family was linked with the monarchy which turned Macedon into the hegemon of Greece, destroying the autonomy of Athens and the other republics. Aristotle even spent time as the tutor of Alexander the Great, who turned the Madedonian-Greek monarchical state into an empire stretching to India and Libya.

Aristotle was however not the advocate of such empires, but had already studied with Plato in Athens, where he acquired a preference for the self-governing city state participatory model of politics . His links with the Macedonian state sometimes made it difficult to spend time in Athens where most resented the domination from the north, so he spend time in Anatolia (apparently marrying the daughter of a west Anatolian king), the Aegean islands and the island of Euboea off Athens, dying in the latter place.

Despite these difficulties, Aristotle was so much in favour of the values of republican Athens that he even endorsed the idea that foreigners, or those born of one foreign parent could not be citizens, in case of a dilution of the solidarity and friendship between citizens. This issue brings us onto the ways in which Aristotle does not appeal to the best modern ideas of liberty. He was attached to the idea of a self-enclosed citizen body, along with slavery, the secondary status of women, the inferior nature of non-Greeks, restrictions on commerce, and the inferiority of those who labour for a living or create new wealth.

Nevertheless, given the times he lived in, his attitudes were no worse than you would expect and often better. Despite his disdain for non-Greeks, he recognised that the north African city of Carthage had institutions of political freedom  worth examining. His teacher Plato was perhaps better on one issue, the education of women, which appeared to have no interest to Aristotle.

Still unlike Plato, he did not imagine a ‘perfect’ city state where everything he found distasteful had been abolished and did not dream of excluding free born males at least from the government of their own community. Aristotle disdained labourer as people close to slavery in their dependence on unskilled work to survive, but assumed that such people would be part of a citizens’ assembly in any state where there was freedom.

His ideal was the law following virtuous  king, and then a law following virtuous aristocracy (that is those who inherited wealth), but even where the government was dominated by king or aristocracy, he thought the people as a whole would play some part in the system, and that state power would still rest on the wishes of the majority.

All Greeks deserved to Iive with freedom, which for Aristotle meant a state  where laws (which he thought of as mainly customary reflecting the realities of ancient Greece) restrained rulers and rulers had the welfare of all free members of the community as the object of government. In this way rulers developed friendship with the ruled, an aspect of virtue, which for Aristotle is the same as the happy life, and justice.

Friendship is justice according to Aristotle in its more concrete aspects, and ideally would replace the more formal parts of justice. Nevertheless Aristotle did discuss justice in its more formal aspects with regard to recompense for harms and distribution of both political power and wealth.

Like just about every writer  in the   ancient world, Aristotle found the pursuit of unlimited wealth or just wealth beyond the minimum to sustain aristocratic status discomforting, and that applies to writers who were very rich. Given that widespread assumption Aristotle makes as much allowance for exchange and trade as is possible, and recognised the benefits of moving from a life of mere survival in pre-city societies to the material development possible in a larger community where trade was possible under common rules of justice.

As mentioned, Aristotle preferred aristocratic or monarchical government, but as also mentioned he assumed that any government of free individuals would include some form of broad citizen participation . We should therefore be careful about interpreting his criticisms of democracy, which have little to do with modern representative democracy, but are directed at states where he thought citizens assemblies had become so strong, and the very temporary opinions of the majority so powerful that rule of law had broken down. He still found this preferable to rule by one person or a group lacking in virtue, which he called tyranny and oligarchy.

He suggested that the most durable form of government for free people was a something he just called a ‘state’ (politea) so indicating its dominant normality, where the people between the rich and the poor dominated political office, and the democratic element was very strong though with some place for aristocratic influence. It’s a way of thinking about as close as possible to modern ideas of division or separation of powers in a representative political system, given the historical differences, most obviously the assumption of citizens’ assemblies in very small cities  as the central part of political participation rather than elections for national assemblies.

Relevant texts by Aristotle

There is no clear distinction between politics and ethics in Aristotle, so his major text in each area should be studied, that is the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. Other relevant texts include the Poetics (which discussed the role of kings in tragedy), the Constitution of Athens, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Rhetoric (the art of speaking was central to political life in the ancient world).  Aristotle of course wrote numerous other books on various aspects of philosophy and science.