Sunday, February 26, 2012

Athens in the Axial Age

Now a much briefer reference to another book: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Vintage) by Bettany Hughes, about Athens and the life and trial of Socrates in the fifth century BC.

I was talking recently about the decline of Periclean Athens, motivated by a tv documentary and wandering around the Greek and Roman rooms of the Metropolitan Museum. So this book, just out in paperback, was a natural next step.

Hughes covers the years from about 460 to 399 BC, the year when Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the young and sentenced to drink a cup of hemlock. It is a vivid and evocative account of Athens at the time - not pure gleaming white marble, not the dream of pure classical philosophy and drama, but a chaotic and volatile city filled with religious professions, rivalry and slavery, aggression, resentment and fear. The rich lounge in their symposia behind closed doors while the poor regard them with suspicion.

Athens defeated the Persians with her allies at Salamis in 480. The glory and wealth which follow lead her to start overreaching and turning alliance into empire. Her allies start to desert her. She slides into the Peloponesian War with Sparta, which lasts a generation and ends in Athens' defeat.

It brings home again just how hard those years were. Half the male population of Athens died in war or from disease, and the population of the city plunged. The plague devastated the city. The surrounding countryside was repeatedly burnt by the Spartans. There was internal near-civil war, death squads and treachery. Athens meted out appalling cruelty to the Melians and others, and suffered crushing military defeats.

People had become very suspicious of persuaders and rhetoric - what we might call "spin" today. They found the hard way most persuasive case was not always the right one.

But it was still the age of Euripdes and Pericles and Aristophanes... and Socrates.

Socrates lived through it all, serving with the army in Thrace, and mostly ignoring the huge events that shook the city. Part of his motivation was no doubt to find a better way to live, given the problems that beset the city in his lifetime. This may be why discussion of the virtues becomes attractive - and to a modern era, very different to our modern conception of liberty.

But – crowd-pleaser as it is – Socrates does not concern himself with liberty. Instead he focuses his energies on identifying virtue. He argues that only the pursuit of a virtuous life brings exquisite happiness. Total liberty is a chimera; happiness accepts, even delights in the certainty of compromise. Plato’s Socrates goes further, he suggests that tyranny is spawned by the liberty of all in the demos. Here he is the first to suggest that liberty is an illusion fostered by the great to keep the many happy.


Athens might have welcomed new ideas in the 440s and 430s. But by the end of the century, the city had suffered disaster after disaster. Life felt fragile. People were tired of foreign ideas and questioning of values.

This nebulous, knowing, exploratory, open-ended questioning that Socrates insisted on pursuing was just too troubling. It is perhaps because of this sense of discomfort, this aggravating, literally eccentric attitude, and not because of any ‘crimes’ he committed, that Athens’ antipathy towards Socrates mushroomed. Every juror here, don’t forget, has seen an empire won and lost, has crouched trembling in his mud-brick home as brother kills brother, has put all trust in this brilliant and burning new idea of ‘democracy’, and has watched as the hope of a commonly run city-state has wasted into personal ambition, blood-lust, arrogance, cynicism, tyranny. The gods are clearly enraged. Athena despises her own children. The milk-and-honey moment of the democracy has curdled. Athens has been brutalised.


They were so similar to us. And they were so different, so culturally strange, with a religious background and values we struggle to comprehend. The glory faded, but did not disappear. Plato and Aristotle were yet to come.

In any case, it is a good read, and a warning for states who try to overreach. Athens ends up defeated by the Spartans. Some decades after that, Alexander controls everything. Greece did not enjoy democracy again for two thousand years.



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