The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

Why Greece?

Yes, I should be writing my dissertation chapter, but this is a pertinent digression that I don’t want to lose track of. When I start missing deadlines I will listen critique of my method. Until then, meh. [1]

Even among other historians I sometimes get asked why I study Greece. I am not Greek, the relevance to modern society is at best limited, there aren’t jobs, it requires not just one or two modern languages, but also several dead languages. I generally just shrug off the questions by noting that I have studied other things, too, this is just the one that stuck. The reservations about difficulty and languages and relevance make some bit of difference, but they are technical questions, not ones that actually pertain to chose Greece. To wit, if I was on this path for money, I wouldn’t pursue history at all, and languages are not the boogeymen that people make them out to be.I have a love-hate relationship with languages, but the access to other cultures is a thrill– sometimes comparable to encouraged voyeurism.[2] I study–and learn–whatever interests me. So, why Greece? I don’t know, I just find it interesting.

But “it is interesting [to me]” is a cop-out answer. I was probably looking to cast myself as an indulgent man of letters or some equally antiquated and dramatic role, but “I don’t know” is all I really had. Until now, thereby making what follows the big reveal.

What I find (most) interesting about Greece are the discontinuities and paradoxes, the fissures and ironies, particularly in how Greece and Greeks are conceived of in the modern imagination. I like that the tradition, perpetuated by the Greeks themselves, tends towards the universal, while there was such diversity in experiences that the particulars often bear little resemblance to the universal. I like the political satire. I like the language that has such deep shades of meaning, even if that can take extra time to translate. I like the stories preserved in the literature and the histories, from a culture that straddled the divide between many of the complexities of civilization that resonate with a modern audience (currency, criminal courts, constitutions, democracy, etc) and “primitivism” and “backward credulity.”

All of these issues appear in other cultures and other times, but it is the way in which they converge in Greece that continues to fascinate me. The treatment of Greece as either as the foundation of Western civilization or as an integral piece in the teleological march from the dawn of mankind to the modern Western European/American world seems to have glossed over the incongruities–”Greece” is a cut gem in the crown of history, alongside “Egypt,” “Rome,” and the rest. But it seems to me that while those other gems are no less faceted and flawed, they are more accurately described as a single gem. “Greece” is, at best, a dozen polished rocks loosely bound together to resemble a single gem. Perhaps I carried my metaphor a step too far, but this tension is one of the main things that I keep coming back to when thinking about Greece.

The fragmentary nature of Greece is also one of the areas in which I find particular relevance to the modern world, but that is a topic for another day.

[1] The good, writerly words have all been appropriated for other sentences. What is left is “meh.”
[2] I don’t consider myself good at languages by any stretch of the imagination, either, though I have some level of comfort reading five languages other than English. Too, each one has been easier than the last, not just because they are related, but because I have managed to pick up enough grammar along the way to fit the puzzle pieces together. I still need a dictionary most of the time.