The Constitution of Athens

I have been reading Xenophon’s Retreat and was struck by the similarities of social, political and cultural experiences during the waning years of the Greek experiment in the late 5th century B.C. and America today. One passage- attributed to Xenophon or Aristotle depending on text reads thus:

“The contrast between aristocracy and democracy is universal. It is based on the fact that intemperance and injustice are more or less unknown in the best of men, who have the highest degree of concern for decency, whereas ignorance and unruliness and dishonesty are in the highest degree qualities of the masses, who are tempted to immoral conduct by their poverty.”

The further divisions of the Greek city states, primarily those of Athens and Sparta closely resemble the bitter divide that exists in our present era; the Spartans were driven by masculine efforts of martial discipline, patriotism, and honor (those of the warrior class), while the Athenian ideals were of endless hedonism, sophistry, commerce and banking. The conflict between the two as the Greek era slid into decline set the stage for the inevitable collapse of the foundational civilization of Western mankind.

It would be impossible not to see the similarities in Xenophon’s retreat from Persia- despite its military superiority over the enemy and our recent pullout from Afghanistan in this light. At the end, despite every advantage the Greeks possessed, their destiny had already been set by their own internal divisions, not by the threat from any foreign enemy.

Similarly, the trial of Socrates- foretold long before it occurred by the central player- resembled in all ways the recent phenomenon of cancel culture in modern America and the complete subversion of the system justice meant to prevent such outrages in a free society.

He wrote-

“My trial would resemble the prosecution of a doctor by a manufacturer of sweets before a jury of children.”

The Athenians were desperate to retain complete control over the masses not by example, but by a form of fear and self-imposed submission to the beliefs of the ruling class by their population. It was imperative, therefore, to make an example out of anyone who dared to challenge their authority and to do so publicly, not only to discredit, but to humiliate, lest the youth- “the children”- be led astray by those with contrarian views.

From the text of Xenophon’s retreat-

“Socrates was charged with not recognizing the gods of the state…societies such as fifth century Athens, are notoriously paranoid about the failure to conform…”

There appears, if only we scratch the surface of any condition known to man, to be and endlessly repeating cycle of behaviors regardless of time, place or circumstance.

There is nothing new under the Sun.

by Hardscrabble Farmer Via