Free Greeks, Servile Americans

Conservatives are fond of saying that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, and in their appeals to the national conscience, they invoke the sacred language of republican tradition, citing scriptures from Aristotle and Cicero, from Edmund Burke and George Washington: the ride of law, a virtuous citizenry, and ordered liberty. Like most Americans, however, conservatives prefer not to look too far beneath the Olympian language down to where politics is practiced not by an assembly of demigods so much as by the termites eating the timbers under the parquet floor.

Although the Greeks, who bequeathed to us the language and the institutions of republican government, were among the most accomplished liars in the history of the world, they were also capable of astonishing frankness about the nature of politics and the moral frailty of human beings.

The brutal candor of Homer and Hesiod, to take only two writers at the beginning of the Greek literary tradition, is matched (in my limited reading) only by the best of Icelandic writing. I remember the shock experienced by some of my fellow students in a seminar on early Greek poetry when, in the midst of a discussion of Solon's magisterial and dignified poetry on his political reforms, we were confronted with the evidence of his pederastic verse. The professor (Douglas Young), looking alternatively merry and stern, observed that you always had to be on guard against...

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