When people ask me, "Why study the classics?", I give the same answer that has been given for past 2,500 years or more: So as not to end up a stupid barbarian. As G.K. Chesterton remarked nearly 100 years ago, in any generation those who count will be talking of Troy, and since today, few know of the Trojan War except through a very bad film, either Chesterton was wrong or there are fewer people today who count than there were in his time.
Barbarian is a Greek word that was originally applied to someone who did not speak Greek. Adopted by the Romans, it came to mean those who were ignorant of Latin and Greek and, therefore, beyond the pale of civilization. Down to the end of World War I, civilized people were expected to be familiar with ancient history and literature and to know at least some Latin, and, although it sounds elitist and unfair, the same as true today.
Those who have not studied classical languages, literature, and history are cut off from the roots of our civilization and nearly incapable of understanding English literature from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot. (Naturally, they can always "read" Frank Miller.) As most people know, something like 60-70 percent of English words come from Latin either directly or by way of French. Most of us also know that much of English grammar, when there still was such a thing, was modeled on Latin grammar during the Renaissance and the 18th century, and it is very hard for modern English teachers and even brilliant linguists like Noam Chomsky to understand how a traditional English sentence works, because they lack the necessary background. Hence the collapse of English in my lifetime.
So, the Latinless and Greekless are barbarians, but are they really stupid? It is true that while the study of Greek and Latin does shape up the brain much as a good physical training program shapes up the body, classics cannot make a stupid person intelligent, nor can the lack of classical training prevent a genius in science or mathematics from doing great things in his field. I am using stupid not in the sense of a low IQ but in the everyday colloquial sense of the word, as when we say that someone is dumb or foolish or stupid, if he fails to understand the world around him.
Let me take one small instance of a widespread bit of foolishness that was not so common in the days when entering college freshmen had to display competence in the learned languages: That is the confusion over the word democracy. I think nearly everyone who graduated from high school in the previous millennium knows that the word is a Greek compound meaning something like the rule of the people or, if you got back to the 60's as I do, power to the people. But obviously the people not rule in the United States unless Tom Delay and Hilary Clinton really constitute the people. We also "know" that democracy is a precious thing, so important that we are justified in going to war to save the world for it, as we did in World War I or invading foreign countries in order to impose it, as we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. But what is it?
If you ask a politician or civics teachers what democracy is, they will start talking about free elections with a universal franchise and the principle of majority rule. If they are Republican neoconservatives, they will throw in something about equal opportunity and democratic capitalism, and, if they are leftist Democrats, they will proceed to extol the wonders of democratic human rights. However they may differ on the fine points, they virtually all agree that the American system represents either true democracy or at least a movement toward true democracy, a continuing revolution signposted by the liberation of women, children, animals, and those interesting people who refuse to let natural tell them what sex they are.
Let me say at the outset that there is another technical word for this democratic theory, and it is buncombe. I knew it was buncombe by the time I was old enough to vote, which back in the good old days was 21. How? I had taken no classes in political science or philosophy and had studied only the potted American history they teach in high schools and universities, though the one semester I had taken on the French Revolution might have scared the democratic illusions out of any normal human being. No, for the previous 5 years I had been doing little else in school than to read Greek and Latin, but that was enough to tell me that democracy, as used in modern America, was simply a propaganda term for a certain kind of European and American regime that was better than many alternatives, such as Nazism and Communism, but perhaps not as good as the republican system set up in 1787 in Philadelphia, and that was certainly no democracy.
It is not often commented upon in civics classes, but few of the founding fathers of the American republic were fond of democracy. The exception was, we are told, Jefferson, but his view of democracy was completely opposite to the American system today, whose centralized and intrusive power would have horrified the poor states-rights Virginian, and it is worth noting that Jefferson almost always speaks of republican, not democratic politics.
Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and the others were resolutely hostile to democracy, and they were determined, in drawing up the Constitution, to prevent democracy, which they regarded as a kind of mob-rule that ended in tyranny. As Franklin said, when asked what kind of government they had given the nation at Philadelphia, "a republic, if you can keep it." Any government that has no monarch may be described as a republic, but the word is also used in something of the sense of Aristotle's word politeia, a constitutional commonwealth, what John Adams to as the rule of law and not of men. As Aristotle also points out, a democracy that elevates the will of the people above the law is really only another kind of tyranny.
Most of the leaders of the Revolution and the framers of the Constitution were classically educated. They had read Plato's scathing critiques of democracy—Plato says the fate of a just man under a democracy is to be killed. He was thinking of Socrates, of course, but whether killed, silenced, or ignored, the fate of just men in a system of mob-rule is never pretty. These republican leaders had also read Aristotle's more balanced but highly critical analysis of the forms of government and of the process by which they become deformed—how constitutional democracies collapse into a mob tyranny run by political propagandists. Some might have also read a little anti-democratic pamphlet wrongly included in the works of Xenophon. The author of the pamphlet, the "Old Oligarch" as he is known, though he might have been under 30, praises the cynical Athenian democracy for breaking every known moral law in pursuing its own selfish interests. For example, he insists that Athenian democrats have to overthrow the aristocratic governments of their allies because they can only trust politicians who agree with them on policies of looting the rich. This is the first and perhaps the most accurate analysis of what we now call "democratic globalism."
Above all, they would have read the historian Thucydides, who charts the tragic course of Athenian democracy. We are taught in school that Pericles was a great democratic leader who gave Athens its golden age. Thucydides, his younger contemporary, has a more measured view. While he praises Pericles' intelligence and abilities, he also points out that while they called it democracy, the period of his influence was really the rule of one man-in other words a dictatorship.
For all his capacity and prudence, Pericles made several moves that sealed the doom of his city. First, he drove his moderate and responsible opponents into exile, thus depriving Athens of their considerable talents. Among them were prominent members of Thucydides' own family. Second, he radicalized the democracy and ruined the institutions that were designed to prevent mob rule. Third, he insisted on fighting a war with Sparta and on turning the Delian Confederacy into the Athenian Empire. In Pericles' own lifetime, the Athenian democracy brutalized any Greek city that tried to leave the empire, but the worst incident came later, after his death, when mob-orators and demagogues could stir up the Assembly to any crime.
I shall give the story only very briefly, since most of you know probably it. Athens demanded that the tiny island of Melos join the empire. The Melians refused. Unlike the Athenians, they were Dorian Greeks, not Ionians, and they had a longstanding alliance with Sparta. They appealed to law, tradition, and the gods. The Athenians responded with sneering contempt for both law and religion. When the Melians persisted in refusing this offer that could not be refused, Athens conquered the island, killed all the men and enslaved the women and children. This was the greatest of the world's democracies, the model for democratic states that we are told over and over do now wage aggressive war. As the poet Yeats would say, "they say such different things in school.”
Small wonder that Washington and Adams had such a horror of democracy. But what about Jefferson? Here we have to be very careful. Jefferson, in the first place, thought the Constitution went much too far in investing power in the national government. Virginia was his country, his "state"—in both sense of the word—while the United States was a confederation, much like the Delian League in the years after the Persian Wars. He thought the federal court system was bound to produce an irresponsible tyranny of judges, which is why he hated his fellow-Virginian, Chief Justice John Marshall, and wanted to impeach him. When Jefferson spoke glowingly of democracy, he did not mean the right of a 51 percent majority of voters in a national election to ride roughshod over the other 49 percent of the voters and, in fact, the majority of the people. Here in America, voter turnout is 50-60 percent, thus a victory really represents something like 25-30 percent of eligible voters. What he envisioned was a society in which every level of social organization, from the family to the state, would take care of its own interests. In the same way that he believed that Virginia's problems should not be solved by the voters of Massachusetts—or of all the states represented in Congress—he also believed that local communities should not be dictated to by the government of Virginia.
Jefferson believed that the separate states should be sovereign in all that concerned them, and he agreed with John Adams that the federal government should be limited to affairs of state, making war, coining money, managing the postal system, and adjudicating disputes between states. But Jefferson did not stop there: He believed that a state itself was too large to be run on democratic lines and wanted to see power devolved first to the level of the county and then all the way to the neighborhood or village—the "wards" as he called them—which he would have made republics in miniature, responsible for their own police, roads, charitable assistance, and education.
Where would Jefferson have got such an idea—which ran contrary to the enlightened theories in England and France, where the emphasis was all on centralization of power, whether under a monarchy or under a parliament? One source, naturally, was in the American experience, which his theory merely codified. Americans, while their European cousins were leaping forward toward the modern centralized state, had gone back in time to the patriarchal Middle Ages, when distant kings had little power over life either in peasant villages or in the commercial towns. As Toqueville noted in his famous trip to America, we Americans did for ourselves and our neighbors the duties and services that in Europe everyone expected the state to perform.
But Jefferson might have had another source, and that is his knowledge of how an ancient Greek polis—or for that matter the Roman Empire—actually functioned. He knew, what few political theorists know today, that free peoples in the ancient world lived in self-governing cities with minimal governments and paid no direct taxes. Conquered subjects paid such taxes; free men did not.
Then let us return briefly to Athens and see how it actually functioned. The first thing to note is that for the two basic institutions of democracy, there were no elections. The nine chief magistracies were selected by lot. Greeks believed, with considerable justification, that elections would always be controlled by the wealthy, which makes them inherently undemocratic—as they are in America, where heavily-funded coalitions of lobbyists select the candidates and to a large extent determine the outcome of most elections.
Sovereign authority did not lie in an elected parliament but in the popular assembly, which sounds very democratic until we recall that the only people eligible were adult male citizens, most of whom had to be able to prove descent from Athenian parents on both sides. Slaves, foreigners, women could not vote. It was more difficult for a foreigner to become a naturalized citizen than in Switzerland—and that is saying a great deal. I should have added "straight," because whatever bisexual proclivities the Athenians had, they disenfranchised men whose primary sexual orientation was toward other men by giving official notice not to attend the Ecclesia. If they disobeyed, they were, at least in principle, subject to the death penalty.
Important officials who handled money or were in charge of defense--two matters too important be left to chance--were elected, and the members of the Boule or council that prepared bills for the Ecclesia and tried to safeguard constitutional custom were elected from the roughly 150 Attic demes, a unit of neighborhood government corresponding to Jefferson's wards. These demes were in charge of registering and maintaining rolls of citizens, and functioned as local governments. Another important local structure was the phratry, a kind of clan, that played a large part both in religious life and in inheritance law.
In theory, the ultimate authority lay with the Assembly, which felt free to disregard both the Council and the law, to say nothing of common sense and basic morality. Get on the wrong side of the Demos, the people, as Socrates found out, and you wind up dead.
This same Assembly constituted the basis of the jury system, which, it was noted, was the true power base of the democracy because they could always give unfair verdicts to aristocrats. The Athenians preferred juries of hundreds of jurors on the sensible grounds that it was more difficult to pay off 500 than, say, 10. Speaking of the Athenian legal system, I should remind you that there were neither professional judges nor lawyers nor police. A man was supposed to defend himself in court, though he could hire someone to write his speech for him. If someone had stolen or illegally detained his property, it was up to the injured party to round up his friends and take the stuff back before hauling the perpetrator up before a magistrate. In a case of murder, the victim's nearest male relatives had to prosecute or their was no case. On the other hand, if they failed to prosecute, one of the man's friends might enter in a suit against them for impiety—but this again was more like a private or civil action in Anglo-American law.
This very brief description of Athenian law allows us to draw an important conclusion: While it is certainly fair to describe to describe Athens as a democratic city, so long as we agree that slaves and women should not vote and that immigrants should not be made citizens, but it was not a democratic state, because a city without bureaucrats or police can hardly be called a state in the modern sense. No matter how tyrannically the Athenian assembly might behave toward subject cities or towards political leaders it took a dislike to, its ability to intervene in the private life of most citizens was neglible in comparison with the social authority exercised by modern states.
Most of the state functions we take for granted were completely absent. Athens as a city-state had no public schools or universities, no social workers, no social security, no agency to regulate marriage and divorce. All of these functions of welfare and moral regulation were under the control of the families themselves or, where families had problems, of the phratries and demes. Athenian citizens paid market duties and import tolls, but no taxes on their income or wealth—an income tax was the badge of servitude for Greeks and Romans alike. Think of this as you file your tax returns. The real Athens offers a truly Jeffersonian vision that is very compatible with the American constitutional system in theory though not in practice.
To conclude: Democracy has two faces—one is the face of Aristotle and Jefferson, a completely decentralized system in which power is exercised at the lowest possible level and is subject to law and tradition. As Aristotle noted, any democracy in which the will of the people takes precedence over law and tradition is only another kind of tyranny.
The other face, the false face, is that of the demagogues of the Athenian Assembly, and also of Robespierre and Abraham Lincoln and both political parties today. This is a system based on the principle of untrammeled majority rule, subject to neither law nor tradition. If the people want to overturn any clause in the Constitution, they are free to do so. This explains why the Bill of Rights, which were designed to protect the states and the people from the federal government are now used to reinforce the power of the federal government against the people and the states.
It is no small irony that the American Revolution was fought when the traditional British system, with the checks and balance of law, constitution, and precedent, was being replaced by parliamentary sovereignty, whose main tenet was that Parliament, as representing the British nation, could pass any law it deemed necessary. This was the precursor to the tyranny of the fictive majority which we are enduring today.
The reality of democracy is that the the people has no power, since we are all under the control of tiny oligarchic cliques and pressure groups that monopolize wealth, power, and prestige. How false democracy devoured Jefferson's republican democracy is a long sad story, punctuated by wars and revolutionary legislation. But if Americans ever wish to be free, they shall not only have to go back to the thinking of Adams and Jefferson but also to the ancient writers and ancient languages that formed their minds and inspired their imaginations. And even we if cannot recover our political freedom as a nation, we can liberate our minds from the propaganda of civics books and discpline our free minds on the classical curriculum.
This article was drawn from a lecture given to classics students at Marquette University. It has been posted (with any luck!) at the reactivated triacademy.org.