(GREEKS, DEMOCRACY and SLAVERY (650-501 BCE) – continued)
The Athenian democracy had been created on a trust that the average man could be depended upon to do right for his community. It was an orientation that differed from the more intensely religious society of Jews led by an authoritarian priesthood that preached trust and devotion to a wondrous, wise and powerful God. The Greeks did not claim their gods as wise. The gods of the Greeks, for example, were incestuous, while the Greeks abhorred incest. And seeing their gods as more human and with faults of their own, the Greeks were more inclined to put more trust in themselves, which made them more inclined toward democracy.
In Athens, physical training and education was extended to the male children of common families, and it became accepted that boys of commoners should be able to read and write. Schooling was inexpensive because teachers were paid little. Boys started school at the age of seven, and for many it continued for only three or four years, while some others continued until they were eighteen.
In addition to reading and writing, the boys studied literature and grammar. They learned poetry by heart, especially the works of Homer. Prose authors were not studied, nor were mathematics and technical subjects. It was not yet a technology-scientific age. Physical education emphasized individual efforts rather than team sports. As before, education in Athens – and elsewhere in Greece – fostered loyalty to the group. It fostered pride in Athens and pride in being Greek as opposed to being "barbarian."
In Athens and some other Greek cities, dramas and writings appeared that focused on the human condition rather than the gods. The spirit that contributed to other Greek achievements helped the Greeks create an easy, lucid poetry about shared pleasures, love and other feelings. Some innovative writers went beyond simple divisions of good versus evil people and dramatized human complexity and weakness, including the flaws in exemplary heroes. They wrote dramas that contained insights that modern psychology would build upon and refer to: narcissism, the Oedipus complex, phobias and manias.
There was recognition of weaknesses despite the belief that democracy was best. And there were weaknesses that went unrecognized. Democracy brought Athenians greater contentment and political stability, but slaves and women remained without a voice in political affairs, and of the forty thousand adult males free to participate in deciding issues, less than a sixth did so.
A few conservative academics in the 20th century were to heap praise and glory on the wisdom of the Greeks, but there was much to reform in ancient Athens had the Athenians the mind to do it. Athens lacked a professional, responsible, civil service. The functioning of governmental offices remained the special knowledge of a few ambitious politicians who used this knowledge to gain or maintain power and influence. For decades a man had to pass property qualifications to run for high office. Politics and the judiciary in Athens remained under the influence of people of wealth. Venal judges presided at courts of law marked by corruption and perjury. Common people did not have the leisure to serve their city as officials or as members of juries. Not until after 460, when Athens acquired wealth from empire, would people be paid to participate in jury duty or paid to serve as one of the five hundred city council members – pay that would enable common people to leave their work for such activities.
Athens was an intellectual center, but only a few there were interested in advancing their worldly knowledge, and these were mostly young men of leisure from wealthy families. Self-interest remained stronger than community interest, and in the city's market place one could see poverty, slave drivers, loud peddlers and those who cheated their customers.
Not every Athenian believed that democracy was best. Some wealthy Athenians grumbled about the vulgarity of democratic politics. Among them was the playwright Aristophanes, who disliked seeing men attempt to create a following by promising rewards and playing on superstitions. Some men of wealth felt exploited for the sake of what they saw as the ignorant, disorderly mob. And some found democratic government too slow in making judgments and getting things done.
At any rate, despite democracy having added to the military power of Athens, democracy was destined not to last. It was still an age of war and conquest, and these would eventually destroy it.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.