In the fifth century B.C., Athens and her allies were at war with Sparta and her allies in the Peloponnesian War, made famous by the great historian Thucydides. In the first part of the war, Pericles, son of Xanthippus, was the leader of Athens; by all accounts, he was an able leader, not least because of his apparent selflessness in the face of Athens’ need, and because of his honesty. He seems to have been a thinking man, and though humility was not widely held to be a virtue in the ancient world, Pericles seemed to have that essential nature of humility: to stand with one’s feet firmly on the ground, to realize one’s relative importance in the face of the danger that threatened with extinction the city’s values and very existence.
Pericles held out hope for his city not based on the signs of oracles, but on the glory that was Athens. Thucydides, a general and chronicler of the war, recorded the words spoken by Pericles in his famous Funeral Oration:
“[Our constitution] favors administration for the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life fall to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom… also extends to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes… but all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from learning or observing.” (Book II, 37).
Thus Pericles finds the glory of the war dead in that unique government springing from Greek faith in human reason and a reasonable universe: a government that serves the many rather than the few, which acknowledges that human reason and spirit, if allowed “a life affording scope for the excellence of virtue,” will guide the state to true greatness (Aristotle, Ethics). Pericles exhorts the Athenians to fight not only for themselves but for human posterity in order that such a grand idea may be saved. He knows, as many centuries later Alexis de Toqueville would realize, that a democracy can only flourish as long as it is moral, and as long as it does not act upon fear but rather on the idea that right knowledge leads to right action, and that history and politics should be based on right order and right principles.
Every truth, however, has a dark side, and the darkness of this truth is that if political life is not guided by right knowledge of right order, and becomes instead fear-based or too individualistic, terrible histories will repeat themselves: communism can come again, fascism can rear its head once more, revitalized in the safety-seeking of fearful citizens who tend towards authoritarianism. Disordered thinking and the fear that results is a kind of vacuum which invites the unscrupulous or the fanatical to take advantage.
Thucydides’ Pericles addresses this danger after the great plague during the war, to a people who have started bowing to the enemy, a people who have turned on him in their depression, fear, and despair:
“To recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; indeed, such qualities are useless to an imperial city though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude.”
In our current situation in the United States, these words could have been spoken to both Left and Right, indeed, to a majority of our citizens, for our main enemy has become ourselves. On the one hand, we have severed the relationship of political law and natural law, of natural law and eternal law, all of which should forge a unity despite our political differences. This has resulted in a fractious, individualistic culture made up of people who can no longer see the reason for laying their individualism down for the good of others, including the weakest among us. The virus of fractiousness, blooming inexorably over two hundred years into extreme individualism, seems to have got into the American founding at the beginning, whilst at the same time, the opposite extreme, Federalism, also wormed its way in not long after the nation began. Thus, the new attempt at the Grand Idea of the Athenians, in America, was infected from the beginning and, we are truly seeing the fruits of it now, two hundred years on.
Yet there is something at the core of the American experiment that is akin to Athens: the insight that people should be valued not for what they can bring the few, but what they can bring to their communities around them; that a responsible, moral people hold a benevolent power that conquers the world through inspiration and virtue. However, we unfortunately share something else with Athens, in we have become an empire, and as in the case of Athens, this has become a death-knell to us. Like post-Periclean, imperialist and hubris-tic Athens, we are feared and despised by our known world—and yet, at the same time, we are envied and copied. Pericles also said that human judgement is relentless against the weakness that falls short of the true calling, or true ability of another. We are contemptible in our Left-ist rush to re-define reality for ourselves, in the materialistic continuance of our hegemony and imperialism for the purpose of maintaining an outlandish standard of living for the few, and in our new-found Right-ist xenophobia in response to the dangers we ourselves have helped create by our misguided foreign policies. We elicit contempt for our shortcomings in attaining what we were truly capable of as a once-free people.
Are we free now? The fact that we would be even remotely close to electing a xenophobic materialist like Donald Trump, or a manipulative corrupt like Hillary Clinton, that we have no candidates available not tainted by empire-ism or fascism or rabid, amoral individualism, or plain inability, or the deeper fact that the presidential election eclipses the election of subsidiary authorities who should, by their closer connection to us, have more power to inform, serve, and guide their constituency, points to a fatal sickness growing.
Will the sickness be a new form of fascism? Or materialistic, utilitarian Rorty-style socialism? Or a slow slide into decay?
Regardless of the end, we are certainly slouching towards some sort of tyranny, not the least being the tyranny of our own unbridled passions.
The answer? God.
This is both a simple and complex answer. It is simply that God is the eternal law, and the natural law, and thus the model, the true source, for individuals as well as political societies. In Him is the unity, and the relief and beauty of order and simplicity. Yet the truth, Reality, in a fallen world is overwhelmingly complex and even tragic. Pericles knew the wisdom of living in the face of ultimate mystery as he exhorted his people to give their lives for something greater, even whilst standing in the midst of hundreds of bodies ravaged by the plague, by war. For most people, maybe almost all of us, we build chimera-walls, our own private realities, in order to escape the real one: we think we will live forever; we think science has the last word; we live almost purely in the realm of ideas, away from messy particulars; we make little gods we believe we can control; we create narratives, sometimes even taking the shreds we like from the fabric of the True Narrative.
Perhaps, truly, the human race is divided into two camps: those who live more or less in reality, but never truly in reality, on a spectrum nearer or farther from Reality; and those who are simply, saints. St. Francis comes to mind. He stands in the Assisi church surrounded by his family, his community, and his bishop, having divested himself of his clothes and anything that tied him to his old, woven life; he leaps into the unknown, into the hidden arms of God. Deemed crazy by everyone else, he was in the end, the only one in Reality among them. He said later that suddenly everything shifted, and he saw himself as a fly upside down on a window; he knew that everything he’d known before was tainted, warped, by human narrative, and it was therefore not Truth. He saw the God who holds all things in a unified Whole, and yet counts the hairs on each person’s head. In St. Francis’ extremity of love from and for God, because he was a beacon from the rock, more profound and truer than Athens, into the darkness of human culture, he was able to join a revolution that has influenced the world in a much deeper way than even Athens, Rome, or any other political system, no matter the gifts each possesses.
In the end, we need God, who is Reality, to have healthy political societies; and because most of us are too afraid, sinful, selfish, or weak in love, we need saints to point the way. Otherwise, we will continue slouching towards tyranny and what is left of Athens will die once again. Open yourself to reality, become a saint, and you will be the best also for the nation you love: you may die, but as Pericles said, your legacy will be greater than if you’d lived submissive to tyranny, because by your sainthood, your being in Reality, you will remain for all time a light, a true light, born of Light, for all people.
This is leadership, the kind that serves, lays down life, does not tyrannize, the kind that points the way to happiness, the kind that matters—the kind for which to vote.
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