The Magazine

The Greek Gift

On the classical origins of democratic freedom.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By DAVID WHARTON
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‘Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize .  .  . is God’s gift to humanity.”

The Agora, the central gathering place in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis

The Agora, the central gathering place in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis

Mary Evans picture library / Everett collection

So said George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, and we hope he is right. But Lady Liberty did not simply spring full-grown from the brow of Thomas Jefferson. What is the source of this divine gift? Christian Meier argues that it was birthed, arduously, on the unlikely soil of a poor back-
water of the ancient world: preclassical Greece. Unnoticed by the great powers of the time, it was an event of world-historical significance.

Meier, one of Europe’s most distinguished ancient historians, is the author of a popular biography of Julius Caesar and of Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age, among many books and articles. He has spent a long life ruminating on the ancient world and its connections with the modern, and here he excavates the origins of European culture among Greece’s scattered literary remains, dating from the late Bronze Age to the brink of the first Persian invasion in 490 b.c. 

That Meier should look there at all for the beginnings of European identity is controversial. It is popular now to locate Europe’s beginnings in the Middle Ages (see Michael Mitterauer’s Why Europe? The Medieval Origins of Its Special Path). It is also trendy to explain the rise of Europe in terms of geography and technology, as in Jared Diamond’s popular Guns, Germs, and Steel. But Meier is an old-school cultural historian for whom ideas matter as much as material externalities. His radical thesis is that freedom was the “motor” that drove the development of early Greek culture: An ethic of freedom not only permeated the culture, but the Greeks invented their culture precisely to augment and maintain that freedom. 

The nurturing matrix of this culture was, of course, the polis, a strange and unprecedented political configuration. Citizens in these independent city-states fiercely defended their right to self-determination, free of forceful constraint from within and without. Meier interweaves the political growth of the poleis with interpretations of the poetry, philosophy, social customs, religious life, and modes of warfare which they developed in response to the challenges they faced. 

Political instability was a constant problem, frequently sparked by the ambition of aristocrats who feuded violently among themselves. The poleis also housed a recurrently disgruntled and disfranchised middle class that jostled for power. Meier argues that the intensely competitive, face-to-face interactions among citizens in the agora, the gymnasium, and on the battlefield provided outlets for potentially destructive impulses toward oppressive preeminence of citizens or states. Equally important for providing creative solutions to pressing problems were the Greeks’ bold excursions into philosophy, science, and the arts: 

[T]he citizens needed not only the rationality of political thought, but also the ideas, images, and stories offered by the arts to help them interpret, understand, and visualize the unusual and unexpected. And because all needed such help, for themselves, and in concert with one another, working on these arts was a public task.

To maintain the precarious balance of interests and ambitions that sustained their freedom, free men in the polis were expected to be proficient in hoplite combat, to engage regularly in athletic exertions, to hold civic or religious offices, to speak knowledgably and persuasively in the political arena, and to sing, and perhaps compose poetry, at drinking parties (symposia) that facilitated elite social interaction—all this in addition to managing their private affairs. 

Freedom was a strenuous business conducted by remarkably versatile men. And because such men had no powerful governmental traditions or religious authorities to bind them, they “worked through the questions that arose for them both individually and communally with often shocking openness and rigor, and they found answers that prove to be relevant time and again even today.”