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.” 

Meier is clear that, although the poleis were widely divergent in their political systems, the greatest achievement of this ancient “experimental laboratory” of politics was the isonomia pioneered by the Athenians: the idea that laws and the duties of civic life should fall equally to all citizens. If this principle seems transparently obvious to us now, that is a testament to how thoroughly steeped we are in Athenian ideals. It need hardly be said that the Greeks themselves did not push this idea to its logical conclusions—women, slaves, and immigrants were excluded from citizenship—but the breadth of political participation in Athens was breathtaking in its day.

How did Greek culture have any effect on later Europe, and then America? After all, Athens disintegrated quickly, and all the poleis were soon subjugated to Macedonian, then Roman, rule. Nothing in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages resembles the freedom that is Meier’s theme; yet Meier contends persuasively that it was the Greeks who first conceived of Europe as a unity, and that Europe has persistently oriented itself toward Greek culture, even if often filtered through a Hellenized Roman overlay. Greek patterns of thought are imprinted in the Christian tradition that dominated the Middle Ages, and European reappropriations of Greek texts and ideas have been constant since the Renaissance. 

Although Meier doesn’t say anything about America, we know how those ideas reached our shores: Our Founders drank deeply from the classical font. John Adams thought that reading Demosthenes was the most important part of his son’s education, and Jefferson loved nothing so much in his retirement as reading the Greeks in their own language. He was said always to have an ancient text in his hand. 

Yet as much as Meier enthuses about the salutary contributions of the Greeks’ spirit of freedom and dynamism to European culture, he is far less sanguine than George W. Bush about its prospects in the modern geopolitical landscape: 

To far too great an extent we today live under the illusion that the achievements of all cultures are readily available, as in a supermarket, and can be consumed by anyone in whatever mixture he chooses—and not just by individuals but by whole societies.

Meier here mildly indicts not only the facile multiculturalism that taints much leftist thought, but also its conservative antistrophe: the idea that freedom and all the traditions, institutions, and habits of thought and action that sustain it are easily transplanted. 

If A Culture of Freedom has faults, they are few. Meier’s argument, in places, becomes repetitious, and some may find his analysis of Greek literature too reductive. The stories of Oedipus, for example, and of Achilles reconciling himself to his fated early death, are difficult to construe as celebrations of freedom. Still, on the whole, he has elaborated in beautiful detail the energetic genius of the Greeks, and we are lucky to have in this volume the distilled reflections of a long and productive scholarly life.

David Wharton is associate professor of classical studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.