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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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.