Notes/Ancient Greek Liberty

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Histories (Herodotus):

Asians are born with a slave mentality

Greeks have a natural disposition to freedom

Aristotle: Greeks live in a community of equals, Greek man is a political animal. A Greek by definition lives in a polis, a self governed community.

A Greek is a political being who gains his identity by willingly and actively participating in the life of his community in all of its aspects; civil, religious, political, social, and military.

Ancient Greek term for freedom expresses normal functioning of a Greek city. A community of individuals free of external control, making all important decisions together, committed to the equal rights of citizens to speak in public meetings, and to a more or less equal status of those citizens in the eyes of the city.

If a citizen is dishonoured, he loses his right to participate in the public business. Participation was the very essence of what it meant to be Greek living in his polis.

Pericles' Funeral Oration:

Refinement without extravagance, wealth we employ more for use than for show, our public men have private affairs to attend to and are ordinary citizens who are fair judges of public affairs.

For unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who takes no part in these public obligations, not as unambitious, but as useless.

At the end of the oration, Pericles offers little comfort to parents of fallen soldiers. He tells parents who lost their sons in battle, the best way of coping with their loss is to have more children to protect the Greek polis.

Socrates strongly refused offer to leave jail when waiting for death sentence. Said city is more honourable than mother, father and ancestors. Venerable and holy. You must revere and give way to the city, more than a father when angry with you. Or if it leads you to war to be wounded or killed then this must be done. This is just. You are not to give way, or retreat, or leave your station but that in war, or in court and everywhere, you must do whatever the city bids.

Socrates preferred death to a life outside his polis community.

Cato Roman patriot:

Conducts solemn religious sacrifice to Roman goddess liberty

“Meanwhile we’ll sacrifice to liberty, remember my friends, the laws, the rites, the generous plan of power handed down from age to age by your forefathers, so dearly bought, the price of so much blood, never let it perish but piously transmit it to your children. Do thou great liberty inspire our souls and make happy or our deaths glorious in thy just defense.” Liberty and virtue brought together in an ancestral tradition, the laws of the state of Rome.

“Give me liberty or give me death” comes from that play.

Cincinatus, and origin of dictator, returns back to his farm.

Liberty was not an artificial abstract concept. It was real, it was tangible. It was visible. It was endowed with religious, as well as political attributes. To do the public business. To speak in the assembly. To serve on juries. To defend one’s country on the battlefield. To hold public office. To attend religious services with fellow citizens. To feel one’s identity as a member of the polis. Liberty means doing one’s civic duty. A public calling.

The didn’t talk about entities doing something, but the peoples: Spartans, not Sparta. The state was the people, people were the state. Greek and Roman conception of freedom.

Quite different from the one today we focus on.

We focus on enlightenment idea of freedom.

Which starts from a different premise, and has a different purpose from Greek and Roman ideal.

To the enlightenment, freedom began with individual, not the state. Rossaeau .etc started with state of individual in nature, not in society. “What state all men naturally are in” - Locke To dispose of their possessions however they see fit within the bounds of nature.

The law of nature.

Founders of liberal tradition, reject Aristotle’s definition of man as a political animal. They based their political philosophy not on man’s capacity for public deliberation and cooperative action but upon his personal independence and freedom to pursue life, liberty and property.

As free as modern and ancient societies feels, the other one would say “you’re not free at all!”

For example, we would say about ancient greek society that women had no serious rights. Women couldn’t vote, hold office, or even own property. Slavery was a normal practice. There was no bill of rights to protect individuals, there was no freedom of speech or religion, for example Socrates convicted for not believing gods of athens and put to death. That’s certainly not a kind of freedom we would recognize.

But if you put an Athenian down into America today, he would say this is not a free society. It has no relationship to freedom. You elect other people to make all your decisions. You all sit here, and you have other people in washington making decisions for you. An ancient greek would say you’re not free, you’re sitting here with no control over important decisions. Virtually no control. You’re not standing up on public issues and addressing the nation. How can you be free? You hire lawyers to represent you in court. Ancient Athenians had a law outlawing lawyers. We turn over our defence to a professional army. You’re not free if you have someone else fighting for you.

Ancient Greeks and Romans, Washington, Madison, Jefferson looked to them for inspiration. They saw public service. Public participation. Public leadership as their responsibility. The freedom to act on behalf of my country. To build freedom and establish it for eternity with law, and stop tyranny.

For them freedom meant an obligation.

We’ve come to define liberty as what’s good for me, not what’s good for other people.

What is freedom? Self realization. The possibility of fulfilling our own nature.

But what is our nature? Aristotle said our nature is to be political. Equal contributing members of the polis. The enlightenment said we are separate creatures living free of each other. When we form civic bonds, we must retain that separate freedom that we had in the state of nature.

What kind of liberty do we want? Happiness is not that imaginary freedom from care, which is often our desire but by falling victim, life becomes tedious, worse than pain. Happiness arises more from the pursuit, than the attainment of ends. It depends on how our minds are employed than on circumstances we simply act in. Happiness is not freedom from, but freedom for.

When we are free of cares, life becomes boring and tedious. Ancient Greek language had no word for boredom.

I do wish we could recover some of the active kind of freedom embodied in our founders. And their commitment to serving the community as a whole.