Letter 4. Characteristics of the Athenians

{325} NOW at length I am drawing near the subject which I have undertaken to treat, though Athens is both in leagues and in centuries a great way off England after all. But first to recapitulate:—a State or polity implies two things, Power on the one hand, Liberty on the other; a Rule and a Constitution. Power, when freely developed, results in centralization; Liberty in self-government. The two principles are in antagonism from their very nature; so far forth as you have rule, you have not liberty; so far forth as you have liberty, you have not rule. If a People gives up nothing at all, it remains a mere People, and does not rise to be a State. If it gives up everything, it could not be worse off, though it gave up nothing. Accordingly, it always must give up something; it never can give up everything; and in every case the problem to be decided is, what is the most advisable compromise, what point is the maximum of at once protection and independence.

Those political institutions are the best which subtract as little as possible from a people's natural independence as the price of their protection. The stronger you make the Ruler, the more he can do for you, but the more he also can do against you; the weaker you make him, the less he can do against you, but the less also he can do for you. The Man promised to kill the Stag; but he fairly owned that he must be first allowed to mount the Horse. {326} Put a sword into the Ruler's hands, it is at his option to use or not use it against you; reclaim it, and who is to use it for you? Thus, if States are free, they are feeble; if they are vigorous, they are high-handed. I am not speaking of a nation or a people, but of a State as such; and I say, the more a State secures to itself of rule and centralization, the more it can do for its subjects externally; and the more it grants to them of liberty and self-government, the less it can do against them internally: and thus a despotic government is the best for war, and a popular government the best for peace.

Now this may seem a paradox so far as this;—that I have said a State cannot be at once free and strong, whereas the combination of these advantages is the very boast which we make about our own island in one of our national songs, which runs,—

"Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never shall be slaves."

I acknowledge the force of this authority; but I must recall the reader's attention to the distinction which I have just been making between a Nation and a State. Britons are free, considered as a State; they are strong, considered as a Nation;—and, as a good deal depends on this distinction, I will illustrate it, before I come to the consideration of our own country, by the instance of that ancient and famous people whose name I have prefixed to this portion of my inquiry,—a people who, in most respects, are as unlike us, as beauty is unlike utility, but who are in this respect, strange to say, not dissimilar to the Briton.

So pure a democracy was Athens, that, if any of its citizens was eminent, he might be banished by the rest for this simple offence of greatness. Self-government was developed there in the fullest measure, as if provision {327} was not at all needed against any foe. Nor indeed in the earlier period of Athens, was it required; for the poverty of the soil, and the extent of seaboard as its boundary, secured it against both the cupidity and the successful enterprise of invaders. The chief object, then, of its polity was the maintenance of internal order; but even in this respect solicitude was superfluous, according to its citizens themselves, who were accustomed to boast that they were attracted, one and all, in one and the same way, and moulded into a body politic, by an innate perception of the beautiful and true, and that the genius and cultivation of mind, which were their characteristics, served them better for the observance of the rules of good fellowship and for carrying on the intercourse of life, than the most stringent laws and the best appointed officers of police.

Here then was the extreme of self-government carried out; and the State was intensely free. That in proportion to that internal freedom was its weakness in its external relations, its uncertainty, caprice, injustice, and untrustworthiness, history, I think, abundantly shows. It may be thought unfair to appeal to the age of Philip and Demosthenes, when no Greek State could oppose a military organization worthy of such a foe as Macedon; but at no anterior period had it shown a vigour and perseverance similar to the political force of the barbaric monarchy, which extinguished its liberties. It was simply unable to defend and perpetuate that democratical license which it so inordinately prized.

Had Athens then no influence on the world outside of it, because its political influence was so baseless and fluctuating? Has she gained no conquests, exercised no rule, affected no changes, left no traces of herself upon the nations? On the contrary, never was country {328} able to do so much; never has country so impressed its image upon the history of the world, except always that similarly small strip of land in Syria. And moreover,—for this I wish to insist upon, rather than merely concede,—this influence of hers was in consequence, though not by means, of her democratical regime. That democratical polity formed a People, who could do what democracy itself could not do. Feeble all together, the Athenians were superlatively energetic one by one. It was their very keenness of intellect individually which made them collectively so inefficient. This point of character, insisted on both by friendly and hostile orators in the pages of her great historian, is a feature in which Athens resembles England. Englishmen, indeed, do not go to work with the grace and poetry which, if Pericles is to be believed, characterized an Athenian; but Athens may boast of her children as having the self-reliance, the spirit, and the unflagging industry of the individual Englishman.

It was this individualism which was the secret of the power of Athens in her day, and remains as the instrument of her influence now. What was her trade, or her colonies, or her literature, but private, not public achievements, the triumph, not of State policy, but of personal effort? Rome sent out her colonies, as Russia now, with political foresight; modern Europe has its State Universities, its Royal Academies, its periodical scientific Associations; it was otherwise with Athens. There, great things were done by citizens working in their private capacity; working, it must be added, not so much from patriotism as for their personal advantage; or, if with patriotism, still with little chance of State encouragement or reward. Socrates, the greatest of her moralists, and since his day one of her chief glories, lived unrecognized {329} and unrewarded, and died under a judicial sentence. Xenophon conducted his memorable retreat across Asia Minor, not as an Athenian, but as the mercenary or volunteer of a Persian Prince. Miltiades was of a family of adventurers, who by their private energy had founded a colony, and secured a lordship in the Chersonese; and he met his death while prosecuting his private interests with his country's vessels. Themistocles had a double drift, patriotic and traitorous, in the very acts by which he secured to the Greeks the victory of Salamis, having in mind that those acts should profit him at the Persian court, if they did not turn to his account at home. Perhaps we are not so accurately informed of what took place at Rome, when Hannibal threatened the city; but certainly Rome presents us with the picture of a strong State at that crisis, whereas, in the parallel trial, the Athens of Miltiades and Themistocles shows like the clever, dashing population of a large town.

We have another sample of the genius of her citizens in their conduct at Pylos. Neither they, nor their officers, would obey the orders of the elder Demosthenes, who was sent out to direct the movements of the fleet. In vain did he urge them to fortify the place; they did nothing; till, the bad weather detaining them on shore, and inaction becoming tedious, suddenly they fell upon the work with a will; and, having neither tools nor carriages, hunted up stones where they could find them ready in the soil, made clay do the office of mortar, carried the materials on their backs, supporting them with their clasped hands, and thus finished the necessary works in the course of a few days.

By this personal enterprise and daring the Athenians were distinguished from the rest of Greece. "They are fond of change," say their Corinthian opponents in the {330} Lacedemonian Council; "quick to plan and to perform, venturing beyond their power, hazarding beyond their judgment, and always sanguine in whatever difficulties. They are alive, while you, O Lacedemonians, dawdle; and they love locomotion, while you are especially a home-people. They think to gain a point, even when they withdraw; but with you, even to advance is to surrender what you have attained. When they defeat their foe, they rush on; when they are beaten, they hardly fall back. What they plan and do not follow up, they deem an actual loss; what they set about and gain, they count a mere instalment of the future; what they attempt and fail in here, in anticipation they make up for there. Such is their labour and their risk from youth to age; no men enjoy so little what they have, for they are always getting, and their best holiday is to do a stroke of needful work; and it is a misfortune to them to have to undergo, not the toil of business, but the listlessness of repose."

I do not mean to say that I trace the Englishman in every clause of this passage; but he is so far portrayed in it as a whole, as to suggest to us that perhaps he too, as well as the Athenian, has that inward spring of restless independence, which makes a State weak, and a Nation great.

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