This week we looked at Athens’s disaster in Sicily and the subsequent extensive fallout.
Why did Athens lose in Sicily?
Part of Thucydides’s brilliance as a historian is that does not look merely at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative. Athens had so many strengths, and one could argue that their democracy itself was a product of their search for excellence and truth. But it appears to me, at least, that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is of course one of the great architectural achievements in history. Ostensibly, it is a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods or goddesses but of events in their own history. Did Athens really create a temple to their own glory? Did they think they had arrived? Did they begin to, in essence, worship themselves? What would this mean for them?
This question is related to the idea of democracy itself? Is democracy about voting? Is it only about having a voice? If so, then democracy becomes naval gazing, only about perpetuating itself through a process, serving no higher end. If democracy (or any form of government) serves a higher ideal, it has a built in check upon itself. But if we don’t have this, then whatever result we come up with must indeed be democracy, it must serve us well by definition, because it serves ourselves. This kind of attitude, of which ancient Athens has no monopoly, will lead to disaster. Imagine traveling with your head down continually. You would drive off a cliff at some point. G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship (what he calls ‘The Inner Light’) in his book ‘Orthodoxy”:
That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
The problems with the Sicily expedition can be traced to the problems with their democracy. Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it. Both were wealthy, experienced in politics and military matters, and each had their own constituency. Alcibiades was the fire to Nicias’s ice. Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athenian policy. The tail had begun to wag the dog. Among other things, Nicias’s political maneuverings against Alcibiades led to drastic changes in the composition of the fighting force and, perhaps even the goal of the mission. One wonders if they realized this. With their heads down, I think not. In my opinion they thought. . .
– We voted, just as always
– We picked experienced people
– We have followed the procedures and processes defined by law
– Everything is fine, or possibly even better than fine
I don’t think they had the wherewithal to realize that they had just voted for a massive expedition that had no real relation to their war with Sparta far from home against a powerful enemy. The man who ultimately led the expedition, Nicias, argued against any expedition at all. In my opinion, the disaster in Sicily was the terrible price exacted for their self-worship. AJ Toynbee wrote in “An Historian’s Approach to Religion,”
‘The strength of the devotion that parochial-community worship evokes holds its devotees in bondage even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states [i.e. war between Athens and Sparta] tends to grow more intense and devastating in a crescendo movement. . . . All parochial community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and he exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdown of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.”
Their failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime. Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and he needed replaced.
In this election season, we do well to remember that we cannot call ourselves a democracy if we merely count votes. Democracies work when they serve higher purposes than themselves, and fail when the process becomes the end in itself — a means of power over our fellow men.
The oligarchs that replaced the democracy in Athens did no better, ruling wantonly based on their own pent up sense that it was “their turn.” We sometimes see this happen when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control. With this attitude in place things go poorly, and the Gingrich led government shutdown in the 1990’s comes to mind.
Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles did the Athenians no favors in their war effort. In our discussion as to why Athens lost the war, I threw out a few theories bandied about by historians, such as the superiority of infantry over the navy in general, and the Sicily invasion in particular. But most agreed that Athens made themselves their own worst enemy through their arrogance. Their self-worship turned their gaze inward. They never had a filter for their decisions beyond their own immediate wants, and they never opened themselves to an external variable like “justice” to use as a guide.
Next week we will look at the Plato’s critique of democracy, and Aristotle’s response to Plato. While studying these two titans the students will read Euripides’s The Bacchae to help us get some important issues in a different way.