Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.
Why did Athens lose in Sicily?
Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative. Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy. But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history. Ostensibly the building stands as 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 and goddesses but of events in their own history. Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.
What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy? Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is. If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind. For in this situation the process counts, and not the result. If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself. With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it. This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually. If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff. G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,
That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.” Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, 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 outwards. . . . 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 Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy. Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it. Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home. They also could not stand each other. Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily. For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, 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 that
- We voted, just as always
- We picked experienced people
- We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision
Therefore, everything is fine!
Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process. The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting. The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all. Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse. In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.
Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime. Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.
The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.” We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control. This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation. The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.
Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks. They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs. We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of several days. Process trumped justice. The tail wagged the dog.