Episode Seventeen: Rightful Lord of His Own Person
The Greeks gave us democracy, courts of law, philosophy, drama, much more.
But their greatest gift — something that had never existed before, anywhere in the world — was the idea of the autonomous citizen … the free individual who, in Pericles’ phrase, was “the rightful lord of his own person.”
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“I declare that our city is an education to Greece … “
Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
Ten years before Thermopylae there was another Earth-altering battle, also against the Persians.
The Battle of Marathon.
This was the clash made famous by the messenger Pheidippides who, after the Greek victory, ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to report, according to legend, “Rejoice, we conquer!” and then expire from exhaustion on the spot.
The leading Greek forces at Marathon were the warriors, not of Sparta, but of Athens. The Spartans arrived at the battle a day late, delayed by a religious festival, and to their great shame and consternation could do nothing but congratulate their Athenian rivals and troop about the battlefield like sightseers.
We’ve been talking almost exclusively about Sparta so far in this series. Let’s put the spotlight today on Sparta’s arch-rival, Athens.
Athens and Sparta were absolute opposites. While the Spartans closed their borders and kept foreigners out, fearing they would corrupt Spartan virtue, the Athenians threw their city open to the world. Athens built the Parthenon, put on the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Its philosophers were Socrates and Plato, its historian Thucydides, its statesmen Themistocles, Aristides, and Pericles. Athens produced, from a citizen population of less than forty thousand, more great artists, poets, architects, sculptors, playwrights, philosophers, and warriors than any city ever, including Rome at her peak and Elizabethan England at her most glorious hour.
How did they do it? Who were these Athenians? Here is Pericles, the towering figure who bestrode Athens’ Golden Age, from his famous Funeral Oration, quoted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles compares Athens to Sparta and declares, “The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass our lives without all these restrictions, yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are … We do not have to spend our time practicing to meet sufferings which are still in the future … when they are actually upon us we show ourselves just as brave as these others who are always in strict training.”
Pericles goes on to declare of Athens and Athenians, “our love of beauty does not lead us to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.” And that they are true citizens in the best sense. “Even those who are occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics. We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all … “
And here we come to Pericles’ most memorable passage:
“Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece and that each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”
The rightful lord and owner of his own person.
To me, this phrase is monumental in the history of the human race. This is Greece’s gift to us. The idea of the CITIZEN. Not a “subject” of a monarch or a despot. Not a vassal. Not a serf. Not a bondsman. Not an indentured servant or a chattel slave. Not a brainwashed cipher, part of a mass movement. Not a terrorized subject of a totalitarian state.
A free man or woman.
The Greeks believed in active participation in politics. Our word “politics” comes from their word for city-state, polis.
In ancient Athens if there was a revolution and you sat it out—neutral, on the fence—when the revolution was over you were fined. Heavily.
The Greeks had a word for a man who did not participate in the politics of his time. Idiotes. Idiot.
Pericles disdained the Spartan system because he felt it left the individual with no choice. The Spartan had to serve. He had to obey the laws. This, to Pericles’ mind and to the minds of all Athenians, was a lower, less evolved, and even brutish form of citizenship than that of the free Athenian, who did everything the Spartan did – deliberated, voted, fought in wars – but did it of his own free will, uncompelled and uncoerced.
You and I have a bit of Sparta in us … and a bit of Athens.
If we value the discipline, the selflessness, the willing embrace of adversity, and the full-body commitment to fair play and to the acquisition of virtue of the Spartans, we also love and value the freedom, the diversity, and the love of culture of the Athenians—the opportunity to pursue our dreams, whatever they may be, without restriction or coercion from state authority. And we pride ourselves on participating in the issues and conflicts of our time, making up our own minds, and acting for the greater good willingly and out of our own convictions of justice and fair play.
Both are aspects of the Warrior Archetype, I believe, and of higher archetypes that follow after the Warrior.