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.
Sept 480 BC: While Pericles would surely win an academic debate re: the values of free will vs being compelled, it’s worth remembering that only the Spartans were able to quickly- and voluntarily – deploy the 300 who died at the Hot Gates knowing their deaths would bring the Athenians and other Greeks the time necessary to defend this nascent democracy.
Oct 2020 AD: Our citizen-soldiers no longer drop their rakes or close their shops to grab a musket and march to Bunker Hill; instead they leave college or quit their job to volunteer (in 4 year hitches) to defend their country in every clime & place. Would it be correct, then, to say the ultimate Warrior Archetype is our Marine and soldier of today? If so, I think both Leonidas and Pericles would feel at home in today’s military.
I retired from the Army National Guard after 8+ years active duty. I did 5 years part-time, then found a full-time job in the Guard (AGR)–essentially the bureaucrats who keep the system going between drills and AT.
I’ve thought for years that the strength of the Guard is not from the AGRs, but the part-time Soldier who bring the skills, wisdom, and non-linear/military thinking from their civilian occupations into the fight.
It has been my experience that the reserve components are where one finds true innovation in the military. Ask most active component Soldiers, and they preferred to stay on FOBs with the Guard/Reserves. The part-time Soldier made better use of the plywood, pallets, barriers to make better living conditions.
I agree with your statement 100%.
Brian: Thank you ,and you’re so correct on the Guard!
I was embedded with a company Minnesota Red Bulls in 2007 Fallujah. Led by a min-40’s HS history teacher, the soldiers were a mix of postmen, shop owners, and similar. All mid-50’s, like me. More enthusiasm than skill, but when assigned to work with a Marine unit, they swallowed their nerves and very serious in their training. Superbly led by their Capt, they fought admirably. I was there at the TOA, when the Marine CO acknoweldged their professionalism and enthusiasm and said he’d fight with them anytime.
Clearly the ultimate citizen-soldiers!
I know a couple of guys from the MN Army National Guard. In fact, one of the finest officer’s I’ve had the pleasure to know is a (last I checked) a 1-star working at NORTHCOM. He’s likely retired or promoted, I forget how quickly things change in the military.
I’ve been thinking about Greece today, listening to a book called “The Immortality Key” by Brian Muraresku. He was on the Joe Rogan Podcast a couple of weeks ago.
It seems to me the Athenians had the correct balance. I love the stories of the Spartans, but it was Athens which brought us science, art, the humanities, (maybe religion according to Muraresku)–and yet they were warriors when they needed to be.
I ran to the Army as a college near-drop out, resembled Jeff Spicoli more than any noble, heroic young man chasing glory. I knew I needed a new environment, and clear boundaries–even though I couldn’t have said that out loud if I had to. It was below the surface. Since then, I have frequently thought that we could use a conscripted service. A much, much smaller active component–but a ROBUST reserve component. Essentially every able-bodied person under 60. It is not as much about defense as it is cohesiveness. A shared narrative.
I also remember, years ago, when I was talking with a mentor about a girlfriend. I said something to the effect of, “I don’t think I love her, I don’t have the same feelings I had when we first met.”
His wise answer, “Well, you need to LOVE her, ACTION VERB. The feelings come after the action.” I believe much of the discontent that permeates our culture is because too few of our citizens have ‘LOVED the country, ACTION VERB.” We haven’t sacrificed for ourselves, our countrymen…so we don’t feel the feelings of love.
Always enjoy your posts.
Muraresku (and Graham Hancock) conversation with Rogan was fascinating. Did you catch his reference to Alcibiades and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια)? Good stuff.
“Rightful Lord of His Own Person”. You’ve used the word in War of Art, ‘Sovereignty’ which I love.
As I was watching the video this morning, two things popped into my mind.
The Greeks called those who sat on the sidelines ‘Idiots’, and the idea of sovereignty. In our current vernacular it might be responsibilities before rights. Maybe if all these Antifa guys could pick up a weapon to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, they wouldn’t be torching their own neighborhoods.
Since war isn’t the optimal solution for us to find meaning, there needs to be another way for us to hoist up responsibilities in a way that tames the inner anarchist. But to stay completely out of the fray isn’t an option either, at least not to the Greeks.
You and Victor Davis Hanson should do a podcast together.
Steven’s description of the Athenians and their versatile citizenry brought to mind a quote from the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who declared:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love [thanks for Wikipedia]
This sounds very Athenian. The Athenians filled most of their civic government posts by random draw. / Scott
Again appreciating the broad and deep historical context from which these stories arise.
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Those who sat on the sidelines were dubbed “idiots” by the Greeks, as was the concept of sovereignty. In our present jargon, it may be obligations before rights. Perhaps if all of these Antifa members could take up a firearm and fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, they wouldn’t be torching their own communities.