“But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must. (Thucydides 5.89)
“For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do.” (Thucydides 5.105)
What is the source of ancient Greece’s lasting legacy? What contributed to her dominating force and efflorescing beauty in the ancient world? I’d like to examine Athenian culture (paideia) within the context of the ancient Greek world and identify will to power as the prevailing causal mechanism for her greatness . However, I argue that, despite being a source of initial strength, this inclination for power is eventually the source of Athens downfall as hubris leads to self-deception and miscalculation.
The fortitude or hellikon that arose in ancient Greece was a result of their common preoccupation with the ideal man. In ancient Greece the ideal man manifested as a continual striving towards arete (Gk. ἀρετή, Lt. virtus), or excellence, which served as the source of their competitive spirit. This competitive spirit was vigorously active among the Greeks, with the city states constantly challenging and competing with each other, even when foreign enemies, such as the Persians, were no longer a threat. The spirit of competition was most exemplified through the agon characterizing Greek Olympic games and Religious festivals. They praised the noble character containing virtues which extolled the nature of man as a continual overcoming. This ideal was first embodied in Homeric works as a type of humanism in which struggle (agon) and glory (kleos) were the grandest features of the human experience. The propensity for overcoming was none other than a will to power, or the will to survive, which the Greeks insisted was preserved through their freedom; specifically, their freedom from oppression and, likewise, their freedom to oppress. Indeed, as a slave owning society, oppression was a common feature yielded among the Greeks and the resistance of these slave owners to be ruled seems only natural.
Beginning in the 5th century BC there is a marked change in morality in the Athenians that can be witnessed throughout their culture. What occurred was a shift in the cultural value system that deviated from the internally ideal man towards an externally ideal representation of man. In the arts and drama this was marked by a transition away from mysticism and religion toward realism and secularism. This schism may be symbolically represented between the relationship of Socrates and Plato at the turn of the 4th century BC, with Socrates representing an emphasis on the internal man and Plato emphasizing the external man.
It was Socrates who refused to record his philosophy because he understood that wisdom and right living cannot be contained in words, but in present action and mutual dialog alone. In Plato’s dialog Phaedrus, Socrates discusses his aversion for writing, saying that writing would not allow ideas to flow freely and change in real time as they do in the mind during oral exchange, so that over time written language cannot change and the meaning is lost. Socrates was the gadfly who emphasized the exercise of inner reason and reflection over immediate appearances and traditional convention. However, Socrates was an empiricist at heart, as illustrated in the Phaedrus when he said “to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous”, and always questioned stories and ideas until they were demonstrated or experienced for himself.
In contradistinction, Plato came on the scene at the pinnacle of this transition, just as Athens was feeling a backlash from the Greek world due to her propensity for power and control. Fittingly, it was Plato who first to attempted the distillation of the noble essence contained in man in his formulation of the good and forms into an objective, logically coherent system. The very act of transcribing and writing down a systematic formulation of man epitomized the Greek sentiments of an idealism that could be functionally preserved outside of man.
As the Athenian conception of the ideal man developed and took external form, so too did their emphasis on materialism and power. Seated at the head of the Delian league, Athens collected taxes from her Greek allies for their protection and engaged in a subtle form of expansionism. Boundaries beyond Athenian walls were extended and both wealthy and middle class Athenians enjoyed a period of economic expansion. The revenues collected from the Delian league were arguably used to free up city building projects as well as reimburse citizens for civic service, such jury duty and the like. The economic expansionism was greatly increased due to Athens role as a naval power which facilitated the corn trade among other commodities throughout the mediterranean world.
While it is impossible to determine whether emphasis on the external representation of man lead to material and economic accumulation or vice versa, what can be said is that the will to power was the driving force behind its inertia. By emphasizing the external, the Greeks began institutionalizing their culture in a way not seen since the Homeric epics, but rather than the anthropomorphized qualities and virtues of man manifesting as Greek gods, man himself became a god devoid of the inner variegation captured by the Pantheon. For the Athenians, the culmination of this change in values meant that man no longer sought to overcome himself, but sought to overcome others. That is, Athen’s enemy was no longer the vices, ignorance, and folly characteristic of man as it was so long before, but rather it was the external world that was to be overcome. The exploitation of other Greek cities created inequalities that injured the resilient Greek spirit or hellenikon they shared. When it came time for war, the Athenians argued that “might makes right” as their justification for battle, rather than any sensible or restrained words of wisdom. This over estimation of their ability lead to gross miscalculations and, consequently, their eventual downfall.
The Dissimulation of Man, which serves as the title of this post, refers to the self-deception that occurs when external “material” values trump internal “spiritual” values of the kind extolled in arete and virtues personified by the Greek Gods and exercised through reason. Existing as a natural tendency of man and, in the context of this paper, Athens, the will to power is the driving mechanism that allows for continual overcoming. So long as we are overcoming ourselves, and seeking to change and modify internal man, rather than the external world and others contained in it, humanity will flourish.
Boardman, John, Jasper Griffen, and Oswyn Murray. The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 126-213.
Plato. “Phaedrus.” Phaedrus. Internet Classics Archive, n.d. Web. 26 Apr 2012..
Woodruff, Paul. On Justice, Power, And Human Nature, The Essence Of Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian War. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co Inc, 1993.