wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Donald Kagan

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

Pericles' vision was the culmination of a long process whereby the polls had tried to impose its communal, civic values on a society that had always been organized by family, clan, and tribe. The older ethical tradition came chiefly from the Homeric epic, where the esteemed values were those of heroic individuals. Achilles came to fight at Troy not for any national, ethnic, or communal cause but for his own purposes: to obtain booty seized from captured cities and to display the heroic excellence that Homer called arete. Through such a display he hoped to win the kind of fame that would gain him immortality as the memory of his great deeds passed on through the generations, sung and embellished by bards like Homer. When, in the opening scenes of the Iliad, Achilles' honor and reputation are diminished by Agamemnon's arrogance, he retires from the battle and sulks in his tent while the Greeks suffer a series of costly defeats. He even asks the gods to aid the enemy so that he may gain vengeance against Agamemnon because, as Achilles himself says, 'he did not honor to the best of the Achaeans.'

From the first, the Greeks faced the great truth of man's mortality squarely. They lived without the comfort of the two major devices that other cultures have used to evade that terrible truth. They did not believe that man was entirely trivial, a mere bit of dust in the vast cosmic order, such that his passing was a thing of no account. Instead, they thought man was of the same race as the gods, a creature capable of extraordinary achievements. Nor did they believe in personal immortality, in which death is a blessing, a release from a painful and wretched life and admission to paradise. Death is the end; beyond it is silence and darkness. Homeric virtues and values, therefore, were worldly and personal. Courage, strength, military prowess, persuasiveness, cunning, beauty, wealth; these were examples of arete, the excellent qualities of the good, the fortunate, the happy man. Some were acquired by effort, others were simply a gift of irrational fate. But the reward of these virtues was kleos, the fame and glory that alone held out the hope of victory over death.

When some time in the eighth century the polis emerged, its needs at once came into conflict with the old heroic ethos. The polls was a political community and a sovereign entity competing in a world of similar communities. Wars were frequent; and in order to survive and nourish each polis required devotion and sacrifice from its citizens. One way that it gained the needed commitment was by creating, for the first time in history, a true political life which allowed its active citizens to exercise a human capacity previously employed by very few.

Most poleis had aristocratic or oligarchic governments, but they were ruled by laws arrived at in discussions in the sovereign assemblies, and they were executed by councils and magistrates selected by the citizens from among themselves. Judgment was rendered according to their laws, once again, by courts made up of citizens. In early Athens, as in most of the Greek cities, political participation came to represent a crucial distinction between a free man and gentleman on the one hand, and a slave or churl on the other. Greeks deprived of the political life felt the loss keenly. When the Mytilenean poet Alcaeus was sent into exile the loss he complained of was not his house and fields but the scenes of political life: 'I yearn, Agesilaidas, to hear the herald summon the assembly and the council.' (Alcaeus, fragment 130) The chance to speak brilliantly and with results in the public meeting was a gift given only by the polls, a way of winning kleos by the arts of speech.

Beyond those advantages, its early champions tried to show that the polis was necessary for civilized life, and therefore deserved the highest sacrifice. Solon, an Athenian lawmaker of the early sixth century, went further, arguing that a well-governed polis was the best defense against injustice, faction, and turmoil: 'it makes all things wise and perfect in the world of men.'

But these benefits, important as they were, did not appeal to the most basic spiritual need of all, the need for kleos and immortality. When wealthy aristocrats won victories in athletic contests, they could pay poets like Pindar to preserve their memories in verse; they could sponsor public monuments by great architects and sculptors; the richest of them could even erect temples to the gods, dedicated in their own names. But most of the citizens, even in undemocratic states, had no such opportunities.