The cultural crisis of our own time, in which an older ethical order is collapsing, leaving individuals confronted with new choices and dangers, is not unique to our own time. Something very similar happened in ancient Greece in the fifth century BC, and that earlier crisis contains lessons for us today.
It was a time very much like our own. An older ethical order, grounded in an ancient religion, was collapsing, and individuals, freed from the constraints of that order, found themselves confronted with choices and dangers that would have been unimaginable even a few decades earlier. Where people had once felt an implicit pressure to accept limits on their behaviour and desires in countless small ways, now those limits had come to seem oppressive and constraining, and individuals sought increasingly to indulge appetites that would once have been thought shameful. Where questions concerning the way in which one should act and how one should best live a life had once seemed to have obvious answers in received opinion, now those questions seemed to lead to an endless variety of possible opinions more than to any clear or certain ground; institutions which had once functioned as a guide to a proper life now lost their authority, and came to seem an arbitrary hindrance to what really mattered. Where a simple, unquestioning patriotism had once been widespread, now the pull of loyalty to a party began to make itself felt, beginning a process of dissolution that would in time produce people loyal to nothing but themselves.
The time was the late 5th century BC. The writers from whom I derive this picture are Plato and Thucydides. Thucydides is known today as the historian of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), and was active as a general in the first decade of that war. Plato, who was born in the early years of the war, would find even greater posthumous fame as one of the greatest and most influential of all philosophers. A brief overview of certain aspects of their thought will help us see how it is relevant to our own situation.
In the account he gives of Athenian political life over the course of his history, Thucydides paints a picture of decline in both the standard of deliberation within the Athenian assembly and the ethical standards to which they hold themselves. As the war proceeds, the Athenians increasingly find themselves reacting immediately, unable to resist basic drives such as greed or fear, where once their policy had been a matter of sober reflection. Numerous scholars have seen three stages in the development that Thucydides presents, and these three stages can be profitably aligned with something we can find in Plato: in two of his works, the Gorgias and the first book of the Republic, the argument proceeds by means of three different characters in succession. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues with Gorgias, Polus and then Callicles; in the first book of the Republic, he speaks with Cephalus, Polemarchus and then Thrasymachus. In both works, the progression through these three characters gives a picture of a sort of intellectual history, an idealised representation of a gradual change of attitudes.
The picture Plato paints also appears at first glance to be one of straightforward ethical decline: it begins with people who acknowledge objective ethical standards, but ends, in the final characters (Thrasymachus or Callicles) with people prepared to be utterly unrestrained in their brutality, making no attempt to conceal the fact that they are pandering to their own appetites. However, Plato does not merely paint a picture of decline, for as we look more closely, we find numerous indications that he sees good coming to light as well. The most significant such indication is common to both dialogues: we begin with characters (Gorgias or Cephalus) who take certain ethical obligations as simply given, and progress to characters (Callicles or Thrasymachus) who refuse to take things on faith and have accordingly tried to ground their ethical thought in something more substantial. That is, as we progress through the three characters in each dialogue, we leave behind a position willing simply to believe things uncritically and arrive at one that thinks things through for itself: in the end we have more rigorous thinking. In this and in other ways, Plato paints a highly ambiguous picture of a development that is good in some respects, but not in others.
The most remarkable similarities with our own time come to light toward the end of the development. For example, in all three works, the development ends with a turn into the self, a one-sided focus on what is merely subjective. One crucial episode in Thucydides is the Athenian decision to try to conquer Sicily, a foolish move that ends in disaster and provides the first sign that they will ultimately lose their larger war against Sparta. Thucydides portrays the Athenians as caught up in appearances as they make this decision, and as susceptible to rhetorical appeals rather than a realistic analysis of the matter at hand. The suggestion is that the Athenians have begun to occupy a sort of imaginary world, one upon which reality does not easily impinge. As a result they begin to dream of an unlimited empire, they attempt to conquer Sicily – and pay a terrible price in the end. In the Gorgias, when Socrates brings up the notion of self-rule, Callicles objects: “how can a man flourish when he is a slave to anything at all?” That is, Callicles is aiming for a total freedom, one subject to no limits at all. This, too, must be a kind of imaginary world. In the Republic, Thrasymachus aims at a similarly total sort of freedom, and manages to forget the reality of human frailty to such a degree that he has to be reminded that it is possible for people to make mistakes.
This focus on the subject is strikingly similar to an aspect of our own situation, for today the disappearance of objective forms of authority has begun to exert an influence on everyday life. As the Athenians were caught up in rhetoric and appearances, so too are many on both sides of the political spectrum now caught up in conspiracy theories; as Callicles and Thrasymachus aimed at an escape from any and all limits, so too do many today believe that technology will lead us to a final victory over various kinds of human frailty – and of course we can see an intense focus on the subject today in the notion that a person ‘identifying’ in a certain way trumps what were taken, just a few years ago, to be obvious facts.
Even more than the 5th century BC, our own time is characterised by the view that the liberation achieved by doing away with older, more traditional ways of thinking is a highly desirable thing. The reasons for this view do not need to be rehearsed at length: the emancipation of the working class, civil rights for non-white people, women’s rights, gay rights, the repudiation of colonialism – all these achievements were bound up with a willingness to criticise or abandon received, traditional ways of thinking and behaving. However, the question of just how desirable this liberation has turned out to be, even for some of the very groups just listed, turns out to be more complicated than it might at first seem, and it gives an example of how the distant mirror provided by Plato and Thucydides might help us see our own our time in a new light.
If it is difficult for us to see how our ongoing liberation might fail to be good in any way, for Plato and Thucydides the opposite seems to have been the case: we saw above that they were agreed that the collapse of the older order was in many respects a great evil, even if Plato also saw some good coming out of it. Their agreement here constitutes a warning that this sort of historical situation can bring with it dangers, whatever improvements it might also bring. In fact, recent years have seen suggestions from a number of quarters that our liberation from the past has not only been good, but has also created serious problems, sometimes for some of the very people who were supposed to benefit. Two English writers provide examples of this tendency.
Theodore Dalrymple, in his book Life at the Bottom (1), gives a sobering account of the state of the English underclass today. While most richer members of society are subject to the constraints inherent in working for a living, or at least to those constraints that arise from considerations of social status, the poorest members of English society are the beneficiaries of a welfare system that makes no moral judgments in allocating its rewards – indeed, it will never under any circumstances give up what it sees as its obligation to house, feed and entertain its charges. The underclass is thus completely liberated from limiting factors that are normally central to any human life, and that help to confer dignity and purpose on that life. The effects of this situation might not be so great if not for the fact that at the same time, another set of limiting factors, involving social respectability, in particular the limits inherent in the family, have come increasingly to be regarded as oppressive, as an impediment to true human flourishing. This view has its basis in cultural changes that go back decades, and whose relation to the ongoing liberation from older forms of thought should be obvious.
The result is the disintegration of so many of those elements of human interaction by which lives attain dignity and purpose: a drug overdose patient is imperiously rude to those who have laboured through the night to save his life; people neither bother to cook nor to enjoy meals together, nor do they take the most elementary measures to keep their own homes clean; children grow up with a succession of their mother’s boyfriends in the place of a father. These are lives in which terrible physical violence can be commonplace, but the matter of cooking and eating together points to something more fundamental, for once meals are no longer social occasions, in which one learns that personal impulses must sometimes be restrained for the sake of others, eating simply becomes a matter of the momentary satisfaction of such impulses; “when such slovenliness about food extends to all other spheres of life, when people satisfy every appetite with the same minimal effort and commitment, no wonder they trap themselves in squalor… They have no cultural activity they can call their own, and their lives seem, even to them, empty of purpose.”
Dalrymple tells us of his time working as a doctor in Africa: “nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England.” This attitude is shared by doctors from such countries as the Philippines and India. As one Filipino doctor says, having worked for a time beside Dalrymple in England, “on the whole, life is preferable in the slums of Manila.” If the cultural changes that have produced our current situation have led to greater flourishing for some, they seem to have had the opposite effect on many at the bottom of society, at least in the opinion of Dalrymple and the doctors he mentions.
Mary Harrington, a self-described “reactionary feminist” provides a parallel reflection. She does not argue that recent cultural changes have been a bad thing for women, but rather that they have sometimes involved costs that have gone unnoticed, or produced problems to which there are no easy solutions. So, for example, if we consider the matter of caring for the very old or young, this is work that was once traditionally done by women, but things have changed: today, higher-income women tend to do such work much less, instead paying those who are less well-off to do it, and those who do these ‘caring’ jobs tend to be women. Thus “the liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme”, with richer women outsourcing care-related work to poorer women. This produces two types of problem. First, when care is done by third parties rather than family members, cruelty can be a natural result, and Harrington points to well-documented increases in abuse in this context. Second, “it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.” All of this contributes to social atomisation and loneliness. The class aspect noted above, with richer women outsourcing care to poorer women, plays out in other respects as well. If feminism tends to focus much more on white collar jobs – “there’s no feminist campaign for an equal right to become bin men [i.e., garbage collectors]” – this is to be connected to the fact that manual work is more physically arduous, and thus not only less appealing but also more heavily subject to the physical differences between men and women.
Here Harrington’s thought intersects in another way with what we have seen of Plato and Thucydides, for we saw above that they both pointed to a moment in which insufficient notice was taken of objective realities. Harrington, as she directs attention to the objective biological differences between men and women, makes a similar move. For example, she describes how her experience of motherhood changed her view of liberalism: it is simply a reality of nature that women, not men, have to gestate children, and that it is women who can breastfeed, one of the ways in which women are more closely tied to their children as life begins. This reality in turn tends to drive differences in behaviour, such as who takes more parental leave, or who does more housework. The modern, liberal view posits a rational, autonomous individual who determines his or her life through a series of choices; the experience of motherhood brought home to Harrington how there are aspects of life that are not a matter of choice, but rather given by nature. The failure of contemporary liberalism to confront these natural realities has resulted not only in a plummeting birth rate, but also in mothers who are “overworked, guilty and burned out.”
A different kind of connection to Plato and Thucydides comes to light as we consider a third writer, the pessimistic environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. When he reflects on environmental issues, Kingsnorth rejects the notion that the way out of problems created by modern technology is simply more technology (e.g., the idea that replacing coal with a cleaner energy source will entirely resolve the relevant issue). Looking more deeply, he sees the real issue with environmental questions to lie in an altogether different realm: “the question to me becomes: are we prepared to accept limits, of any kind – limits on technology, limits on life, limits on pleasure – or are we simply going to continue … down this road which is trying to abolish them? It’s my view that the attempt to abolish limits and the attempt to take ourselves out of this web of life and make ourselves immortals – that’s what’s caused climate change.”
It is remarkable to hear someone talk like this today, especially on an issue that seems most peculiar to and characteristic of our own time, because the question concerning limits goes to the heart of both the Platonic and the Thucydidean reflection on the cultural crisis of their time. Just like Kingsnorth, they both see the attempt to abolish limits as a fatal mistake, and see in the ready acceptance of one’s natural limits as a first line of defence against the ills of their cultural crisis. It is in the first book of the Republic that the question is treated most directly, as Plato reminds us that in many aspects of life, such as tuning an instrument or consuming food and drink, we attain a desired end – an instrument on which we can play music, or a healthy body – by attaining a sort of balance; that is, we aim to attain a limit, not to break through it. Of course, Kingsnorth’s thoughts on limits are not peculiar to him alone, as he acknowledges elsewhere: “early Green thinkers, people like Leopold Kohr or E. F. Schumacher, who were themselves inspired by the likes of Gandhi and Tolstoy, had taught us that the ecological crisis was above all a crisis of limits, or lack of them.” That is, the question concerning limits has deep roots in our own time.
We have, then, a further point of contact with the cultural crisis outlined by Plato and Thucydides: not only can we see how it parallels our own situation in significant respects, we also see that the same starting point for an answer to the crisis is coming to light. Indeed, it begins to seem that the collapse of a moral order tends naturally to contain certain elements as it unfolds. Once traditional beliefs have lost their authority, questions concerning how we should live and where we get our values become an urgent matter. At the same time, the basic appetites of the individual, which have an indubitable reality, and thus authority, begin to take centre stage as a basis for action. A formerly cohesive political life begins to dissolve and tends towards internal violence. Once widely accepted norms have been abolished, what’s left is not an oasis of human flourishing, but rather the strong facing off against the weak in a situation in which anything at all is now possible, no matter how horrifying.
Finally, it is not only in Kingsnorth’s talk of limits that we see a repeat of moves made 2500 years ago in response to a similar crisis. Elsewhere he writes that “the correct response to a rootless, lost or broken society is ‘the growing of roots’… the slow, necessary, sometimes boring work to which I suspect people in our place and time are being called: to build new things.” We have here a turning away from the idea that ever greater flourishing is to be found in the deconstruction of what has restrained us, and instead an impulse in the opposite direction, towards construction. In similar fashion Harrington, in a critical reflection on contemporary conservatism, points to the need to get beyond simply deconstructing and repudiating norms and institutions: “when there is nothing solid to go back to,” she writes, “anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists,’ perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.” Plato, as he set out to fashion his own philosophy in response to an analogous situation, must have been thinking something very similar.
- Dalrymple T., “Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass,” 2003.
One thought on “How Ancient Greece prefigured our cultural crisis”
Thanks Nicholas for your article. The concepts discussed here are extremely important – and I would say the most relevant discussion we should have is about whether and where we want to set our limits, and whether we want to trust our ability to overcome the crises we create. Questions such as “should we save lives?” “Should we always save lives?” etc. are oftentimes considered dangerous and the answer is taken for granted. But we need to define what our boundaries should or should not be. In this current cultural climate, as you outlined, there is no space to have this type of conversation.