The historical record shows that after the establishment of democracy a booming Athens was suffused with energy and creativity…Love of liberty was a value of cardinal importance, which the democracy fed and watered. It was the foundation for rational inquiry and free artistic expression…Small wonder that this fertile soil produced a flowering of extraordinary personalities, and great art and thought…[it was] a briefly opened window of opportunity…However, for the time that the fates allowed, Athens made the most of her chances. – Anthony Everitt, The Rise of Athens
That era of Greek civilization that produced so much — democratic government, philosophical thoughts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, art and drama, science and spectacular architecture, and much more — was a relativity short period of roughly two centuries. Centered in the city-state of Athens, it isn’t easy to determine how so much in one place, in such a short period, came together and became a pillar of time to civilization. To this day, that one city, that one era, has influenced our world.
In reading Anthony Everitt’s history of Athens, I couldn’t help seeing the parallels to the history of the United States. In nearly the same span of time, the United States has affected the world in much the same way. In all the fields of culture and science, thought and politics, making democracy more robust in the form of a democratic republic, both in its successes and failures, it has been most impactful on the world. Unfortunately, there are signs of the same paths that led to the premature ending of Athens’s golden era.
Endless wars. Neglecting the precepts of democracy and the responsibility of ensuring it endures. Government abuses of power, and they only care — or appear to — for people just enough to maintain that power. The fostering and fanning of division among people. All of which makes a country ripe for collapse either by nature or by man.
We are often arrogant in the viewing our ancestors. We think they could not possibly have anything to teach us. Quite to the contrary, they have been down this road, many, many times. They have given us all the answers to the test. If we fail, it is because we have chosen to fail.
This is why history is so important to study, and why the nefarious rather you did not.
Athens wasn’t the first to crumble, nor the last. We took much of what they created and made it better.
What a shame if, sometime in the future, someone looked around and said words much like this archbishop of Athens did in the late twelfth century:
You cannot look upon Athens without weeping. It is not just that she has lost her ancient glory: that was taken long ago…Everywhere you see walls stripped and demolished, houses razed to the ground, their sites ploughed under.
[It is] a God-forsaken hole.