A Distant Voice Speaks to Us Today

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and currently does free-lance writing and lecturing from his base in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

One of the most frequently quoted utterances of Henry Ford is his assertion, “History is bunk!” His sentiment was shared by the infamous Ambrose Bierce, who defined history as “an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”

In recent decades an examination of school curricula might suggest that educationalists agree with Ford and Bierce. The study of history has been edged to a less significant place in the school day than it once enjoyed. In many Australian schools it has become but part of a wider study known either as “social studies” or “general studies.” The pupil might, in learning about the workings of present-day local government, note how different nations in the past enjoyed forms of “local government,” or in studying people’s eating habits in contemporary Australia, compare these with those obtaining in Elizabethan England.

When history is taught, the cry is that it be “relevant.” Precisely to what it is to be relevant is rarely specified, although the presumption would seem to be that history should be “related – to – contemporary – issues – making – the – headlines – and – constituting – the – feature – story – on – the – television – news.” Since a vexed and vexing question as to the “land rights” of the aboriginal people of Australia has become a source of continuing controversy, the history of white settlement of Australia, the early settlers’ treatment of aborigines, is, apparently, “relevant.”

What is supremely irrelevant is what used to be called “Graeco-Roman” history. Few Australian schools would waste time which could be spent in “relevant” pursuits by “ir relevantly” informing students that, in the fifth century B.C., a protracted war occurred between the Greek city-States of Sparta and Athens. Certainly few, if any, young Australians would have read a speech delivered by the leading figure of Athens, Pericles, during the first year of that war, the year 431 B.C. Yet the sentiments expressed in that speech are supremely “relevant” not simply to the world of the 1980s, a world within which liberty is threatened and the slogan “Freedom is Slavery!” of George Orwell’s 1984 is echoed by the rhetoric of politicians who proffer a life of plenty provided by an ever more powerful, intrusive State, but to all lovers of liberty of all times.

Slavery in Athens

Athens of the fifth century B.C. was not, in truth, a citadel of liberty. Slavery was a reality. Women could not vote. Yet the spark of freedom glowed in that remarkable civilization. It was to that spark Pericles appealed when, on a winter’s day in 431 B.C. he delivered an oration at a solemn, annual festival during which the citizens of Athens honored those who had fallen defending their city-State. This year, given the war with Sparta, the number who had fallen was great indeed.

Pericles did not speak of the valor of those who had died. He did not refer to the noble qualities of those whom an entire people sought to honor. He spoke rather of the reality they, the dead, had fought for and died for. That reality was not a place, a territory, or a city named “Ath ens.” It was rather an entire way of life, a way of life embodying the spark of liberty.

lie began by reminding his audience that this way of life had been secured by the “blood and toil” of their ancestors. It had been born of struggle, of battle, of trial, of hardship. Men and women of the distant past had dreamed a dream, and then, by great effort and sacrifice, had made that dream come true. That dream was, according to Pericles, embodied in the “constitution and way of life” that, in truth, made Athens the city-State it was.

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people.” Strictly speaking one might challenge that assertion: as noted, women could not vote and Athens numbered slaves among its populace. Yet what was true is that Athens was not ruled by a monarch’s whim or an aristocracy’s fancies. Indeed, Pericles immediately explained the critical factor in this form of rule: “When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public authority, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.”

It was not until some twenty-one centuries had passed that these words again captured the thinking and imagination of philosophers and ordinary men and women alike. In the seventeenth century feudalism was, in Europe, the norm. Monarchs and their favorites, and feudal lords and their families, ruled. What was legally permissible for them was forbidden for those of lesser breed. The liberty of some to practice their religion was denied to others. In the eighteenth century this system began to change, but “equality before the law” did not obtain. Only a privileged few could import goods from other nations. Those who “ruled” decreed what goods the masses should purchase by controlling prices. Wages paid varied from industry to industry, but were determined by government. Children of the poorest were required, by law, to become skilled in specified occupations.

A Society of Contract, Not a Society of Status

Yet the vision of a “society of contract” rather than a “society of status” lured both great minds and simple people. Might not a person produce goods simply because of “the actual ability which the man possesses,” not because of birth or special privilege? Might not any person be at liberty to negotiate with another and agree upon what wages were acceptable to both employer and employee? Thinkers such as John Locke began to write of individual “rights,” common to all, which governments must respect. That one system of laws should apply to all—rulers and ruled alike—became a cause for which people fought. That rulers should be elected by and accountable to the ruled became an idea warming the hearts as well as engaging the minds of countless thousands.

Indeed, in the eighteenth century three utterly remarkable documents were penned in a new nation to which numerous people seeking religious liberty for themselves (but not, unfortunately, always for others) had fled: The United States of America. On June 12, 1776, “representatives of the good people of Virginia” solemnly affirmed a Declaration of Rights which asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” enjoying “certain inherent rights” no government could flout: “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” “No man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services; which, not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator, or judge to be hereditary.”

Better known, perhaps, is the unanimously accepted by the then thirteen United States of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 of the same year. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Then, in 1787 came the Constitution of the United States (followed, in 1791, by the first ten amendments.) All three documents echoed the sentiments of Pericles: equality before the law; an absence of caste; the bestowing of positions of public authority on the basis of ability, not birth.

Equality of Opportunity

That disparities between rich and poor existed in Athens was not denied by Pericles. “We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.” The “equality” he lauded as marking the Athenian way of life lay not in an alleged possession of “equal skills”-indeed, in asserting that positions of public authority went to those best suited to those positions, he assumed that different people enjoyed different skills and abilities. Similarly, it lay not in “equality of possessions.” It lay simply in the equal rights of people to behave as they chose in attempts to attain the goals they themselves set, and protection, by law, from individuals or minorities denying the rights of others to live as they chose.

Law, for Pericles, mattered. Only rule by general principles of just conduct could “protect the oppressed”—that is, secure the liberties of the weak and curb actual or threatened violence of the strong. Indeed, behind such formal laws lay another law: “those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” The precise content of these “unwritten laws” is not clear: clearly, however, reverence for the gods of others, and respect for the dead were included. In contemporary language, Pericles perceived that the Athenian way of liberty involved reverence for the reverences of others, and a respect for one’s fellows—a respect which expressed itself even when, being dead, people could no longer cooperate with or assist one.

Turning from political life and the rule of law, Pericles spoke of the “day-to-day” life of Athenians. “We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.”

A clearer or simpler statement of the philosophy of liberty has, perhaps, yet to be penned. There is Herbert Spencer’s “law of equal liberty”: “Every man has freedom to do all he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”[1] There is John Stuart Mill’s “law of liberty”: “The sole end for which. mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”[2] These and the three fundamental documents, referred to above, which encapsulate the “American way,” are intellectually more rigorous and more easily related to the tasks of governments and courts, but Pericles’ words say all that has to be said. “We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.”

Pericles’ oration goes on to note other aspects of the Athenian way of life. He notes that Athens is “open to the world,” having no secrets to hide; that there is no conscription for war and preparation for war, military danger being met “with natural rather than with State-induced courage”; and that Athenians, even “those who are mostly occupied with their own business, are extremely well-informed on general politics.”

Describing an Ideal

How accurate a description of the Athenian way of life Pericles paints is open to debate. Many scholars perceive it more as pointing to an ideal than documenting the real. Be that as it may, his words ring down through millennia and our children deserve to hear them. The spirit informing his words is the same spirit that conquered, in some places on this planet, rule by tyranny and privilege, the imposition by the powerful of their beliefs and values on the weak, and economic systems dictated by the few rather than emerging from the choices and actions of the many.

Yet there is a further reason why ]overs of liberty and the inheritors of liberty should know about Pericles and hear his words. The record of his words came from the pen of a great historian, Thucydides, who courageously—perhaps presumptuously—asserted that, in recording the events of the terrible war between Athens and Sparta, he was writing a work “not . . . designed to meet the tastes of an immediate public, but . . . to last for ever.”[3]

Athens lost the war. Thucydides hints why. He refers, of course, to particular military mistakes made and ill-advised strategies adopted. Yet the ultimate cause of Athens’ fall lay in a disregard for “those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”

Unwritten Laws

Essentially, as noted above, those “unwritten laws” involve a reverence for what is “holy.” The importance of honoring what human beings perceive as possessing supreme worth, even when one’s own vision of “the gods” or of God is at variance with the visions of others, and a deep respect for one’s neighbor in his or her uniqueness as a human being: this Athens forgot.

Thucydides hints at a sequence. Manners decay: the simple code of rules, enforced by no court, which make harmonious life possible. Then morals break down. Finally, the “rule of law” is disregarded.

Even language undergoes changes. Describing the breakdown of the rule of law in one Greek city-State, Corcyra, Thucydides writes: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party-member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . . [and] anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted [whereas] anyone who objected to them became a suspect.”

Loyalties collapse. “Family relations were a weaker tie than party memberships . . .” “If pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available . . . In political leaders’ struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred . . . ; they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of other people: their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment.”

Chaos reigns. And, in desperation, the people welcome any person or group promising the restoration of order and some semblance of security. There is a price to be paid, but people, declares Thucydides, pay that price. It is liberty.

The Price We Pay

It is not alarmist to ponder whether, today, we are witnessing the same sequence: the forgetting of the “unwritten laws,” and the consequent decay of manners and morals; defiance of written laws; the use of political power to further special interests rather than to protect the liberty of all; the shattering of those bonds of mutual respect which make for community, and the emergence of powerful pressure groups competing for power and gain through coercion; then, finally, a collapse of order, the rule of chaos, and the cry for someone, somewhere, to restore some form of control. The price the tyrant exacts—liberty—is paid.

Henry Ford and Ambrose Bierce spoke slightingly and amusingly of history. Yet the ancient Roman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the North American, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., spoke otherwise. Wrote Cicero: “Not to know the events which happened before one was born, that is to always remain a boy.” States Holmes: “When I want to understand what is happening today or try to decide what will happen tomorrow, I look back.”

Karl Marx was in error when he spoke of the immutable laws of history. Human beings are not the passive instruments of a mysterious process working its way to an inevitable destiny. Yet, just as human beings are subject to the laws of nature but, in understanding them, can build ships and sail over vast oceans, create airplanes and fly in the air, and design rockets that soar into the once unexplored recesses of space, so human beings, in their attempts to live in harmony, liberty, and peace, must acknowledge the reality of, and seek to understand, some very simple but easily forgotten truths.

Thucydides never completed his history. He described a disease that brought an end to a way of life enshrining freedom but he prescribedno remedy—just as, very early in his narrative, he described the symptoms of a mysterious plague that no one seemed able to cure and from which many thousands of people perished.

The Unfinished Task

It is the lovers of liberty who will finish Thucydides’ history. Witnessing in their own day the symptoms Thucydides so painstakingly described, and knowing that, ignored, such symptoms lead to destruction, those holding to the freedom philosophy will, themselves, live as free people, honoring the law, and respecting their neighbor’s worth. They will strive, by word and argument, to recommend to others what they so cherish themselves. And, whatever their specific creed, they will know that, in the last analysis, what they believe “should be” is rooted and grounded in “what is,” and put their ultimate trust in the Source of those “unwritten laws” investing individ uals with dignity and a nation with greatness.

1.   H. Spencer, Social Statics (first published 1850, reprinted Schalkenbach Foundation, New York, 1970), p. 95.

2.   J. S. Mill, On Liberty (first published 1859, republished E. P. Dutton, New York, Every-man’s Library, 1957), p. 73.

3.   All quotations from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, translated Rex Warner (Penguin Books, London, 1954).

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