An Imperial Democracy

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Una democracia imperial (Spanish)

An Imperial Democracy

Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Judging by the documents that remain to us, Thucydides (460-396 B.C.) was the first philosopher in history to discover power as a human phenomenon and not as a virtue conferred by the heavens or demons. He was also aware of the principal value of money in defeating the enemy in any war. We can add another: Thucydides never believed in the principle that those with no trust in arguments are so fond of repeating in revisionist criticism: “I know what I am talking about because I lived it.” We once noted that this idea was easily destroyed with two contradictory observations by those who experienced the same event. Thucydides demonstrated it thusly: “Investigation has been laborious because the witnesses have not given the same versions of the same deeds, but according to their sympathies for some and for others or they followed the memory of each one.” (Ed. Gredos, Madrid 1990, p. 164)

According to Thucydides, in order for Sparta, the other great city state, to go to war against the dominant Athens, the Corinthians directed themselves to their assembly with a portrait of the great enemy democracy: “they [the Athenians] are innovators, resolute in the conception and execution of their projects; you tend to leave things as they are, to say nothing and to not even carry out that which is necessary” (236). Then: “exactly as it happens in techniques, novelties always impose themselves.” (238)

Hearing of this speech, the Athenian ambassadors responded with the following words: “by the very exercise of command we saw ourselves obligated from the beginning to take the empire into the present situation, first out of fear, then out of honor, and finally out of interest; and once we were already hated by the majority […] it did not seem safe to run the risk of letting go.” (244) The law that the weaker be oppressed by the stronger has always prevailed; we believe, besides, that we are worthy of this empire, and that we appeared so to you until now, calculating your interests, you set about invoking reasons of justice, reasons that no one has ever set forth who might obtain something by force in order to stop increasing their possessions. […] in any case, we believe that if others occupied our place, they would make perfectly clear how moderate we are”; (246) “if you were to defeat us and take control of the empire, you would quickly lose the sympathy which you have attracted thanks to the fear that we inspire.” (249)

Its pride provoked, the conservative and xenophobic Sparta decides to confront Athenian expansionism. The Athenians, convinced by Pericles, refuse to negotiate and face by themselves a war that leads them to catastrophe. “We should not lament for the houses and for the land – advises Pericles, repeating a well-known topic of the period – but for the people: these goods do not obtain men, but rather it is men who obtain goods.” (370)

Nonetheless, the war extends death over Greece. In a funeral speech, Pericles (Book II) gives us testimony of the ideals and representations of the ancient Greeks, which today we would call “humanist precepts.” Refering to the Spartan custom of expelling any foreigner from their land, Pericles finds a moral contrast: “our city is open to the whole world, and in no case do we turn to expulsions of foreigners” (451) In another speech he completes this ideological portrait, repeating ideas already formulated by other philosophers of Athens and which today’s conservatives have forgotten: “a city that progresses collectively turns out to be more useful to individual interests than another that has prosperity in each one of its citizens, but is being ruined as a state. Because a man whose private affairs go well, if his fatherland is destroyed, he goes equally to ruin with it, while he who is unfortunate in a fortunate city is saved much more easily.” (484)

But humanist egalitarian that Pericles was, he did not escape from oppressive patriotism. As if Greek foresight had become myopia by extending the gaze beyond the limits of his own homeland. Radical democracy at home becomes imperialism abroad: “Realize that she [Athens] enjoys the greatest renown among all men for not succumbing to disgrace and for having expended in war more lives and effort than any other; know that she also possesses the greatest power achieved until our days, whose memory, even though we now may come to cede a little (since everything has been born in order to diminish), will endure forever in future generations; it will be remembered that it is we Greeks who have exercised our dominion over the greatest number of Greeks, who have sustained the greatest wars against both coalitions and separate cities, and who have inhabited the richest city in every kind of resources and the largest. […] To be hated and prove a nuisance for the moment is what has always happened to those who have attempted to dominate others; but whomever exposes himself to envy for the most noble motives takes the correct decision.” (491)

In his critical introduction to this same Gredos edition, Julio Calogne Ruiz recalls that Sparta’s objective was “to put an end to the progressive increase of the Athenians’ markedly imperialist power. Given that all of Athens’ power came from the tributes of its subjects, the pretext that Sparta gave to go to war was the liberation of all Greek cities.” (20) Then he speculates: “many ordinary Athenians must have realized that their well-being basically depended on the continuity of domination over the allies without thinking about whether this was just or unjust.” (26)

The question of power in the Fifth Century is – continues Calogne Ruiz – the question of the imperialism of Athens. For three quarters of a century Athens is an empire and nothing in Athenian life can be removed from that reality.” (80)

Nonetheless, this reality, which at times is explicitly named by Thucydides, is never expressed as a central theme in the major works of ancient thought and literature.

In The World, the Text, and the Critic Edward Said, referring to the literature of recent centuries, reflects on the false political neutrality of culture and the so-called “absolute freedom” of literary creation: “What such ideas mask, mystify, is precisely the network binding writers to the State and to a world-wide ‘metropolitan’ imperialism that, at the moment they were writing, furnished them in the novelistic techniques of narration. […] What we must ask is why so few ‘great’ novelists deal directly with the major social and economic outside facts of their existence – colonialism and imperialism – and why, too, critics of the novel have continued to honor this remarkable silence.” (p. 176)

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

Mayo, 2007

Monthy Review (New York)