It happened today - April 25, 2016
I’m against the whole war, actually. The idea that the Greeks, by far the most open society in the ancient world despite local variations, should spend their time slaughtering each other with dreadful efficiency is very troubling. Moreover, that aristocratic, monomaniacal, Puritanical Sparta should triumph over democratic, diverse, life-affirming Athens is troubling.
Admittedly Athens might be a model for a hedonistic age. Even I, widely and rightly considered extremely conservative, find Sparta less attractive than even moderates did in ages past. But it gets worse.
Athens was more open than Sparta. Its politics was frankly chaotic; the Greeks figured out liberty but struggled mightily with “under law” and Athens was basically demagogic, with formal rules mattering little, envy frequently surging through the agora and overwhelming prudence. But it also had a peace movement. Indeed, a popular play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, performed to packed and appreciative houses toward the end of the war, imagines the conflict being ended when the women of Greece refuse to have sex until peace is restored.
Ha ha ha. Very modern. Transgressive even. But does it not trouble you even slightly that Athens, where such ideas were openly discussed and applauded knowingly, was beaten by Sparta where they were not. I have no use for censorship. I believe liberty is not just right, I believe it’s practical. I believe that even when in comes to national security, “liberty is power” in the words of president John Quincy Adams. But Athens lost.
It wasn’t easy. Sparta too was badly weakened, and Greece was devastated by the war between the two powers and their many allies. But in Athens the centre could not hold. Dissent became radicalism and liberty became licence, especially politically. The real glory days, with the names we remember like Aristotle and Socrates, the “Golden Age of Athenian Democracy” between the victory over Xerxes and his Persians at Salamis and the loss to Sparta at Agospotami in 405 and surrender a year later, was just 76 years.
I wish the war had never happened. But honestly I’d have found it more reassuring if Athens had won. A lot more.