I have been on a mental trip away from Egypt and the plagues. The book I am about to describe made me realize that it wasn't the Jews only who were slaves of Pharaoh, but all Egyptians were equally under his whim and control. It was horrible how the Egyptian people had to suffer even more when God wanted to set His people free, without the benefit of achieving their own freedom. Fascinating to think that while God was trying to free "His people" meanwhile in Greece, He was introducing the concept of freedom to humankind through the brilliant minds of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the three hierarchs of Western Civilization.
I will return to Egypt in the next posting. For now, let's explore the concept of freedom and what that means to each of us.
The other day, I was reminded and further educated about the birth of Western Civilization through a book by Edith Hamilton entitled The Echo of Greece*. The content is so important and relevant to today that I want to share it with everyone I know! I hope that the following excerpts will inspire and energize you too.
What failed in Athens was not the brilliance of the new concepts of individual freedom and self-government, but that the people would not do their part as individuals to sustain it. Perhaps a reminder of our duties as individual guides of the system will help us to prolong this fragile American experiment beyond the mere two and a half centuries of its existence on earth.
The founding of America, a fresh start, will never happen again on this planet. It is for Americans today to show the Greeks that we can maintain their concept of freedom through thousands, not a few hundred years. This takes frequent trips back to the standard. This short piece is one of those trips back to the ruler to check where our construction is straight or getting cock-eyed.
The most precious possession of the Greeks was their freedom which was unique.
Despotism was the form of rule, but not in Greece. Despots destroyed the individual to empower the State. They didn't enslave people, because they didn't have to. People under strong government control were already slaves of the state.
Freedom is the power to live under one’s own control and not another's which was unthinkable to the [powerful] east: e.g. Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Assyria. The east could not conceive of order in any other way but despotism. Aristotle said that Asiatics were slaves by nature. They didn't know what freedom is. If they did, they would fight for it with their bare hands, if they had no weapons.
Unlimited freedom is chaos. It would destroy humankind. So the Greeks discovered a way to achieve order through freedom. Men were to limit their own freedom through self-control.
The Greek love of freedom was checked by an equal appreciation for truth. They sought and cherished truth so much that they even shunned exaggeration. They detested extremes and the idea of the limitless to keep a firm hold on reality.
Sculptures with more than natural human beauty were the expression of the artist's discovery of the necessary relation between beauty and truth. Physical perfection evoked a sense of spiritual perfection. They were driven to find order out of confusion. They found it in beauty.
What the artist did, the statesman also did by finding the relation between law and freedom. Both written and unwritten laws are the key to moderation, reality (truth) and order.
Unwritten laws were even more important than written laws. The violation of unwritten laws didn't send you to jail, but were the basic condition of freedom for men living together, i.e. kindness, compassion, unselfishness... Laws were as nothing compared to the limits established by a man's free choice to be good.
Arrogance, self assertion were detested by the Greeks, who favored restraining the impulses to unrestricted freedom, shunning excesses, obeying inner laws of harmony and proportion.
In Greece, men started thinking of themselves as individuals. Slavery was common throughout the world, yet in Athens even slaves had the right of self rule. Human equality was essential to the concept of truth, freedom, and individualism.
Socrates thought that every man's good was dependent on the good of the community. The two could not be separated. Only a good man could be a good citizen, and a state could only be good when its citizens were good. The condition of the state was bound with the condition of the souls who live in it.
Socrates’ eyes were fixed on the individual, and on the individual part of him, the inner realm where he could be absolute master. Men were free when they were masters of themselves. Otherwise they were all citizen-slaves to the State.
To expect a government to be good when dishonesty had crept in among the officials, or officials to be honorable when the voters were indifferent to their being so, was folly.
Failure of the concept of freedom started when people voted to be paid for their public service. Plato and Aristotle both strongly objected. Instead of men giving to the state, they wanted a government that would provide them with comfortable lives. Self reliance, and service to the community were obscured to the point of disappearing. Athens began to be looked upon as a wealthy cooperative business in which all citizens had a right to share. The more that was demanded from the people of their government, the higher the taxes, till they were taxed out of existence. Votes were for sale as well as politicians. The freedom people wanted became freedom from responsibility.
Yet, responsibility was the price for freedom. It could be had on no other terms.
The true believers in freedom never regarded public office as a chance for private gain.
They considered poverty among their fellow citizens as their own disgrace and measured their well being, not by outdoing each other, but by the soberness' of their daily life and absence of want among all the people.
Isocrates believed in democracy, but he was aware of the danger in unchecked majority rule, perpetually threatening to pass over into mob rule. And of the fact that while the best in the community will always be a minority, rule by a minority had again and again resulted in loss of freedom.
The failure came as men rejected the disciplines and responsibility of freedom - they wasted their youth in soft living. Lawlessness was looked upon as liberty, license as happiness. To them, the state was a means to satisfy selfish desires. [Ask not what your country can do for you…JFK]
Wise self-control became less valuable than State control. True democracy is the renunciation of power.
Plato was not a romantic, he was a realist who showed men what was real. Ugliness was there. Most people only saw the bad. Seekers of truth, the artist, the philosopher saw something else because they believed in the presence and power of inner divine light. They could discern the meaning of the ugliness going on, of what was important and what was not.
Plato said to turn the eye of the soul to the light, looking at the good in all its purity; use it as a pattern.
Plato died a happy man even though he was often disappointed. “Perhaps the perfect State can't exist,” Plato said, “perhaps it is laid up in heaven for him who wants to see it. That doesn't matter, a man can still order his life by its laws.”
Through Plato, Aristotle came to believe in God. But Plato never tried to prove his reality. Aristotle, who was a scientist had to do so. Plato contemplated God, Aristotle produced arguments to demonstrate him. Plato never defined God. Aristotle thought God through logically and concluded he was the unmoved mover. "To find Him is hard and then impossible to utter Him. God is the rational center of an orderly universe.”
Aristotle had a burning curiosity about facts. His biggest achievement was that he united the world of scientific thought with metaphysical thought, he joined philosophy, art, and religion with sciences. He held the two worlds together as no one else.
The American system of government was derived from these basic principles that can guide us through the perilous seas of a world in a constant tug-of-war between good and evil.
If only we could pivot our attention to what is good, beautiful, honorable. If only each of us, one by one, would think about Plato’s advice to “turn the eye of the soul to the light, looking at the good in all its purity; use it as a pattern” for our own internal dialogue, America would soon reflect its calm intelligent people, and the world could follow.
The key to freedom is individuality. Individuality should always repel group-think. Our individuality should make each of us critical listeners/readers to broadcasts. Is the sentence an opinion without a fact to back it up? Is the sentence an emotional trigger, or does it have real substance that can be verified by multiple sources? We should turn away from broadcasts that are designed to inflame rather than inform. Dividing us and angering us is a sure way to control and conquer us. How important is freedom to you personally? Think deeply about this, make sure your decisions will lead towards freedom. If you disagree about the value of freedom, ask yourself if you should have the right to revoke the freedom of others who want to be free and are willing to accept the risks and work that freedom requires.
One of the more frightening sentences I read was the one that said men allowed their leaders to be corrupt. How familiar, how frightening.
Winning the America Revolution was a miracle. It was proof of the Ancient Greek theory that those fighting for the good will always prevail over those fighting for power. Imagine history without this miraculous war. Since our founding, time and again, we have seen despots rise who want to enslave people with their ideologies, and then physically control them. Study the rise of the Ottoman Empire, study the rise of Naziism. A chaotic centralized government is easy to grab. Is America being systematically set up, from within, to be conquered? The enemy of freedom is shrewd and patient.
The foundation of a good nation is good people. Look inside your self for the light, for peace. When you find it, shine it brightly. Others will follow until we become a country filled with luminous people who love. A measure of our success as a culture will be when we promote beauty over horror in art and entertainment. We demand excellence in our food, the delicious, the beautiful, the nutritious; let us also demand excellence in what our eyes and ears absorb.
*The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton, W.W. Norton & Co. 1957