Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

The critical battle of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Battle of Salamis, fought at sea in 480 B.C., ended the threat of Eastern domination of Greece and made possible the free flowering of classical Greek culture. Had the Greeks not won at Salamis, there likely would have been no Herodotus, no Thucydies, no Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, no Pericles, no Plato, no Aristotle – indeed, no Hellenistic culture at all. With the loss of Greek culture, the Western heritage of participatory (democratic) government would have died in its infancy. No grand tradition of resistance to tyrants, no English development of liberty, no American Founding Fathers, no America “land of the free, home of the brave.” A very, very bad thing, right?

Well, it depends on who you ask. In Books III and IV of his Laws, Plato has it that although the Battle of Salamis saved Greece materially from destruction, it actually made Greek culture far worse. For because of the Athenian naval victory at Salamis, the ranks of the uneducated, unpropertied, unthoughtful and unvirtuous common man – who made up most of the seamen who fought at Salamis – gained an unprecedented amount of political and cultural influence. Prior to Salamis, government and culture had been controlled by the educated, elite few who were financially self-sufficient, could provide their own weapons and war-gear, and had actual living stakes in the land being defended. But because after Salamis the masses gained so much power, Plato thinks, the Greek pursuit of nobility and virtue diminished and the culture became enslaved to the mean, the vulgar, the ignorant, the shameless, the insolent, and the licentious.

…For if the democracy which judged had only consisted of educated persons, no fatal harm would have been done; but in music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness;-freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty? (Book III)

Apparently democracy may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

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