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Safe Spaces, Microaggressions, Liberty, and Devolution – Uncomfortable Reflections of life in the Ancient City State


Chapter XVII: The Omnipotence of The State. The Ancients Knew Nothing of Individual Liberty.

The city had been founded upon a religion, and constituted like a church. Hence its strength; hence, also, its omnipotence and the absolute empire which it exercised over its members. In a society established on such principles, individual liberty could not exist. The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul. The religion which had produced the state, and the state which supported the religion, sustained each other, and made but one; these two powers, associated and confounded, formed a power almost superhuman, to which the soul and the body were equally enslaved.

There was nothing independent in man; his body belonged to the state, and was devoted to its defense. At Rome, military service was due, until a man was fifty years old, at Athens until he was sixty, at Sparta always. His fortune was always at the disposal of the state. If the city had need of money, it could order the women to deliver up their jewels, the creditors to give up their claims, and the owners of olive trees to turn over gratuitously the oil which they had made. 444

Private life did not escape this omnipotence of the state. The Athenian law, in the name of religion, forbade man to remain single. 445 Sparta punished not only those who remained single, but those who married late. At Athens the state could prescribe labor, and at Sparta idleness. It exercised its tyranny even in the smallest things; at Locri the laws forbade men to drink pure wine; at Rome, Miletus, and Marseilles wine was forbidden to women. 446 It was a common thing for the kind of dress to be invariably fixed by each city; the legislation of Sparta regulated the head-dress of women and that of Athens forbade them to take with them on a journey more than three dresses. 447 At Rhodes and Byzantium, the law forbade men to shave the beard. 448 The state was under no obligation to suffer any of its citizens to be deformed. It therefore commanded a father to whom such a son was born, to have him put to death. This law is found in the ancient codes of Sparta and of Rome. We do not know that it existed at Athens; we know only that Aristotle and Plato incorporated it into their ideal codes.

There is, in the history of Sparta, one trait which Plutarch and Rousseau greatly admired. Sparta had just suffered a defeat at Leuctra, and many of its citizens had perished. On the receipt of this news, the relatives of the dead had to show themselves in public with gay countenances. The mother, who learned that her son had escaped, and that she should see him again, appeared afflicted and wept. Another, who knew that she should never again see her son, appeared joyous, and went round to the temple to thank the gods. What, then, was the power of the state that could thus order the reversal of the natural sentiments, and be obeyed?

The state allowed no man to be indifferent to its interests; the philosopher or the studious man had no right to live apart. He was obliged to vote in the assembly, and be magistrate in his turn. At a time when discords were frequent, the Athenian law permitted no one to remain neutral; he must take sides with one or the other party. Against one who attempted to remain indifferent, and not side with either faction, and to appear calm, the law pronounced the punishment of exile with confiscation of property.

Education was far from being free among the Greeks. On the contrary, there was nothing over which the state had greater control. At Sparta, the father could have nothing to do with the education of his son. The law appears to have been less rigorous at Athens; still the state managed to have education in the hands of masters of its own choosing. Aristophanes, in an eloquent passage, shows the Athenian children on their way to school; in order, distributed according to their district, they march in serried ranks, through rain, snow, or scorching heat. These children seem already to understand that they are performing a public duty. 449 The state wished alone to control education, and Plato gives the motive for this: 450 “Parents ought not to be free to send or not to send their children to the masters whom the city has chosen; for the children belong less to their parents than to the city.”

The state considered the mind and body of every citizen as belonging to it; and wished, therefore, to fashion this body and mind in a manner that would enable it to draw the greatest advantage from them. Children were taught gymnastics, because the body of a man was an arm for the city, and it was best that this arm should be as strong and as skillful as possible. They were also taught religious songs and hymns, and the sacred dances, because this knowledge was necessary to the correct performance of the sacrifices and festivals of the city. 451

It was admitted that the state had a right to prevent free instruction by the side of its own. One day Athens made a law forbidding the instruction of young people without authority from the magistrates, and another, which specially forbade the teaching of philosophy. 452

A man had no chance to choose his belief. He must believe and submit to the religion of the city. He could hate and despise the gods of the neighboring city. As to the divinities of a general and universal character, like Jupiter, or Cybele, or Juno, he was free to believe or not to believe in them, but it would not do to entertain doubts about Athene Polias, or Erechtheus, or Cecrops. That would have been grave impiety, which would have endangered religion and the state at the same time, and which the state would have severely punished. Socrates was put to death for this crime. Liberty of thought in regard to the state religion was absolutely unknown among the ancients. Men had to conform to all the rules of worship, figure in all the processions, and take part in the sacred repasts. Athenian legislation punished those by a fine who failed religiously to celebrate a national festival. 453

 The ancients, therefore, knew neither liberty in private life, liberty in education, nor religious liberty. The human person counted for very little against that holy and almost divine authority which was called country or the state. The state had not only, as we have in our modern societies, a right to administer justice to the citizens; it could strike when one was not guilty, and simply for its own interest. Aristides assuredly had committed no crime, and was not even suspected; but the city had the right to drive him from its territory, for the simple reason that he had acquired by his virtues too much influence, and might become dangerous, if he desired to be. This was called ostracism; this institution was not peculiar to Athens; it was found at Argos, at Megara, at Syracuse, and we may believe that it existed in all the Greek cities. 454

Now, ostracism was not a chastisement; it was a precaution, which the city took against a citizen whom it suspected of having the power to injure it at any time. At Athens a man could be put on trial and condemned for incivism — that is to say, for the want of affection towards the state. A man’s life was guaranteed by nothing so soon as the interest of the state was at stake. Rome made a law by which it was permitted to kill any man who might have the intention of becoming king. 455 The dangerous maxim that the safety of the state is the supreme law, was the work of antiquity. 456  It was then thought that law, justice, morals, everything should give way before the interests of the country.

It is a singular error, therefore, among all human errors, to believe that in the ancient cities men enjoyed liberty. They had not even the idea of it. They did not believe that there could exist any right as against the city and its gods. We shall see, farther on, that the government changed form several times, while the nature of the state remained nearly the same, and its omnipotence was little diminished. The government was called by turns monarchy, aristocracy, democracy; but none of these revolutions gave man true liberty, individual liberty. To have political rights, to vote, to name magistrates, to have the privilege of being archon, — this was called liberty; but man was not the less enslaved to the state. The ancients, especially the Greeks, always exaggerated the importance, and above all, the rights of society; this was largely due, doubtless, to the sacred and religious character with which society was clothed in the beginning.

From Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. “The Ancient City, A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome.” Batoche Books, Ontario Canada, 2001.  184-188.

444 Aristotle, Econom., II.
445 Pollux, VIII. 40, Plutarch, Lysander, 30.
446 Athenaeus, X. 33. Ælian, V. H., II 37.
447 Fragm. Hist. Graec. Didot, t. II. p. 129, 211. Plutarch, Solon, 21.
448 Athenaeus, XIII. Plutarch, Cleomenes, 9.
“The Romans thought that no marriage, or rearing of children, nay, no feast or drinking bout, ought to be permitted according to every one’s appetite or fancy, without being examined and inquired into,” Plutarch, Cato the Elder, 23.
449 Aristophanes, Clouds, 960–965.
450 Plato, Laws, VII.
451 Aristophanes, Clouds, 966–968.
452 Xenophon, Memor., I. 2. Diogenes Laertius, Theophr. These two laws did not continue a long time; but they do not the less prove the omnipotence that was conceded to the state in matters of instruction.
453 Pollux, VIII. 46. Ulpian, Scholl in Demosthenes; in Meidiam.
454 Aristotle, Pol., VIII. 2, 5. Scholiast on Aristoph., Knights, 851.
455 Plutarch, Publicola, 12.
456 Cicero, De Legib., III. 3.

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