Friday, May 22, 2020


Small Is Beautiful

Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), Greek City-States (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1950), pp. 269-272:
What caused the failure of the Greek city-state system? It is usual to speak of the "particularism" that was the bane of Greece, since it is obvious that the collapse of the Greek world was due to the failure of its many small units to combine against outside attack. It is often added that there was something in the Greek character that precluded unity: and the same characteristic is thought to be displayed by the Greek nation today: the irreconcilable cleavage between Left and Right which ran through every Greek polis, and which in its modern form is again threatening the peace of Europe.

Is this true? Does "lack of unity" provide a complete answer to the problem?

First, in considering this question, let us remember that unity does not necessarily mean survival. The ancient kingdom of Egypt came to be "united" in the sense that its citizens were not allowed to form parties, to argue and discuss, to take any sharen in government except that allotted to a chosen few. Egypt was united under the sacrosanct rule of king and hierarchy and their appointed ministers; but Egypt fell before the attacks of the Persians, whereas the Greeks repelled the invader. Two centuries later Egypt, no less than Greece, proved unable to resist Alexander. The Persians, under Xerxes, were united, in that the will of the king, however capricious, cruel or foolish, was law; yet they failed before the determined resistance of the Greek fleet, whose commanders were so far from being united in counsel that to this day it is uncertain whether the Athenian Themistocles was a patriot or was playing a double game which would safeguard him no matter which side won the battle. The unity of the Egyptians and the Persians was not a unity of conscious choice; it was imposed on them from above, and its acceptance was a proof of moral and intellectual inferiority. When the modem world sighs for unity within nations or between nations, let it remember that the only unity which gives strength is that of genuine agreement and consent; that of compulsion from above, and of ignorance or servility below, is of little use in time of danger. The Greek city-states were united in one thing: each dared to keep its independence and its own way of life; and that proved sufficient.

Secondly: is the inclusion of the smaller unit in the larger necessarily a gain, from the point of view of human progress? In ancient Greece it does not seem to have been so. The existence of these hundreds of small units with separate administrative systems seems uneconomic nowadays, when economy of effort is accorded a growing place in the theory of government. But certain of these small units created the beginnings of movements which transformed the world, and ultimately gave Man his present control over Nature. The first known electrical experiment was oliserved in Miletus; the first atomic theory in the town of Abdera in Thrace; the first statement of the transcending importance of numerical formulae for the understanding of matter came from Pythagoras, an islander from Samos, who migrated to Italy. The first geometrical proofs demanding an assumption of moving lines and planes were evolved at Tarentum, Sparta's only colony, by its admirable chief magistrate Archytas. It was the small unit, the independent city-state, where everybody knew all that was going on, that produced such intellectual giants as Thucydides and Aristophanes, Heracleitus and Parmenides. If these conditions were not in part responsible, how is it that philosophy, science, political thought, and the best of the literary arts, all perish with the downfall of the city-state system in 322 B.C., leaving us with the interesting but less profound and original work of men such as Epicurus and Menander? There is only one major poet after 322: Theocritus of Cos, a lyric genius of the first rank, who nevertheless (unlike Sappho) wrote much that was second-rate also, when he was pandering to possible patrons like the rulers of Alexandria and Syracuse. The modern nation that has replaced the polis as the unit of government is a thousand times less intellectually creative in proportion to its size and resources; even in building and the arts and crafts it lags behind in taste, and relatively in productivity.

Thirdly, it must also be remembered that racial unity does not necessarily make for peace. The larger the conglomeration, and the less room for discussion and difference of opinion within it, the greater the potential menace to the rest of the world. A united Germany was a greater menace to peace than the many separate kingdoms, dukedoms and the rest that it superseded. Suppose the Hellenes had united: would the world have been better off? Might they not have felt themselves strong enough to attack their neighbours, and have wasted their energies in overrunning North Africa, Asia, and the rest of Europe, in the name of security: pushing their frontiers outwards further and further as the Romans were later to do? The spread of Greek culture, even in the diluted form brought by conquerors, would have been an advantage, but the essential quality of the Greek genius would have been dissipated, as it was in the territories ruled by the successors of Alexander, and in the Byzantine Empire. If, as at present seems likely, the world is about to abandon the national principle for that of larger units composed of a number of nations; if we are to have groups such as the U.S.S.R. and its satellites in Europe and Asia, the Western European Union, the United States becoming perhaps the Union of the Americas, and so on: will the material advantage and the increase in certain kinds of efficiency be offset by a loss in the quality of the contribution made by the separate nations, for instance, that of an intensely individualistic nation like France? Moreover, will not the inevitable clash of interests between such powerful blocs lead to wars so terrible that one half of the human race will in the end destroy the other, as little Croton once obliterated little Sybaris?

Further, suppose the whole of human kind, white, yellow, brown and black, at length united under a World Government: will the result be like running cold water into hot, a tepid mixture from which nothing can be expected except usefulness, orderliness, a humdrum industry, and a general indifference to all wider interests; material prosperity and peace, but intellectual and cultural stagnation? The human race might then perish from another cause: inanition, the despair that already seems to be afflicting many advanced modern minds, the confused pessimism of the Teutonic death-worshippers and the Existentialists. Nothing could be further removed from the temper of the Greek of the city-state even in the midst of his greatest trials. Human progress is achieved not by groups but by individuals, and the soil in which personality can best flourish without damage to its fellows is that which best nurtures progress.

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