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Isocrates – Consequences of Athenian Exceptionalism

July 19, 2014

“Many of you are wondering, I suppose, what in the world my purpose is in coming forward to address you on The Public Safety, as if Athens were in danger or her affairs on an uncertain footing, when in fact she possesses more than two hundred ships-of-war, enjoys peace throughout her territory, maintains her empire on the sea, and has, furthermore, many allies who, in case of any need, will readily come to her aid, and many more allies who are paying their contributions and obeying her commands. With these resources, one might argue that we have every reason to feel secure, as being far removed from danger, while our enemies may well be anxious and take thought for their own safety.
Now you, I know, following this reasoning, disdain my coming forward, and are confident that with this power you will hold all Hellas under your control. But as for myself, it is because of these very things that I am anxious; for I observe that those cities which think they are in the best circumstances are wont to adopt the worst policies, and that those which feel the most secure are most often involved in danger.  The cause of this is that nothing of either good or of evil visits mankind unmixed, but that riches and power are attended and followed by folly, and folly in turn by licence; whereas poverty and lowliness are attended by sobriety and great moderation; so that it is hard to decide which of these lots one should prefer to bequeath to one’s own children. For we shall find that from a lot which seems to be inferior men’s fortunes generally advance to a better condition, whereas from one which appears to be superior they are wont to change to a worse. …
I am in doubt whether to suppose that you care nothing for the public welfare or that you are concerned about it, but have become so obtuse that you fail to see into what utter confusion our city has fallen. For you resemble men in that state of mind–you who have lost all the cities in Thrace, squandered to no purpose more than a thousand talents on mercenary troops, provoked the ill-will of the Hellenes and the hostility of the barbarians, and, as if this were not enough, have been compelled to save the friends of the Thebans at the cost of losing our own allies ; and yet to celebrate the good news of such accomplishments we have twice now offered grateful sacrifices to the gods, and we deliberate about our affairs more complaisantly than men whose actions leave nothing to be desired!
And it is to be expected that acting as we do we should fare as we do; for nothing can turn out well for those who neglect to adopt a sound policy for the conduct of their government as a whole. On the contrary, even if they do succeed in their enterprises now and then, either through chance or through the genius of some man, they soon after find themselves in the same difficulties as before, as anyone may see from what happened in our own history. …
And yet we are quite indifferent to the fact that our polity has been corrupted, nor do we even consider how we may redeem it. It is true that we sit around in our shops denouncing the present order and complaining that never under a democracy have we been worse governed, but in our actions and in the sentiments which we hold regarding it we show that we are better satisfied with our present democracy than with that which was handed down to us by our forefathers. …
And yet how can we praise or tolerate a government which has in the past been the cause of so many evils and which is now year by year ever drifting on from bad to worse? And how can we escape the fear that if we continue to progress after this fashion we may finally run aground on rocks more perilous than those which at that time loomed before us?”
(from Areopagiticus, translated by George Norlin, available online from the Perseus Project)


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