Friday, September 17, 2004 +

Jacob Burckhardt on the Greeks

From The Greeks and Greek Civilization

Each age has a new and different way of looking at the more remote periods of the past; for instance there might be a fact of the greatest significance reported by Thucydides which will only be recognized as such a hundred years from now.

The notion of the rights of man did not exist anywhere in antiquity, not even in Aristotle. The polis, for him, is a community only of the free; the metics and the numerous slaves were not citizens, and whether, apart from that, they are human beings is not discussed (Politics 3.4).

The ancient writers are unanimous in the view that slavery is worse than death.... Servants and slaves are often accused of "loving life," a low trait which distinguishes them from free men.

In times of highly developed civilization, when gifts and energies are widely distributed, changes will occur if public circumstances do not hinder them, and all the more certainly if they do everything to further them. An effective medium comes into being which develops a power of its own and becomes a weapon in the hands of the mediocre and of those whose talents and situation allow them to exploit it. Even the highly gifted and highly privileged are then obliged to make use of this medium to obtain a hearing of any kind; the strongest testimony in favor of Epicurus at a later time is that he gave up any recourse to eloquence. The transitional period, though, can be astonishing, when the new medium [rhetoric] and the older power of the intellect, still intact, are working together, as in Thucydides and Euripides.

Phocion returned Alexander's gifts of a hundred talents, though the delegates told him he was the only man the King regarded as of noble character; Phocion replied: "He will have to allow me to remain so." ...Many Athenians could not stand him, precisely because he really was, as he was called in spite of his sharp tongue, "the good man" chrestos).

See also See also Burckhardt on Greatness and Contemplating History.