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Friday, October 26, 2012


The conflict between liberty under divine authority and the absolutism of human authorities ended disastrously. In the year 622 a supreme effort was made at Jerusalem to reform and preserve the State. The High Priest produced from the temple of Jehovah the book.of the deserted and forgotten law, and both king and people bound themselves by solemn oaths to observe it. But that early example of limited mon- archy and of the supremacy of law neither lasted nor spread; and the forces by which freedom has conquered must be sought elsewhere. In the very year 586, in which the flood of Asiatic despotism closed over the city which had been, and was destined again to be, the sanctuary of freedom in the East, a new· home was prepared for it in the West, where, guarded by the sea and the mountains, and by valiant hearts, that stately plant was reared under whose shade we dwell,
and which is extending its invincible arms so slowly and yet so surely over the civilised world.
According to a famous saying of the most famous authoress of the Continent, liberty is ancient, and it is despotism that is new. It has been the pride of recent historians to vindicate the truth of that maxim. The heroic age of'Greece confirms it, and it is still more conspicuously true of Teutonic Europe. Wherever we can trace the earlier life of the Aryan nations we discover germs which favouring circumstances and as- siduous culture might have developed into free societies. They exhibit some sense of common interest in common concerns, little reverence for external authority, and an im- perfect sense of the function and supremacy of the State. Where the division of property and labour is incomplete there is little division of classes and of power. Unti
l societies are tried by the complex problems of civilisation they may escape despotism, as societies that are undisturbed by religious di- versity avoid persecution. In general, the forms of the patri- archal age failed to resist the growth of absolute States when the difficulties and temptations of advancing life began to tell; and with one sovereign exception, which is not within my scope to-day, it is scarcely possible to, trace their survival in the institutions of later times. Six hundred years before  the birtho£ Christ absolutism held unbounded sway. Throughout the East it was propped by the unchanging in- fluence of priests and armies. In the West, where there were no sacred books requiring trained interpreters, the priest- hood acquired no preponderance, and when the kings were overthrown their powers passed to aristocracies of birth. What followed, during many generations, was the cruel domination of class over class, the oppression of the poor by the rich, and of the ignorant by the wise. The spirit of that domination found passionate utterance in the verses of the aristocratic poet Theognis, a man of genius and refinement, who avows that he longed to drink the blood of his political adversaries. From these oppressors the people of many cities sought deliverance in the less intolerable tyranny of revo- lutionary usurpers. The remedy gave new shape and energy to the evil. The tyrants were often men of surprising capacity and merit, like some of those who, in the fourteenth century, made themselves lords of Italian cities; but rights secured by equal laws and by sharing power existed nowhere.
From this universal degradation the. world was rescued by the most gifted of the nations. Athens, which like other cities was distracted and oppressed by a privileged class, avoided violence and appointed Solon to revise its laws. It was the happiest choice that history records. Solon was not only the wisest man to be found in Athens, .but the most profound political genius of antiquity; and the easy, blood- less, and pacific revolution by which he accomplished the de- liverance of his country was the first step in a career which our age glories in pursuing, and instituted a power which has done. more than anything, except revealed religion, for the regeneration of society. The upper·class had possessed the right of making and administering the laws, and he left them in possession, only transferring to wealth what had been the privilege of birth. To the rich, who alone had the means of sustaining the burden of public service in taxation and war, Solon gave a share of power proportioned to the demands made on their resources. The poorest classes were exempt from direct taxes, but were excluded from office. Solon gave them a voice in electing magistrates from the classes above them, and the right of calling them to account. This concession, apparently so slender, was the beginning of a mighty change. It introduced the idea that a man ought to have a voice in selecting those to whose rectitude and wisdom he is compelled to trust his fortune, his family, and his life. And this idea completely inverted the notion of human authority, for it inaugurated the reign of moral influence where all political power had depended on moral force. Government by consent superseded government by compul- sion, and the pyramid which had stood on a point was made to stand upon its base. By making every citizen the guardian of his own interest Solon admitted the element of democracy into the State. The greatest glory of a ruler, he said, is to create a popular government. Believing that no man can be entirely trusted, he subjected all who exercised power to the vigilant control of those for whom they acted.
The only resource against political disorders that had been known till then was the concentration of power. Solon un- dertook to effect the same object by the distribution of power. He gave to the common people as much influence as he thought them able to employ, that the State might be exempt from arbitrary government. It is the essence of democracy, he said, to obey no master but the law. Solon recognised the principle that political forms are not final or inviolable, and must adapt themselves to facts; and he provided so well for the revision of his constitution, without breach of continuity or loss of stability, that for centuries after his death the Attic orators attributed to him, and quoted by his name, the whole structure of Athenian law. The direction of its growth was determined by the fundamental doctrine of Solon, that politi- cal power ought to be commensurate with public service. In the Persian war the services of the democracy eclipsed those of the Patrician orders, for the fleet that swept the
Asiatics from the Aegean Sea was manned by the poorer Athenians. That class, whose valour had saved the State and had preserved European civilisation, had gained a title to increase of influence and privilege. The offices of State, which had been a monopoly of the rich, were thrown open to the poor, and in order to make sure that they should obtain their share, all but the highest commands were distributed by lot.
Whilst the ancient authorities were decaying, there was no accepted standard of moral and political right to make the framework of society fast in the midst of change. The instability that had seized on .the forms threatened the very principles of government. The national beliefs were yielding to doubt, and doubt was not yet making way for knowledge. There had been a time when the obligations of public as well as private life were identified with the will of the gods. But that time had passed. Pallas, the ethereal goddess of the Athenians, and the Sun God whose oracles, delivered from the temple between the twin summits of Parnassus, did so much for the Greek nationality,. aided in keeping up a lofty ideal of religion; but when the enlightened men of Greece
learnt to apply their keen faculty of reasoning to the system of their inherited belief, they became quickly conscious that the conceptions of the gods corrupted the life and degraded the minds of the public. Popular morality could not be sus- tained by the popular religion. The moral instruction which was no longer supplied by the gods could not yet be found in books. There was no venerable code expounded by experts, no doctrine proclaimed by men of reputed sanctity like those teachers of the far East whose words still rule the fate of nearly half mankind. The effort to account for things by close observation and exact reasoning began by destroying. There came a time when the philosophers of the Porch and the Academy wrought the dictates of wisdom and virtue into a system so consistent and profound that it has vastly short- ened the task of the Christian divines. But that time had not yet come.
The epoch of doubt and transition during which the Greeks passed from the dim fancies of mythology to the fierce light of science was the age of Pericles, and the endeavour to substitute certain truth for the prescriptions of impaired authorities, which was then beginning to absorb the energies of the Greek intellect, is the grandest movement in the profane annals of mankind, for to it we owe, even after the im- measurable progress accomplished by Christianity, much of our philosophy and far the better part of the political knowl- edge we possess. Pericles, who was at the head of the Athenian government, was the first statesman who encountered the problem which the rapid weakening of traditions forced on the political world. No authority in morals or in politics remained unshaken by the motion that was in the air. No guide could be confidently trusted; there was no available criterion to appeal to, for the means of controlling or deny- ing convictions that prevailed among the people. The popu- lar sentiment as to what was right might be mistaken, but it was subject0 to no test. The people were, for practical pur- poses, the seat of the knowledge of good and evil. The people,
therefore, were the seat of power.
The political philosophy of Pericles consisted of this con-

clusion. He resolutely struck away all the props that still sustained the artificial preponderance of wealth. For the ancient doctrine that power goes with land, he introduced the idea that power ought to be so equitably diffused as to afford equal security to all. That one part of the community should govern the whole, or that one class should make laws for another, he declared to be tyrannical. The abolition of privi- lege would have served only to transfer the supremacy from the rich to the poor, if Pericles had not redressed the balance by restricting the right of citizenship to Athenians of pure descent. By this measure the class which formed what we should call the third estate was brought down to 14,000 citi- zens, and became about equal in numbers with the higher ranks. Pericles held that every Athenian who neglected to take his part in the public business inflicted an injury on
the commonwealth. That none might be excluded by poverty, he caused the poor to be paid for their attendance out of the funds of the State; for his administration of the federal tribute had brought together a treasure of more than two million sterling. The instrument of his sway was the art of speaking. He governed by persuasion. Everything was decided by argumentin open deliberation, and every influence bowed before the ascendancy of mind. The idea that the object of constitutions is not to confirm the predominance of any interest, but to prevent it; ·to preserve with equal care the independence of labour and the security of property; to make the rich safe against envy, and the poor against oppression, marks the highest .level attained by the. statesmanship of Greece. It hardly survived the great patriot who conceived it; .and all history has been occupied with the endeavour to upset the balance of power by giving the advantage to money,land, or numbers. A generation followed that has never been equalled in talent - a generation of men whose works, . in poetry and eloquence, are still the envy of the world, and in history, philosophy, and politics remain unsurpassed.. But it produced no successor to Pericles, and no wan was able to wield the sceptre that fell from his hand.
It was a momentous step in the progress of nations when the principle that every interest .should have the right and the means of asserting itself was adopted by the Athenian Constitution. But for those who were beaten in the vote there was no redress. The law did not check the. triumph of ma- joritiesor rescue the minority from the dire penalty . of hav- ing been outnumbered. When the overwhelming influence of Pericles was removed, the conflict between classes raged without restraint, and the slaughter that befell the higher ranks in the Peloponnesian war gave an irresistible pre- ponderance to the lower. The restless and inquiring spirit of the Athenians was prompt to unfold.the reason of every institution and the consequences of every principle, and their Constitution ran its course from infancy to decrepitude with unexampled speed.
Two men's lives span the interval from the first admission of popular influence, under Solon, to· the. downfall of the State. Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of democracy under conditions singularly favourable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic.and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks. They venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never  questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enor- mous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great licence of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by demo- cratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and con- founds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its de- moralising influence on the illustrious ·democracy of Athens.
It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressedbyamajority. Forthereisareserveoflatentpower in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State - the lawgiver is above the law.
It followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within its power, and was bound by no rule of right or wrong but its own judgment of expediency. On a memorable occasion the· assembled Athenians declared it monstrous that they should be prevented from doing what- ever they chose. No force that existed could restrain them; and they resolved that no duty should restrain them, and that they would be bound by no laws that were not of their own making. In this way the emancipated people of Athens be- came a tyrant; and their government, the pioneer of Euro- pean freedom, stands condemned with a terrible unanimity by all the wisest of the ancients. They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the marketplace. Like the French Republic, they put their unsuccessful com- manders to death. They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime Empire. They
plundered the rich until the rich conspired with the public enemy, and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates.
When the absolute sway of numbers had endured for near a quarter of a century, nothing but bare·existence was left for the State to lose; and the Athenians, wearied and de- spondent, confessed the true cause of their ruin. They un- derstood that for liberty, justice, and equal laws, it is as necessary that democracy should restrain itself as it had been that it should restrain the oligarchy. They resolved to take their stand once mor~upon the ancient ways, and to restore the order of things which had subsisted when the monopoly of power had been taken.from the rich and had not been acquired by the poor. After a first restoration had failed, which is only memorable because Thucydides, whose judg- ment in politics is never at fault, pronounced it the best government Athens had enjoyed, the attempt was renewed with more experience and greater singleness of purpose. The hostile parties were reconciled, and proclaimed an amnesty, the first in history. They resolved to govern by concurrence. The laws, which had the sanction of tradition, were reduced to a code; and no act of the sovereign assembly was valid with which they might be found to disagree. Between the sacred lines of the Constitution which were to remain in- violate, and the decrees which met from time to time the needs and notions of the day, a broad distinction was drawn;
and the fabric ofa law which had been the work of genera- tions was made independent of momentary variations in the popular will. The repentance of the Athenians came too late to save the Republic. But the lesson of their experience endures for all times, for it teaches that government by.the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that·shall protect it against itself, and shall up- hold the permanent reign of law againstarbitrary revolutions of opinion.

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