Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB

before it is concluded that all the evils of Athenian Demo. cracy are inherent in every popular government; it mast be considered what peculiar features distinguished that extraordinary constitution, which has been the subject of so much unmerited praise, and, perhaps, of a little mistaken censure.

Now, we think the Athenian government to have differed essentially from whatever has been conceived, attempted, op realized elsewhere. An unbalanced democracy, which survived every attempt of its own citizens to subvert it, carried on extensive foreign wars, recovered from unexampled losses, and only fell at last before a power, which proved equal to the conquest of an empire nearly as large as Europe, is of itself a surprising phenomenon.

No modern republic has entrusted an unlimited power to the multitude without the intervention of representatives, or made the public functionaries their servants at command. Bat when, instead of that grossness and ignorance, that vulgarity of taste and pleasures, that aversion to whatever is elevated, graceful, or intellectual, which are the common, and have been supposed the inseparable accompaniments of democratic ascendancy, we find the learning and refinement of the world to have proceeded from the little turbulent state of Athens ; and even to have grown up and flourished in the very midst of her cabals and seditions, we must confess the case unparalleled in the annals of history. Whether the taste and genius of this people were not, of themselves, an antidote to some of the deleterious effects of their government, we will inquire hereafter. · No recent work has done more to introduce just views of the manners and condition of the Grecian republies than the history of Mr. Mitford. Yet we cannot but think that that acute and laborious writer, has occasionally overlooked the wide difference between Greek and French Republicanism; and observing much resemblance in practice, and some phrases, such as liberty, equality, &c., common to both, has undertaken to expose the one in order to confute the other. Demagogues, it is true, like heroes, are much the same in all ages and countries. There is a strong family likeness between Cleon and Hyperbolus, and some of the friends of the people in the present day; but the idea of Greek Democracy, was not the French chimæra. No such notion as that of natural indefeasible rights, inherent ja man, as man; no principle of universal equality between all the possessors of speech and reason, was ever broached by the flatterers of the Athenian many ; no orator sought favour by maintaining, that the slave and the freeman, the citizen and the sojourner, the Greek and the barbarian, were all entitled to equal privileges, like enjoyments, or an even measure of justice. The sovereign people would not have relished such positions, which, however antichristian in their perversion and abuse, are doubtless the offspring of Christianity. So far were they from forming the creed of the Athenian vulgar, that they scarce found a place among the paradoxes of the sophists, who ransacked the whole encyclopædia of folly for new absurdites, wherewith to astonish their hearers. Even they disputed not but that man might lawfully be made the property, the disposable goods and chattels of his fellow-creature. That the free should be served by slaves, that the ruling commonwealth should be supported by its subject allies, that foreigners had no otber claim to human charity, than what they might derive from some express compact, and that, in relation to enemies right was might, were points as readily admitted, as eagerly and practically maintained as the right of the meanest citizen to vie in political importance with the noblest. Indeed we suspect the Rights of Man would have been little to the taste of the Greek public; and the Rights of Woman still less. The modern scheme of indiscriminate levelling would have been as ill received among the lordly multitude, as among a company of planters. They would not indeed admit of superiors; but it was as Athenian citizens, as descendants of the conquerors of Marathon, not as human beings, or Sons of Deucalion, that they claimed the exemption.

In modern states the multitude are, for the most part, opposed to the government; in Athens they constitated it. Hence, while there is a striking resemblance between the mob-leaders, there is a considerable difference in the arguments they employ.

The ancient orators addressed the many as a Lord in possession; the modern, as a rightful owner, excluded from his property by fraud or violence. The former were large upon the greatness of the people, their wealth, dominion, and victories; the latter remind them of their vumber, their wretchedness, and their wrongs. The cry of retrenchment would have been little popular, where the populace, were half-maintained out of the treasury-and where they were fed upon sacrifices, and amused with religious pageantry, there would be small complaint at the expensiveness of the national religion. The splendour of individuals might excite envy or suspicion, but the magnificence of the state, a frequent sabjcct of murmurs under monarchies, was in Athens,

& gratification to popular vanity. Except a few light im. posts, Taxes were almost anknown. The burdens of government, and the heavier expense of treating, and amusing the lower orders, fell exclusively on the wealthy, or the tributary cities. War, when successful, was a palpable source of gain to individuals—and when adverse, brought calamity which none could escape. The most common topics, there fore, of public discontent were wanting at Athens-and as few of the citizens were in absolute want of sustenance, except when supplies were cut off by the accidents of war, the circumstance which with us gives the highest plausibility to inflammatory harangues was of rare occurrence. But Atbens, as we have already stated, bad dangers and hardships of her own, which, if they cannot palliate the oppressions of which, in her days of greatness, she was guilty, may at least account for them.

Perhaps the best idea of the political state of the Greek Republics may be formed, if we consider the metropolitan city in each, as a buge oligarchy, and the slaves and dependent states as corresponding to the lower rank in modern kingdoms. The governing party might admit more or less of distinction among themselves, but in relation to the go. verned, they always maintained a truly Aristocratic superiority. The citizenship of the leading state was itself a sort of nobility; and attended with greater comparative advantagės than appertain to the privileged orders in any Eurepean monarchy.

The Athenian Empire in some degree resembled that of the East India Company; less extensive indeed, and far less beneficial to its foreign subjects; exercising a more despotic controll over its ministers, and often delegating to them a yet more despotic authority. But ancient notions of equality, and claims to equal division of property, were far more suitable to a self-formed society, than to a constitution, the result of time and accident. The Senate was their court of directors, and their generals and ministers, accredited agents.

In our own country, the efforts buth of the real and pretended advocates of liberty, have been for the most part directed to limit the executive, to lessen the discretionary powers of government, and to enlarge the sphere of individual free agency. The Patriots of old pursued another course. The modern definition of freedom would seem to be the greatest possible independence of each. The ancient notion was rather--the most absolute power of all over all. Accordingly, under the notion of liberty, the sovereign people claimed and exercised powers which it is the pride of

[ocr errors]

cabal,

dern liberty to abridge or rescind. A habeas-corpus act would have been esteemed a dangerous infringement of popu. lar prerogative, and the claims of a suspected Revolutionist to fair trial, would have been heard with most suspicion by the greatest sticklers for the rights of the people. That noble, though sometimes perverted feeling of the English commonalty, which makes the cause of each the cause of all, which follows the law in presuming the innocence of the accused, and resents the oppression of individuals, as a public injury, was little felt among the sovereign people ; and the opinion that the escape of the gailty is a trifle, compared to the suffering of the innocent would have been condemned as a dangerous, political heresy, where the continual peril of an unstable constitution had blinded men's eyes to the inconveniences of personal insecurity. The ruling faction, seldom moderate in the exercise of power, had every thing to dread from the loss of that power : small republics, especially. Such as are circumscribed by the walls of a city, are in constant jeopardy from conspiracies. A mercenary troop or a company of partizans, may overthrow their institutions in a night ; and he that went to bed the busy member of an injurious democracy, might awake the subject of an avenging

Wherever, as in modern Europe, domestic slavery is unknown, where freedom is the growth of commerce, when political rights arise from the exercise of trades or professions, and political influence is connected with property which industry may acquire, the laborious ranks will be respectable, and a regular gradation, a stream of honour will descend from the nobleman to the freeborn peasant or artizan.

But in Greece, the really useful classes, (according to a modern notion of utility), were excluded from all participation in government, and held in almost universal contempt. To work was the office of a slave. Solon should have abolished slavery when he made idleness a crime.

We never find the Athenian populace calling themselves the industrious classes, or the uselul order; they reproach not the wealthy with uselessness, nor, except in a military or naval capacity, do they dwell on their own services to the lew. They were almost universally tax eaters, consumers of the fruits of others industry; a crowd of sinecurists, who expected to be paid for the exercise of the very privileges for the possession of which they were so clamorous.

But Athens, was not the Utopia of Democracy; for the aristocratical leaven was strong. Indeed, if a few small and poor Swiss republics be excepted, perhaps the American

Government is the nearest approach to pure Democracy that was ever realized. The boastful pretences to antiquity, the hereditary sanctity of the sacerdotal families, the regard for high birth, and ancestral fame, which never seems to have been extinguished, the historical feeling so strong in Greece, and cherished as it was by poets and orators, by feasts and games, by periodical ceremonies and splendid exhibitions, combined with that instinctive love of the beautiful, the fairest point in the Grecian character, to furnish a moral check to the Democratic spirit which was wanting in the forms of their constitution. "Democracy can never be itself, but in a new state ; around whose institution no rust of antiquity has grown, whose glories are recent, and whose origin is such, as might, without loss of honour, be forgotten. Where there is any regard for ornamental acquirements, any sense of intellectual delight, any reverence for antiquity, any attachment to established ordinances, there exists a counterpoise to Democracy. The Religion of Greece, so much an historical and commemorative Religion, so intimately connected with music and poetry, so splendid and mysterious in its forms, supplied some counterpoise : and the temples, statues, altars, holy places, though no check upon the violence of mob-rule, prevented it from sinking to vulgar brutality. Later innovators seem to have felt this; aud hence their fury against churches, crosses, cathedrals, and all relics of former times ; as if they were conscious, that while aught remained to carry back the mind into antiquity, the respect for rank and ancestry could never be totally extinguished. A modern Liberal should have a world to work in, “ without form, and void.”

From the remains of Aristocracy in Athens, much, it must be confessed, of the jealous and cruel spirit of its Democracy arose. The strange anomaly of permitting inequalities in wealth and rank to co-exist with an equality of political power, was a continual source of jars, pluts, treasons, and revolutions; evils which the controuling mind of a Pericles could only for a while avert, and which the talents of succeeding orators who too are often employed to multiply.

After all, too much is attributed to the defective constitution of Athens, if we suppose, that her recorded crimes arose solely from that source. The imperfect notion of the law of nations, the insecurity of all small states, especially such as exercise a power, they have no natural means of maintaining, the military character of all the ancient Republics, the little value of human life, and the want of

F VOL. XVII. JANUARY, 1822.

« AnteriorContinua »