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Page 4

Athenian Society Truly Democratic up to a Certain Point

 

    Wealth, then, means one perpetual round of public services and obligations, sweetened perhaps with a little empty praise, an inscription, an honorary crown, or best of all, an honorary statue "to the public benefactor" as the chief reward. On the other hand one may be poor and be a thoroughly self-respecting, nay, prominent citizen. Socrates had an absurdly small invested fortune and the gods knew that he did little enough in the way of profitable labor.[1] He had to support his wife and three children upon this income. He wore no chiton. His himation was always an old one, unchanged from summer to winter. He seems to have possessed only one pair of good sandals all his life. His rations were bread and water, save when he was invited out. Yet this man was welcome in the "very best society." Alcibiades, leader of the fast, rich set, and many more of the gilded youth of Athens dogged his heels. One meets not the slightest evidence that his poverty ever prevented him from carrying his philosophic message home to the wealthy and the noble. There is no snobbishness, then, in this Athenian society. Provided a man is not pursuing a base mechanic art or an ignoble trade, provided he has a real message to convey,—whether in literature, philosophy, or statecraft,—there are no questions "who was your father?" or "what is your income?"[2] Athens will hear him and accept his best. For this open-mindedness—almost unique in ancient communities—one must thank King Demos and his mouthpiece, the Ecclesia.

    Athenians are intensely proud of their democracy. In Æschylus's "Persians," Atossa, the Barbarian queen, asks concerning the Athenians:

"Who is the lord and shepherd of their flock?"

    Very prompt is the answer:

"They are not slaves, they bow to no man's rule."

    Again in Euripides's "Supplicants" there is this boast touching Athens:

"No will of one Holdeth this land: it is a city and free.
The whole folk year by year, in parity of service is our king."

 

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