Recently I have found this article by Richard M. Ebeling from 2016, titled Did the Ancient Greeks Believe in Freedom? After reading it, I decided to share my thoughts about it. I think it holds an anachronistic and rather ethnocentric view on ancient Greek society. It addresses the fascinating topic of Greek freedom but the author fails to draw a rational conclusion from the relevant facts. He seems to understand the dynamic between the ancient Greeks and their poleis, but misses the reasons. The result is thus a notion of Greek freedom whose premises seem inconsistent.
Ebeling’s opinion is based largely on the state of slavery in ancient Greece. And yes, slavery was a brutal institution, there is no reason to doubt that. Time and again I hear and read the argument that ancient Greek economy was based on slavery (which is only one side of the coin), and for that reason we should stop idealizing our ancestors. Personally, I agree with them. There is no reason to idealize ancient Greece, particularly since it is far more exciting to take a closer look at it and really try to get to know ancient Greeks as real persons, with both their good and bad features. But there is also no reason to deny Greek achievements. There would be no humanism, no enlightenment and no French Revolution without Hellenism. It was not Christianity that somehow civilized Europe, as many claim, but the rediscovery of Greek classics in the Latin West in the Renaissance. And that is not by chance: “The intellectual principle of the Greeks is not individualism but ‘humanism’, to use the word in its original and classical sense” (Werner Jaeger: Paideia: The ideals of Greek culture, Vol. I: Archaic Greece, the mind of Athens, Oxford 1946, p. XXIII).
But our current era, especially the Western world, is often portrayed as the epitome of progress, justice and innovation. I consider this to be an untrustworthy narrative for the rationalization of the status-quo. Are Western societies more human than ancient Greece? Some would say yes. Are they better? I doubt that. The lives of temporary employees and subcontract workers can be hardly described as a bed of roses. Poverty among the elderly is increasing at an alarming rate. The educational opportunities for children depend strongly on the parents‘ financial situation.
“The more modern conception of man as a free, autonomous agent who chooses his own ends, selects his own means to attain his desired ends, and in general lives for himself, was an alien notion to the mind of the ancient Greeks,” says Ebeling. This may be true for some people, however, it is the state that provides the more or less safe framework in which people do not have to worry about their next meal, wild animals and other threats, so that they can satisfy individual desires. Anyway, this concept of freedom is more a romantic idealization than a reflection of reality.
The socio-economic conditions under which people in the Western world live, work and die are quite rough, and in many cases, brutal. Not only that, the economy of Western societies is based on slavery in other parts of the world. Certain metals and the rare earths we need for our mobile phones, military and e-cars are mined from slaves in terrible conditions. In fact, the fulfillment of many of our desires goes hand in hand with slavery, body-destroying exploitation and severe human rights violations. That too is part of the truth.
The truth is, Hellenism has a different and complex understanding of freedom. The reasons for this primarily lie in the fact that it is a collectivistic culture, meaning “the society took precedence, or priority, over the individual,” as Mr. Ebeling rightly remarks. From a Hellenic point of view, individualism seems quite “barbaric” or could at least be described as hybris, since it places almost everything under the primacy of subjectivity, feelings and whims, even man’s duties towards society. Carl Gustav Jung regarded individualism as “an inflation of the ego of man” (The Seminaries, Vol. 2, Part 1. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, London/New York, 2014, p. 348)
The Hellenic concept of freedom revolves around the polis (state), and you simply cannot appropriately evaluate its meaning without taking into account the relevance of the polis among the Greeks. The polis is not just some community structure or political unit. It is the manifestation of the peoples living in it. All of their sovereignty and self-sufficiency, their very dignity, depends on their polis. It is the polis that provides the conditions under which the Greeks develop their relations to one another and their ancestral gods. In general, Greeks were free only within the boundaries of their particular polis. Only due to the polis they were citizens. Outside of it, they were socially and politically dead.
The Western notion of freedom was, of course, alien to ancient Greece, since it did not exist at that time. However, it still remains alien to Hellenism because individualism tends to depoliticize and atomize people, reducing them to mere “individuals.” We see this today where consumption has replaced the sense of community. Hellenism is political to the bone. And by political I am referring to the term “politics” in its authentic sense. The Greek word “politike” means dealing with the affairs of the polis, and has, of course, nothing to do with parliaments, political parties, the so-called “right,” the so-called “left,” and the various forms of political monotheism (conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, internationalism).
An individualistic person may find this “sterile” or even oppressing, but from a Hellenic point of view, individualism may appear interesting but not necessarily appealing, particularly since it fails to understand man’s political nature. Apart from that, individualism could also, under certain circumstances, endanger the polis and thus freedom itself.
So yes, the Greeks believed in freedom. They still do. Actually, the “motto” of our war of independence in the 1820s was “Eleftheria i thanatos” (“Freedom or death”). Freedom has always been very important to Greeks. That’s why we react very sensitively when it comes to our sovereignty and freedom. Or cultural appropriation.
From a Western or “missionary” lens, this understanding of freedom might be considered paradoxical, since freedom is interpreted as the act of expressing one’s true desires and wishes. But this seems more a question of the ego rather than the Self. However, I am not gonna argue that individualism is “evil” and should be “corrected” into collectivism. On the contrary, I think it is legit in the context of its own culture, but so too is collectivism which is not the same at all times and in all places.
Cultures have different views, specifically due to their geopolitical interests, values and political dispositions. That’s not a bad thing, actually it is the natural state of the ethnosphere whose very foundation is based on “otherness.” Interpreting or evaluating other cultures based on the standards and norms of one’s own culture is easy, and only leads to the reproduction of culturally determined notions that all too often remain unreflected. But if we try to understand the other on their own terms, we could learn so much more about ourselves and the world around us. Beyond our projections and culturally determined prejudices, there is a whole world to explore.
In the end, the worlds in our heads are only small spots on the map of a universe that is so much bigger than we could possibly imagine.