Freedom from the gods: the legacy of Athens

In an article for City Journal, philosopher André Glucksmann examines ancient Greek conceptions of freedom and explores the difference between epic freedom (“the assumption of a cosmic mastery” whose goal is “the progressive emancipation of man”) and tragic freedom (which is “understood in doubt and anxiety about the fate of man” and operates “in uncertainty, sailing toward no glorious destiny”). The Athenians, he says, practiced tragic freedom — an exercise which involved questioning the gods, distrusting claims of absolute certainty, and assuming responsibility for one’s own meanings and purposes:

The Athenians demonstrated incredible audacity in affirming that human freedom must be understood without the gods, who are held not to be implicated in human affairs — no longer at the helm, so to speak. That affirmation is the source of philosophy, as we learn from Plato’s Apology. Socrates was “the wisest of men,” announced the Delphic oracle. Perplexed, Socrates neither affirmed nor denied this, but began an inquiry. He started to question all of Athenian society — rich and slave, learned and illiterate, wise and foolish. He questioned all claims to knowledge, whether religious, sophistic, traditional, or moral, including those concerning the ultimate ends of the community, which everyone claimed to know, even though they only approached such subjects superficially or arbitrarily. Socrates popped the mental bubbles that imprisoned those who claimed, with arrogant certainty, to possess absolute knowledge. He explored the Athenian doxa — common opinion — and brought to light those parts of it, poisoned by optimism, that concealed risks and thus put the city in danger. But true to his doubt before the oracle, he had no ready answers.

Socrates’s uncertainty revealed a rupture that gave birth to philosophy. The divine word is a mystery; it can mean everything or nothing. Zeus neither speaks nor holds his tongue but makes a sign, as Heraclitus said. Man discovers that he himself is responsible for giving meaning to this sign. The word from above, or from elsewhere, must be deciphered. This is the Greek genius: the separation of heaven and earth.

“Athens,” says Gluckmann, “taught us that free will and critical thinking go together… To think is to defend one’s freedom against one’s imagination and to guard against a deceiving God”:

To believe that it is enough to believe is a pathology that threatens every religion, even a secular and materialist one. To listen to voices without ever questioning them is superstition. To fail to examine the authenticity of one’s commitments is arrogance. The combination of superstition and arrogance yields fanaticism: God is in me, and I am in God; there is no point in thinking, since my brain already occupies a little part of paradise. Free thought, by contrast, requires us to look reality, including unfortunate reality, in the eye. In response to the claims of a prayer that commands, implores, and requires, Aristotle proposes a cool attention that points out and observes.

Other issues are explored, including the false image of a harmonious Greek age, the problem of Athenian slavery, the Greek roots of the “separation of state and conscience,” and the hubris (or hybris) of military overreach. Recent events may be viewed in the light of this perspective on Athens:

We can look at the Iraq War against this backdrop […] To allow Saddam Hussein to continue to torture and massacre his subjects and neighbors was one extreme; to strike out blindly demonstrated the opposite extreme, as we saw, for example, at Abu Ghraib. Having taken the side of those who favored militarily deposing the tyrant, I held my breath and crossed my fingers to see how things would turn out. I wasn’t reassured until the day when an Iraqi journalist dared, in Baghdad, to throw his shoes at the president of the United States of America. That never could have happened to Saddam Hussein or in any other authoritarian regime — China, Russia, the rest of the Arab world. For his insolence, the perpetrator did receive some prison time, but under Saddam, he would have lost his nose, ears, and tongue, and probably his life. The protester thus provided, despite himself, the proof that freedom had taken steps forward and that America was more Greek than Roman.

And a warning:

Athens did not perfectly succeed, and it eventually collapsed — just as our own democracies may someday collapse. I do not believe in the eternity of systems, even our own. Those founded on the attempted negation of chaos and the suppression of freedom will, I hope, collapse sooner. But those founded on freedom may be destroyed by the imbalance inherent in their constitutions, an imbalance that animates and sometimes consumes them.

Much more here.

(via The Daily Dish; photo via Flickr)


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