Conservatives are fond of saying that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, and in their appeals to the national conscience, they invoke the sacred language of republican tradition, citing scriptures from Aristotle and Cicero, from Edmund Burke and George Washington: the ride of law, a virtuous citizenry, and ordered liberty. Like most Americans, however, conservatives prefer not to look too far beneath the Olympian language down to where politics is practiced not by an assembly of demigods so much as by the termites eating the timbers under the parquet floor.
Although the Greeks, who bequeathed to us the language and the institutions of republican government, were among the most accomplished liars in the history of the world, they were also capable of astonishing frankness about the nature of politics and the moral frailty of human beings.
The brutal candor of Homer and Hesiod, to take only two writers at the beginning of the Greek literary tradition, is matched (in my limited reading) only by the best of Icelandic writing. I remember the shock experienced by some of my fellow students in a seminar on early Greek poetry when, in the midst of a discussion of Solon’s magisterial and dignified poetry on his political reforms, we were confronted with the evidence of his pederastic verse. The professor (Douglas Young), looking alternatively merry and stern, observed that you always had to be on guard against the Greeks. They would, on occasion, talk about anything.
This alarming candor shocked many Romans, though it has given degenerate moderns an excuse for dipping into the bad recent translations of Greek literature. Greek writers could be particularly straightforward about the reality of power. Read Hesiod’s attempts to justify the ways of gods to men, and you will come across the story of the nightingale crying out to the hawk that has captured her:
Oh what a fool to cry of right and wrong,
A weakling in the clutches of the strong . . .
The moral, that only fools struggle with those who are stronger, is something that goes against the Horatio Alger grain of the American character.
The historian Thucydides is often over-interpreted as a precursor of Machiavelli, though it seems more likely that, in describing the rise and fall of the Athenian democracy, he was simply a pious and patriotic citizen trying to tell the truth about the age through which he had lived. His description of the argument between the Athenians and the people of Melos (to whom Athens had given the choice: Desert the Spartans and join us—or die) is the sort of narrative that no prominent American could write in connection with, say, Madeleine Albright at Rambouillet or Harry Truman about to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Americans are among the most churchgoing people in the world, but when they go to work or enter a polling place, they check their Christianity at the door. If we are sincere in our worship of any deity, it is the service we pay to Mammon, from whom we expect to receive our daily 500 bucks. But even our worship of money is sugared over with platitudes about higher things.
The Greeks, by contrast, were very straightforward and regarded money as, on the whole, an unmixed blessing. With money, you can pursue your passion for power and sex—for anything you want. “To be wealthy,” sang honest Pindar in an ode celebrating a rich patron, “when fate brings wisdom with it, is the best thing there is.” Though many aristocrats complained that money wasn’t everything (“Wealth, wealth makes the man,” as one cynical proverb went), none of them would pretend to rise above all such material questions.
Even Aristotle, who regarded the life of contemplation as the culmination of human existence, was very clear about the need for a certain level of wealth and comfort. But we, whose entire culture for two centuries (at least) has been devoted to getting and spending, tell ourselves that the great billionaires are really only in it for the game, that money can’t buy happiness. (Tell that to the non-English-speaking immigrant who makes minimum wage for mixing up your order at McDonald’s.)
Wealth is so important to Americans that we skip the usual Greek provisos about wisdom and justice. Rock stars who cannot play their instruments, athaletes who jump like kangaroos, stock-market swindlers who batten on insider trading then set vip foundations for business ethics, and the parasites who build and run casinos to keep the suckers from wasting their money on their children’s education—these are the heroes of American life.
Even Christian ministers are esteemed in proportion as they build media empires or fundraising dodges, and I am not just speaking of evangelical charlatans like the Bakkers and Swaggarts. I shall never forget the time I attended an Episcopalian diocesan convention and heard our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gray Temple (a name obviously invented by Trollope) praised to the skies, not for ministering to Christian souls, but as the CEO of a corporation with so many millions in property assets, a budget of such-and-such. Considering what the Episcopal Church has become, perhaps it is better to concentrate on the only real assets the “church” has left.
Churches do not pay taxes, presumably because they are saddled with the “death” half of the “death and taxes” equation. The rest of us, however, do pay taxes until we die (and afterward, so long as the Democrats have their way), and though we complain, we rarely are candid about the American tax structure. For example, we usually like to compare ourselves with the overtaxed Europeans, but our calculations rarely take into account what we have to pay out in state income taxes, property taxes, Social Security, etc. We also pretend that we are getting something for our money, but nothing is plainer than the fact that the more money our government devotes to some noble end—say, education—the worse the result.
We refer to the fatal certainty of taxes as if it has ever been thus, but it has not. Republican peoples have traditionally paid little or no direct taxes. Classical Greeks and republican Romans (like Americans before 1913) paid various kinds of duties and taxes—on goods brought into a harbor, on manumitted slaves, on public land rented for farming or used for pasturing sheep—but anything like a capitation or revenue tax was viewed as an emergency measure that might be, in theory at least, paid back to the citizens. After the conquest of Macedonia, the Roman republic had enough money to terminate even the (probably) one percent tributum levied on property value for support of the army.
In the heyday of the Greek city-states, citizens did not expect to pay taxes. “Greek democracies,” observes Alfred Zimmern in a once-famous book,
always shrunk, unless they were driven to it by necessity, from direct taxation. It was regarded as derogatory to the dignity of a free citizen. Resident aliens and freedmen might pay a poll-tax (i.e., a tax per individual or on his income) and be thankful for the privilege; but the citizen must be left free to help the city in his own way. Every kind of indirect tax he was indeed willing to pay, taxes in time as well as in money; but the only direct contribution he made as a citizen to the State’s resources he made as a free gift.
At Athens, the rich undertook (mostly voluntarily) to subsidize the production of the tragedies put on in the festivals and to outfit ships of war, and the poorer citizens could, during the agricultural off-season, perform labor building walls and temples. What imposts and duties there were (apart from taxes collected by the neighborhoods or “denies”) had to be collected by tax farmers, whose profession has been held in universal abhorrence, as Prof. Ernst Badian points out in Publicans and Sinners, by the same people who “are likely to be shocked that (say) the telegraph service or the water supply, in another society, should be in private hands.”
The Athenians did collect taxes, of course, but from the cities which were gradually converted from ship-contributing allies to tribute-paying subjects. Pericles used some of the money to beautify the Acropolis, whose temples the Persians had burnt when the people of Athens (almost alone among the Greek maritime powers) deserted their city and faced the polyglot imperial force in the straits of Salamis. Adieus behaved abominably toward her “allies”—that is beyond dispute—but their tribute was, in one sense, a small price to pay for the sacrifices she continued to make on behalf of Greek liberties.
The point is worth repeating: Free people do not pay taxes; subjects do. Free people do pay duties; they may put some of their time and resources to the service of their commonwealth; and in times of national emergency, they will even submit to a tax to support the soldiers who are risking their lives for their neighbors. Free people, however, reject categorically the assumption that they somehow owe the state a portion of their income or property.
Claude Nicolet, in his book on Roman citizenship, distinguishes sharply between the combination of indirect taxation and voluntary contributions that characterized ancient commonwealths and the concept of taxation as something citizens owe government, which “was only known to the ancients in the context of provincial finances, i.e., in respect of conquered peoples who, in return for their freedom and an assurance of protection, were obliged to make a ‘monetary payment’ in recognition of Roman sovereignty.”
So here is the difference between us (Americans and Europeans) and them (ancient Greek and Roman citizens): They were free, and they knew it. We are not free and refuse to recognize the fact. Roman citizens were eventually subject to direct taxation, and the great bureaucrat Diocletian, in addition to drawing up a doomed-to-fail program of wage-and-price controls, devised a universal system of taxation throughout the empire. No one would pretend that the subjects of Diocletian or Constantine were a free republican people. The emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries made no pretense: hi political rituals and court ceremonies, even Christian emperors were treated as gods.
Greeks and Romans of the later empire did retain a large measure of moral freedom, and dedicated public servants of broad education and generous minds continued to be produced. Even 500 years after the fall of Rome, when our barbarian ancestors were yahooing through the ruins of a fallen civilization, some traditions of the rule of law and decent behavior were being preserved in the New Rome that Constantine had built on the Bosporus. But—and this is something we must never let ourselves forget—in losing their political liberties and subjecting themselves to imperial taxation, they gradually lost their cultural and even their economic initiative and creativity.
Greek and Roman civic ideals were not dead; they would be revived by Italians in the Middle Ages and transmitted to their buffoonish cousins in England, France, and Germany; and these ideals of liberty and the rule of law would take on new life in the woods and prairies of North America. But in the end, the Old Adam of dependence and servility reasserted itself everywhere, especially among the nation that most vaunted itself on its liberty. The transformation is summed up in a small change of language. Once upon a time, Americans were proud to declare—in terms St. Paul would have understood—that they were citizens of this great republic, but by the time I was growing up, disgruntled Americans writing letters to the editor would inevitably begin their diatribes with “As a taxpayer. . .” It is almost as if they are proud of their senility.
Taxation without representation is tyranny, declared James Otis, but what representation is possible in a political system where the votes of an ignorant and subrational proletariat (some of them with incomes in six figures) are controlled by party machines, international lobbyists, and media conglomerates? The answer is: None. These are bitter lessons that the Greeks can teach us best. Small wonder that ancient writers, with their disturbing candor, are being chased out of universities to make room for the servile voices of the imperial chorus.