Stuff from Way Back #25: Athens in Vietnam

(This is a fairly long piece about a war most people have never heard of, but there is a wonderful lesson of history here.  For more on the sophists see Stuff from Way Back #20.  The dates are BC.)


“Now we can see it clearly – like the light at the end of a tunnel.”

General Henri Navarre

commander of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu

History can often be hauntingly familiar, even across the 2500 year divide that separates classical Athens from America in the second half of the twentieth century.  A case in point is the catastrophic Peloponnesian War (431-404) between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan controlled Peloponnesian League, a conflict that to a great extent ruined the Greek world.


The Athenian Empire was naval based, taking in virtually all the island and coastal city-states of the Aegean, and constituted a wealthy trading block.  Though progressive and inclined to support democratic governments, Athens nevertheless maintained tight control over her “allies,” taxing them to pay for her powerful fleet (and the beautiful buildings upon the Acropolis).  Encompassing most of the rest of the Greek states, the so-called Peloponnesian League was land based and included most of the Peloponnesus and central Greece.  It was dominated, but not absolutely controlled by Sparta, which supplied the semi-professional core of the huge army, some 35,000 heavy infantry, that the League could field.  Sparta was the most reactionary state in Greece, and her small citizen body of perhaps 8000 was supported by an immense number of unfree serfs (helots).  Semi-socialist and nominally democratic, Spartan society was essentially authoritarian, and she favored oligarchic governments.

A divided Greece

A divided Greece

Athens began the war with immense advantages.  Her control of the sea was virtually absolute, which meant that the enemy was going to have a hell of time just getting at her and her allies.  The completion of the long walls linking the city with the port of Piraeus had turned Athens into a kind of artificial island, rendering her immune to the traditional strategy of laying waste the enemy’s territory and forcing them to come out and fight.  Offensively, the navy provided the Athenians with a big edge in rapid troop deployment and threatened the Peloponnesians with surprise raids on their coastal areas.  Athens also had unprecedented economic resources from her imperial income and her trade and went into the conflict with something unheard of in Greece: a  financial  reserve.  And finally there was the open and democratic nature of Athenian society, which had already made her preeminent in human resources, out-producing other cities in leadership, talent and imagination.


The Peloponnesians had but a single advantage over the Athenians – they were overwhelmingly powerful on land.  In every other respect they were hurting.  Any fleet they might scrape together would be dramatically outnumbered and out-rowed (the main pool of skilled rowers was within the Athenian empire), and the alliance was financially unprepared to launch and maintain many more ships.  And under the leadership of the Spartans, who did not even use coined money, that financial picture was not likely to change in the near future.  A further big disadvantage for the Peloponnesians: Spartan leadership.  A system geared to the status quo and limited mental horizons only rarely produces leaders of more than plodding ability, and Sparta’s traditional insularity and policy-bending paranoia about the helots might also be expected to hamper the war effort.  But blinding many to these serious weaknesses was the centuries old Spartan reputation as the alpha male of Greece, and there was widespread belief that ships and money and newfangled ideas would not save Athens from the juggernaut of the Spartan led Peloponnesian levy.


Pericles, the Athenian leader, knew better, and he intended to fight a new kind of war, one for which only Athens was in any way prepared – a war of attrition.  He was concerned simply with the preservation of Athenian interests, not the utter defeat of Sparta, which meant that Athens could achieve her victory by remaining on the defensive.  This he proposed to do by evacuating the population to the Athens-Piraeus fortress and temporarily abandoning Attica, the territory controlled by the city, whenever the Peloponnesians invaded.  Supplied from the sea, Athens could theoretically hold out indefinitely, while the fleet conducted raids on the enemy coasts to remind them of the price of war.  Pericles figured that after a few years of spending their summers in Attica and accomplishing nothing most of the Peloponnesians would lose whatever little interest they had in the first place, and the war would fizzle to an end.

Pericles aka "Old Squill Head"

Pericles aka “Old Squill Head”

Would the plan have worked?  Probably.  In the first several years of the war the Peloponnesian levy ravaged Attica and absolutely nothing happened.  Meanwhile, the Athenian fleet conducted hit and run operations against the coastal towns of the Peloponnesus, and it is hard to see how Sparta could sustain interest, especially among her already unenthusiastic allies, in a war that was making no real headway and bringing Athenian raids down on their territory.  Athens had even survived the devastating “plague” of 430 (probably epidemic typhus or cholera), which had carried off as much as a quarter of the city’s population.


But we will never know, because in 429 Pericles died from the contagion, and without his restraining hand Athens’ strength, her democracy, gradually became her downfall.  The cautious defensive strategy steadily evolved into an offensive one, and the goal of the war became the defeat of Sparta and the expansion of the empire.  This would have been dangerous enough, but the democracy itself began to undermine the war effort.  The traditional political leadership had been provided by the annually elected board of ten “generals,” so called because they were the men who actually led Athenian forces if needed; Pericles had been reelected to the board for thirty years.  The war now produced a new kind of politician, the demagogues, men of mostly limited abilities who wielded power not by holding office but by manipulating the citizen assembly, which in the unlimited democracy of Athens was the ultimate seat of power and could not be challenged.  They rode to  power on their rhetorical abilities and by advocating a war of conquest.  This led to a growing number of bad decisions and ill-considered strategies and created threatening divisions in Athenian society, as the increasingly radical democracy struggled to manage a people becoming intoxicated with their own power.


The first phase of the conflict, from 431 to 421, saw a steady departure from Pericles’ defensive strategy after his death.  In 425 the Athenians almost accidentally captured a unit of Spartans, which lead to peace overtures from Sparta, but the Athenians went on a roll and launched a land campaign in central Greece, a complete reversal of Pericles’ policy.  It was a disastrous failure and was followed by the loss of Amphipolis, an utterly vital city on the north Aegean shore.  Athens was ready for peace.


The Peace of Nicias, signed in 421, had about as much chance of success as the Munich agreement of AD 1938, and in 418 an Athenian supported coalition in the Peloponnesus was defeated by Sparta.  Meanwhile, a war-weary Athens was becoming more and more divided.  The older generation in particular was getting fed up, while the younger was increasingly enthusiastic for more military adventures.  The hawks got the upper hand, and in 415 a huge force was sent to Sicily to attack Syracuse and seize the entire island, an act of incredible imperial hubris.  Primarily because of divided leadership, a result of the political situation at home, the expedition failed, and in 413 it and a large relief force were essentially annihilated.  The Spartans decided to reopen the war and invaded Attica that same year, beginning the second phase of the war, from 413 to 404.


All hell broke loose for Athens.  In 412 her allies began revolting in droves, and even worse, Sparta signed an alliance with the Persia Empire, which meant money for a Peloponnesian fleet, which meant in turn a spread of the revolt and a threat to the security of Athens itself.  Back home extremist conservatives launched a coup in 411, setting up a narrow oligarchy of 400 and driving the Athenians to the brink of a civil war.  Athens was now at war with virtually everyone in the Greek world, including herself, but the people were not about to give in.  The democracy was restored in 410, and by 407 the Athenian position in the Aegean had been almost fully restored.  But the Athenians seemed bent on self-destruction, and in the next several years they turned down several peace offers from Sparta.  In 405 they lost their last fleet and were forced to surrender in 404, losing all their possessions, their walls and even their democratic government.


The Athenian democracy had failed.  Despite an immense superiority in resources and talent Athens had found herself unable to put an end to the war and after twenty-seven years of struggle had lost everything.  How could this happen?  For Thucydides, the Athenian historian of the war, the answer is clear.  The way of life fostered by the democracy was a source of powerful forces, but it took a capable leader to control and direct these forces, to restrain the people and channel their energies towards realistic ends.  Pericles was of course this kind of leader, able and patriotic, and Athens’ misfortune was that after his death the democracy found no one who combined these two qualities.  The prosecution of the war, the foreign policy of the state became more and more a reflection of internal politics, as Athens became the prey of the demagogues.  Time and again the Athenians passed up opportunities to end the conflict as winners in order to try instead for a vastly greater victory.  And time and again these attempts to grasp more were ruined not by the strength of the enemy, but by the Athenians themselves, as the political feuding created dangerous cracks in the democracy.  This domestic disunity was bad enough, leading ultimately to oligarchic revolution, but the cracks also showed themselves in the conduct of the war, in divided leadership of campaigns, inadequate support of expeditions and sudden reversals of policy.



I am inclined to agree with Thucydides.  Athens in the second half of the fifth century was simply under too much stress and faced with too many temptations to survive without the restraining hand of a leader like Pericles.  And it was clearly a question only of guidance, for the democracy – the common people who voted every important policy decision – constantly showed itself to be perhaps the most aware and able body politic in history.  It was after all Athens that lost the war, not Sparta that won it.  Their own worst enemy, the Athenians bounced back again and again after each new disaster, revealing the nature of the human resources shaped by a democratic society.   The Athenians and their experiences in the Peloponnesian War are a powerful testament to both the weaknesses and strengths of democratic government.


While suffering the political difficulties, the Athenian democracy also underwent during the war a moral crisis, which was both cause and result of the political trials.  This was the period when the radical sophists, extremist political thinkers, were attacking the democracy and its egalitarian notions.  Instead of the people they would see as rulers those who were by nature suited to rule – the “superior men” – and in place of the democracy they would have a narrow oligarchy.  Well, after the disasters of the latter part of the war people began to listen to these characters.  Reasonable and moderate men were losing faith in the democracy and becoming more attentive to these characters at the other end of the political spectrum.  Germany in the twenties and thirties saw a similar development, as moderate middle class Germans reacted to the perceived failures of the Weimar government and the threat from the left by paying greater heed to the far right.


The ideas of these sophists on the nature of justice – that might made right – fit perfectly with the growing will to power and empire among the Athenians.  As the war continued the means slowly became the end for the Athenian people, as demagogic factionalism and the temptations of power combined to drive them to extremes.  Pericles’ simple defense of the empire was forgotten, and victory gradually became instead the grasping of more, the expansion of power and the total defeat of Sparta.  Rather than what they might bring, success and power themselves became the real goal of the Athenians.  At the same time the continuation of the war produced among the Athenians a growing sense of frustration because of their seeming inability to bring it to an end.  When they were losing, the quality and strength of their national character compelled them to fight their way back, and when they were winning, that same character seduced them into reaching for more.  Athens had the power and the resources to carry on the war, even after a disaster like Sicily, but she could not stop it.  And this frustration further aggravated the problem, driving the Athenian people to seek even more urgently that light at the end of the tunnel, that final victory that would solve all their problems.  It might be fair to label the response of Athens to this frustration, her continued and amplified operations of war, as acts of collective hysteria.  This is the tragedy of a people being destroyed by their own greatness.


All of these things – the political turmoil, the frustrations, the national hysteria – were accompanied, perhaps inevitably, by a steady moral disintegration.  As the war dragged on there was a growing loss of respect for authority and the moral traditions of the community, indications of a loss of faith in the society as a whole.  The war certainly contributed to this moral breakdown, especially through the psychic conditions – the uncertainties, the alternating hopes and fears, the frustrations – it imposed on the Athenians, but the far more important cause was sophism.  Part of the impact of sophistic skepticism was the general erosion of accepted tradition and its authority.  If, as the sophists said, man-made law is all relative anyway, why necessarily accept that of your fathers?  Their values and standards of behavior may not be pertinent to your situation, and perhaps you should look instead to your own definitions.  This of course can be mighty dangerous for the social fabric.


Finally, there is an aspect of the Athenian moral crisis that should be familiar to late twentieth century America – the development of something like a generation gap.  Athenian society during the Peloponnesian War gave rise to what appears to be the first serious challenge of one generation by another in history.  As with America in the sixties it was precisely the young, primarily young aristocrats, who were the focal point of the moral crisis in Athens, although their reaction was hardly one of protesting the war and using controlled substances.  In fact it was generally the younger generation who were in favor of greater imperialist adventures.  But Athenian youth of the period of the Peloponnesian War were like many young Americans of the Vietnam era in that the morality of their fathers, the inherited ethos of the society, was not necessarily valid for them.  The extent of this challenge should not be exaggerated, being apparently essentially limited to aristocratic youth, but it did exist.


A generation gap had never occurred before this for the simple reason that only now had the ascendancy of the state and the individual so undermined the strength of the family that the ties binding one generation to the next had been loosened.  With the stage thus set by the general social development of the Greek state conditions particular to Athens then prompted the generational challenge.  First of all there was the democracy, which itself involved a certain rejection of tradition.  The egalitarianism that was fundamental to democratic society eroded the authority of parents, of the previous generation, by stressing the importance of the individual and the equality of all.  As an eighteen year old Athenian male, you are a full political person, with a vote in the assembly equal to that of your father, and in the assembly you might even become more influential than he.  So why should you then obey him when the two of you differ back at home?  Political freedom is not conducive to the passive acceptance of traditional authority.


Nor is an emphasis on reason, which only naturally tends to devalue authority based on tradition, and the growing respect for reason in fifth century Athens was causing many to question and sometimes reject traditional values.  The focus of this was of course the sophists, whose rationalism was especially zeroed in on an attack on tradition.  It was not just their hostility to tradition, but also the simple fact that they existed, breaking the monopoly parents had held in the education of the younger generation.  It is hardly surprising that the Baby Boom generation that was the first to seriously challenge traditional American values was also the first to go to college in massive numbers.  Reason and doubt are deadly to knowledge based only on faith and acceptance.


The final factor contributing to this generational phenomenon was the social and political failure of the democracy during the war and the loss of faith in the established order that it incurred.  We need only to look five decades into our own past to see the effect of such a failure on the young of society.


(An additional note: included in the ranks of the neocons, who played an instrumental role in leading the United States into its pointless and costly war with Iraq, are at least two classical historians, and it is said that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is a sort of bible for them.  Apparently they neglected to read the chapters on the Sicilian expedition.)


Stuff from Way Back #20: We hold these truths to be self-evident…

(Writing about Washington at the moment leads only to bewilderment, disgust, anger and obscenities, so time off for some very relevant history stuff.)

The Greek enlightenment of the sixth century (all dates are BC), which had discovered rationalism, continued into the fifth century and produced a new group of rationalists who were less interested in the nature of the universe than in the nature of man and society.  These men, who might be considered the first sociologists or political scientists, are called the sophists (from sophia, “wisdom”).

The term sophist as used by the Greeks referred to the teachers who began appearing in the first half of the fifth century.  These were men who for a fee would teach you whatever there was to know, but most especially rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking.  The appearance and multiplication of these teachers is hardly surprising; they served a vital function in a society that had no public education or institutions of learning whatsoever.  If you wanted to know something beyond what your parents taught you, you went to a sophist.  The subject of rhetoric was particularly in demand, since in an age blessed with the absence of the professional attorney the ability to speak persuasively was utterly important to your ability to defend or prosecute a case in the courts.  And if you lived in a democracy like Athens, rhetorical skills were an important tool for exerting influence in the assembly.

So for the Greeks the sophist was a kind of traveling tutor.  For the modern historian, however, the sophists are of considerable interest chiefly because of their examination of man and society.  These thinkers inherited the skepticism of the Ionian rationalists and applied it to human affairs, ultimately producing disastrous social consequences.  The whole structure of law and morality in the polis would be undermined and traditional sources of authority called into question.  By the last quarter of the fifth century sophists were openly attacking the polis (city-state), and sophistic ideas were providing justification for the Athenian Empire and contributing to the breakdown of Athenian society.  This was serious business.

Central to sophistic thought is the distinction made between nomos and physis, literally the Greek words for “law” and “nature.”  For the sophist nomos is man-made law, that is, all the rules made by society, whatever form they take: unwritten customs, decrees of a king, legislated statutes, whatever.  It is obviously mutable, changing from place to place and from one time to another.  Physis, on the other hand, is understood to be completely unchanging and to consist of universal absolutes imposed by the nature of things, including the nature of human beings, and it is thus contrasted with man-made nomos.  Most commonly physis referred to a body of natural law that served as a basis for behavior and morality, a basis rooted in nature rather than a particular human society and thus universally valid and compelling.  It is a manifestation, it seems, of the instinctive feeling on the part of all normal humans that there are some things that are always right, like protecting a child, and some that are always wrong, like sleeping with your sister or taking a life without good reason.  Today natural law is generally understood to be a body of moral absolutes and is frequently connected to a deity (e.g., “Thou shall not kill.”), but a god is not necessary.  Whether you call it natural law or god’s law or the law of the gods or higher law or conscience, it is all the same – physis.

An immediate question arises: What if nomos and physis are in conflict?  What do you do if your vision of natural law is contradicted by some man-made law of your society?  Antigone faces this problem in Sophocles’ (c. 496-406) play Antigone.  King Creon of Thebes has decreed that Antigone’s brother Polyneices may not be given the burial rites the Greeks considered the absolute right of every Greek corpse.  Antigone violates this order, which is nomos, and defends her action by appealing to physis, which she defines as “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.”  She justifies her violation of man-made law with an appeal to natural law, just as twenty-five hundred years later those who because of the war in Vietnam burned draft files, obstructed the government or in some way broke the law justified their actions with the same appeal.  Antigone calls it “the laws of the gods” and Jerry Rubin and Daniel Elsberg called it “conscience” or “higher law,” but they all refer to the same thing – physis.

Antigone and Polyneices

Antigone and Polyneices

Grouping the sophists according to their views on the nature of the polis and the relationship between law and morality is particularly convenient for examining the evolution of sophistic thought.  The Greeks traditionally believed that the polis had a positive moral purpose, that is, the state, through the mechanism of its laws, should produce virtuous citizens.  We have some limited experience of this with our laws against prostitution, gambling and other “immoral” activities, but essentially this idea is alien to our concept of the state, which views the law as being morally neutral.  We hope our laws coincide with our notions of morality, but they are not the source of those notions; religion is.  For the Greeks, however, the state and its laws had a positive moral role, and they consequently accepted a close relationship in society between law and morality.

The first category of sophists accepted this traditional view, despite their general skepticism.  Men like Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420) recognized the existence of natural law, but felt that it was compatible with the changeable, man-made laws of society.  Skeptics that they were, they no longer accepted that the polis had a divine origin, but because they believed nomos and physis to be complementary, they did view the state as natural, a product of physis.  They thus accepted the traditional notion that the state had a moral function and that its laws should create virtue.

Others were not so sure, and the second group of sophists asserted that the polis and its laws had no positive moral purpose.  Law was simply a body of morally neutral, expedient measures that allowed society to function.  It might by chance happen to reflect true morality, which was embodied in natural law, but essentially it was irrelevant to morality.  The state was therefore not natural, but rather an artificial creation, a product of nomos.  This is in essence the modern western view: the law is a neutral agent, which the society hopes reflects its moral values, which are derived from religion.  A representative of this category of sophists is Antiphon (c. 480-411), who felt that the laws of the polis were artificial, established by human convention and thus not as critically important to the individual as natural law was.  Laws might be necessary to society and the state, but not to life, which in fact might be hindered by them.  True morality was independent of nomos and could be found instead in physis.  In a word, man-made law was irrelevant.  Antiphon and his friends thus rejected two essential facets of the traditional concept of the polis: that it had a divine or natural basis and that its laws were positive moral agents.  For these sophists the polis was an artificial construction, the result of a kind of social compact, and its laws were morally neutral.

The sophists of category two challenged the very nature of the classical polis, but they tolerated its existence.  It was left to the final group, the radical sophists, to carry the thinking to the logical extreme and openly and directly attack the polis.  These characters felt that the state, as it existed, interfered with and impeded true morality, that the state was in fact immoral.  A spokesman for this position is Critias (c. 460-403), leader of the oligarchic Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens for a brief period after her defeat by Sparta in 404.  According to him, the state was not based upon divine or natural sanction (Group 1 and the traditional view), nor upon a compact (Group 2 and our view), but upon fraud, and law was thus an agent causing men to act immorally.  This of course was a very convenient point of view for Critias, whose terror-filled regime openly flouted the laws and traditions of the Athenian polis.  Another member of this group, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. c. 430-400), spells it out exactly: “That is what I mean when I say that right (or justice) is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established ruling class; and this ruling class is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that right (or justice) is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.” (Plato, Republic 339A, trans. by H.P.D. Lee)  In other words, might makes right.  This is the ultimate destination of sophistic skepticism: ethical nihilism.





Actually, Callicles (historicity disputed), who appears in Plato’s Gorgias, takes the line of thinking a bit further.  Thrasymachus says that the acts of certain extraordinary men who have power are beyond accepted standards of justice and are not subject to normal moral judgment; their might makes right.  Callicles pulls out all the stops and proclaims that the actions of the superior man in fact constitute a superior form of justice; his might is right.  And who are these superior men?  Simply put, they are those who are clever and strong enough to seize power and hold on to it.  For Callicles it is a fact of physis, a dictate of natural law that these individuals should rule and should enjoy complete satisfaction of all their desires, completely free of the restraints customarily imposed by nomos.  This kind of thinking is a moral justification for even the most brutal sort of rule and can lead to disastrous social results, as for example in Germany in the 1930s.

Thus, when the newly discovered skepticism of the sixth  century scientists was applied by the sophists to the subject of man and society it led rapidly to the definition and examination of perhaps the most basic social question – the relationship between law and morality.  Is morality rooted in man-made law, nomos, as the Greeks traditionally believed?  Or are our moral standards to be found in natural law, physis?  And if this is so, who is to define physis?  Suppose there is conflict between nomos and physis?  How should society deal with those individuals whose vision of physis and resulting morality is radically at odds with that of the majority?

The Athenians had to deal with these questions, and so must we.  Since the collapse of the classical world the west has derived its morality from a particular understanding of physis, hanging its basic system of moral values from the metaphysical peg of the Judeo-Christian god and attempting to varying degrees to bring nomos into line with these values.  This has not always been very successful, especially under the No Fun God of Christianity, since human desires and expediency are in constant conflict with our notions of morality.  Further, the moral standards required of individuals seem always to be incompatible with those applied to nations, and human beings are easily led to do as a group things they absolutely shun as individuals.  The problem associated with attaching an ethical system to a particular view of natural law of course is getting everyone in the society to accept that view.  If an individual does not accept the existence of the Christian god, the moral precepts of that deity can hardly be of any great weight.  And even if by some totalitarian miracle the entire community accepts the metaphysical standard, the inherently relative nature of all value judgments will quickly reveal itself.  Take what is probably the most basic moral absolute: thou shall not kill.  Inasmuch as most human beings will grant that there are circumstances, such as self-defense, that may require one to kill, the prohibition is more accurately stated as thou shall not kill without good reason.  But what exactly constitutes a good reason?  Killing someone whom you believe is about to attack you?  Assassinating a tyrant?  The moral absolutes are never so absolute.

And those “self-evident truths” (physis) are never really self-evident to everyone, which leads to the most fundamental problem arising from a consideration of nomos and physis – what if they conflict?  What if the morality of the community, as expressed in its laws, and the morality of the individual, which springs from his own mind, do not match?  Of course the society must protect its members from physical harm, so that the man whose definition of physis involves god telling him to shoot certain people must be forced to follow the nomos of the community.  But what about the most obvious manifestation of the potential nomosphysis conflict, civil disobedience?  This is a tough one.  Civil disobedience has clearly resulted in great social progress in American society, especially in the area of civil rights, but it must be remembered that a very dangerous principle is being entertained here.

Civil disobedience is the open and nonviolent violation of nomos justified by an appeal to physis and the intention of bettering society.  It is at heart a political-social expression of the notion that the end justifies the means, and this is always a dangerous proposition, especially in the absence of any precise definition of valid ends and acceptable means.  Since the justifying goal here depends upon the individual’s vision of physis there can be no definition of valid ends, and the door to chaos is open.  An illegal demonstration by Blacks in favor of integration and one by the Klan in favor of segregation are in essence the same, since each group will justify its breaking of human law with its particular definition of natural law.  (And ironically both groups would see physis embodied in the same Christian god.)  Therein lies the problem: physis is defined by the individual, whether he dreams it up himself or takes it ready-made through an inherited religion.  Critias and Thrasymachus felt that justice or right was what was in the interest of the strong, whereas singer Joan Baez violated the tax laws because her view of physis indicated that for the strong to dominate the weak was wrong and unjust.  Neither vision of natural law is more or less valid than the other.  Both are quite correct or quite incorrect, depending upon your point of view.  For society to allow any group, no matter how apparently noble its cause, to selectively violate the laws is thus to court disaster.

police response to civil disobedience

police response to civil disobedience

What then do you do if according to your values a law or policy is immoral and legal means to change it fail?  Only you can decide that, but when you consider that decision remember that you are standing in a line that stretches back to fifth century Athens and men like Critias.