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What Democracy Meant to the Greeks de Walter Agard (1942) – 3

Começamos a publicar, na área de textos teóricos de Dagobah, o clássico de Walter Agard (1942), O que a democracia significou para os gregos, infelizmente sem tradução, até agora, para o português. O texto ainda está sem revisão (remanescem erros gráficos introduzidos pelo programa de reconhecimento de caracteres), o que faremos progressivamente com a ajuda dos leitores. Uma tradução colaborativa seria muito bem-vinda.

What Democracy Meant to the Greeks


O Prefácio e o Índice estão aqui:

A Introdução está aqui:

Publicamos abaixo o primeiro capítulo da primeira parte.



On the plain before the besieged city of Troy, the common man is first represented in the literature of the Western world as asserting his rights.

The episode occurs in the second book of Homer’s Iliad. A meeting of the general assembly of the army has been called by Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary forces from the Greek tribal states. Realizing that the long years of effort and suffering have sapped the morale of his men, that they need to be aroused to greater ardor if Troy is to be captured, he devises a scheme to shame them into action; he pretends that he himself is discouraged, that the venture has been all in vain, and that they had best sail back home, acknowledging defeat and dishonor. But the plan was not as sound psychologically as he believed it would be. The soldiers take him at his word; they are delighted with the proposal, and rush enthusiastically to their ships. With great difficulty they are reassembled. Then a common soldier speaks his mind.

Now all the rest were seated in an orderly fashion in their places, but Thersites kept babbling on, an endless talker, who had a mind full of subversive ideas and opposed those in authority with whatever words he thought would make the soldiers laugh. He was the ugliest of all the men who came to Troy: bowlegged, lame in one foot, his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest, and his head rising to a point with only a little fuzz growing on the top of it. He was most obnoxious to Achilles and Odysseus, for he used to revile them constantly; but now it was noble Agamemnon whom he accused with his shrill voice. The Achaeans were indignant and disgusted with him, but he kept bawling at the top of his lungs his criticism of Agamemnon: “Son of Atreus, what are you finding fault with now, and what more do you want? Your tents are full of bronze and many picked women, whom we Achaeans give you first of all whenever we seize a town. Or don’t you think you have gold enough, which some horse-taming Trojan will bring you as ransom money for his child, after it was I or some other soldier who took him prisoner and brought him here? Or a young girl, for you to keep to yourself and make love to? (turning to the soldiers) I say it isn’t right for our commander to bring misery on us. Oh you weaklings, cowards, women, not men! Let’s sail home and leave this man here at Troy to enjoy his precious prizes and find out whether we are of any use to him or not. Now it’s Achilles that he has dishonored, a much better man than he is; he has grabbed Achilles’ girl and taken her away and kept her for himself. Achilles doesn’t resent it — I’d say he was slack about that — but if he did (turning to the king), son of Atreus, you would never insult him again!” (1).

In this speech, bitterly assailing the commander-in-chief to his face, Thersites is telling at least part of the truth from the point of view of the soldier in the ranks. Agamemnon had constantly received special privileges, and his men had gained little reward except suffering and death for the service they had rendered. But note the response to it on the part of both the aristocrats and the people. Odysseus springs at once to the defense of his fellow-king, not with arguments but with action:

Noble Odysseus promptly came to his side, glared at him, and rebuked him sternly: “Thersites, you babbler, you’re a shrill speaker in assembly, but I tell you to restrain yourself and not be so eager all by yourself to oppose the kings. I don’t believe there is a viler man than you among all those who came to Troy with the sons of Atreus. You shouldn’t be talking about kings and criticizing them and watching for a chance to go back home. We don’t know how affairs here are going to turn out. But you persist in reviling Agamemnon, leader of the army, do you, because he has been given so many gifts? I tell you this, and it will happen just as I say, if I find you talking such nonsense again I will forfeit my head and no longer be called father of Telemachos if I don’t take hold of you, strip the clothes from your back, whip you out of the assembly, and send you blubbering back to the ships.”

Then with his sceptre he hit him on the back and shoulders until Thersites crumpled over with tears rolling down his cheeks. A bloody welt rose up on his back where the gold sceptre had hit him. He sat down, frightened and in pain, realizing the useless-ness of what he had done as he wiped away his tears. The people, although they were sorry for him, laughed heartily, and one would say, looking at his neighbor, “Would you believe it! Odysseus has always led the way in council and in the field, but this is by far the best thing he has ever done among us, when he stopped the mouth of this impudent slanderer. Thersites’ reckless spirit won’t lead him on again to insult our kings.” So spoke the people (2).

Odysseus realized that such sentiments as Thersites must be checked at once, but he also saw that the man had insufficient support from his fellows to make him actually dangerous. To humiliate him and make him ri-diculous was obviously the best strategy. And the people, ashamed of their self-appointed spokesman and aware of the superior power of their leaders, at once dissociated themselves from him. One is reminded of the words of Walt Whitman: “As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who do not believe in men.” This may not, however, be quite fair to the people. It must be remembered that the Iliad was recited at the courts of princes, and the poet may have added to a traditional story an ending satisfactory to his audience.

What was the social structure in which such an epi-sode could take place?

There is some difficulty in visualizing this society, because the poem in its final form was composed considerably later than the period which it portrays. To disentangle the social customs belonging to the age of tribal migrations, which the Iliad chiefly records, from those representing the poet’s own time is far from easy. Thus it is possible that the fact of a commoner speaking like Thersites in assembly goes back to a primitive kind of democracy, and the reaction to his speech is typical of the poet’s contemporary aristocratic point of view. But this problem need not greatly concern us; for our purposes we may study the way of life pictured in both the Iliad and the Odyssey as broadly representative of the twilight of Greek tribal society.

Those roving warriors, who had swept down from the northwest into Greece and on to Asia Minor in quest of plunder, had the simple economy, largely agricultural and pastoral, of a tribal order. The Iliad, as a story centered about military exploits, gives few details about ordinary daily life, but there is enough information (especially in the description of the Shield of Achilles) (3) to build up the picture fairly well. We read of shepherds with flocks of sheep and men tending oxen, of farmers ploughing, reaping, and cultivating vines. There is some reason to believe that land was owned by the tribe in common, and one got a share as long as one worked to earn it, or it may be that the kings apportioned it on that basis. Judged from the description of the shield itself, decorated with silver, tin and gold, craftsmanship had developed to a high degree of competence; and the excavations of these early sites have revealed how highly developed and exquisite this work really was. There are a few references to slaves, who were captives of war.

The Odyssey pictures a rather more complicated economic system. Alcinous and Odysseus both have large personal estates, with war captives, men and women, serving them as slaves. Relations between master and slave appear to have been very friendly, the owner and his family often working side by side with the slaves; witness the princess Nausicaa helping her servant girls do the family washing, and Odysseus sowing and reaping along with his men. There is private property; the larger estates are owned by the king and the heads of the great families, his noble vassals, and small ones are owned by independent farmers; there is also a large class of vagrant day laborers who own virtually no property. The craftsman class is increasing; it includes artisans of many kinds. The fact that queens weave and kings are carpenters indicates the respectability of the craftsman’s job. But the most significant economic development is the beginning of exchange of goods between foreign traders and the Greek princes, who, by bartering the products of the farms and craftsmen’s shops of their native towns with an alien mercantile class, led the way to the development of business as a profession in Greece. In such economic groups we find the essential pattern of later Greek communities, although as yet there is little evidence of the competing interests that were to breed bitter social antagonism a century later.

In political organization, also, the tribal age has elements which were modified but not wholly discarded in the classical period. Each tribal king, to be sure, has supreme command, resting largely in the Iliad on his military prowess, in the Odyssey on his social and political sagacity; his position is further protected by his function as guardian of traditional customs and religious rites. But the king must consult his council of nobles before he determines any policy of importance, and then must bring the decision to a general assembly of all the citizens to get their opinion. It may be argued that the general assembly, probably having no formal vote, lacked any actual power; but at least it offered the educational value of public discussion, and undoubtedly in turbulent times the king and nobles worked hard to justify their policy before the people, knowing that popular disapproval would jeopardize or ruin the chances of its success.

Here is the germ of the democratic principle: government with the uncoerced consent of the governed. Furthermore, there was apparently complete freedom of speech in the assembly for ordinary men, no matter how critical or even abusive they might be toward their king and the nobles. It was at an assembly of this sort that Thersites went perhaps a step too far and suffered for it; but the amazing thing is that he was allowed to speak at all as he did. There could be no better evidence of an essential democracy in early Greek life.

The religious concepts of the people were a reflection of their social organization. Toward their gods, regarded as a noble group like their own and headed by Zeus the king, they looked with reverence due the immortals, but also with the intimacy inspired by men and women es-sentially like themselves. They believed that the gods were often at variance with one another, some fighting with them and others with their enemies, and engaging in domestic disputes in heaven like theirs on earth. But even above the gods there was the power of Destiny, from the decrees of which no man, however brave in battle or distinguished for wisdom, regardless of his rank or station, could escape. Living under the constant threat of Destiny’s ultimate blow, men could only hope and work to win as much glory as possible before death came.

In the late tribal society the social virtues were in many respects of a high type. Physical courage was of course the outstanding excellence while the people were at war, so Achilles, the foremost fighter, was properly the hero of the Iliad, even though to us the statesmanlike Hector may seem more admirable. But the courage of the heroes was tempered with kindness; there was a code of gentlemanly conduct in accordance with which men tried to live. In battle poison arrows were taboo, the bodies of the slain and the conquered were usually treated with consideration, captives could be saved from slavery by ransom, and there were truces for the burial of the dead. Foes had respect for their opponents; we read of men fighting bitterly until the day’s end, then giving gifts to each other and parting, for a time, “reconciled in friendship.” They also showed a touching deference to old people, and received suppliants, ambassadors and other guests with cordial hospitality.

By the time of the Odyssey other virtues were more necessary: the resourcefulness of mind and stamina of spirit which Odysseus showed in mastering complex new situations and dealing with many sorts of alien people. The admiration shown the Phaeacians for their accomplishments in commerce, sports and the amenities of peace also indicates a new set of social values. In both epics the quality which restrained the powerful from brutality and the shrewd from greed was aidos — profound self-respect and respect for others is perhaps as adequate a translation as can be given. When Hector used the word in his poignant farewell to Andromache, his wife, trying to persuade her that he must go out and fight even at the cost of death, it meant a decent regard for public opinion, sense of social obligation. Along with this was the conytion that it is the duty of the privileged to be generous as well as brave, courteous and hospitable as well as canny, and, above all, to be loyal to the interests of their group. In this respect Achilles was far from perfect. His essentially tragic experience developed as a result of his selfish pride. He was justified in deeply resenting the insult to his honor and in punishing Agamemnon for it, but when he refused to accept Agamemnon’s apology and rich gifts of propitiation, and when the defeat of his comrades in arms failed to move him, then he aroused the righteous indignation of his fellows. Even more startling is the frank revelation of the petty as well as the more heinous vices of the suitors for Penelope’s hand. Princes and nobles though these men were, they were never praised, and were eventually punished with death for their greed, their cruelty, their lack of aidos.

But such criticism must not be regarded as any expression of popular resentment. The poems, composed in an aristocratic age for recital at the courts, exemplified to their audience the code of noble men and deplored actions which violated that code. What the ordinary people did or were was as yet hardly worthy of mention; all that was asked of them was obedience and loyalty. These standards of noble conduct we shall find still applied in later times, but no longer confined to the upper class. By the fifth century B. C., the children of the people were studying the Iliad and the Odyssey, learning to emulate the courage of Achilles and the nimble wit, curiosity, and endurance of Odysseus, and many of those upper-class ideals had been woven into the social pattern of the democracy.

For an adequate understanding of the relation of tribal society to the later Athenian culture, one final observation must be made before we leave this period. Both the racial stock and the culture patterns of later Greece were founded on a mingling of the northern invaders and the Mediterranean people who inhabited the territory before they came. Only in recent years have we come to realize, owing to archaeological discoveries, how greatly Greek civilization was indebted to the highly developed commercial and artistic society already existing in that area, especially on the island of Crete, during the early infiltration of the northern tribes. The southern tradition, weakened for a time, was later revived chiefly in Ionia; the northern persisted in the Dorian settlements of central and Italiot Greece; but we shall find the finest expression of the Greek genius in the synthesis of the two which was ultimately made in Athens.

(1) Iliad, II, 211-42.

(2) Ibid., II, 244-78.

(3) Ibid., XVIII, 478-608.

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