In my previous article, we looked at Homer’s Illiad, an epic poem that taught us everything we needed to know about the origins of modern democracy. It simply boils down to the ability of citizens to criticize and regulate those in power. As mentioned in the previous article, it doesn’t seem strange to us that one would openly criticise the government, but the poem was written over two thousand years ago. Achilles is forced unwillingly to submit to a man who has god-given power, a king. He protests calling him a dog-faced drunkard, a man who has the courage of a deer. Insignificant, no! It’s insubordination by the hero against his commander in chief. The significance of that is lost in our day because the Greek philosophers were so bold in their day. That spirit of challenging leadership (that was so uncommon in days past) sculped what we consider so common practice today.
The Ancient Greeks were just like us, they were egotistical, they were competitive and they pushed each other to the limits of what was normality, becoming ever more bold and honest with their philosophy and poetry. Sappho writes about another woman who she is attracted to and loves. Again, uncommon in today’s age, but like Homers Illiad, this poem she writes (Sappho 31) was crafted over two thousand years ago. Proof then that their eagerness to push boundaries and their freedom to express even their deepest desires had birthed a society un-criticising of change and abnormality. Although some historians and philosophers debate over the true meaning of the poem, you should draw from it your own conclusions, as that is what she would have wanted. It’s not about what she was saying, what is important is that she had the freedom to say it, and the encouragement it brought on others to push the boundaries even further.
“That man seems to me to be equal to the gods
Who is sitting opposite you
And hears you nearby
And laughing delightfully, which indeed
Makes my heart flutter in my breast;
For when I look at you even for a short time,
It is no longer possible for me to speak
But it is as if my tongue is broken
And immediately a subtle fire has run over my skin,
I cannot see anything with my eyes,
And my ears are buzzing
A cold sweat comes over me, trembling
Seizes me all over, I am paler
Than grass, and I seem nearly
To have died.”
Is she talking about an object of her desires that is in the company of another man who seems to be of perfection? I think so. Sappo is essentially admitting to jealousy over a woman who she adores, who clearly doesn’t feel the same way (due to the godlike man). Which human in the 21st century has not experienced this? She is each and every one of us when presented with lust and jealousy, yet she was bold enough to turn her deepest desires into literature. There are three characters in the poem, a man, a woman, and the observer. It is understood that Sappo is the observer, however, even with regards to differing interpretations, the meaning and context of the poem is not lost. Conservatives (especially Christians) might be offended by the prospect of a woman sexually desiring another woman, yet although that is a valid viewpoint, the significance is not the sexual orientation, it is the boldness to express said feelings two thousand years ago that lead to us being free to do so today.
What lead to ancient Greece becoming a factory for philosophy and poetry that tirelessly pushed the limits? Well, perhaps it has something to do with the typography. As Achilles says in the Illiad, it is the “shadowy mountains and the echoey seas”. It is the nation with the highest proportion of coastline to land in the world. It is littered with tiny city-states where no ruler truly has the power to exert tyrannical rule. What drove them to greatness then? Competition. Another lesson is hidden there no doubt, but we will leave that for another day. The City states embraced their thinkers and innovators in order to outshine the others. It explains the poems ever pushing the boundaries, the art and architecture, redefining what became the standard of civilisation for thousands of years, the philosophy, continually pushing critical thought. They became the masters of modernity because they knew that in order to survive, they had to innovate. A lesson that applies to every age and every segment of our society, from the individual to a business, to a government.
Success is temporary unless your society is free to push the boundaries of what is perceived to be normal. This is not modern liberalism where deconstructionism is the considered progress, but rather what modern conservatism (classic liberalism) aspires to be. By sticking to the values of freedom, expression and innovation, the success of a society becomes dependent on the ability of the individual to push forward. Modern liberals restrict and regulate. This does not create wealth and opportunity, but rather a society that fails to advance, as it is obsessed with undoing the past. If the Greeks were afraid to offend, they would have faded into history like millions of others. It was their boldness that defined them and created us. We owe them everything because, without them, this article would be impossible.