Political Realism: A Greek Primer, Conclusion

Every society has its hypocrites, since most of us, to secure what we want, will sometimes pretend to be better than we are, but the Greeks were generally frank about everyday realities.  Dr. Johnson was being very Greek when he told Boswell that "No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures."

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, we 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 [sic] who jump like kangaroos, stock market swindlers who batten on insider trading then set up 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 fund-raising dodges, and I am not just speaking of Evangelical charlatans like the Bakers and Swaggarts.  I shall never forget the time I attended an Episcopalian diocesan convention and heard our bishop, the Rt. Reverend 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 afterwards, 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, sales taxes, fuel 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 is the result.  

We refer to the fatal certainty of taxes as if it has ever been thus, but it has not been thus.  Republican peoples have traditionally paid little or no taxes on income and property.  Classical Greeks and republican Romans, for example, 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) 1% tributum levied on property value for support of the army.

In the heyday of 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 “demes”), had to be collected by tax-farmers, whose profession has been held in universal abhorrence, as Prof. Ernst Badian pointed 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.  And although Pericles used some of the money to beautify the Acropolis, whose temples the Persians had burnt when the people of Athens (almost alone of the Greek maritime powers) deserted their city and faced the polyglot imperial force in the straits of Salamis.  Athens 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, but free people 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: In 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; 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 that 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 was almost as if they were proud of their servility.

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.  Learn Greek, young men, it is the language of liberty.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

14 Responses

  1. Avatar Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Taxes are another thing that we cannot control. Some have solved the issue by not working or owning property. They live off the largesse of those who do pay taxes. That cannot last much longer though because there is not enough tax revenue to pay for everything. The only solution is to print more money.

  2. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    There is more concentrated understanding in this short series than you can find in entire books or college courses nowadays.

    I used to think that a capitation tax was the best answer to the question of how to ensure maximum freedom while providing for government expenses, but I always had a problem even with that idea. I took years to find out what that problem was.

    It seems that you have provided the answer to much of what many libertarians have always wanted without the necessity of Libertarianism, setting aside the amorality (or immorality) of many libertarians.

  3. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    What kind of Greek and Roman civic ideals were revived by Italians in the Middle Ages and transmitted to their buffoonish cousins in England, France, and Germany?

    Apennine Peninsula was a source of Roman law for Europe, right. But where is a source of case law? Exactly not Bologna.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Mr. Solodov asks an important question on which I could, had I the time, expound at length. I was not speaking specifically of law, though some parts of Roman law did survive in the peninsula and not just in Bologna, in for example, the Church’s canon law, but also elsewhere. It is important to bear in mind that the Roman collapse in Europe was not immediate or uniform. Venantius Fortunatus, who died in the early 7th century, wrote Latin hymns that are still sung today, and with his education in Ravenna was revered in France for his learning. In the time of Charlemagne, the Lombard monk Paulus had acquired passable Latin, a knowledge of Latin literature, and even some Greek, all at the Lombard court in Pavia. His learning astounded the other learned courtiers at Charlemagne’s court, though it is clear in from one letter that I recall, that Paul had a more realistic grasp. One might also turn to Venice, which declined slowly but retained enough Romanitas to reject feudalism for a long time and to preserve the language and some of the institutions of republican government.

    But the real story, at least what is known, is that of the central Italian cities–though I should not ignore Milan, Verona, and the other cities of the Lega Lombarda–say, going from Northwest to Southeast, Genova, Lucca, Pisa, Sienna, Florence, Arezzo, Perugia….-where the rise of the commune can be studied. There is a serious debate among historians as to whether this political development springs like Athena full blown out of the Italian head or represents in some sense a continuity of a decaying tradition. I take the later view, having observed the role played by diocese and parish in reestablishing forms of governance based on consent and competition rather than simply on the authority of a count or margrave whose authority came from the Emperor.

    By the time of Dante, one can observe but the merits and the problems of these development: On the one hand, the rise of middling classes accepting, demanding responsibility and muscling their way into power, often hand in hand with aristocrats like Giano della Bella; on the other hand, the factional strife and violence that so often accompanies republican government. Some of the transformation can be seen in the changing Italian response to Cicero, whom Dante regarded as at best a model for a life of retirement and study, while Petrarch’s disciples increasingly came to view him as the ideal sort of man who combined intellectual pursuits with a life of public service. The so-called civic humanism that develops in Florence–Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and I would add Machiavelli–is not simply a symptom of the humanists’ break with the Medieval past, but it is also the intellectual realization (in the Italian sense of that word) of the growing civic consciousness that was nurtured in the little city republics.

    The political recovery is a very long story and requires detailed study in each city. I have tried to learn the basic stuff for Florence, Siena, and Perugia, and have made more detailed studies of Pisa and Lucca. Pisa is particularly interesting for two reasons: First, its merchants early on became free of feudalism, when they made contracts to govern their behavior on the open sea. Second, the aristocrats were less prone to stand aloof from the middle class businessmen, because there was something heroic in fighting and pillaging the Muslims who occupied so much of the western Mediterranean and even attacked Pisa itself.

    Although I have published very little–I claim no great expertise in Medieval Italian history–I have delivered a number of lectures. If I can find time, I might post a few of these to shed light on a topic whose significance is more than historical. I wish I could recommend a single book, but while there are many fine studies, few have made this development the center of their interest. Volpe’s fine study of the communal institutions of Pisa can only be understood (in Italian only, alas) by those who have gained a fair grasp of Pisan history. While the case of Florence is a good deal more complicated, Villari’s History of Florence might be a good place to start, provided the reader understands that no one city is exemplary/

  5. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    But where is a source of case law?

  6. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    First, I am not a legal historian or even particularly interested in the history of law except as it touches on other interests I have, for example, laws in marriage, family, murder, property. Second, I don’t know what you mean by “case law”. There are many distinct legal traditions that flow together at different points. Most legal traditions have room both for questions of equity and for case-by-case decisions that set precedents–is that what you mean? Obviously, a Roman emperor like Trajan, had a body of traditional Roman law going back to the Tables, as well as various decisions made by republican praetors, decisions by previous emperors. It was a slowly moving glacier picking up a lot of diverse stuff along the way. He also, when confronted by specific questions, for example, Pliny’s questions about what to do about Christians, Trajan made a break-through decision in the form of an imperial rescript, and this rescript strongly influenced Roman law, though it was more or less ignored by Decius and later by Diocletian and Maximin Daza. This is not the same as British and American case law but it is a parallel.

    But as I said, I am not at all interested in the question and have probably already said too much.

  7. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    Civil law and Common law. Yes, I mean the precedents. So the question is a source of Common law.

  8. Avatar Frank Brownlow says:

    The recovery of civil or Roman law in the form of Justinian’s Corpus iuris is traceable to the 11th century. Henry II’s justiciar Ranulp de Glanvil produced the first treatise on English common law in the De legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliæ of 1187. Anyone curious about later English developments should look at Sir John Fortescue’s De laudibus legum Anglie (c.1470).

  9. Avatar Frank Brownlow says:

    That should be Ranuplph.

  10. Avatar Frank Brownlow says:

    Ranulph! My keyboard is sticking.

  11. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Both the development of Common Law and the reception of Roman law are topics far afield from my brief exposition, and there are people far better qualified to discuss them–Prof. Brownlow, for example. In my readings I profited a great deal from the works of F.W. Maitland, Otto v, Giercke, and H.S. Maine. Arthur Hogue wrote a fairly easy introduction, Origins of the Common Law, that was republished by Liberty Press.

  12. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    Thank you, Mr. Brownlow. It’s interesting to hear your comments.

    When you speak about Civil or Roman law, you mention Justinian’s Corpus iuris but not Irnerius and Gratian.

    My question was about the source of Common law.

  13. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Perhaps my previous answer got somehow lost in space, but here it is again.

    Both the development of Common Law and the reception of Roman law are topics far afield from my brief exposition, and there are people far better qualified to discuss them–Prof. Brownlow, for example. In my readings I profited a great deal from the works of F.W. Maitland, Otto v, Giercke, and H.S. Maine. Arthur Hogue wrote a fairly easy introduction, Origins of the Common Law, that was republished by Liberty Press.

  14. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    It seems the term “Germanic” is a kind of mental tabu here, I would just paste the following text about the Lex Salica:

    “If the Sicambrian has already bowed his neck to the catholic yoke, he is not yet actively destroying by his laws what he had formerly adored.”

    “The Lex Salica, though written in Latin, is very free from the Roman taint. It contains in the so-called Malberg glosses many old Frankish words, some of which, owing to mistranscription, are puzzles for the philological science of our own day. Like the other Germanic folk-laws, it consists largely of a tariff of offences and atonements; but a few precious chapters, every word of which has been a cause of learned strife, lift the curtain for a moment and allow us to watch the Frank as he litigates. We see more clearly here than elsewhere the formalism, the sacramental symbolism of ancient legal procedure.

    We have no more instructive document; and let us remember that, by virtue of the Norman Conquest, the Lex Salica is one of the ancestors of English law.”

    The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I
    F.W.Maitland, F.Pollock