Demosthenes/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV.


DEMOSTHENES ENTERS POLITICAL LIFE.


In all democracies much will be expected from the rich. This was the rule in the Greek states, and especially at Athens. There the constitution demanded a certain amount of public spirit, and prescribed various modes in which it was to display itself. Athenians loved a bright joyous life, and the wealthier of them were under legal obligations to minister to the popular tastes and contribute to the public amusements. There was a good side to all this. It made the rich feel that they must not use their riches merely for their own selfish enjoyment, but that it ought to be the glory of an Athenian citizen of fortune to put happiness and refinement within the reach of every member of the community. Pericles, in the famous funeral oration, the substance of which Thucydides has given us, had boasted how it was the peculiar genius of Athens to combine mirthfulness and gaiety with a strong sense of political responsibility.

Poetry and music were an essential part of an Athenian's life. They were intimately connected with all the religious festivals. With us the pleasures of the opera are necessarily confined to a select few. At Athens the poorest citizen was enabled to gratify his taste for such pleasures. The law imposed on a man with a certain amount of property the liability of having to provide a chorus of singers or musicians on some great public occasion. He had to bear all the expenses himself. Having made up his number, he had to obtain a teacher or choir-master, and to pay him for his instruction. He had also, it seems, to board and lodge the chorus during the time of its training, and he had, further, to furnish them with suitable dresses. All this, of course, he could do by deputy; but if he was anxious, as he usually would be, to do it with credit to himself, he would find that he must give the matter his personal attention. There was a prize for the best performance; and this, if not intrinsically valuable, was sure to be coveted. The choragus, as he was called, had a stall assigned him in the theatre, and it was part of his duty to be present during the ceremony with his crown and robe of office. There seems to have been every variety of chorus—tragic and comic choruses, pyrrhic choruses, and choruses of flute-players. The expense of providing them might range from £100 to £1200—a large sum in comparison with Athenian wealth. Still this amount was, it appears, often exceeded in an eager competition for the prize. The successful choragus was certain to be a popular citizen.

This, then, was one of the regular charges on the wealthier class. There were others. Athleticism and gymnastic games were a prominent feature in Greek life. At Athens one of the amusements in which they specially delighted was running with the torch, the runners carrying wax lights in their hands, which it was their object not to extinguish. The race in the time of Socrates began to be run on horseback, and the training and preparation for it became one of the public services, which the rich had to undertake. The gymnasiarch, or director of these games, had to defray all the expenses connected with the spectacle; he had to see to and to pay for the training of the competitors, which was on a very elaborate scale, and might involve a comparatively heavy outlay. Another still more burdensome obligation was the conduct of religious embassies to various places. This was regarded as a duty of the highest and most sacred kind; and whenever the State sent out a special commission to any of the ancient seats of Greek worship, such as Delos or Delphi, to consult the oracle of the god or to offer a solemn sacrifice, it was represented by citizens of wealth and distinction. Anything like parsimony on such an occasion would have been thought peculiarly discreditable, and it was the tendency of an Athenian to go to the opposite extreme. The head of the sacred mission entered the city whither he was bound with a crown of gold and in a splendidly equipped chariot. Alcibiades astonished the Greek world at the Olympic festival with his magnificent horses and his princely expenditure. Even in an ordinary way, however, the performance of this duty must have been a costly service. A minor expense was that of giving a public dinner to the particular tribe of which a man was a member. This too was a burden imposed on the rich. Last of all came the obligation to maintain the fleet in efficiency,—Athens' defence and glory. This—the trierarchy, as it was called—was a service of which we are continually hearing in the speeches of Demosthenes, and to place it on a satisfactory footing was an object he had specially at heart.

All these services, it must be understood, were legally compulsory—not merely enforced on the rich by public opinion, as in our time. At Athens, no citizen who was registered as the possessor of a certain amount of property could evade them. A man in England may be obliged to serve the office of sheriff once in a way, but to try to create public spirit by law would be repugnant to our notions. In a Greek state there was a much more distinct theory as to what each citizen owed to the commonwealth; and Athens, the very type of Greek democracy, felt it most natural to make these demands on her richer classes. At the same time, she had thought fit to exempt certain persons from the operation of this principle. There were a few whose meritorious services might be fairly considered to have earned them such an exemption—the trierarchy alone excepted. The privilege in some cases was extended to their descendants. Two names were cherished at Athens with peculiarly grateful remembrance, those of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the illustrious tyrannicides, who were believed to have given freedom and equality to their city. To their offspring for ever was granted immunity from the public burdens we have just described. In like manner, a statesman or a general who had deserved well of his country might be rewarded with the same privilege for himself and his children. With us such men occasionally obtain pensions, which, in a few instances, are continued to their descendants. With the Athenians, they enjoyed what was perhaps almost an equivalent—exemption from costly and burdensome services.

It is easy to see that many abuses might creep into this system; and that even without any very glaring abuses, there might be much envy and dissatisfaction. Privileges of any kind are sure to give offence, and in a democratical community they cannot fail to furnish a handle to demagogues and politicians. We are therefore not surprised to find that at Athens in 356 B.C. a law was proposed and carried repealing all exemptions and immunities. The author of the law was a certain Leptines, who was no doubt put forward as the spokesman of a considerable party. He contrived to get a measure of a very sweeping kind passed, so that not only were all existing grants of immunity abolished, but it was declared illegal to make such grants in the future, and even to ask for them was forbidden under a heavy penalty. We do not know whether there was any special impulse or provocation under which the people of Athens allowed themselves to be persuaded into passing this law. It roused, of course, a strong opposition, the leader of which was a son of the famous Chabrias, who had fallen in his country's cause, fighting on board his ship at the siege of Chios. The son had inherited from his father one of these honourable grants of immunity. He was, it seems, himself utterly unworthy of it; but he represented a principle, and had, we may be sure, a numerous following. Demosthenes became his advocate, and in the year subsequent to the passing of the law, he assailed it in a speech which has always been much admired.

This was his first political effort. He was quite a young man at the time—thirty years of age at most, probably less. The speech he delivered does not exhibit the fire and force of some of his subsequent orations; it is calm and argumentative, and deserves the epithet of "subtle" which Cicero[1] applies to it. It is in fact a specimen throughout of close and consecutive reasoning. Leptines' proposal was no doubt popular, and it was supported by many plausible arguments. The circumstances of the State were such as made any exemptions and immunities from public burdens of very questionable expediency. Athens had been seriously impoverished by her recent disastrous war with her allies, and many of her richer citizens must, for a time at least, have been sorely straitened in their resources. To exempt such wealthy men from burdens which there was not too much wealth left to bear, might well seem a distinct loss to the State. It increased the difficulty of providing for those public festivals which were so dear to the people. It could also no doubt be plausibly argued that exemptions had been granted too freely, and now and then to thoroughly unworthy persons. Many a man not particularly rich would think himself aggrieved, when he saw some one far richer than himself altogether exempt. The favoured few were sure to be envied, and might almost be said to be defrauding the State of what they owed it. The object, in fact, of the law of Leptines was, it might be contended, to insure for Athens the due performance of services which she had a right to claim from every citizen of ample means. The burden, he argued, ought to fall on all such; no exemptions ought to be granted, as it was likely they would be granted unwisely, and the examples of other states, such as Sparta and Thebes, showed that these grants were unnecessary. Besides, merit at Athens was rewarded in other ways; and in sweeping away such rewards as these, they would be really abolishing what was not needed by the possessors, and was at the same time injurious to the State. Thus the new law seemed on the surface a good one, and must have enlisted popular sympathy. It promised to get rid of invidious privileges, to distribute public burdens equitably, and to provide for the celebration of the festivals and games with becoming splendour.

The occasion was thus clearly one to task all the powers of an opposition speaker. If we want a modern analogy, we may suppose a motion brought forward in the House of Commons in a time of national distress, when every tax would be acutely felt, to abolish all pensions ever granted to deserving men and to their children. It is conceivable that such a proposition might find supporters at a trying crisis, and become a powerful party-cry. Demosthenes may well have had an uphill battle to fight. But he took the right ground, and rested his case on the highest moral principles and the most enlightened view of political expediency. The faith and honour of the State, he maintained, must be superior to all other considerations. We may say that the text of his speech was—"A good name is better than riches."

First, he argued that it was unjust to deprive the people of the power to grant special privileges because they had sometimes granted them improperly.

 

"You might as well take from them all their constitutional rights because they do not always exercise them wisely. Even if a few undeserving persons received these privileges, this was better than that none should be conferred, and that a powerful encouragement to patriotism should be withdrawn. To revoke gifts which the State had bestowed would be a scandalous breach of the national faith. It would cast a slur on democratic government, and create an impression that such governments were as little to be trusted as those of oligarchs and despots. It would be base ingratitude to many distinguished foreigners—for example, to the king of Bosporus, from whose country much corn was exported to Athens, free of duty—and such men for the future would not care to befriend the State in a time of need. It was nothing to the purpose to speak of Sparta and Thebes, as proofs that these grants of exemption were not required. The whole genius and character of those states were so radically different, that no conclusion could be reasonably drawn from them as to what suited Athenians. It was of supreme importance that Athens, as the noblest representative of Greece, should value above all things a character for justice, generosity, and public spirit. To attempt to bind her for all future time by a law which might be a hurtful and dangerous check on patriotic impulses must be inexpedient. No one could foresee what course politics might take, and it was possible that citizens like Harmodius and Aristogeiton might again be needed. All human legislation must take account of such possibilities and contingencies, improbable as they might seem at the time. The law of Leptines was, in fact, an offence to Nemesis, which ever waits on arrogance and presumption."

 

These were some of the chief arguments with which Demosthenes combated the reasonings of his opponent. In one passage he reminds his audience how careful Athens had been in the past of her good name.

 

"You have to consider not merely whether you love money, but whether you love also a good name, which you are more anxious after than money; and not you only, but your ancestors, as I can prove. For when they had got wealth in abundance, they expended it all in pursuit of honour. For glory's sake they never shrank from any danger, but persevered to the last, spending even their private fortunes. Instead of a good name, this law fastens an opprobrium on the commonwealth, unworthy both of your ancestors and yourselves. It begets three of the greatest reproaches—the reputation of being envious, faithless, and ungrateful. That it is altogether foreign to your character to establish a law like this, I will endeavour to prove in a few words by recounting one of the former acts of the State. The Thirty Tyrants are said to have borrowed money from the Lacedæmonians to attack the party in the Piræus. When unanimity was restored, and these troubles were composed, the Lacedæmonians sent ambassadors and demanded payment of their money. Upon this there arose a debate, and some contended that the borrowers, the city party, should pay; others advised that it should be the first proof of harmony to join in discharging the debt. The people, we know, determined themselves to contribute, and share in the expense, to avoid breaking any article of their convention. Then, were it not shameful if, at that time, you chose to contribute money for the benefit of persons who had injured you, rather than break your word, yet now, when it is in your power, without cost, to do justice to your benefactors by repealing this law, you should prefer to break your word?"

 

He argues that the envious, grudging spirit displayed in the law is, of all things, most alien to Athenian feeling.

"Every possible reproach should be avoided, but most of all, that of being envious. Why? Because envy is altogether the mark of a bad disposition, and to have this feeling is wholly unpardonable. Besides, abhorring, as our commonwealth does, everything disgraceful, there is no reproach from which she is further removed than from the imputation of being envious. Observe how strong are the proofs. In the first place, you are the only people who have state funerals for the dead, and funeral orations in which you glorify the actions of brave men. Such a custom is that of a people which admires virtue, and does not envy others who are honoured for it. In the next place, you have ever bestowed the highest rewards upon those who win the garlands in gymnastic contests; nor have you, because but few are born to partake of such rewards, envied the parties receiving them, nor abridged your honours on that account. Add to these striking evidences that no one appears ever to have surpassed our State in liberality—such munificence has she displayed in requiting services. All these are manifestations of justice, virtue, magnanimity. Do not destroy the character for which our State has all along been renowned; do not, in order that Leptines may wreak his personal malice upon some whom he dislikes, deprive the State and yourselves of the honourable name which you have enjoyed throughout all time. Regard this as a contest purely for the dignity of Athens, whether it is to be maintained the same as before, or to be impaired and degraded."

 

The following passage is near the conclusion of the speech. He is arguing against the impolicy of binding the State for the future by such a law:—

"To one thing more I beg your attention. This law cannot be good which makes the same provision for the future as the past. 'No one shall be exempt,' it says, 'not even the descendants of Harmodius and Aristogeiton.' Good. 'Nor shall it be lawful to grant exemptions hereafter.' Not if similar men arise? Blame former doings as you may, know you also the future? Oh, but we are far from expecting anything of the kind, I trust we are; but being human, our language and our law should be such as not to shock religious sentiment; and while we look for good fortune, and implore heaven to grant it, we will regard all fortune as subject to human casualties. The future, I take it, is uncertain to all men, and small occasions are productive of great events. Therefore we will be moderate in prosperity, and show that we have an eye to the future."

 

It may be said that there is much of a modern tone and character about this speech. Its arguments are those of a constitutional lawyer and of a far-sighted politician. It is quiet and temperate, and at the same time singularly convincing. It was successful in its immediate object, and it must have established the reputation of Demosthenes as a political debater of the first rank. From this time he must have felt but little timidity or hesitation in addressing that critical audience—the Athenian popular assembly.

  1. Orator, c. xxxi.