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October 15, 2005

The Other Greeks

(The family farm and the agrarian roots of Western civilization)
Victor Davis Hanson – ISBN – 0029137519

Herein Hanson chronicles the little known history of the yeoman farmers. These were the original, independent land owners: people who seldom farmed more than 10 acres, but those few very intensively. They were free to implement new ideas and develop proven routines, take their own risks and profits . . . and they were the ones who actually established the city states of ancient Greece. The end of the Greek Dark Ages (1,000 BC) represented a rare time in history wherein, with the collapse of prior dynastic rule, men were judged by competence and work, not inherited wealth or birth. Economic success and independence were possibilities, based upon productivity alone.

Noting that we tend to think in terms of Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alcibiades, Aeschylus, etal, he informs that these were all “followers-on” to the original founders of the polis—simple and successful farmers, all. The glue holding this together seems to have been a common subscription to the simple values of the agrarian ideology, even by those of wealth, as well as the landless poor.

As he often does, the author laments and emphasizes the downfall of Western culture, including the educational vacuum surrounding history. (In that regard, I recommend his treatise: The Death of Homer, in which he explores in detail this threatening dilemma.)

“In the twilight of classical studies in this country [it should be better known] that the Greeks were not distant, unapproachable grandees, the property now of a few thousand well-educated Westerners (present day niche academics.) Instead, the Hellenes were resourceful farmers who devised their own society intended to protect and to advance their brand of agriculture. Their achievement was the precursor in the West of private ownership, free economic activity, constitutional government, social notions of equality, decisive battle, and civilian control over every facet of the military—practices that affect every one of us right now. In this light, Greek agriculture is not a different approach to the traditional questions of Western civilization but a topic now vital to the existence of our own culture.”

Four centuries before the appearance of Imperial Athens (about 800 BC), these yeomen worked out a system wherein small land owners banded together to provide for the common defense and promote their general welfare, thus to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. The accumulation of wealth and property appears to have been actively discouraged. This, in turn, led to peace and prosperity for the many. There is no prior record in history of such a development.

In the ensuing centuries they produced the abundance of food which enhanced the earliest cities in which other productive citizens, freed from the necessity of food production, were able to become craftsmen and merchants. Prolific production created plenty, and were able to export to regional neighbors, food and other products, creating the capital with which to improve and stabilize their cities--the “meeting places” wherein the problems and dilemmas of the day were discussed and voted upon.

Only the landowners were able to afford the armaments with which they protected themselves, and only those who farmed and fought were permitted to govern. Therein arose the original armies of democrats—the Greek citizen infantry--imbued with attitudes of cooperation and the value of individual life. They fought as a unit and were able to defend their own territories, saving lives and limiting military expenditures. Their primary philosophy was defensive, not offensive, and they valued protecting themselves from harm over inflicting casualties. Rarely did they go beyond the bordering lands, and felt they lost the moral high ground by invading the home territories of another clan/city state.

Only later did there develop “radical democracy” in which many of the citizens were permitted to vote, and much of this was attendant the growing wealth of the cities, with merchants and freed slaves who were included in the voting public. Still later the oarsmen of the Greek armadas were permitted the vote. Ultimately, the demands of the Peloponnesian wars and the Persian menace undercut the attitudes of the yeoman agriculturalist, and spelled the doom of Greece, classical and otherwise, permitting the rise of Philip, and Alexander, of Macedon.

“Many of the cherished ideals of Athenian culture and even some of its most exalted notions of Greek philosophy may owe their origins to the experience and aspirations of Attic peasantry.” Facts which ought to be taught, considered and understood!

So the origins of what we consider classical Greece were, in fact, the result of the labors and thoughts of the common man . . . the same sort as those who eventually built the United States. In searching for the genesis of our own culture we need look to the unique circumstances in the early Greek countryside, not simply to Imperial Athenian democracy. Look, that is, to individual effort and success, not the famous intellects of Imperial Athens.

Indeed, the subsequent development of large corporate farms, hired labor, mercenary service and sea power with their attendant horrendous expense, and participation of all citizens in politics regardless of property ownership was ultimately responsible for the erosion of the original concept of the polis and the eventual failure of Imperial Greece. Few now know that the lauded history of classical, antiquarian Athens lasted only a few of generations. Half of that life was under the rule of Pericles, and it began to fail immediately following his death in an epidemic of plague.

It is a fascinating read, and one which explores previously unplumbed depths.

Posted by respeto at October 15, 2005 12:26 PM