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Jul 27, 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Choice of Achilles

Long begins a series about the legacy left to libertarianism by ancient Greece with a discussion of Achilles and the Homeric attitude toward war and glory.

The extent of ancient Greek culture’s contribution to the understanding and advancement of human liberty is much debated.

For the Marxist historian C. L. R. James, “the freedom to do and think as you please, not only in politics but in private life, was the very life-blood of the Greeks”; he attributes to Athenian democracy in particular a commitment to “the creative power of freedom and the capacity of the ordinary man to govern.”1 From a rather different political quarter, arch-capitalist philosopher Ayn Rand is similarly enthusiastic, calling Greek civilization “the first human step in recorded history,” and arguing that “a comparative degree of political freedom undercut the power of mysticism and, for the first time, man was free to face an unobstructed universe.”2

On the other hand, Benjamin Constant and Frédéric Bastiat, two of the leading figures of 19th-century French liberalism, were rather less impressed.  In his 1819 essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns,”3 Constant contrasted the modern conception of liberty, namely “peaceful enjoyment and private independence,” with the ancient conception of liberty, which he identified as “participation in collective power” – a version of liberty unfortunately all too compatible with “the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community.” While granting that Athens was a partial exception to this rule, allowing “an infinitely greater individual liberty than Sparta or Rome” – a fact he attributes to Athens’ being “of all the Greek republics the most closely engaged in trade” – Constant nevertheless insists that “the individual was much more subservient to the supremacy of the social body in Athens, than he is in any of the free states of Europe today.”

Bastiat, for his part, in “Academic Degrees and Socialism”4 expressed his dismay at the dominance of “Greco-Roman ideas” in university education.  The ancients, who glorified warfare, lived off slave labor, and disparaged production and trade – expressing the “prevailing opinion in antiquity that industry is ignoble” – were the worst possible models for modern politics; hence, Bastiat concluded, it was madness to send the youth of the nation, “with the intention of preparing them for labor, peace, and freedom,” to “drink in, and become imbued and saturated with, the feelings and the opinions of a nation of brigands and slaves.”

Each side in this dispute has a point, for the simple reason that classical Greece’s legacy for liberty is mixed and complex.  But an examination of Homer and Hesiod, the two most celebrated founders of the Greek poetic tradition, suggests that at least some important currents in Greek thought were not solely dedicated to exalting military glory over peace and industry.

Let’s start with Homer – or “Homer,” the standard name for the purported author of the Iliad and Odyssey, epic poems dramatizing the pivotal events in the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Modern scholars view these works as a compilation of earlier oral tradition that began to take its current shape around the 8th century BCE; whether the final product was assembled by a few hands or many remains unclear. Consequently it’s difficult to say how far we can expect a single authorial voice to inform the Homeric corpus. All the same, within the Homeric perspective it is possible to identify a continuous strand of skepticism concerning the worth of martial glory.

“Homer’s” most vivid opposition between the pursuits of war and of peace is found in the depiction of the “two cities” on the shield that the god Hephaistos designs for the Iliad’s central figure, the Greek warrior Achilles:

On it he wrought in all their beauty two cities of mortal
men. And there were marriages in one, and festivals ….
The young men followed the circles of the dance, and among them
the flutes and lyres kept up their clamor ….
But around the other city were lying two forces of armed men
shining in their war gear.5

The city of peace is the scene not only of celebrations but of productive work: “a soft field, the pride of the tilled land, wide and triple-ploughed, with many ploughmen upon it who wheeled their teams at the turn” while occasionally pausing for “a flagon of honey-sweet wine.” In the city of war, by contrast, soldiers ambush “two herdsmen … playing happily on pipes,” slaughter them, and seize their “flocks of shining sheep.” Then these soldiers are set upon by other soldiers in turn, with sanguinary results:

[A]nd they were making casts at each other with their spears bronze-headed;
and Hate was there with Confusion among them, and Death the destructive;
she was holding a live man with a new wound, and another
one unhurt, and dragged a dead man by the feet through the carnage.
The clothing upon her shoulders showed strong red with the men’s blood.
All closed together like living men and fought with each other
and dragged away from each other the corpses of those who had fallen.6

Now to be sure, the city of peace is not idyllic; we are told that in the marketplace “a quarrel had arisen, and two men were disputing over the blood price for a man who had been killed.” But the disputants are described as appealing to legal adjudication rather than violence to resolve their disagreement; they “made for an arbitrator, to have a decision,” and “took turns speaking their cases,” while “two talents of gold” lie promised to “that judge who in this case spoke the straightest opinion.” Such arbitration is represented as the civilized alternative to the warlike method of problem-solving.

The opposition between war and peace on Achilles’ shield is symbolic of the choice Achilles himself is offered by his prophetic mother: a choice between a short and violent life of everlasting glory, and a long and peaceful life of scant renown.  Oddly enough, generations of readers both ancient and modern have come away from the text with the impression that Achilles chooses the short and glorious life, when in fact he does precisely the opposite.  Achilles explains his choice in the following words:

                                                                        For not
worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable
were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel ….
[T]ripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
home again ….7

While Achilles does eventually return to the battle, he does so to avenge the death of his friend Patroklos, and not because he has come to prefer military glory to peaceful longevity. Indeed, even as he prepares for his bloody vengeance, he still expresses the wish “that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall, which makes a man grow angry.”8 Not quite the full libertarian program yet, but surely the core of it.

In the Iliad’s companion epic, the Odyssey, Achilles is once again put forward as offering a repudiation of the death-and-glory ethos. When Odysseus in his wanderings visits the land of the dead and, meeting the shade of the deceased Achilles, congratulates him on his “great authority over the dead,” Achilles sharply replies:

I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead.9

Nor can the accusations of cowardice and softness, usually hurled at those who prefer long life to military victory, be plausibly applied to Achilles, generally recognized as the Greeks’ finest and fiercest warrior. By putting such anti-militarist sentiments into the mouth of a character like Achilles, “Homer” raises a significant challenge to those who prefer the arts of war to the arts of peace.


  1. C. L. R. James, Every Cook Can Govern:  A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece:  Its Meaning for Today (Michigan: Facing Reality, 1956).
  2. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York, New American Library, 1963), p. 22.
  3. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/constant-the-liberty-of-ancients-compared-with-that-of-moderns-1819
  4. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/956#lf0181_label_127
  5. Iliad 18. 490-510; Richmond Lattimore translation (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1951).
  6. Iliad 18. 524-546.
  7. Iliad 9. 400-418.
  8. Iliad 18. 107-108.
  9. Odyssey 11. 485-491; Richmond Lattimore translation (New York:  Harper & Row, 1967).

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