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Ancient Greek Wisdom

The Tragedy That Was Athens

Alex Holzman sees the history of Golden Age Athens as a play with Pericles and Socrates as its tragic heroes.

The most prominent dramatic distinction we’ve inherited from the Greeks is that between comedy and tragedy. Comedies end in marriages and happily-ever-afters. Greek tragedies are also easy to identify, as they usually end with the death, imprisonment, despondency, or some other unraveling of the principal character(s). This is almost always due to some set of character flaws, or hamartia, from the Greek meaning ‘to err’.

One recurrent tragic set of character flaws revolves around hubris, which refers to an over-reaching mixture of pride and arrogance, generally against some divine force, entity, or hierarchy (it originally meant the use of bodily violence to shame a victim). Icarus is perhaps the most straightforward example of hubris. He’s a boy whose brilliant (and equally hubristic) father Daedalus crafts for him a pair of waxen wings in his desire to seize the power of flight from the gods, in order for them to escape imprisonment. But Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings are melted, he falls, and is swallowed by the sea. Either ignorant or unconcerned with his mortality, in flying too close to the sun he has encroached upon the realm of the gods, and in doing so has lost touch with his own rationality, duty, and life. Icarus attempts to seize the heavens, and for this is lost forever to the depths. Similarly, Daedalus’ flight to freedom results in his losing his ideals and plunges his spirits to the depths: his son is dead, his invention destroyed, and although his body is freed, his spirit is broken.

The glory that was Athens by Leo von Kranze

Here we can see that the punishment for hubris is often mired in irony, another device central to Greek storytelling. If hubris is born from the ignorance of a character – from their being unaware of their limits, and proudly so – then irony grows out of their ignorance of their ignorance. The word ‘irony’ itself comes from the Greek eirōneía, meaning ‘feigned ignorance.’ This is a reference to the stock Greek comic character the eirôn, whose tongue-in-cheek self-effacement really directed towards blowhards usually won him the day. In tragedy, this character is inverted into someone whose ignorance is not feigned, lacking the self-awareness of the eirôn: he cannot help but stray into hubris, and thereby into tragedy. The thematic consequences they suffer serve to highlight their ignorance, and caution the audience against reckless pride. Another example is Midas’s desire for a golden touch, turning his true treasures – his wife and daughter – to cold metal.

Since the ironic cycle of action and reaction culminates only at a story’s end, even when it’s predictable irony is inherently retrospective. So it ensnares the hubristic in a dramatic trap, depriving them of agency in return for the audience’s emotional catharsis or cleansing.

This entrapment in time and space – this subjugation to story – is core to Greek narrative notions of human life, mortality, and fate. At the center of the most famous Greek stories is a single man or woman into whose narrative orbit fall people, monsters, and gods. Obviously, the public will relate readily to stories of common people (or highly anthropomorphic deities) overcoming Herculean struggles. The anthropocentrism also reinforces the importance of human life and of human mortality. The archetypal Greek tragedy is both an affirmation of life and an acquiescence to death, for to live and to die is the lot of (wo)man, and to live honorably and die humbly is the lot of a great (wo)man. Those characters who do not recognize this (and most, in the end, do not) are doomed by their hubris to ironic destruction. They will achieve immortality in a sense, but only through the denial of their selves.

Let’s see how these ideas apply to Golden Age Athens.

Pericles: glory or bust

Pericles’ Tragic Monologue

Both Pericles’ (c.495-429 BCE) and Athens’ hubris are as dramatic and complete as that of any mythical figures. Pericles, the great leader and statesman of Golden Age Athens, would be claimed by a ravenous plague that decimated the city as a result of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta of 431-404 BCE. Convinced though it was of its inevitable victory, Athens lost the war, along with its democracy, its empire, and its cultural preeminence. The war entangled every major power on the Greek peninsula, along with their overseas colonies and military alliances. By the end, poverty and disease ran rampant across the city-states. Religious taboos were shattered as Pan-Hellenic festivals were invaded and temples sacked and burned. Devastating civil wars and revolts proliferated, some of which would last until Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great (but viewed by the Athenians as little more than a barbarian warlord) easily conquered the peninsula in 337 BCE.

The Peloponnesian War marked nothing less than the complete upheaval of the social order so beloved by Pericles. Even as its greatest leader extolled Athens’ virtues in a funeral speech, the city was embarking upon a conflict that would forever end its self-styled hegemony. Athenians were, in the end, ignorant of their own fate and unheeding of the very legends that described their proclivity towards greatness and the downfall that might result.

In Pericles’ famous funeral oration in Athens, he is so convinced of Athens’ self-evident greatness that he slips into hubris and irony, and in so doing becomes as tragically immortalised as Medea or Orpheus.

A few lines of his speech demonstrate the irony particularly well. First is his admonition that “We do not need Homer, or anyone else, to praise our power with words that bring delight for a moment, when the truth will refute his assumptions about what was done.” In demeaning storytelling as a way of capturing truth, Pericles ignores the obvious fact that his own words are scarcely different: his oration is itself little more than ‘words that bring delight for a moment’, especially considering the lingering despair that would soon descend upon Athens. He is correct in that the truth will refute the assumptions of the storyteller; he was wrong, however, about who that refuted storyteller would be – himself. He is correct (as even tragic heroes can be), that Athens will be the “admiration of people now and in the future.” But that which we admire today is exactly that which Pericles dismisses: the delightful words of Homer, and more relevantly, that other wordsmith Thucydides, who records Pericles’ oration in his History of the Peloponnesian War. (Even calling it ‘Pericles’ funeral oration’ is somewhat disingenuous because it is in reality Thucydides’ oration, since he doubtless edited the speech to put the dramatic spin on history he wanted.)

Similarly telling is Pericles’ claim that Athens has “set up eternal monuments on all sides, of [its] setbacks as well as of [its] accomplishments.” This is a less than subtle political flourish, aimed at reminding his listeners of his own building program, responsible, among other things, for the reconstruction of the Acropolis during Athens’ zenith.


At the heart of this program, of course, is the Parthenon, the highest achievement of the Doric architectural order, and symbol of both Athenian and Greek cultural supremacy. Built and decorated by 432 BCE, the paint would barely have been dry when Pericles gave his funeral oration at the end of 431. Neither a traditional Hellenic temple nor a cult sanctuary, the Parthenon was, as Pericles suggests, a victory monument, actually to the Battle of Marathon against Persia. Marathon was doubtless the greatest military accomplishment in Athens’ history, if not all of Greek history, and it was worth remembering at the outset of a grueling new conflict.

Pericles’ political nous in evoking Athens’ past glories, as well as reminding his audience who it was who built these ‘eternal monuments’, is unquestionable. So too is the arrogance and irony belying it. The Parthenon was not, after all, eternal in the way Pericles certainly presented it, and possibly imagined it, to be. It still stands today, but it was horribly burned in the third century AD, as well as sacked by mere pirates. Pagan worship there was banned by Theodosius II in 435 AD, and its great cult statue of Athena was spirited away and destroyed on foreign soil. It was converted, first to a Catholic church, and then into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire, whose war with the Venetians caused it catastrophic damage. Then, as it lay in ruins, much of its statuary was carted off by Lord Elgin to the British Museum. It is true that the Parthenon is eternal in what it has come to more broadly represent: namely the aesthetic, architectural, and intellectual majesty of the Ancient Greeks. Yet this is itself an ironic twist of fate for Pericles and Athens: the same longevity that enabled the Parthenon to outlive Alexander and Rome and to dazzle modern tourists also allowed its appropriation for long centuries by nations who cared nothing for Greece’s ancient gods or Athens’ glory.

The Irony of Socrates

Unfortunately, it would be wrong to think that the tragic story of Athens ended after Pericles’ hubris and the Peloponnesian War. Every good tragic hero needs an opportunity for redemption, or at least the emotional release of catharsis. For Athens, this comes in the form of the strange, impossible man known as Socrates. But this story also ends tragically.

As presented by Plato in The Apology, Socrates (470-399 BCE) is a man of contradictions who embodies a peculiar type of irony. After learning that the Delphic oracle considers that no-one surpasses him in wisdom he is perplexed, since he considers himself anything but wise. He attempts to prove the oracle wrong by speaking with all those considered wise, only to find out that they were in fact deeply ignorant. Concerning one such exchange he concludes that “it is likely that neither of us know anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know, so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent” (Apology 21a, trans. G.M.A Grube).

In thinking like this Socrates becomes a profound subversion of the hubristic character. He is convinced that the gods must be wrong; but this belief is based on his own humility. Similarly, he believes his investigation to be ‘in the service of the god’, even while making the purpose of that investigation to ‘refute the oracle’ (21b-22a). So he is at once deeply hubristic – denying the gods’ wisdom, stepping outside the social order, unaccepting of his fate as the wisest man of all – while still lacking the self-centeredness and arrogance typical of tragic figures.

Unfortunately, Socrates is also deeply ironic, his fate equally so. As with the eirôn, it ought to be clear that Socrates’ comparative ‘ignorance’ is to an extent feigned. The oft-mentioned ‘impossibility’ of Socrates is in part due to the unrealistic psychology of believing that you know nothing, since ‘knowing that you know nothing’ is a contradiction in itself, is incoherent. Socrates also says that he knows more than everyone else in Athens, thereby admitting that he is the wisest of all. The Apology is a dramatic presentation of Socrates’ defense while on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens by introducing new beliefs to them; and his tone towards his accusers and even the jury is nothing short of condescending. He is openly insulting towards Meletus, an otherwise respectable Athenian, and is implicitly critical of the entire trial, as farcical as it is. And why should he act otherwise? It is clear that his true crime is saying what people do not wish to hear while playing the innocent naïve. His propensity to do this is at the heart of what is now aptly called ‘Socratic irony’. Like the eirôn, then, there is a comical quality to Socrates’ argumentative technique, which was satirized by comic works such as Aristophanes’ The Clouds. But Socrates owns his hubris, as well as his irony. He is conscious of his ignorance – in contrast to the Athens of Pericles’ time, whose assuredness can yield nothing but disappointment.

Socrates’ treatment of mortality and fate also distinguishes him from the dominant thinking of Athens. When asked by the court to suggest a punishment for his ‘crimes’, Socrates recommends that he be given free meals at public expense in return for what he views as a public service. This is little more than a sneering joke, for his fate was all but decided: it would be death. Yet unlike so many other tragic heroes, for whom death is the ultimate fear, Socrates fears it not at all. Death is frightening only to those who expect to live forever; to those who feel entitled to immortality and view death as its thief; to those who have not truly lived the good life. In fact, Socrates views death as entirely preferable to the alternative, which is to have to stop asking those annoying questions, and so to live a life of true and imposed ignorance. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he famously concludes (38a).

During Socrates’ lifetime Athens had lost the vast majority of its prestige, wealth, power, and moral superiority. The confidence of Pericles could no longer be justified. Athens’ lashing out against Socrates was symptomatic of an insecure society faced with a reality incongruous with their historical self-esteem and a slow decline undeserving of their past glory. Their beliefs had been forcibly questioned by decades of struggle and suffering: they had little patience for a condescending vagrant’s fresh insults. Yet in a final ironic twist of fate, it would be Socrates’ philosophy that would immortalize Athens. Socrates was the last true Athenian, and for this his fate was a belly full of hemlock and a spirit full of wisdom.

Summating History

A classical tragedy consisted of four parts: a valorous beginning establishing the character’s daring or worthiness; the subsequent descent of the hero into folly and hubris; a climactic punishment befitting their pride; and finally a cathartic finale, enunciating the error of the antagonist’s ways. The oration of Pericles and the outcome of the Peloponnesian War as told by Thucydides, and the defense of Socrates as told by Plato, together map perfectly to this narrative schema.

First, Pericles’ oration sets out the assured magnificence of Athens.

The inner frieze of the Parthenon demonstrates this magnificence well. If Joan Breton Connelly in ‘Parthenon and Parthenoi’ (American Journal of Archaeology 100.1, 1996) is to be believed (as she ought to be), part of the frieze depicts the founding myth of Athens, in which the king Erechtheus and his wife Praxithea prepare to sacrifice their daughters to save Athens from war. This act establishes both Athens itself and the city’s claims to divinely ordained distinction. The myth suggests that as long as Athenians remember and emulate Eretchtheus’ family and their sacrifices, they will continue to be looked upon kindly by the gods. The glory of Athens’ in its founding as presented in this myth consists in how it is at once honorable and strong-willed, as well as pious, humble, and self-sacrificing. This is a highly hubristic design choice, but an unsurprising one, considering that Pericles himself oversaw the project.

But the very same assuredness of Athens would lead inevitably to hubris. Athens had enjoyed so much success for so many generations that it became inconceivable that things could ever be otherwise. Just as Xerxes and his father were so convinced of their unstoppable military power, until it was stopped at Marathon, so too was Pericles beguiled by Athens’ triumphs. When Athens suffers defeat after defeat in the Peloponnesian War; when it loses a significant portion of its male population in a disastrous invasion of Sicily; when its democracy is dismantled by its Spartan enemies and a puppet tyranny is installed, the punishment of Athens’ pride reaches its climax. All that is left is for Socrates, a peculiar, misanthropic, gadfly of a man, to put them in their place and offer us, the audience, a semblance of catharsis. Socrates’ willing acceptance of his sentence shames Athens; for where the city implicitly fears its demise, Socrates accepts his own with dignity, humility, and virtue. In acquiescing to death, Socrates affirms life – most of all, the examined life.

So what can be taken away from the tragedy that is ancient Athens? Surely there must be something. After all, modern Western civilization seems every day to slip further into Periclean hubris, even as the consequences ratchet ever upward.

Thucydides’ cynicism towards human nature predicts as much. But perhaps Thucydides is correct to doubt humanity’s ability to overcome our tragic collective propensities. It is no coincidence that Greek tragedy and its modes remains so engrained in what is now rapidly becoming a global culture, for we seem to have learned little from their examples. Yet at the same time, our ability to capture our less savory habits in art and science suggests that we, like Socrates, at least stand a chance of recognizing those limitations in ourselves.

Athens and its democracy disappeared, true; but its values and philosophies lived on in Rome, Europe, then in North America, Asia, and beyond. The world never forgot Athens. Pericles may have been arrogant to a fault, but he was far from wrong: Athens was a shining city on the hill, a testament to humanity’s lofty achievements, a beacon of culture in a world of barbarism. And like a tragic heroine, it slipped all to easily into greed, hypocrisy, egoism, and pride.

We must learn to appreciate both the Athens described by Pericles and that chronicled by Thucydides: we must surrender to fate as did Erechtheus, and ridicule those who do not, as did Socrates. The wisdom of the ancients is all that remains of their civilization, in scraps and fragments though it is. We owe it to them as much to ourselves to not follow in their footsteps but instead read the maps of history they left behind.

© Alex Holzman 2020

Alex Holzman is a former student of philosophy and current staff member at The College of New Jersey.

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