Throughout the past and present, human beings have had a natural tendency to believe they are better than average. The people of Athens were certainly no exception. They wanted to believe that they were the best humanity had to offer. The Athenians valued freedom and for every man to fulfill his own life and desires in peace. They claimed their sense of independence was balanced out through the fact that everyone upheld fair and just laws. They prided themselves on not sacrificing their individual identities (as the Spartans did) for the sake of military discipline and superiority.
They ultimately held themselves as the pinnacle of versatility, a city full of people who were jack-of-all-trades. But the reality fell quite short of the perception. First, the Athenians spoke highly of liberty for all, and of every man being held to an equal moral standard. But upon closer look at their society, especially their slave system, these ideals broke down. Secondly, they believed their military to be superior because they did not rely on their confederates. Yet their dispute with the Melians demonstrated their weaknesses.
Finally, the Athenians believed themselves exceptional in the arts and entertainment, when in reality only a small few could attain either the work or the fruits of the humanities in Athens. For these reasons, Athenians ultimately did not live up to their ideals. The Athenians spoke a great deal about how their people were free to pursue their goals. They specifically stated that poverty does not “bar the way” and that “if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.
Yet Aristotle writes that slaves serve in a way similar to domesticated animals; they work “not by exercise of reason but passively” and they “participate in the reasoning faculty so far as to understand but not to possess it. ” Furthermore, he questioned if slaves possessed some “other quality or virtue” that was more important or superior to “their value as tools and servants. ” Aristotle seems to be arguing that the slaves operate in distinctly different manners from free people.
Slaves, he says, only work because they essentially memorize what they have to do on a daily basis, not because they are in any way intelligent or capable of learning new things. Thus, he implies that slaves could not possibly be fit to perform anything but slave labor. In doing so, Aristotle is contradicting the Athenians’ professions that people are not obscured in their duties by their conditions. Aristotle’s work makes it clear that freedom, justice, and other concepts were not equal for all Athenians.
Slaves were held to far lower standards of justice, freedom, and self-respect than were non-slaves. In fact, considering that Aristotle was probably reflecting the popular attitudes of his time in many ways, it appears that many Athenians questioned if slaves were even capable of understanding, let alone receiving, things like self-respect, independence, and happiness. It was beyond obvious that everyone was supposed to know his or her place and serve faithfully, and without question, in Athenian society. As such, the Athenians most definitely fell short of their ideals at home.
The issue of freedom and justice were definitely not the only weaknesses of the Athenians, however. They also fell noticeably short of their own military ambitions and perceptions. They boasted that they were more than strong enough to hold their own and that their “diplomacy” of promising freedom for those who submitted to their rule could win over any hostile outsiders. Yet, in their attempted “negotiations” with the Melians, the Athenians essentially admitted they could not accept neutrality because they were afraid of looking weak in the eyes of their subjects.
In a sense, the Athenians admitted their shortcomings right to their enemies’ faces. A stable empire with a truly strong military would not possess such a fear, at least not to the extent that its policies would revolve around that fear. Furthermore, the Melians pointed out that the Athenians’ rationale and strategy were fairly absurd: they should instead allow the Melians and others to remain neutral. By being aggressive conquerors, the Athenians will only create more bitterness, anger, and resentment among their subjects, and thus invite more hostility from their subjects and outsiders.
The Athenians, letting their pride come first, rejected this argument and refused to consider the possibility of a friendly yet neutral Melos. In addition to their flawed diplomacy, the Athenians’ actual military tactics were deeply faulty and in some ways downright incompetent. They had to use most of their army to surround and conquer Melos. Thus, in the event of some kind of setback or emergency, only a small portion of the army would be able to defend Athens. Furthermore, the Athenians also required help from allies and collaborators within Melos, and suffered fairly heavy causalities before they finally conquering Melos.
This reality directed contradicted their boasts that, unlike the Spartans, they could “advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbor” without any confederates. The icing on the cake was Athenians’ murder of all of the Melian adult men and enslavement of the Melian women and children. In doing so, they further demonstrated that their character was not as high and noble as they proclaimed it to be. Finally, the Athenians were not the all-incorporating masters of the humanities and civic participation that they wanted to believe they were.
They argued that their population consisted of culturally refined citizens who were zealously committed to social matters and issues. However, observers noticed that, in actuality, this perception was utterly skewed. On a physical level, many common Athenian citizens were also nearly impossible to distinguish from slaves because they were so lackadaisical in their clothing. In fact, not only was this occurrence so common as to ridicule the notion of cultural refinement, but it was so severe as to cause legal problems as well.
Slaves were property that could be abused by anyone; free citizens were not. Thus, anyone could mistake a free person for a slave, abuse the person, and promptly land into trouble from the law. On a more social level, many Athenian citizens felt alienated from sports, arts, and other entertainment because they felt they were not skilled enough. As such, choruses, sports, theater and the like tended to be run almost exclusively by the wealthy, privileged, and/or skilled. The poorer majority tended to be cynically involved only for money.
Furthermore, community organizers, legal officials, and other social and public positions tended to be dominated by this type of small, privileged elite as well. The gap in access to the arts and entertainment caused large (if rather quiet) resentment among most of the population. Additionally, on the political and social level, many Athenians were apathetic at best; they believed that a minority of self-serving people who were not truly interested in justice dominated their community.
Thus, the average Athenian citizen could be fairly safely summed up as unkempt, uncultured, uninterested in social matters, and self-serving; in any case, most Athenians were a far cry from the glowing description of themselves. Further still, the humanities and civic participation could clearly be added to a long list of areas that were not quite the Athenians’ strong suit. It is beyond obvious from the above evidence that the Athenians did not live up to their proclaimed ideals.
Their concept of freedom and justice was severely lacking; their system of slavery was built on the assumption that not everyone was physically and mentally capable of giving equal kinds of service and work. Their military was also not quite as invincible and self-sufficient as they claimed; they required most of the army to conquer Melos in a prolonged, bloody battle, all of which was based on the questionable assumption and fear that the lack of displayed force made the Athenians look “weak.
Finally, there was a deep inequality of access to the humanities and ability to participate in civic matters that pervaded across Athens. For most citizens, any real appreciation or ability to participate in entertainment or social issues was severely limited and overcome by doubts of self-worth and a sense of hopelessness and apathy. Many resigned to the apparent fact that the humanities and civil positions were dominated by a small group of privileged people. Without a doubt, the Athenians let their pride blind them to the reality of their rather deplorable conditions.