The Greeks and Us

        By Gaither Stewart


When the dictator Pisistratus returned from political exile to Athens in a golden chariot he was accompanied by an extremely tall woman dressed in full battle armor. He presented to citizens the imposing figure as the Goddess Athena herself, come to restore order and well-being to the strife-ridden city of Athens. People along the streets knelt down to the goddess and gave thanks for their salvation from the tumult surrounding them.

            Reading in these stormy days Thomas Cahill’s beautiful book, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Why the Greeks Matter, I was struck by the many analogies between the misty history of ancient Greece and contemporary America. That book led me then to other works on Greece and to collections of the great Greek plays that read extremely well today twenty-five centuries later. 

            It was the year 546 B.C. Athens had evolved from a monarchy to rule by the aristocracy. Pisistratus, the son of the aristocrat Hypocrates, had built a political power base in Athens as a populist. He first came to power illegally in 565 B.C., which called to mind the dubious Presidential elections in the United States in the year 2000 A.D.

A born conspirator, Pisistratus first faked an attempt on his life, after which he was able to convince the Popular Assembly to grant him a powerful bodyguard. He used this super police force, a kind of militarized FBI, to conquer the Acropolis, the Capitol Hill of ancient Athens.

            After the first term of his despotic rule, an alliance of rival parties forced the dictator into exile. But Pisistratus, undeterred and crazy for power, soon began plotting his return. Then, to the surprise of the naïve Greeks, a goddess escorted a mortal political leader back in power.

Roberto Calasso narrates in Le Nozze di Cadmo e Armonia (The Marriage of Cadmo and Harmony) how Pisistratus taught the beautiful country girl, Phye, to act like a goddess. Dressed in armor and mounted in the chariot at his side, she must have looked majestic. Proceeded by heralds announcing to the Athenians the good tidings that the goddess herself was conducting him back to the Acropolis, Pisistratus returned to power.

            Historians concur that Athenians sincerely believed that the divinity had come to earth to install Pisistratus. Strangely, this old story of public gullibility rings familiar and contemporary: God was on the side of the dictator. God was stepping in the save Athens, its children, its faith, and its “way of life.”

            Aristotle later wrote that, “this deception was by far the most ingenuous since the sophisticated Hellenic people had diverged from their barbarian forebears.” According to Herodotus, Athenian credulousness about the goddess was alien even to the childish ingenuity of the barbarians.

Yet, it was a deception that reveals a truth which otherwise could escape our notice and slip away from us. That truth is that the citizens of Athens not only believed in their gods but they accepted the possibility that one day the goddess Athena would enter their city in a chariot – because they were worthy of the protection and special blessing of the gods.

Mythology? Nonsense? Well, no. God is always a magic word on the lips of political leaders. They can’t leave God in his place. They bring Him to the market place. It was as easy to con the Athenians as it is for George W. Bush to con Americans today. God and public prayers work. Mention God and that He is on their side and people listen. People still fall for it. Our political leaders today use the same trick old Pisistratus used, two and a half millennia ago. Over and over and over.

            Later, a more modern Aristotle treated the return of Pisistratus with the goddess at his side as mythological and allegorical, as much of earlier Greek history in fact was. Yet, if that deception really did happen, it seemed that it was the last appearance of an older credulous world of the barbarians in which the demarcation line between gods and mortals had still been alive. In the ancient world the power of metamorphosis was such that a flower girl on the streets of Athens could be venerated as the Goddess Athena.

Yet, public gullibility for the demagogue never dies.

Moreover, divine intervention went down just as well for the no less credulous members of the Popular Assembly, the Athenian Congress, as it did for the gullible Athenian people. They too fell for the absurdity of Athena in battle armor at the side of Pisistratus.

We Americans cannot be surprised. We know there are enough credulous people and an abundant supply of corrupt politicians to sweep into power the unscrupulous liars with God ever on their lips. In the 2500 years since “God’s intervention” in Athens, one would expect that such confusion between God and man, between the spiritual and the human, would have been overcome.


Ancient Athenians were a festive people. Their festivals were a safety valve for their pent-up emotions. The plays of the great Athenian writers lay at the heart of their festivities. Greek playwrights and philosophers understood that a people so cocksure of themselves and their “way of life” were in constant need of warnings that there were other forces in life that they were shutting their eyes to, but that could destroy them and their way of life.

And to be sure, the tragic flaw the Greeks saw in every man, the hamartia, brought down the leaders, one after the other. After reaching the heights of power, they fell, victims of their own failings. There is no more despondent figure than Sophocles’s blind King Oedipus. One day all-powerful, the next blinded by his own hubris, his insolenceanother of those potent Greek words we have inherited, —Oedipus is led away from power to oblivion. The later comment of the Roman conquerors of Greece that ‘so passes worldly glory’ still holds water today.

Reading Cahill and Calasso, and the Greek playwrights themselves, one is struck by the forthrightness of writers of two and a half millennia ago in their refusal to be victims of  “political correctness.” I like to imagine they detested euphemisms. Their role was to warn and admonish and accuse.

They did not search for the equivalent of today’s appropriateness or moral clarity. Moreover, the citizens of Athens did not accuse them of moral vacuity and lack of taste and sensitivity, as after September 11 in Bush’s America when it became “inappropriate” to warn of encroachments on civil liberties and of secret prisons and torture. Or, as after the dikes broke in New Orleans, when it was “inappropriate” to speak of the criminal negligence of pertinent authorities.

Euphemisms are fashionable in the political world. Modern America has perfected their use to a science. The media quickly fall in line and propagate them. A few examples of euphemistic New Speak suffice to make the point:

In today’s jargon, military intervention against poor nations like Sudan is called humanitarian intervention (Here I do not have in mind the moral right or necessity of intervention in such cases; I am speaking only of the fashion for not calling things by their names.). Illegal war or state terrorism is called anti-terrorism, and the bloody suppression of the innocent is labeled counter-terrorism. Fanatical enthusiasm for war is courage. Objections to war are labeled cowardly and traitorous. Murder of women and children from supersonic bombers is collateral damage. Crimes against humanity are defense of our values, life style, and the future of our children.

The list can go on and on: Marchers for peace are terrorists and evildoers. Opposition to school prayers and to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is un-American. Stem cell research becomes abortion on demand.

Lies are now called truths, the give and take of democracy, and of no real significance.

No wonder the widespread acquiescence to the whims of our government in face of admonitions like, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” And no wonder the President’s words, “I’ve made up my mind,” can become reason and justification for entering the self-defensive war in Iraq


The Greek playwright Euripides had no patience with euphemism. Nor did he know reticence in his criticism of power. His King Pentheus says to the great Greek god Dionysus, god of wine and wildness, representative of inspiration and darkness and madness and chaos:

“You do not know the limits of your strength. You do not know what you do. You do not know who you are.”

After Dionysus drives the king mad and takes him under his spell, he tells his crazed victim that his mind was once unsound but now he is “thinking as sane men do.” But of course Pentheus must still pay for his earlier words: the worshipping followers of Dionysus rip him to pieces.

Their playwrights told the Greeks uncomfortable truths; they used political incorrect words: the people were responsible for their own ills. They were not special in the world of men. They were not above human truths. They too bore the human flaw. And they would have to pay for their hubris.

While Athenian playwrights satirized and admonished both citizens and leaders, their philosophers thought and tried to get to the core of things. Concerned with truth, their primary objective was to understand what the thing was that made the universe tick. Were things of the cosmos permanent or forever in change? Will everything that has been, be again? Was there a god or gods or a powerful mind behind it all? And what was man’s place in all this? It was a mystery. It is a mystery. The great mystery is that though the world makes sense, its sense eludes us. Sometimes we feel that thing hanging just out of our grasp. It is a hairsbreadth away. It is on the tip of our tongue but we cannot articulate it. That mysterious thing is the most beautiful thing of our lives. But we do not know what it is.


American democracy is frequently compared to that of ancient Athens. But the two models are only superficially similar. Despite its hideous slavery and a citizenship limited to twenty per cent of the city’s population, Athens is defined as the most participatory government in history. For the twenty percent who were citizens it was full democracy, e.g. rule by the people.

Democracy? We should wonder about the state of ours. Can one claim that the 45,000,000 American citizens living below the poverty level are represented by their government? Where is the truth in our democracy, the truth hidden deeply, mysteriously, behind the euphemistic gobbledy-gook?

Today, instead of discussing the most important issues openly, nonsensical euphemisms are on the lips of leaders and media people and academics alike. Inappropriate, moral vacuity and moral clarity, right-thinking, national unity, Blame America Firsters, wrongdoers, secularists, you’re with us or against us, exportation of democracy.

Who invents euphemisms-become-lies? One wonders. Do the leaders coin the cover-ups that the media then inculcate in the people? Or do the media and academics teach the untruths to the politicians?

Is there a secret Euphemism Department, concealed underground someplace, staffed by perverted minds dedicated to re-inventing New Speak? Dedicated to the naive lie. Experts who explain that the tragedy of New Orleans was fate. That the ozone does not exist, that earth-warming is a myth, or if not fate then it was the fault of local officials that the dikes of New Orleans broke and not the denial of federal funds.

The truth is that the gap between rich and poor in ancient Greece was minimal in comparison to the economic abyss in the United States today. Between the fabulously wealthy and the 100,000 mostly Blacks who couldn’t afford to leave New Orleans in time, and who are only the tip of the iceberg of the poverty in the world’s richest country.

The magnificent city of New Orleans washed away; the Texans called in because the Mississippi and Louisiana National Guards were not available; they were in Iraq, terrified at some roadblock or scouring the country for insurgents-terrorists against the occupiers-liberators.

Thucydides wrote that men go to war out of honor, fear and interest. And wars always cause the degeneration of society. That has not changed despite the claims of the Neo-cons. More than degeneration! Confined to their own garden, convinced of their superiority, and refusing to meditate on the past and human affairs, the proud Athenians sank into xenophobia and hubris—contempt for things not their own, their fear of otherness, and their own social insolence.  Their state fell to successive waves of Spartans, Macedonians and Romans.

How familiar and modern it all sounds.

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives.