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Wednesday, 11 July , 2007 / germes

Coming Up for Air

One problem that always causes confusion and assumes the aspect of moral problem is often purely verbal: democracy, for example, means people’s rule, and so many people think that this latter term is important for the theory of the State forms which we in the western legal tradition call democracies. The cultural miracle of fifht-century Athens was largely due to the invention of a “free market in books” (as Popper said). And this invention – not the theory of the State forms – can also explain Athenian democracy.

So, let’s have a look at this Popper’s essay on a possible connection between literature expansion, science and democracy. Let’s have a look at this for an Orwellian Coming up for air as well.

Literature, Science and Democracy: A connection?

K.R. Popper

In Athens a free market in books began to exist around 530 BC; it was a place where handwritten books were put on sale in the form of papyrus scrolls. The first ones on offer were Homer’s two great epic poems: the Iliad and the Odyssey.According to Cicero’s account some 500 years later, Pisiastratus, the tyrant of Athens, is the man we should credit for the transcription of the Homeric poems. Pisistrartus was the great reformer. One of the things he did was to institute dramatic performances. That is, he founded the institution we call the theatre. Possibly, indeed quite probably, he himself was Homer’s first publisher. He shipped in the writing materials (Egyptian papyrus) and bought many educated slaves to whom Homer’s text could be dictated. Pisistratus was a wealthy man who, on the occasion of public festivities, would offer the Athenians theatrical performances and many other cultural events. Later a number of the other Athenians – entrepreneurs – also played the role of publisher. They were attracted by the fact that the demand for Homer’s works in Athens was insatiable: everyone learnt to read by them, everyone read Homer. Within an incredibly short space of time, his work became at once the Bible and the reading primer of Athens. Very soon other books were also being published. We should always remember that there can be no publishing without a market for books. The fact that a manuscript (or today, a printed book) exist in a library is no substitute for market demand; and for a long time (two centuries or so) Athens was the only place on Europe with a book market. Corinth and Thebes were perhaps the first cities to follow its example. Before, there had certainly been plenty of poets – and plenty of manuscripts. But literature (which requires the institution of publishing) was able to develop only in Athens; only there do we see a blossoming of writers, historians, political thinkers, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. Not many of them were, like Thucydides, actually born in Athens. Yet Athens exert an irresistible attraction on them. Among the foreign authors who came and the published their books in Athens were the scientist and philosopher Anaxagoras and his only slightly younger contemporary, Herodotus, Both came there as political refugees from Asia Minor. I don’t think Herodotus had written his lengthy histories with the idea of having them published, but that was certainly what Anaxagoras had intended for his (rather briefer) natural history. Both of them, then, were still unsure about how publishing worked in practice; it had only recently been introduced, and no one at that time could have imagined the in way in which it would grow in importance. From the first book published in Europe to the Gutenberg revolution The cultural miracle in the fifth-century Athens was, in my view, largely due to its invention of the book market. And this invention also explains Athenians democracy. Of course, it cannot be proved that the expulsion of tyrant Hippias from Athens and the establishment of democracy were linked to the invention of the book market, but there are many things in favour of this hypothesis. The art of reading and writing (which quickly spread through the city); the great popularity of Homer and (no doubt as a result) of the great Athenians playwrights, painters and sculptors; the many new idea that were discussed, and the intellectual development in general – these are all basic historical facts that were unquestionably influenced by the invention of the book market. And even if were to allow that democracy established itself independently of all these things, the great success of young Athenian democracy in the wars of liberation against the vast Persian Empire was certainly not unrelated to them this success cam be understood only in the light of the new self-consciousness that the Athenians had won for themselves through their extraordinary cultural and educational heritage, together with independently acquired enthusiasm and taste for the beauty and clarity to be found in art and poetry. It is anyway remarkable that Gutenberg’s invention of printing in the fifteenth century, and the great expansion of the book market in its wake, gave rise to a similar cultural revolution: that which is breathed into the literature of Antiquity. A new natural science was born, and in England the Reformation led to two revolution – the bloody one of 1648-49 and the peaceful one 1688 – with which the Parliament began its steady evolution towards democracy. In this case the link was more plainly visible. Successes and crimes of Athenian democracy The Athenian miracle of the fifth century BC is made up of the extraordinary cultural, political military developments that followed the introduction of the book market. These went hand in hand with the rapid growth of a quite matchless literature the would serve as a model for Europe in the future. Among the great events in question were two wars lasting roughly third years each. In the first, Athens was destroyed and yet emerged victorious. In the second it suffered crushing defeat. This is usually where histories of the Second Peloponnesians War leave off (404 BC), and so it is easy to imagine that it was also when Athenians democracy came to the end. After eight months the Thirty Tyrants were defeated at Piraeus by a force of Athenian democrats, and peace was concluded between Sparta and the Athenian democracy.But the Athenian democracy ha committed dreadful mistakes – not only tactical or strategic errors, but also crimes against humanity, such as the destruction of Melos apparently without any direct provocation. All the island’s menfolk were killed, and all its women and children sold into slavery. Beside that horrible crime, what is the unjust sentence passed at the trial of Socrates (a political trial where the prosecutor was the head of Party)? Thucydides, who was a general in the Athenian army, gives a detail account of the events on Melos and describes them for what they were – a cynical and unforgivable decision, taken by a majority who knew just what they were doing and ought to be punished for their crime. There were many other cases of a similar kind.

In such cases there were no extenuating circumstances, but fortunately Thucydides also speaks of other decisions. For example, when Mytilene rebelled and broke its pact of alliance with Athens, it soon found itself defeated by Athens, The Athenians then sent a ship with a general who had orders to kill the whole male population. The next day, however, the Athenians were seized with remorse. Thucydides describes the convocation of a popular assembly at which Diodotus argued in favour of clemency. He won no more than a majority, but a second ship was immediately despatched and the crew rowed non-stop, day and night, with such vigour that it arrived just time to revoke the previous order. “So narrowly did Mytilene escape” writes Thucydides.

(from Lesson of This Century, London New York, Routledge, 2000, 65 ff.)


Leave a Comment
  1. Jean Masot / Jul 11 2007 3:15 PM

    “One problem that always causes confusion and assumes the aspect of moral problem is often purely verbal”: excuse me sir, what does it mean????

  2. Jean Masot / Aug 1 2007 1:41 AM

    Musique en peer to peer…


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