For the Fourth, instead of read the Declaration downtown, as was once the practice, I had planned to blog on Theseus, from Plutarch. It is to the founding of Athens that we owe the attempt at democracy, and quite a few other elements of our democratic republic. Plutarch cites Aristotle saying that Theseus was the first to set aside kingship to attempt a popular government. His joining the villages into the city of Athens, as we joined the fifty states into the United States, without war- as well as the saying that all mankind has an interest in the success of the adventure- reminds one of the rational founding described in Federalist 1. Plutarch also cites Homer’s catalog of ships, where Homer uses the word “people” to describe only the Athenians. Prior to Theseus, Erechtheus, the seventh king of the village Athens, is the earth-born man who makes Athens a temple to Athena there on the Acropolis. Unlike Rome, Athens is a city that aims above necessity and the virtues of war, toward the beautiful, making possible friendship, love, philanthropy, human happiness and philosophy within, or on the edges of the city. But Athens does not fall short of Rome or even Sparta in either war or money-making, defending all Greece from the Persian invasion of Xerxes, as at Marathon and Salamis. This is a paradox, perhaps, of the human condition, but by sacrificing all to strength, courage and the virtues of war, the Roman and the Spartan foundings do not lead to the greatest strength or virtue, but are outdone in the long run by Athenian liberty. Though one would not wish to face the Spartans at Thermopylae, it is especially in Athens that nature can emerge.
Theseus himself knew Hercules, and Nestor knew Theseus. Prior to the founding of Athens, Theseus found the sword in the stone and cleared the highway of tyrants from Troezen to Athens, then freed Athens from the tribute to the Minotaur, finding his way up out of the labyrinth by the golden thread given him by Ariadne. He then turned to founding. As Plutarch writes:
Now, after the death of his father Aegeus, forming in his mind a great and wonderful design, he gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica into one town, and made them one people of one city, whereas before they lived disbursed, and were not easy to assemble upon any affair for the common interest. Nay, differences and even wars often occurred between them, which he by his persuasions appeased, going from township to township and from tribe to tribe. And those of a more private and mean condition readily embracing such good advice, to those of greater power he promised a commonwealth without monarchy, a democracy, or people’s government, in which he should only be continued as their commander in war and the, protector of their laws, all things else being equally distributed among them;- and by this means brought a part of them over to his proposal. The rest, fearing his power, which was already grown very formidable,, and knowing his courage and resolution, chose rather to be persuaded than forced into a compliance. He then dissolved all the distinct state-houses, council-halls and magistracies, and built one common state house and council hall on the site of the present upper town, and gave the name of Athens to the whole city, ordaining a common feast and sacrifice, which he called the panathenaea, or the sacrifice of all the united Athenians…Then, as he had promised, he laid down his regal power and proceeded to order a commonwealth, entering upon this great work not without advice from the gods. For having sent to consult the oracle of Delphi…
His office of foreign and domestic executive reminds one of the U. S. Presidency. And Like our statue of Liberty, his proclamation inviting all strangers to come and share equal privileges with the natives, was “Come hither all you people,” setting up a commonwealth “for all nations.” And he was the first that divided the commonwealth into three distinct ranks, the noblemen, the husbandmen and the artificers, in an “exact equality” in which the nobles, holding the magistracies, teach and dispense the laws, excelling in honor, while the husbanders, of “nature’s riches from expense,” excel in wealth, and the craftsmen in numbers. For the first time, the craftsmen are included in the regime, and this is part of why it is so much fun when the craftsmen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream produce a play for the wedding of Theseus.
I would cherish an Ox coin from the coinage of Theseus, at Athens perhaps around 1100 B.C. This stuff is quite real, and may be the origins of our political liberty and a part of our constitution in the broader sense of the word. NPR was just talking about the later Coin with a leaping dolphin, from the story of Arion in Herodotus, and Athens also had an owl coin, probable because Athena has to do with wisdom.
Theseus had a little trouble with eros, as that Fairy Queen led him all about, through a series of loves that lead him, when age fifty, to abduct the Helen of Sparta, or Lacedaemonia, before she was even married or marriageable (and long before Lycurgus legislated the Sparta of the time of Socrates, famous for her laws). Theseus might have taken the virginity of Helen, but it is likely that he stashed Helen with his mother to wait for her to grow older. This caused him to lose his office and be exiled at the end of his career, as her relatives attacked Theseus to get her back. Shakespeare shows the correction of the flaw of the Fairy Queen, and her giving up the changeling child so that reason and love might keep better company. The Amazon event and Hippolyta occurs while Theseus is president at Athens and his constitution is being established. Nalin Ranasinghe, in an essay in a recent St. John’s Review, suggests that Shakespeare has replaced the Amazon invasion that occurred on the eve of his wedding to Hippolyta, avoiding his tragic marriage to Phaedra shown in Euripides’ Hippolytus.
Hence, Theseus- in including the people and setting aside kingship, may be the greatest of all founders, and the one who most reminds of Jefferson and Washington together. In light of their legacy as statesmen and legislators, Caesar does not even compare to these Americans, though one might look to Brutus the founder of the Roman republic. Neither Alexander nor Romulus- one might easily argue- participate so fully in the royal nature, phronesis, or the fullness of the intellect. Trying to write now on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I find him there in Plutarch, and am reminded of Barack and of the present difficulties in America, and the tradition we are faced with the possibility of bringing to an end should we forget the difference between Liberty and Tyranny.