The dangers of power

Isocrates is trying to persuade the Athenians to desist from their dreams of power. In the end it only brings ruin.

μέγιστον δὲ τεκμήριον: οὐ γὰρ μόνον ἡμᾶς ἀλλὰ καὶ τὴν Λακεδαιμονίων πόλιν διέφθειρεν, ὥστε τοῖς εἰθισμένοις ἐπαινεῖν τὰς ἐκείνων ἀρετὰς οὐχ οἷόν τ᾽ ἐστὶν εἰπεῖν τοῦτον τὸν λόγον, ὡς ἡμεῖς μὲν διὰ τὸ δημοκρατεῖσθαι κακῶς ἐχρησάμεθα τοῖς πράγμασιν, εἰ δὲ Λακεδαιμόνιοι ταύτην τὴν δύναμιν παρέλαβον, εὐδαίμονας ἂν καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους καὶ σφᾶς αὐτοὺς ἐποίησαν. πολὺ γὰρ θᾶττον ἐν ἐκείνοις ἐπεδείξατο τὴν φύσιν τὴν αὑτῆς: τὴν γὰρ πολιτείαν ἣν ἐν ἑπτακοσίοις ἔτεσιν οὐδεὶς οἶδεν οὔθ᾽ ὑπὸ κινδύνων οὔθ᾽ ὑπὸ συμφορῶν κινηθεῖσαν, ταύτην ἐν ὀλίγῳ σαλεῦσαι καὶ λυθῆναι παρὰ μικρὸν ἐποίησεν.

This is the greatest proof. For not only has it (power) ruined us but also the city of the Lacedaimonians, so those who like to praise their virtues can’t use this argument that we have come to a bad pass because we are a democracy, but if they got hold of power, they would bring prosperity to others as well as themselves. For power revealed its nature far quicker in their case. For no one knows of any change in their constitution during seven hundred years from danger or disaster but power has caused it to be disturbed and all but destroyed.

Isocrates Peace 8.95 355 BC

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3 Responses to The dangers of power

  1. Spoken during the the Theban hegemony, no truer statement was said. Isocrates was a desperate man, and he called even on Philip II to come to Greece. A fantastic example of post-glory Greek thought. By 328, Philip II and Alexander III will have conquered Greece and destroyed Theban power. The end of Greece had come then. It saddens me to think of Isocrates as the last voice of reason in a world in which Athens and Sparta were no longer the powers they had been only one hundred years before.

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    • platosparks says:

      I can also see in his speech on the peace some parallels with the world today. Britain is no longer the power it was and America’s power is declining. Both countries may have made decisions in the past that were neither just or to their advantage.

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  2. Most insightful! I fully agree. Certainly, if people are to study England in the future and estimate its power by the size of the nation, they will never get how grandiose it had actually been while, if looking at the size of the US, they will think it the cradle of democratic thought and imagine its power as vast as its size. Am I Plutarch? Not even close, but the parallels are definitely there. Does all of this make us Isocrates? Well, as long as we don’t start asking Cuba to come and pacify the US, I think we are safe. Although, in a way, we follow the ancients because we admire them and wish someone like them could take over; perhaps we are much like Isocrates in that regard. I just hope WWI and WWII were not our Peloponnesian War; that would mean we are already on the decline, and Britain’s refusal to police the world, allowing the rise of the US as the grand-power of modern times, is evidence that we have but a few decades left. History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

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