It is 322 B.C. The city is Athens. Demosthenes, champion of Athenian democracy, takes refuge in a temple sacred to the gods, proof against sacrilege and he hopes against a Macedonian garrison dead set on separating this insufferable codger from his life. After all, Demosthenes, a cantankerous, obstinate, and unmerciful debater, a loquacious Democrat, has become the symbol of democracy and so, frankly, with Athens now done in by force of arms, the Macedonians think it fit to say, “It’s time to go, Demosthenes. Hey, come on out, let’s talk.”
As he looks out upon these bronze-clad, sword-welding and handsome killers he recognizes students to whom, as children, he taught the first principles of democracy; and now these same “lovers of truth,” these brutal men once pledged to the practice of Arête, (moral excellence), will have of this Last Democrat his violent and ignoble death.
Still, never short of words, Demosthenes might have said to his assassins, “Oh, you Macedonians, you false Greeks, murderers all, what say you of virtue now, you who betray me even as you blaspheme the gods! Do you claim still to be true and reverent men? No, think again, slaves, for slaves forsaking honor is the low thing you have become!”
He shakes his fist. His voice, for all his years, is stentorian. Then in quiet words that sound in low chords of grief, he lowers his hand and looks to the earth that birthed his race, the noble Greeks. “So, for this I have taught you democracy, that in payment you requite me hate. Farewell!”
The Macedonians are loath to violate a temple of the gods for to take a man’s life, to spill his blood within its sacred precincts is to commit a grave sacrilege. They will not tempt divine and certain punishment by such an execrable breach of piety. The Macedonians, therefore, will honor strictly the temple and its grounds however well and truly Demosthenes deserves death, if only to shut him up.
Thus the Last Democrat is, for the moment, safe. On the one hand his students will not soon cut him down, yet on the other, he suspects, they will not wait long. Better a god’s abstract wrath than to be punched out or worse by their boss, a raging King Philip, Tyrant of Athens and all else so says the hoary despot soon to be cut down by a traitor in his own house.
Democracy, however, is dead and it was Philip who killed it. As for Demosthenes, symbol of freedom lost, Paul Woodruff recounts his death. The Macedonians, hinting at mercy, urge him to leave the temple. Demosthenes replies that he will obey but asks that he be allowed to reflect, to write awhile, and then, like Socrates, he makes good his last escape by the sipping of poison secreted in a pen.
How could Athens, pride of Greek civilization—the Athens that defeated the Persian host at Marathon-- be taken by a man, not Greek but a barbaric Macedonian who speaks a strangely accented Greek. This Athens, “…whose ancestors were born from this very earth upon which they now lived as one city/state, joined as one, by religion, language, a mythology, and a vividly remembered history.” What unspeakable sacrilege have the Athenians worked upon the gods to so well and truly deserve their fate?
How then did the Athenians fall from grace? By degrees, by partial surrenders, until the time came when none would recall except with shame that day the Athenians sold their freedom for debased silver, only to find in the place their freedom used to be, an implacable tyrant.
It is 562 B.C. Enter Pisistratus and Solon. Long before the Macedonians finally finished them off, Athenians reject reason and history. They embrace a new and radical freedom: Better to entrust our future to a strong man, faithful and good with words. Better him than fragile democracy, a wearisome thing that demands of us unceasing vigilance. Let us rest instead. Pisistratus is a good man. He turns a fine phrase, and we Athenians want only peace, and a less costly freedom.
Solon, the poet, established the rule of law and the practice of democracy in Athens. But he warned that democracy is vulnerable to the assault of sophists who by manipulating the meaning of words and by their command of oratorical deceit offer a new kind of freedom in exchange for that freedom the Athenians revered.
Still, some Athenians condemn a freedom in which men are to be made comfortable instead of free. “Order and comfort without freedom [is] after all, the condition of sheep that are being attended for slaughter. Ordinary Athenians understood this metaphor very well and some came to see that it perfectly expressed their condition under the tyrants.”
But Pisistratus is the bearer of new ideas, and promises of obscure change. We may imagine that he strikes a pose, raises his hand and shouts passionately to the Athenian citizens, “Yes, we can!” And again, to those who resist, an even louder, “Yes I will!” Well, this Pisistratus is possessed by sentiments of audacity and hope; and oh, does he have a way with words. Still, how does he bend intelligent Athenians to his will?
He invokes cultural images that move them to tears, as he tells of the style, power and glory of their tragic poets or explains sotto voce that he had to make his way up from a disadvantaged childhood in a strange land with strange gods. Whatever, Pisistratus offers a new and more comfortable freedom, a freedom radical and unprecedented that will not require hard work, an Elysium and somnambulant prosperity that will, believe it or not, cost nothing. So not to worry. Pisistratus will take care of everything.
But Solon warns against such men. It is not enough that a man possess oratorical skills. Tell me instead, what does he intend, what do his words really mean? What is his plan? What is its cost? And who in the name of Zeus will pay for it? Take care, citizen. Your very life, so far as it is worth the living of it, is at stake.
Paul Woodruff writes that, “Tyranny comes on a people painlessly at first, bringing an end to disorder, and promising comforts that people want. Many ordinary Athenians at first favored the tyrant Pisistratus. But their lawgiver Solon saw tyranny coming, and he warned the Athenians of where their ignorance would lead.” His poetic admonishment is severe.
From a cloud comes snow and hail, powerfully,
But thunder comes from bright lightning.
The destruction of a city comes from great men,
and the people fall through ignorance
under the slavish rule of one man.
It’s not easy for one who flies so high
to control himself afterwards,
So now is the time for the people to take thought.
The Athenian would sorely regret the sale of his freedom to Pisistratus, his arrogant minions, and nutty progeny. But where is there pathos in a man who surrenders his will and defames the birthright that is his freedom to the seduction of dazzling words and the toxic enticements of a mendacious sophist. There is neither grace nor honor in this Athenian. There is nothing noble in his newfound grief. His fate and the fate of the once free citizens he has betrayed is human bondage. For Solon admonishes us, as he did the Athenians, that when the shameful deed is done, it is done. Don’t blame the gods!
If you have felt grief through your own fault
Do not put the blame for this on the gods:
You yourselves increased the strength of these men
When you gave them guards.
Each of you follows the footprints of this foe,
And you all have empty minds,
For you watch the tongue of the man, his slippery speech,
But you never look at what he actually does. 
Well, what matters Solon’s poem to us? What is relevant to Americans in the admonition of an Athenian poet dead more than two millennium? This is America after all, and we are a people way too sophisticated to be done in by a speech. The sophisticated Athenian sold his birthright freedom and surrendered his honor to passionate blandishments that delighted his heart and flattered his ego, blandishments that were then as they are now pernicious and enduring lies.
But what does Athens mean to us? Should we take to heart Solon’s poem and accept with gravitas his admonition to the Athenians? And to us? Should we resist the dazzling impact of polished words said in Shakespearean meter? In images of an easy world peace, security, and freedom from want? In words shiny as debased silver, so moving and yet so senseless they delight our heart even as they basely flatter our too easily malleable spirit?
Or do we all have empty minds as Solon accused the once free Athenians? Will we Americans cherish, save, and protect our birthright freedom, when out of fear and breach of honor the ancient Athenians failed? Or will we too …watch the tongue of the man, and as we are seduced by …his slippery speech, never look at what he actually does?
What do you think?
Robert F. Harkins J.D.