Isocrates. Isocrates with an English Translation in three volumes, by George Norlin, Ph.D., LL.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1929-1982.

For I know that under this constitution our ancestors were far superior to the rest of the world, and that the Lacedaemonians are the best governed of peoples because they are the most democratic;[*](Exclusive of the Perioeci and the Helots. See Aristot. Pol. 1294b 18 ff.) for in their selection of magistrates, in their daily life, and in their habits in general, we may see that the principles of equity and equality have greater influence than elsewhere in the world—principles to which oligarchies are hostile, while well-ordered democracies practise them continually.

Moreover, if we will examine into the history of the most illustrious and the greatest of the other states, we shall find that democratic forms of government are more advantageous for them than oligarchies. For if we compare our own government—which is criticized by everyone[*](See Isoc. 7.15.)—not with the old democracy which I have described, but with the rule which was instituted by the Thirty,[*](The oligarchy of the thirty “Tyrants,” instituted with the help of the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War, 404 B.C.) there is no one who would not consider our present democracy a divine creation.

And I desire, even though some will complain that I am straying from my subject, to expound and to explain how much superior this government is to that of the Thirty, in order that I may not be accused of scrutinizing too minutely the mistakes of our democracy, while overlooking the many fine things which it has achieved. I promise, however, that the story will not be long or without profit to my hearers.

When we lost our fleet in the Hellespont[*](At the Battle of Arginusae, 406 B. C., the beginning of the end of the Peloponnesian War.) and our city was plunged into the disasters of that time, who of our older men does not know that the “people's party,”[*](Many of them had been exiled by the Thirty or had fled for their lives. Thrasybulus placed himself at their head, defeated the Thirty in battle, and restored the democracy. See Xen. Hell. 2.4.10 ff.) as they were called, were ready to go to any length of hardship to avoid doing what the enemy commanded, deeming it monstrous that anyone should see the city which had ruled over the Hellenes in subjection to another state, whereas the partisans of oligarchy were ready both to tear down the walls[*](One of the terms insisted on by Lysander was that the “long walls” connecting Athens with the Piraeus be demolished.) and to submit to slavery?

Or that at the time when the people were in control of affairs, we placed our garrisons in the citadels of other states, whereas when the Thirty took over the government, the enemy occupied the Acropolis of Athens?[*](Lysander kept a Spartan garrison on the Acropolis during the rule of the Thirty. See Isoc. 8.92; Isoc. 15.319.) Or, again, that during the rule of the Thirty the Lacedaemonians were our masters, but that when the exiles returned and dared to fight for freedom, and Conon won his naval victory,[*](The Battle of Cnidus, 394 B.C., re-established the power of Athens.) ambassadors came from the Lacedaemonians and offered Athens the command of the sea?[*](See Isoc. 9.68.)

Yes, and who of my own generation does not remember that the democracy so adorned the city with temples and public buildings that even today visitors from other lands consider that she is worthy to rule not only over Hellas but over all the world;[*](In almost the same terms he praises Pericles for his adornment of Athens, Isoc. 15.234.) while the Thirty neglected the public buildings, plundered the temples, and sold for destruction for the sum of three talents the dockyards[*](The bitterest denunciation of the misrule of the Thirty is in the oration Against Eratosthenes, by Lysias (Lys. 12). At its close, he speaks of the sacrilege of the Thirty, particularly in selling off the treasures stored in the temples, and of their tearing down the dockyards of the Piraeus.) upon which the city had spent not less than a thousand talents?

And surely no one could find grounds to praise the mildness[*](An example of irony (litotes), a figure sparingly used by Isocrates. Cf. “outworn” in Isoc. 4.92.) of the Thirty as against that of the people's rule! For when the Thirty took over the city, by vote of the Assembly,[*](Under duress. See Xen. Hell. 2.3.2.) they put to death fifteen hundred Athenians[*](The same number is given in Isoc. 20.11.) without a trial and compelled more than five thousand to leave Athens and take refuge in the Piraeus,[*](Only those enjoyed the franchise under the Thirty who were in the catalogue of the approved “three thousand.” See Isoc. 18.17.) whereas when the exiles overcame them and returned to Athens under arms, these put to death only the chief perpetrators of their wrongs and dealt so generously and so justly by the rest[*](Cf. Plat. Menex. 243e.) that those who had driven the citizens from their homes fared no worse than those who had returned from exile.

But the best and strongest proof of the fairness of the people is that, although those who had remained in the city had borrowed a hundred talents from the Lacedaemonians[*](See Lys. 12.59.) with which to prosecute the siege of those who occupied the Piraeus, yet later when an assembly of the people was held to consider the payment of the debt, and when many insisted that it was only fair that the claims of the Lacedaemonians should be settled, not by those who had suffered the siege, but by those who had borrowed the money, nevertheless the people voted to pay the debt out of the public treasury.[*](This is attested to by Aristotle (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 40) in a passage which pays a high compliment to the admirable spirit in which the feud between the two parties was wiped out.)

And in truth it was because of this spirit that they brought us into such concord with each other and so far advanced the power of the city that the Lacedaemonians, who under the rule of the oligarchy laid their commands upon us almost every day, under the rule of the people came begging and supplicating us not to allow them to be driven from their homes.[*](After the Battle of Leuctra. See Isoc. 8.105; Xen. Hell. 6.5.33 ff.) In a word the spirit of the two parties was this: the oligarchies were minded to rule over their fellow-citizens and be subject to their enemies; the people, to rule over the world at large and share the power of the state on equal terms with their fellow-citizens.

I have recounted these things for two reasons: because I wanted to show, in the first place, that I am not in favor of oligarchy or special privilege, but of a just and orderly government of the people, and, in the second place, that even badly constituted democracies are responsible for fewer disasters than are oligarchies, while those which are well-ordered are superior to oligarchies in that they are more just, more impartial, and more agreeable to those who live under them.

But perhaps some of you may wonder what my purpose is in trying to persuade you to exchange the polity which has achieved so many fine things for another, and why it is that after having just now eulogized democracy in such high terms, I veer about capriciously and criticize and condemn the present order.

Well, I reproach men in private life when they succeed in a few things and fail in many, and regard them as falling short of what they ought to be; and, more than that, when men are sprung from noble ancestors and yet are only a little better than those who are distinguished for depravity, and much worse than their fathers, I rebuke them and would counsel them to cease from being what they are.

And I am of the same mind also regarding public affairs. For I think that we ought not to be proud or even satisfied should we have shown ourselves more law-regarding than men accursed by the gods and afflicted with madness,[*](With particular reference to the Thirty.) but ought much rather to feel aggrieved and resentful should we prove to be worse than our ancestors; for it is their excellence and not the depravity of the Thirty which we should strive to emulate, especially since it behoves Athenians to be the best among mankind.

This is not the first time that I have expressed this sentiment; I have done so many times and before many people. For I know that while other regions produce varieties of fruits and trees and animals, each peculiar to its locality and much better than those of other lands, our own country is able to bear and nurture men who are not only the most gifted in the world in the arts and in the powers of action and of speech, but are also above all others in valor and in virtue.[*](Cf. Isoc. 4.33; Isoc. 8.94.)

This conclusion we may justly draw from the ancient struggles which they carried on against the Amazons and the Thracians and all of the Peloponnesians, and also from the wars which they waged against the Persians, in which, both when they fought alone and when they were aided by the Peloponnesians, whether on land or on the sea, they were victorious over the barbarians and were adjudged the meed of valor;[*](This paragraph sums up Athenian achievements in war which are stated at length in Isoc. 4.51-98. Cf. Isoc. 6.42; Isoc. 12.42 ff.) for they could not have achieved these things, had they not far surpassed other men in the endowments of nature.

But let no one think that this eulogy is appropriate to those who compose the present government—far from it; for such words are a tribute to those who show themselves worthy of the valor of their forefathers, but a reproach to those who disgrace their noble origin by their slackness and their cowardice. And this is just what we are doing; for you shall have the truth. For although we were blessed with such a nature at our birth, we have not cherished and preserved it, but have, on the contrary, fallen into folly and confusion and lust after evil ways.

But if I go on attacking the things which admit of criticism and of censure in our present order, I fear that I shall wander too far afield from my subject. In any case I have spoken about these things before,[*](See Isoc. 8.49 ff.) and I shall do so again if I do not succeed in persuading you to cease from such mistakes of policy. For the present, I shall speak but a few words on the theme which I proposed to discuss in the beginning and then yield the platform to any who desire to address you upon this question.

If we continue to govern Athens as we are now doing, then we are doomed to go on deliberating and waging war and living and faring and acting in almost every respect just as we do at the present moment and have done in the past; but if we effect a change of polity, it is evident by the same reasoning that such conditions of life as our ancestors enjoyed will come about for us also; for from the same political institutions there must always spring like or similar ways of life.

But we must take the most significant of these ways and, comparing one with the other, decide which is preferable for us. And first let us consider how the Hellenes and the barbarians felt towards the earlier polity as compared with how they are now disposed towards us; for other peoples contribute not the least part of our well-being when they are properly disposed towards us.

Well then, the Hellenes felt such confidence in those who governed the city in those times that most of them of their own accord placed themselves under the power of Athens,[*](Cf. Isoc. 8.76.) while the barbarians were so far from meddling in the affairs of the Hellenes that they neither sailed their ships-of-war this side of the Phaselis nor marched their armies beyond the Halys River, refraining, on the contrary, from all aggression.[*](See Isoc. 4.118 and note; Isoc. 12.59.)