The Decline of Freedom

The Greek word eleutheria means freedom from external or internal tyrants. Life is meaningless without freedom. The battle cry of the Greeks fighting the Persians in early fifth century BCE or the Turks in the 1820s was freedom or death. The Greek national anthem is a Hymn to Freedom by the Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos. He traced freedom to the “sacred bones” of ancient Greeks.

This commitment to freedom emerged from bitter experience with tyranny and the invention of democracy.

Democracy and freedom

Athens pioneered in both its defense of political independence and in its adoption in the sixth century BCE of government by the people and for the people, namely direct democracy. All citizens served in the juries and became magistrates by lot. Athenians learned to rule and be ruled.

The government of demos, the people, enacted laws  which protected the citizens as a whole, including each citizen, to do things and express themselves as they saw fit, provided they did not offend each other.

The individual and the community were inseparable. They served the polis and the polis enabled them to thrive and create civilization, including making possible common security and defense.

Thucydides reports in his history of The Peloponnesian War (2.35-46) that Pericles believed Athenians were generous towards each other and treasured the public esteem they enjoyed in old life. They made friends by doing favors. They would fiercely defend their friends, not for taking advantage, but from the confidence and courage they earned from freedom. “Happiness is the equal to freedom,” Pericles tells the Athenians. “Freedom is courage.”

Freedom, tightly woven into the flag of democracy and the fabric of Hellenic civilization, kept the Athenians and other Greeks independent for centuries.

Occupied Greece

However, more powerful people invaded the divided Greek world and the Greeks lost their political independence for centuries.

Romans, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and Moslems ruled Greece. Yet the Greeks managed to preserve limited freedom in their villages and cities. They paid taxes collectively and, to some degree, managed their own local affairs.

For example, in 1204, when Western crusaders (French, Venetians and Germans) captured medieval Greece, the Greeks of Thessalonike negotiated their surrender with Boniface Montferrat, the Latin leader of the foreign troops besieging Thessalonike. They told Montferrat the Greek king had endorsed their koinon, self-government. They convinced Montferrat to do the same thing.

Certainly, foreign occupation caused tremendous damage to the material and intellectual achievements of the Greeks. But even under those stressful conditions the Greeks kept freedom alive.

Barbarian conquest of the West

In contrast, the barbarian invasions of the West in the fifth century all but wiped out any notion of freedom. Barbarian kings took over the Western region of the Roman Empire, sparking the dark ages with its feudalism and the elimination of civilization.

The Renaissance

About a thousand years later, the capture of medieval Greece by the Turks in 1453 started a wave of exodus of Greeks to the West. These educated Greeks brought with them most of the works of their ancient ancestors. They translated those scientific, literary, and philosophical works into Latin. Books of great philosophers and scientists included those of Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Hipparchos, Plutarch, Galen and  Ptolemaios. These works fired the Western imagination and brought about the Renaissance.

Limited liberty in the West

However, this Hellenic Renaissance did not change to a significant degree the feudal mentality of the West. The British experience with kings, the American Revolution of 1776, and even the French Revolution of 1789 did not demolish the monarchical order in Europe, or expanded human rights, or freedom.

The privileged factory and land-owning class in both America and Europe depended on slaves, while granting limited rights to its members. That is what we call liberty and democracy: the enjoyment of certain rights by the citizens who elect politicians to represent them in the houses of parliaments or Congress.

The American experience with former president Trump is proof that neither democracy nor liberty, much less freedom, have solid foundations in America. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump.

The Europeans may enjoy more political rights than the Americans, but not much. America continues to be their teacher and leader.

The dragon of armed feudalism

Feudalism, the slave-based government of Europeans during the dark ages, has changed name and form, but it remains strong in giant monopolistic corporations and in industrialized agriculture. Rural America, for example, has become a feudal domain for a handful of crop producing and animal slaughtering companies.

Feudalism is also thriving in monarchical governments and the politics of countries that have representative “democracy.” Money decides the elections. In the United States, the Republican Party is owned by billionaires. Moreover, complex legal schemes and an obsolete Supreme Court hide these improprieties and crimes against democracy.

To top it all, there’s a monstrous global military class armed with weapons of mass destruction. That reality alone, abolishes democracy and freedom.

Countries with this awesome ecocidal and anthropocidal power include the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, and Israel.

This military order, especially in its exterminating potential, is boosting the fossil fuel industry, which is behind the reluctance to the decarbonization of the economy, a badly needed first step in putting a brake to the almighty climate change capable of putting societies and ecosystems out of business.

Corporations continue their business as usual because they are the brains and stomachs of the militaries. No president so far has dared to order the military to clean up its house of bombs and extreme pollution that includes a giant share in greenhouse gas emissions.

A modest proposal

If the natural world, civilization, democracy and freedom are to survive, radical surgery is necessary in remaking our hazardous world of holy alliances of desert religions, giant monopolistic corporations, militaries of bombs, and factories of poisons.

Rather than suggesting a conclave of world leaders disarm and democratize the international order, I prefer each country appoints a lover of life to legislate the revival of the natural world and civilization. This person should bring into being enforceable laws in support of the natural world while leading a campaign against climate change.

Assuming that humans may come to their senses and appoint such wise men / women to bring the present killer politics to an end, the first order of business should be, among other things, drastic population control and the abolition of monotheistic religions or their transformation into Earth-nature worshiping celebrations without clergy.

In addition, humans need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, genetic engineering of crops, and pesticides. At the same time, it’s absolute necessary they rebuild nature-friendly and small-scale farming.

Another life-saving priority, and without doubt the most urgent, includes the rapid phase out of fossil fuels by 2030 and a corresponding fast transition to solar and other forms of non-carbon energy technologies.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.