The Rise Of Anti-Intellectualism: A Lesson From Ancient Greece

On March 23, I wrote the popular article titled “The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism and Its Repercussions for Society.” Due to the article’s reception, it is apparent that my concerns about the rise of anti-intellectualism are shared not only by other Americans but by people around the world. Because of the interest in the topic, I have decided to explore the rise of anti-intellectualism further but, this time, from a historical standpoint. Hopefully, by comparing the rise of anti-intellectualism in the past to current events, we can better understand the potential dangers we face today if anti-intellectualism’s rise is not halted.

To begin our journey into the history of the rise of anti-intellectualism, let us travel back to the year 440 B.C. in Athens. At the time, Pericles, a general, statesman and well-known orator, was the most influential man in Athens. Pericles was vehemently opposed to going to war with the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of states in the Peloponnese peninsula. Even though his reasons for avoiding war were valid, many of the Athenian aristocrats were opposed to Pericles’ policy, and his death and their opposition to his stance led to the rise of Cleon, one of history’s most notable supporters of anti-intellectualism.

According to historians, Pericles had been a supporter of art and literature, and he is credited even today with facilitating Athens’ rise to prominence as the cultural and educational center of Ancient Greece. Cleon, on the other hand, had a reputation for anti-intellectualism and bravado. In The Athenian Constitution, Aristotle described Cleon in a way that sounds very familiar to the description of one of today’s leading presidential candidates.

“Cleon… seems, more than any one else, to have been the cause of the corruption of the democracy by his wild undertakings; and he was the first to use unseemly shouting and coarse abuse on the Bema, and to harangue the people…whereas all his predecessors had spoken decently and in order.”

While Pericles’ death and Cleon’s rise to power and support for anti-intellectualism cannot be fully blamed for the fall of Athens, both can definitely be described as catalysts in the civilization’s decline. In a National Geographic article examining the typhoid plague that took Pericles’ life and its effects on Athens’ future, Professor Richard A. Billows of Columbia University expresses his very informed opinion on how things might have been different had the rise of anti-intellectualism been prevented.

“It’s likely that if there had been no plague, Pericles would have lived longer. A lot of upper-class Athenians lived into their 70s and 80s, and [Pericles] was a charismatic and persuasive leader, so with his leadership, the Athenians very likely would have conducted the war differently than they in fact did. Whether that would have changed the outcome, it’s hard to say.”

Anti-Intellectualism helped lead to Athens downfall
Anyone who has studied or visited Athens can clearly see the remnants of a great civilization. Today, ancient Athenian greatness remains evident in architecture, art, and literature from the civilization’s pinnacle. If for no reason other than that the evidence of greatness is seen not in more modern developments but in remnants of the past, it is important for us to recognize that, as the rise of anti-intellectualism happened, the creative powers of the people of Athens were diminished, politicians described as bullies came to power, peace was rare, and the civilization began its decline.

Today, in the United States, anti-intellectualism is unquestionably on the rise. The average American places little value on art and literature and possesses little understanding of history. Unfortunately, only those armed with an understanding of history have the ability to foresee the possible consequences of anti-intellectualism using historical references. If the American people continue to support the rise of anti-intellectualism in politics, education and society, our civilization is likely to follow the same path as so many others that were once the greatest civilizations in the world.

Now is the time to learn the lesson of Cleon. Now is the time to avoid electing similar leaders who not only support the rise of anti-intellectualism but also embody it.

[Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images]