In the annals of classical scholarship, few can claim to have had such a significant effect on the way their period was viewed as the Victorian scholar George Grote (1794-1871). Before Grote, most histories of Greece presented the democracy of classical Athens as nothing more than mob rule, a system that exemplified the ‘dangerous turbulence’ of popular government (as one of Grote’s predecessors put it). In the wake of Grote’s monumental History of Greece (12 volumes, 1846-1856) intellectuals were more open to the idea that the classical Athenian experience might have more to offer us than a lesson in how *not* to do politics.

Grote’s impact on how we view ancient Greek democracy is all the more remarkable when we consider the range of his other activities. For many years, Grote worked long hours at his family bank in the city of London. He served as an MP for nine years (1832-1841), as part of a liberal democratic movement known as the Philosophical Radicals. He was an active member of the liberal intellectual scene, and was close to luminaries such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, as well as James Mill’s son John Stuart. With J.S. Mill and others, he was also instrumental in the foundation of University College London, England’s first secular university.

Before Grote, Greek history was often seen as the perfect illustration of ‘the inherent weakness and the indelible barbarism of democratic government’ (to quote another of Grote’s predecessors). In undermining and eventually overturning this view, Grote used a number of different tactics. One was simply to point out contradictions in the anti-democratic view of Athens: for example, that the people of Athens were somehow both lamentably idle and dangerously hyperactive. Another was to remind over-zealous critics that not everything that went wrong for Athens could be blamed on its democracy. Things go wrong in non-democratic states too, after all; though (and this was another of Grote’s arguments) only in a democracy does the government have a direct interest in getting things right for the mass of the population.

The central plank of Grote’s defense of democracy, though, is one that might look curious to us today. Many of the scholarly critics of Athens’ democracy had insisted that the system led to a degradation in the moral character of the citizens involved in it. Grote turned this on its head, arguing instead that it was precisely the opportunities and obligations for political participation that the direct democratic system offered that made the average Athenian citizen so dynamic. This fed into J.S. Mill’s famous argument, in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), that democracy allows us to develop our capacities as social beings, and should thus be considered preferable even to the rule of a perfectly virtuous tyrant.

Grote exercised his own capacities as a social being partly through his activity as an MP. Much of his energy during this time went into the effort to introduce the secret ballot in general elections. The dominant view at the time – as espoused, for example, by King William IV – was that secrecy in voting was inconsistent with the open and honest character of the English people. Grote disagreed, pointing to the power of local elites to intimidate voters, making it impossible for many common people to ‘call their votes their own.’

Grote may have been especially conscious of the benefits secrecy could have for freedom of expression because of his own experiences as a religious sceptic in a deeply Christian society:

 

An Anonymous Tract on Religion

In 1822, Grote published An Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporary Happiness of Mankind, a work that was based on a series of notes by Bentham, but that recent scholarship has confirmed as mostly Grote’s own. As the title suggests, the work focuses mainly on the idea that religion makes people happier in the here and now. With the particular direct brand of contrarianism that would make him a pivotal figure in the study of classical Greece, Grote argued that religion induces a constant fear of divine judgment and retribution, makes us slaves of an unknown and yet despotic master, and infects the natural joys of life with guilt.

This sort of attack on religion was explosive enough in 1820s England. However, Grote finished his tract with an assault on the established church, an institution that he saw as preying on the community rather than fostering it. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Grote published his Analysis under a pseudonym, ‘Philip Beauchamp,’ and that its true authorship was a closely-guarded secret among Grote’s family and friends until his death.

One of many areas of English life over which the established church had a vice-like grip was the country’s only two universities at the time, Oxford and Cambridge. These institutions were officially Anglican; anybody seeking to gain entrance to them had to declare their belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles, a series of doctrinal statements. To the Utilitarians, the stranglehold that the Church of England had upon education (and, as a consequence, upon various important professions) was unacceptable. It was this that would be one of the major points of distinction of University College London, which would not require any declaration of faith as a condition for enrolment.

What George Grote can Tell us Today

What does this nineteenth-century banker and politician’s life have to tell us about the values of free enquiry, open-mindedness, and intelligent contrarianism?

The first point that Grote’s career teaches us – and by far the most important one – is that we don’t have a particularly good record of recognizing, ex ante, which ideas are going to turn out to be considered good ones in the long run. During Grote’s lifetime, democracy was seen as dangerous and even barbaric, the secret ballot was seen as low and dishonourable, and atheism was widely seen as a form of immorality. We now see democracy as a tremendous good, the secret ballot as a necessary ingredient, and the freedom of conscience as a key ingredient in any genuinely liberal society.

But the point isn’t simply that Grote was right and his critics wrong. The point is that a good number of the ideas that we now take not only as obviously true, but also as a force for good in the world – a good number of these ideas may well look pretty odd (and even rather reprehensible) in a few generations’ time. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop or hold ideas, of course – having some views rather than others is inevitable as we face up to the problems that confront us as a society. But it does mean that we should be careful about being too sure that the views that are currently in the ascendant are necessarily the right ones. And that, in turn, should encourage us to be open-minded and receptive to those who have something to say that strikes us as unorthodox – and even irritating, shocking or dangerous.

Speaking of being open-minded, a second lesson we might take away from Grote’s story is that universities of his time could have been more open. The main reason Grote never went to university was undoubtedly the pressure his father put on him to take his place in the family bank, but the official Anglicanism in force at Oxford and Cambridge can’t have encouraged the young sceptic to attend. Considering what Grote managed to achieve in the field despite spending most of his working life in the bank, or in Parliament, it boggles the mind to think what his contribution could have been had he been welcomed into the scholarly community. That he never was is our loss, and his – but also the universities’. It is hardly to the credit of the early-nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge, with all their classical scholars, great libraries, and so on, that the most influential English history of Greece was written, not by one of their college fellows, but by a banker and politician who had never set foot inside their walls.

And this is worth bearing in mind today, when universities have once again developed a set of orthodoxies that can act as a barrier to those who would dissent from them. The risk, once again, is not only that unorthodox thinkers will be forced to do their work on their own, with the scholarly community having turned them a cold shoulder. There’s also a risk for the universities of being side-lined, with the most vital and vibrant conversations taking place beyond their gates. The threat of more nimble and less stuffy competitors – yesterday, a secular UCL, today, online platforms of various sorts or privately-funded think tanks – is always a real one.

The idea that free-thinkers might be cast out of the mainstream intellectual community brings us to another way in which George Grote can offer us food for thought. As we’ve seen, Grote kept his authorship of one of his first published works – his critique of established religion – secret for the whole of his lifetime. He also dedicated much of his time in Parliament to advocating for the secret ballot. In our own day, anonymity (especially online anonymity) is again under attack, often for good reasons – because it allows trolls to engage in personal abuse without fear or reprisals, for example. What Grote’s career may remind us of, though, is that anonymity also has its uses, especially in allowing unpopular ideas to be voiced, even in periods where the possibility of highly damaging sanctions (both formal and informal) is high.

Before closing, I’d like to mention one more thing we can learn from Grote. That, if I may say so myself, is the occasional importance of ancient history, and the improbable value that someone who’s deeply versed in the details of the world’s first democracies may bring to the political debates of his own time. It is in reminding us of how much apparently abstruse and pointless fields of research can and do bring to the table that universities have traditionally been at their best; if Oxford and Cambridge failed to find a place for Grote, we can only hope that today’s universities won’t be so benighted when it comes to the next transformational figure working in what might seem like a pointless area of enquiry. If we’re bad at predicting which ideas will turn out to be tomorrow’s orthodoxies (or heresies), we’re just as bad at guessing which fields the good ideas are likely to come from. In that sense, and in many others, the work of George Grote is anything but ancient history.