The Greeks proved to be great tutors of humankind. Following is a rough outline of conversation points...
The Theme Is Courage
Each civilization hones and sharpens certain virtues above others. The virtue of courage emerges from paradigmatic Greek experiences in stunning variety and intensity. Following are some ways the Greeks teach us courage:
1. The Greeks teach us the courage to stare into the chaos and create something intelligent or beautiful or interesting in response.
They gave us stories and myths -- oh, did they give us myths from the Age of Heroes -- myths that provided answers to the human condition in their own day, but that provoke questions about the human condition down to the present day:
- The Iliad
- The Odyssey
They gave us intellectual, philosophical explanations that did not rely on the gods, starting with Thales of Miletus.
They informed much of our visual aesthetic -- e.g., the classical architecture of the Parthenon
2. They teach us the courage to break out of our geographic comfort zone, to explore, to discover.
Bowers on Odysseus
Alexander the Great
3. They teach us the courage to stand up for your freedom and independence, no matter what the odds.
The Persian Wars of 490 and 480 B.C. (Marathon, Themistocles, Thermopylae, Leonidas, the 300, and all the rest)
4. They teach us to have the courage to listen to and value voices in the community that are different from our own, and to be humble before we try to shout them down or overpower them. This is the essence of democracy, rule by the many citizens in assembly. To the extent that our republican constitution* is democratic, we owe a debt to the Greeks.
It may just be, that if I listen to you I will learn something. It may just be, life will be better for us as a community if I change a little, and you change a little. Compromise takes guts. To be open to the rough and tumble of direct democracy takes guts; skill in debate; openness to Sophists' training to see both sides -- it takes guts. It's not comfortable because it forces us out of our little hidebound view of the way things should be.
Does democracy require a different kind of leader from that in an aristocracy or monarchy? Some pretty smart people have insisted the answer is yes. Democracy at its root is self-governance, and self-governance requires higher caliber citizens than other forms of government. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison pointed out in the Federalist, democracy calls forth men and women who are more disciplined, more discerning, and more devoted to the community than those in other forms of government. It requires people of better character.
Already in the late 6th century B.C., ancient Athenians were learning how important character is to democratic rule. Two major forces converged on their city-state, prompting them to create the world's first democracy. First, the Olympic games had been evolving in surprising ways, and by the 6th century B.C. it was not just aristocrats but ordinary Greeks who were given the opportunity to demonstrate excellence in athletics. Every four years an audience of up to 40,000 people from all over Hellas would watch competitive events and learn who among them was the most heroic, strong, and disciplined. Indeed, the Olympics became a remarkable seedbed for democracy. By the 6th century, a simple potter could challenge the king in a boxing match; a common miller could compete against an aristocrat in javelin throwing. This incubator of heroism, the Olympics, thus became a major stepping stone on the path to democracy.
Also converging on Athens at this time was a revolution caused when a corrupt aristocrat named Isagoras betrayed fellow Athenians and joined forces with the dreaded Spartans in a bid to rule Athens. The people would have none of it. In short order they succeeded in throwing off both the tyrant and the foreign threat. Why turn to one of the aristocratic families to restore order, when it was the aristocrats who had caused this mess? The people, flush with confidence, demanded a voice in creating a new frame of government, a government that would guarantee self rule. The aristocrat who best understood the new reality was Cleisthenes. And he helped the people found the world's first democracy. He had a place on the side of a hill -- the Pnyx -- carved out to give the assembly of citizens (Athenian men who were not slaves) a place to meet. Deliberations were held every nine days. When voting, a white pebble dropped in an urn meant yea; a black one, nay.
This is the background to Socrates' famous conversations with the people -- the demos -- of Athens. He lived at a time when democracy was still very rough around the edges and when constitutional struggles were frequent. Approaching fellow citizens who believed they had the capacity to lead, he would ask them questions about metaphysics (What is there?), epistemology (How do we know?), and ethics (What should we do about it?). What should we do about it? How should we live together? One of the most important roles of democratic leaders has been to help people figure that out.
Socrates challenged people's thoughts and actions wherever he went. Among other things, he wanted to know whether the people who fancied themselves leaders were truly qualified to be in positions of authority. Socrates believed a leader's character was fundamental to his qualifications: How could a man rule others if he could not rule himself? (This would be Alexander the Great's most significant insight.) This is why he told others the story of "The Ring of Gyges," a timeless legend in Book II of Plato's Republic. The story challenges people to think about how they would rule others if they had unlimited power.
5. As a counterpoint to democracy -- rule by the many -- they also teach us to value the individual, even when that individual takes an unpopular, unconventional stand. They exalt the duty of the lone individual to "speak truth to power" (to use the Quaker phrase from my era), and that takes steely courage.
The West's first actor, Thespis, was a revolutionary. He steps out of the chorus, out of the mainstream, out of conventional wisdom, all of which is represented by the chorus. He creates a device -- the mask, which we call the persona -- to make it safe for a citizen to offer a counterpoint to conventional wisdom. He talks back to conventional wisdom.
Debate in drama, Sophocles. Antigone shows guts: she challenges her world on four different levels.
- a submissive female who confronts a dominant male in a man's world;
- a subject who, in an audacious act of civil disobedience, goes against the king's decree;
- a younger family member who goes against the male head of her family;
- a family that goes against the state;
Debate in the assembly.
6. Sophocles' Antigone is a great play because it show the human condition in its complexity, showing other manifestations of courage, like the courage to change when your are shown to be wrong. King Creon is also a hero because he shows the inner courage to change his mind when he knows he's wrong. This is a risky thing for a king to do.
7. They teach us the courage to suffer.
The Sophoclean hero.
8. They teach us the courage to know thyself and to be real.
Plato, Book 2 of the Republic, Ring of Gyges
- libido dominandi must ultimately be repudiated
- George Washington shows us the same lesson
9. They teach us the courage to think big and try something on a worldwide scale that had never been attempted before, and that is unite the world culturally.
Alexander the Great was the first human being to act on the idea of uniting as much of the Afro-Eurasian landmass as possible -- not just by brute military force, but by culture. Alexander wanted to take what was great about the Athenian polis and share it with the rest of the world. He wanted to make the very idea of Athens chic, cosmopolitan, and au courant.
And why not? Look at what Athens's cultural freedom had produced? They gave us a gallery of wonderful people whom we are proud to count in the human family.
Revolutionary philosophers on whose shoulders we stand, and whose thought enriches our lives to this day:
- Thales of Miletus
Far-sighted political leaders who had pronoia:
- King Leonidas
- Alexander the Great
Colorful characters that we would not want to be related to, but who are fascinating nevertheless:
They gave us direct democracy:
They gave us theater, a great buttress of the democratic way.
Notes and sources:
*Both democracies and republics assume that the citizens are sovereign. However, the U.S. Constitution did not establish a strictly democratic but a federated, republican frame of government. That is to say, it is a "mixed constitution" that combines, balances, and checks monarchy (rule by the one), aristocracy (rule by the few), and democracy (rule by the many). Rule by the one is expressed in the presidency; rule by the few in the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Senate; and rule by the many in the U.S. House of Representatives. The duties and spheres of governance are federated in that the states and national government share the authority to do the things they are constitutionally designated to do.