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Vol. 14, No. 1, 2015
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Robert J. Lewis
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from ancient greece to the present



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

As we noted in the last issue of Arts & Opinion, Aristotle had great suspicion of the reliability of history as a barometer of truth, preferring great art to better penetrate the complexities of society and the mysteries of life. But certainly historiographic awareness of the past can be vital as Santayana urged when he argued that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

So it is with a historical perspective replete with its many shortcomings that we offer an eclectic comparison of Ancient Greek democracy (mostly with references to classical Athens) with contemporary western democracies (mostly with references to America).

The idea of such a comparison stems from academic visits made to Greece for the past 33 years teaching a seminar on Ancient Greek culture to my undergraduates from Pace University. Each spring the students and I journey to Greece where I lecture on areas from archeology to zoology (focusing on literature, philosophy, history, mythology and science) in an effort to have them experience the ‘miracle’ of Ancient Greece.

Naturally, the essence of teaching and lecturing about a 2,500-year-old civilization utilizes a historical framework, and immediately the problem of objectivity rears its head. So when we encounter the figure of Socrates initiating the practice of philosophical inquiry to eager young Athenians we are reminded that he also fought in an imperialistic Athenian army that often slaughtered citizens of neighbouring city-states or poleis when they refused to pay tribute. When we confront the aesthetic magnificence of the Parthenon we note parenthetically that its outrageous cost was paid for by the blood money extorted from the aforementioned poleis. When we see the interest that the great playwrights had in the equality of women with such figures as Clytemnestra (Aeschylus), Antigone (Sophocles), Medea (Euripides) and Lysistrata (Aristonphanes), we must pause to note that the women of Periclean Athens were little more than non-citizen housekeepers who toiled alongside the slaves that their husbands may have owned. And when we heap kudos on the first democracy in the world, objectivity continues to dim the lights. We discuss the remarkable ideal of freedom, the wondrously crafted system of checks and balances, and the revolutionary new practice of peer-driven justice. But conversely, we note the unfairness of rich dominating the poor, the often thoughtless emotionalism of an uneducated crowd mentality and the rise of clever rhetoricians who initiated the practice of selling straw hats to Eskimos. In addition, after only a few decades of democracy, we note the episodes of violent anarchy in Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and we always recall the insistent anti-democratic frustrations of Plato and Aristotle, both of whom wrote prolifically on the subject.

It is also important to show the students that Greek history during the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries B.C. -- the period of its most graphic cultural, scientific, political, and philosophical achievement -- is constantly marred by wars among the poleis from Attica to the Aegean island poleis to the Ionian poleis and in the Greek colonies from Spain to the Black Sea. Indeed, it is impossible to find even one year during this period when there isn't fighting among Greeks somewhere. The fighting never ceased. Again, from Santayana: "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

Often the students are annoyed that their untarnished image of ancient Athens gets smudged a bit as some of the aforementioned shortcomings are examined. In this connection, discussion usually leads to an assessment of pluses and minuses in their own western homelands.

In the matter of contemporary rule we take note that our western democracies i.e. Canada, the U.S., the U.K. have representative or republican systems that curiously resemble the early republic of Rome and the renaissance republic of Florence more than the 'pure' democracy of Athens. But just like the ancient Athenians, democracy has done nothing to prevent these later societies from indulging in episodes of imperialism.

In America, during its 250 year history, there was one catastrophic civil war fought to end slavery. And although there have been ersatz attempts at secession in Canada and the U.S. thus far the states and provinces have remained united in contrast to the ceaseless Ancient Greek internecine feuds.

Individual freedom in the modern democracies seems to be at present far outstripping the traditions of ancient Athens. Contemporary developments in freedoms for women, homosexuals, transsexuals and illegal immigrants have no parallels in ancient Athens. There the requirements for citizenship were very strict and never included any voting rights for foreigners or metics. As a matter of fact the idea of immigrants becoming integral members of society was only introduced by Alexander late in the 4th century in contrast to the U.S. which began as a society of immigrants.

With regard to the practice of clever rhetoric to persuade voters or constituents, both ancient and modern democracies have failed to find a method to protect citizens from verbal political chicanery. The practice began as soon as democracy took hold in ancient Athens and writers such as Gorgias, Aristotle and Demosthenes warned that it would be a perennial flaw in such a freedom-based system; and here we are 2,500 years later still suffering from rhetorical demagoguery.

As far as the struggle between rich and poor, the ancient and modern democracies both share barely passing grades. In this context, the structural variants in the different democratic traditions require extended study. But sometimes, students wonder why some practices of the ancients can't be emulated now. For example, they applaud the old Greek custom where a citizen who attempts to ‘sue’ someone unjustly (i.e. trying to extort huge monies for slipping on the defendant's sidewalk) winds up having to pay a penalty if the verdict turns against him).

Noteworthy legislative failures in recent times are discussed in an effort to show how democracy can often damage society. The American Supreme Court verdict of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 which effectively sanctioned segregation upsets the students as does the 18th amendment prohibiting use of alcohol and initiating widespread organized crime.

Discussion of the history of democracy inevitably leads to controversy about western attempts to force the system down the throats of Middle Eastern and African countries with oftentimes deleterious results. The shaky structures in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the difficulty involved when cultures long used to monolithic rule suddenly obtain the right to vote. The rush to consolidate power among countless factions often relying on the age old weapons of demagogic rhetoric and social and economic intimidation is painfully visible. The instances of anarchy and political chaos stemming from the Arab Spring are in daily newspaper headlines.

When the travel course in Greece concludes, pains are taken to indicate that the shortcomings of Ancient Greek democracy certainly do not diminish its titanic position in the history of the world's civilizations. And also that a simple historical retrospection cannot portray the depth of achievement that we encounter when we experience the glories of Homer or the intensity of Sophocles. Also, great cultures have thrived in systems where democracy was not present. Renaissance England under Queen Elizabeth or neo-classical France under Louis XIV accomplished much artistically, scientifically and philosophically.

In an attempt to assuage some of the damaged idealism and crestfallen facial expressions which the students have after they have digested the pockmarks of ancient and modern democracies a quote from the sagacious Winston Churchill is helpful: " . . . it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."


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