“We are called a democracy because we are governed by the many, not the few” – Perikles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides
Democracy is an ugly word. It was invented by Athenian oligarchs, living in the fifth century BC, and was intended to be pejorative. It combines two words, demos, meaning the people of the polis, and kratos, which means violence. Democracy does not refer to the power (dunamis in Greek) of the people, but to their violence – kratos is the sort of force wielded by the Cylopes. Yet perhaps democracy’s most sympathetic proponent in antiquity was Thucydides, an Athenian blue-blood who, while no fan of democracy and one who though oligarchy the best form of government, was fair-minded enough to give voice to the greatest abstract expression of democracy up until the advent of the experiment that is (or was) the American Res Publica.
Thucydides discussion is couched in a funeral oration by the great Athenian statesman Perikles, who gave the annual oration over the Athenian war dead in 430 BC, when Athens was in the midst of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), one of the greatest conflicts of the Classical world. What is remarkable about the oration, and why we still teach it today in colleges and universities, is for its highly abstract expression of democracy. It is not a speech about the Athenian Constitution, or about laws, or about free elections. It is a speech about the Athenian character, and how that most abstract and undefinable of entities – the collective temperament of an entire people (the Athenians) – enabled the demos to be a democracy.
So what are those dynamics, those deep structures, that enable democracy? They are not too different from our own. Perikles speaks, often implicitly, of the unspoken laws and assumptions that are essential to democracy: equal respect accorded to all citizens regardless of status; a freedom and independence maintained through virtue. He notes Athenians’ equality of condition, and the possibility it affords to all to improve their own lives personally. He notes that to transgress the unspoken laws of democracy bring shame (aischune) on the transgressor.
Perikles praised the openness of Athenian society, its welcoming of foreigners and strangers (called metics) – and noted that it meant Athens was open to receive the world’s collective talents. That openness extended to public discourse, where all views were discussed and considered, and how it was essential to draw upon the collective wisdom of the state, its people, and their talents. Public argument is not a hinderance, nay rather, it is essential for any action the state undertakes. He argues that the best way to honor those who died on behalf of the state was to maintain its democratic character and way of life. That governance and constitution were best maintained, however, through the citizenry’s active engagement (epiteideusis) and their character (tropon).
Many of the key aspects that Perikles noted would be more than familiar to us: equality under the law (isonomia); advancement by merit and character, not accident of birth; a voice even for men of low status; respect for others in the pursuit of happiness, even if we disapprove; a deep and collective respect for the law; protection of the law and under the law for the sake of the oppressed; a state ruled by worthy men; respect for the traditions of democracy. A state that offers enough benefits and opportunities for its citizens to be willing to sacrifice for it; indeed, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice should instill all with a sense of shame and obligation to maintain the Athenian form of government. This is especially the case when one considers that many Athenians had died, losing their lives for a state that offered the best that life had to offer – they were not escaping dire hardship, but preserving, collectively, the good life for all.
He praises Athenian moderation – they are neither too frugal nor too extravagant. Wealth was a thing of practicality – not an object for braggadocio. In a particularly striking turn, he notes that pursuit of private wealth did not hinder the duty of the citizen to his public obligations, although he does assert that for those who do shirk their public duties . . . well, that person is not indolent. That person is useless. In addition, keeping with this line on wealth, he notes that the Athenians are a generous people, and that by doing good for their friends they made their own state more secure.
In a fitting climax, he calls Athens the School of Hellas, implying that Athens afforded Greeks everywhere an education in a well-governed, dynamic state. Call it an Athenian exceptionalism that exuded a confidence bordering on arrogance. They had an easy-going character that made the Athenians rich and cosmopolitan in outlook – but that did not undermine their collective courage in the face of dangers. Above all the oration exudes confidence and optimism.
Note some of the deep underlying principles here: There is a tangible sense of consent to the form of government. There is respect for it: Respect for the dignity of the process and of the offices themselves. Respect for dissent and opposing views.
Respect for their form of government, for dignity. There is a broad agreement to address conflicts legally not violently. There is consensus that everyone’s opinion is to be respected; the idea that many perspectives and voices enrich the discussion. Respect for the sacrifice of veterans. There is collective public virtue. The belief is expressed in the ability of all regardless of birth or background to participate in the process and to rise to its highest levels. Perikles expresses confidence in the ability of an open cosmopolitan society to not only function but thrive. There is commitment to the experiment of the foundation and to those who have sacrificed and died for it. And there is consent to the dynamism of democracy and to the rights of the citizenry as long as it remains engaged.
Do we need a litany of how some of these most ancient of norms in democracy are now being upended in our own country? Do we need a litany of how the president elect has rejected the stranger in our country, one who often, contrary to his intellectually lazy character, is a vigorous contributor to our country? Shall I read off statistics about how much foreign students alone, who attend our universities and colleges, help to pay for your children to attend the same school? How much he despises dissent and public discourse, that wise and sage precursor to every issue we must needs address? Does a creature who believes in a billionaire’s right to grab pussy believe in isonomia? Or for that matter, any social standard at all? Does he respect the law, he who cheats aspirants to college, ignores emolument clauses?
Is he one of the “worthy men” on whom democracy depends? Does this walking cretin respect the sacrifice of our veterans, this petulant man-child who insults veterans and Gold Star families? Does he respect moderation in his personal life? This man who ostentatiously sits on gilded thrones like some Louis the XVI, about whose fate he remains woefully ignorant? Is this not the man who actively tried to undermine civic engagement on which democracy depends, by telling a supine public that “I am your voice”? Does he consent to our form of government, he who has ginned up his supporters, inebriated with hate, to prosecute his political opponent, and actively invited a foreign and despotic potentate to interfere in a sovereign election? When has he evinced the slightest genuine compassion for or sympathy with our fellow citizens? When has he ever been anything but inimical to the people, the process, and its traditions? And as for any sense of dignity, his behavior speaks for itself. He has none, and frankly neither do any of his followers – neither respect nor dignity.
The mob that elected him and the very members of his family and administration – and no, those are not two separate entities if you bother to look at what is happening – have fulfilled the prophecy of John Adams, that I cannot repeat often enough:
“When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”
How else to explain what has transpired? We have gone to a place none would ever hope to see. We have literally lost our democracy, and our deep social moorings that enabled it by custom. Consequently, our society is set to go through some deep collective trauma, which occurs when a society looses its social anchors that give that society purpose and meaning. Values, norms, rituals, are the key to a stable society. Yes we were polarized. Yes we had horrible disagreements. But both those phenomenon took place in the context of certain political norms and traditions. Trauma happens when those moorings are taken away. It is akin to what Eastern Europeans faced when communism collapsed, or when the residents of New Orleans lost their city to Katrina.
The president elect and the GOP have seen fit to tread on our traditions, regardless of the consequences and human cost, and to normalize that destruction. Their behavior is and will prove an exercise in intellectual cruelty, and they stand as guilty of nothing short of democide. As such, I believe that no legitimacy, no moral authority, stands for this government, and the current leadership has less than no entitlement to “civic respect”, since neither the president elect nor his party – nor apparently their supporters – respect the process and the deeper structures of democracy. They have seen fit to ignominiously set us all adrift, unmoored from any sense of normalcy or legitimacy, stateless refugees in our own homes. We will pay dearly for it: Let us hope they do too.