A Democratic Spring Break

All kidding aside, when I got to the top of the Acropolis and first caught sight of the Parthenon, it took my breath away.  Yeah, I know – limited franchise, slavery, Socrates and the hemlock.  I remember all of that stuff.  But this is where it all began for us, warts and all.

And, it wasn’t just the general idea that the Greeks got rolling.  They worked out quite a few of the practical matters too.  For example, how do you choose people to carry out public tasks. Turns out that the Greeks weren’t that into beauty contests. For the most basic choices, a random draw was fine with them.  Consider this handy little gadget.  Every citizen had a small metal disc with their name on it.  They stuck it in one of t
he slots and let the bouncing ball (which actually rolled) do the choosing. Kind of a political pachinko machine.  But in this case, more than money was at stake. The winners got to say who was going to be ostracized.


And the ancients had other solutions for political leaders who got out of line. In 337 BC, after a particularly unpleasant encounter with a guy named Alexander, the citizens of Athens adopted a declaration forbidding cooperation with tyrants and declaring that anyone who killed a tyrant was shielded from prosecution for the murder.

Just for good measure, they had the declaration carved in stone and set at the entrances of their senate and assembly halls (in case anyone was confused about who they expected to be tempted to collaborate).

But, none of this is to say that all Greeks were created equal.

Consider the matter of seating arrangements.  Even in a culture that had begun to value equality, front-row seats were reserved and came complete with comfy backs and a little drain in the base that kept you from getting your toga wet when you went to the theater after it had rained.  You could even have them inscribed one the base – presumably if you were a season ticket holder.

So the Greeks hadn’t worked out the question of what democratic equality really meant. But, neither have we I suppose.  And I guess that’s my answer to folks who berate Democracy 1.0.  It’s also my response to something that a new Greek friend said to me on the road to Delphi.  He said “once Greeks were the world’s greatest builders, philosophers, and poets – but now we’re just useless.”

In a world that values monetization over creation – none of us are worth all that much.



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