Victor Nuovo: The very idea of a Democracy
Every civil society differs from every other one by virtue of its people, its language and culture, and its geography. Therefore, the question: “In what respect is this nation different from other nations?” is not idle. However, The United States of America is not only different from other nations, it is supposed to be exceptional. The question whether a civil society is exceptional is one of world-historical import. Those societies are exceptional that leave their mark on world history and civilization. It has become commonplace that proof of American exceptionalism resides in the fact that Democracy has, by default, come to be accepted worldwide as the paradigm or rule of government, whereas, before this nation’s founding, in Europe, hereditary monarchy was the rule. Until the modern period, it was commonly supposed that hereditary monarchy was the original form of government, a natural offshoot of patriarchy, which was supposed to be the original form of the family.
Modern political orthodoxy no longer adheres to this opinion. Its paradigm is government by consent of the people, its origin a social contract, and it follows from this that the state does not belong to a ruling family, rather it is a public trust in which all the people share. And it is now commonly supposed that civil society originated in this way, and that democracy is its natural outgrowth. The self-creation of this nation, its rise, its growing power and influence, its world-historical success, is believed to have caused this change of mind. The change began slowly. The end of the First World War, which brought an end to European empires and the ascendency of the United States as a world power, is the point of no return.
To summarize, the universal acceptance of Democracy, rather than hereditary Monarchy or Aristocracy, as not only the standard of political correctness, but also as the form of government that is the most proper and the most durable, is viewed as a historical consequence of the historical achievement of The United States of America and the reason for its rise among the nations, its unmatched growth in wealth and power, and its worldwide influence, its seeming invincibility, which is taken as further proof that it will long endure. On account these things that America ranks high, perhaps highest, among the civilizations of world history. And this is the reason for her greatness.
But Democracy did not begin in America, rather it began in Greece, and it was because the founders of this nation were schooled in the Classics and enlightened by them that the American revolution has been described as “the result of reason,” by which was meant, reason in a Greek idiom.
Tradition locates the origin of Democracy in Athens, where it achieved archetypal expression in the life and career of its great leader, Pericles (495–429 BCE). Pericles was an Athenian aristocrat, well-born, well-educated, and well-connected. He was no doubt highly intelligent, a patron of the arts, a lover of learning and of his native city, a true patriot, and brave. He was not much to look at physically — he had a bulbous head (hence, he is always depicted as wearing a helmet), and his frame was neither formidable nor graceful. But he was resolute and the force of his will made up for any physical deficiencies. He was popular among the people and was repeatedly elected to positions of political and military leadership. In these roles, he presided over the golden age of Athens. But this golden age was short lived.
Before the advent of democratic rule, the Athenian government was aristocratic. Certain families, through their wealth and ambition, rose to power until a single family seized power, and its head ruled as tyrant. [Tyrant, in Greek is closer in meaning to dictator than king.] He was overthrown in a popular uprising, and the people rose to power, and also came into possession of the city and its government. What gave power to the people was the large number of veterans of imperial wars. Athens had become an imperial power, a great sea power; the greatest in the Eastern Mediterranean, and by these means it increased its wealth and dominions. The sailors and marines, who enabled all this were not aristocrats but common men. When after service they returned to the city, they participated in elections and they were courted for their votes. Pericles, under whom many of them had served, and whom they greatly respected, became the first citizen of the city with their support, and under his leadership Athens became a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He brought greatness to the city, not only politically and militarily, but by sponsoring the arts and architecture whose monuments, although now in ruin, still evoke wonder.
But the history of ancient Athens is a tragedy. Thucydides, also an Athenian, and a generation younger than Pericles, wrote an account of it in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnese (literally, “Pelop’s Island”) is a great island west of the Greek mainland, connected to it by an isthmus. Its dominant city was Sparta, whose power rivaled Athens. They had become political rivals. These rivalries caused a great war between them, in which many other Greek cities became involved, supporting one or the other side. The war lasted a quarter of a century until Athens, its fleet destroyed, ignominiously blockaded and confined within its walls, was starved into surrender. Pericles died during the second year of the war, a victim of a plague that struck Athens.
Earlier in that year he was chosen by the people to deliver an oration on an occasion like our Memorial Day, honoring the war dead, those who had given their lives for the city. Thucydides gives an account of it. Pericles began by praising the ancestors from whom Athenians had received the city and the land, a free gift. This is just like the way we have received our town and its place. And the ancestors bequeathed a form of government along with it. It was not the rule of one person, or of a few, rich and privileged, but government of the many; whose leaders are elected from the people, by the people, and who rule for their good. Freedom of assembly and free expression, even in times of war, are a hallmark of the city, along with self-reliance in defense of the city. Vigilance not servility is the proper means of survival. And culture its heart and soul. “We cultivate beauty without extravagance, the love of wisdom without weakness, wealth not as a privilege or a means of self-aggrandizement or vain ambition, but as a means of action that benefits the city.” The city is a school of virtue, a city on a hill, a heritage given to the world. The founders of this nation were cognizant of this idea; it was their model, and their aim was to establish a city whose glory would be a beacon to others, a light to enlighten. It is a noble idea, worth emulating. But it shines against the dark background of the tragic end of the golden age of Athens. It still shines.
Read Thucydides. He has many lessons to teach us.
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