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Virtue and Democracy

Parthenon in Athens. Photography by Andrew Baldwin, 2010, via Flickr. CC 2.0.

This month, the MythBlast Series is centered on Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology.Given that we in America are celebrating the Fourth of July on the day this MythBlast is published, and given that the health of Democracy around the world seems to be ailing, it might be interesting to explore what Occidental mythology—and Greek thought in particular—might say to us about this aspect of contemporary life.

In a 2010 White House speech, President Obama remarked:

And so it was that the democratic example of a small group of city states more than 2,000 years ago could inspire the founding generation of this country, that led one early American to imagine that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America.”It’s the sense of nobility and morality written in the pages of those timeless Greek texts, which have instructed students…down the ages, in every corner of the world. 

That same sense of nobility and morality also instructed Thomas Jefferson and inspired his humanism, as well as his belief that the human goal of happiness could be achieved through the cultivation of virtue, particularly nobility and reason, which the Greeks called arete. Joseph Campbell defines arete as ”pride in excellence, which has been called the very soul of the Homeric hero—as it is the soul, also, of the Celtic and Germanic; or, indeed, everywhere, of the unbroken [individual].” (The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, 194) Jefferson believed that Natural Rights, emphasizing reason rather than divine providence, are the claim of humankind. The “rational study of the world as a field of facts'' contributes to the understanding that humankind is not a product of, and therefore not subject to, some particular god, but is rather a product of nature and as such, is limited only by nature itself and fate, which may simply be the word we assign to the perennially enshrouded, stubbornly incomprehensible operations of nature. And yet, despite some profound limitations, a startling degree of freedom waits to be discovered through an empirical engagement with the world.

As Joseph Campbell put it in his beautifully poetic way:

The rational study of the world as a field of facts to be observed began, as we all know, with the Greeks. For when they kissed their fingers at the moon, or at rosy-fingered dawn, they did not fall on their faces before it, but approached it, man to man, or man to goddess—and what they found was already what we have found: that all is indeed wonderful, yet submissive to examination. (222)

Jefferson acquired much of his personal philosophy from the Greek Stoics. From the Latin historians, he derived much of his political philosophy. Those influences continue to shape the country which he helped to create; contemporary America to me seems in structure and temperament much like ancient Rome (especially the late Imperial Rome), yet her aspirational ideals always seem to lean towards Athens. Clearly, Jefferson disliked the idea of what he termed an “artificial aristocracy,” but he did subscribe to the notion of a “natural aristocracy.” In an 1813 letter to John Adams he writes, “…there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue [arete] and talents.” 

Greek democracy in the classical age lasted a surprisingly short time, from around 507 BCE to 404 BCE when Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and installed an oligarchy of wealthy collaborationist Athenians to rule Athens. The Thirty Tyrants were overthrown in 403 BCE and an attenuated democracy was restored until finally, in 338 when Alexander and his father Phillip II conquered Athens, it was destroyed. There is no single reason for the collapse of Athenian democracy, but I think the self-righteous thrill of the egoic hunger for power present, for example, in the execution of Socrates in 399 BCE, played no small part. 

There is little doubt that a significant factor in the arrest and execution of Socrates was that he had become, in his own words (according to Plato) a gadfly, an exasperating pain in the...neck, whose self-identified purpose was to stir the “noble steed” of Athens to life. Socrates was generally critical of Athenian politicians and power brokers, and indeed, of democracy itself (he had close relationships with at least a few of the Thirty Tyrants). For decades, it had been his habit to expose pompous or powerful Athenians who claimed to possess special knowledge as poseurs, publicly exposing and humiliating them, thereby inspiring deep, burning resentments compensating feelings of profound shame and inferiority. In turn, the powerful naturally looked for opportunities to remove agitators and limit speech, eroding democratic ideals and practices.

Aristophanes, a comic playwright, lampooned Socrates in his play The Clouds as the trivial, eccentric headmaster of a sophist academy called, “The Thinkery.” But Socrates isn’t the play’s only target of satire; Strepsiades, a character reminiscent of the Gleasonesque Ralph Kramden-like self-saboteur, always looking for an edge or advantage or a way to get something for nothing, is Aristophanes’ caricature of the average dull, entitled, lazy, Athenian. After Strepsiades' scheme—aided by what his son learns at The Thinkery—backfires, Strepsiades burns the school down.

The exposure of casually corrupt and malignantly narcissistic self-interests, paired with the force multiplier of public humiliation, has throughout history been the match that touches off the most destructive conflagrations of societies. In a culture where individuals are only interested in themselves, the cultivation of power and acts of violence remain the only bases for human relationships, and its most precious freedoms are forfeited along with the ideals of democracy.

In the Delphi Complete Works of Plato introduction to Phaedo, Simmias is quoted, saying that we have a duty to face the truth and follow it wherever it leads us even if, perhaps especially if, we don’t like it: “And if truth divine and inspired is not to be had, then let a man take the best of human notions, and upon this frail bark let him sail through life.” So perhaps, on this 245th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we can take a moment to relish the novel, ambitious, and demanding idea of Jeffersonian democracy and resolve to sail upon its frail bark toward the best human notions of genuine freedom, civility, and compassion. 

Thanks for reading,

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