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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Democracy is equality

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In ancient Greece, the Athenians had some superiority complex with regard to the rest of Hellenes or Greeks. They were proud of their city, of their Acropolis (from aker and polis = high city, the upper town, the citadel, the fortress) in which it was the great temple of the goddess Athena, their eponymous (from epi and noma), the one who gives the city of Athens its name, the virgin (they call her Athena parthenos); they felt themselves especially proud of their "democracy" (from “demos” people and “cracy” power or government)

After the ancient monarchical stage, reflected in the Iliad, and the aristocratic stage, also reflected in Homer, they set a system of government in which all citizens (those who were it) are part of the assembly and have access by raffle or election to political charges. By filing the power in the assembly of the people (demos) they called it “democracy”.

This is a direct democracy, because there are few citizens: only thirty thousand citizens are entitled to vote and they are often involved no more than five or six thousand. Greek democracy was the first in History and the merit for its creation belongs to the Athenians. But Athenian democracy has many limitations to be perfect. On another occasion I will discuss it in more depth.

Interestingly, the Athenians are proud of their democracy, but the most conservative and critical texts manifest against it and usually keep a more elitist and aristocratic position. For instance thus we find Plato who defends an oligarchic government or constitution. Plato, in current terminology, would actually be an extreme conservative, who not only does not question the slave society, but proposes a constitution for the polis in which there are three different kinds of citizens, almost impermeable to each other.

One of the problems some former critics usually plead is the insufficient people´s technical and cultural formation to decide on complex issues of governance and the easiness with which "people" are influenced by unscrupulous "demagogues".

This issue still continues to pose with a similar argument in modern democracies by people who do not accept the radical equality of persons. It would be enough to think on the different opinion that theoretically well-formed intellectually people have about it to say that little should have to do the "higher education" with a particular ideological or political choice.

Well, the question is clearly posed in Plato's dialogue "Protagoras" where he solves it with the story of a myth, a technique he usually uses to explain important issues. I let me reproduce Plato´s description of the story and solution using the English  translation by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967.

Maybe then some elitist and aristocratic reader will also understand why all people must be equal with regard to the law (isonomy) and equal to access to political office (isegory).

The formulation of the question and the story of the myth take Protagoras, 319a-328c. Among other partners, Socrates and Protagoras dialogue. Socrates claims that "policy" or “the virtue of the policy" can´t be taught by a man to another. Socrates says that, when the Athenians meet in their "assembly", they listen to those skilled in the various issues or matters for which it is held, but instead when it comes to political issues:

But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, [319d] the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught.

but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this excellence of theirs to others
Protagoras disagrees, of course:

No, Socrates, I will not grudge it you; but shall I, as an old man speaking to his juniors, put my demonstration in the form of a fable, or of a regular exposition?
Many of the company sitting by him instantly bade him treat his subject whichever way he pleased.

Protagoras uses a myth:

Well then, he said, I fancy the more agreeable way is for me to tell you a fable.

There was once a time when there were gods, but no mortal creatures.
[320d] And when to these also came their destined time to be created, the gods moulded their forms within the earth, of a mixture made of earth and fire and all substances that are compounded with fire and earth. When they were about to bring these creatures to light, they charged Prometheus and Epimetheus to deal to each the equipment of his proper faculty. Epimetheus besought Prometheus that he might do the dealing himself; “And when I have dealt,” he said, “you shall examine.”

[320e] Having thus persuaded him he dealt; and in dealing he attached strength without speed; to some, while the weaker he equipped with speed; and some he armed, while devising for others, along with an unarmed condition, some different faculty for preservation. To those which he invested with smallness he dealt a winged escape or an underground habitation; those which he increased in largeness he preserved [321a] by this very means; and he dealt all the other properties on this plan of compensation. In contriving all this he was taking precaution that no kind should be extinguished;

And when he had equipped them with avoidances of mutual destruction, he devised a provision against the seasons ordained by Heaven, in clothing them about with thick-set hair and solid hides, sufficient to ward off winter yet able to shield them also from the heats, and so that on going to their lairs they might find in these same things a bedding of their own that was native to each; and some he shod with hoofs, [321b] others with claws and solid, bloodless hides. Then he proceeded to furnish each of them with its proper food, some with pasture of the earth, others with fruits of trees, and others again with roots; and to a certain number for food he gave other creatures to devour: to some he attached a paucity in breeding, and to others, which were being consumed by these, a plenteous brood, and so procured survival of their kind.

Now Epimetheus, being not so wise as he might be, [321c] heedlessly squandered his stock of properties on the brutes; he still had left unequipped the race of men, and was at a loss what to do with it. As he was casting about, Prometheus arrived to examine his distribution, and saw that whereas the other creatures were fully and suitably provided, man was naked, unshod, unbedded, unarmed; and already the destined day was come, whereon man like the rest should emerge from earth to light.

Then Prometheus, in his perplexity as to what preservation he could devise for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena wisdom in the arts [321d] ogether with fire—since by no means without fire could it be acquired or helpfully used by any—and he handed it there and then as a gift to man.

Now although man acquired in this way the wisdom of daily life, civic wisdom he had not, since this was in the possession of Zeus; Prometheus could not make so free as to enter the citadel which is the dwelling-place of Zeus, and moreover the guards of Zeus were terrible: but he entered unobserved the building shared by Athena and Hephaestus [321e] for the pursuit of their arts, and stealing Hephaestus's fiery art and all Athena's also he gave them to man, and hence it is [322a] that man gets facility for his livelihood, but Prometheus, through Epimetheus' fault, later on (the story goes) stood his trial for theft.

And now that man was partaker of a divine portion,1 he, in the first place, by his nearness of kin to deity, was the only creature that worshipped gods, and set himself to establish altars and holy images; and secondly, he soon was enabled by his skill to articulate speech and words, and to invent dwellings, clothes, sandals, beds, and the foods that are of the earth. Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities there were none; [322b] so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no civic art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of civic art, [322c] and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish.

So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together. Then Hermes asked Zeus in what manner then was he to give men right and respect: “Am I to deal them out as the arts have been dealt? That dealing was done in such wise that one man possessing medical art is able to treat many ordinary men, and so with the other craftsmen. Am I to place among men right and respect in this way also, or deal them out to all?” [322d] “To all,” replied Zeus; “let all have their share: for cities cannot be formed if only a few have a share of these as of other arts. And make thereto a law of my ordaining, that he who cannot partake of respect and right shall die the death as a public pest.”

Hence it comes about, Socrates, that people in cities, and especially in Athens, consider it the concern of a few to advise on cases of artistic excellence or good craftsmanship, [322e] and if anyone outside the few gives advice they disallow it, as you say, and not without reason, as I think: but when they meet for a consultation on civic art, [323a] where they should be guided throughout by justice and good sense, they naturally allow advice from everybody, since it is held that everyone should partake of this excellence, or else that states cannot be. This, Socrates, is the explanation of it.
Take my word for it, then, that they have good reason for admitting everybody as adviser on this virtue, owing to their belief that everyone has some of it; and next, that they do not regard it as natural or spontaneous, but as something taught and acquired after careful preparation by those who acquire it,—of this I will now endeavor to convince you.

Thus I have shown that your fellow-citizens have good reason for admitting a smith's or cobbler's counsel in public affairs, and that they hold virtue to be taught and procured: [324d] of this I have given you satisfactory demonstration, Socrates, as it appears to me.

He ends with the need that the society teaches the citizens since their childhood:

Now consider: is there, [324e] or is there not, some one thing whereof all the citizens must needs partake, if there is to be a city? Here, and nowhere if not here, is the solution of this problem of yours. For if there is such a thing, and that one thing, instead of being the joiner's or smith's or potter's art, is rather justice and temperance and holiness—[325a] in short, what I may put together and call a man's virtue; and if it is this whereof all should partake and wherewith everyone should proceed to any further knowledge or action, but should not if he lacks it; if we should instruct and punish such as do not partake of it, whether child or husband or wife, until the punishment of such persons has made them better, [325b] and should cast forth from our cities or put to death as incurable whoever fails to respond to such punishment and instruction;—if it is like this, and yet, its nature being so, good men have their sons instructed in everything else but this, what very surprising folk the good are found to be! For we have proved that they regard this thing as teachable both in private and in public life, and then, though it may be taught and fostered, are we to say that they have their sons taught everything in which the penalty for ignorance is not death, but in a matter where the death-penalty or exile awaits their children[325c] if not instructed and cultivated in virtue—and not merely death, but confiscation of property and practically the entire subversion of their house—here they do not have them taught or take the utmost care of them? So at any rate we must conclude, Socrates.

They teach and admonish them from earliest childhood till the last day of their lives. As soon as one of them grasps what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the tutor, and the father himself strive hard [325d] that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is just, and that unjust, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that. If he readily obeys,—so; but if not, they treat him as a bent and twisted piece of wood and straighten him with threats and blows. After this they send them to school and charge the master to take far more pains over their children's good behavior than over their letters[325e] and harp-playing. The masters take pains accordingly, and the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken, are furnished with works of good poets to read as they sit in class, and are made to learn them off by heart.

Then when they know how to read, they learn the great poets’ verses and the examples of the ancient heroes. Then they train to have a healthy and strong body. And finally:

And when they are released from their schooling the city next compels them to learn the laws and to live according to them as after a pattern,

Is it acceptable that two thousand and four hundred later there are still persons who question everybody´s right to participate in the decisions affecting the governance of the society in which they live?


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