By John Wund
Almost 3,000 years ago, perhaps earlier, a people began their journey toward democracy. Along the way, they invented and formalized both deductive logic and the inductive system that we now call the scientific method.
Scholars think the Iliad was composed by a single author a century or so before the Pentateuch. Homer’s tale demonstrates that ancient Greeks expected individuals to make personal choices. The gods many considered powerful often fought against each other. People needed to choose very carefully. (Agamemnon pleased one god by sacrificing his daughter, but angered another and he lived to rue his action.)
The Iliad, however, also depicts an iron-age western society dominated by warlords and their royal spouses. It would take another 400 years for Greece to “suffer into wisdom” and develop a society of city-states, with Athens as the crown jewel. During this time, a growing population, believing in the importance of individual choice, renounced traditional blood-lust retaliation and adopted the ideals of justice and equality as a better way to live in relative harmony. (For an allegorical summary of that process, read “The Orestia,” written by Aeschylus in about 500 B.C.)
The Athenian government, like ours, consisted of three branches. The first, the Ekklesia, was a “general assembly” of male citizens who had the time and energy to show up. This was their Congress. The second, the “executive branch,” was the Boule (council of 500), whose members were chosen by a lottery and met every day. The third (the Court) was called the Dikasteria, in which jury members were chosen by lottery from a list of citizens and placed under oath.
Of course, the ancient Athenian Spring didn’t produce perfection. Early Greeks didn’t expect perfection. They recognized that progress was only possible by tempering human intellect with careful observation, by honestly striving and probing. They understood an individual, as well as societal, responsibility to suffer into wisdom. They did not comfortably accept ‘revealed truth’ dispensed by somebody else.
The Athenian democracy (the “Classical Era”) lasted for a little over 200 years (about the age of our current nation). It took several centuries for the classical ethic to be repressed in Greece (and, later, Rome), but for a while the advancement of formal human logic, language, technology and justice under a common law advanced at a rate that has never been surpassed.
Someone once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Thus it did for the millennium between Trojan War until the fall of Athenian democracy. But in Europe, the arc then moved toward aristocratic excess and servile poverty for another thousand years. It only began to lean toward justice and rationality again after people became interested in classical learning during the 13th century.
Which way is that arc bending now? A free and vital society teaches its children to value skepticism, honest intellectual struggle and rationality. Posting “revealed law” in public schools better serves the needs of a stagnant, authoritarian caste system. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, those who ignore history (or don’t strive mightily to learn from it) are destined to repeat it.
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This column represents alternative thoughts to other published columns in the Crossville Chronicle. “We the People” is published each Wednesday. Opinions expressed in “We the People” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact John Wund, editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.