“…if people are given a choice to vote for a politician who says something will be costly and difficult, or a politician who says, ‘Trust me this is the path to wealth and greatness,’ they will go for the promise…, and not the prudence….”
                                    Long Now Boston Conversation April 5, 2018 

A little over a year ago, Long Now Boston held a conversation on Athenian history and democracy featuring Professor Lauren Samons II of Boston University.  Given the debates taking place in our country today, it is worth reviewing the key findings from that prescient talk.  Below are some notes on the talk, followed (in italics) with my own added commentary. 

                                             The Acropolis of Athens.

Why Did Athens Fall?

Athens was a small city-state that faced significant challenges from powerful neighbors including Persia.  Bonded together by a culture that honored the commitment of its citizens to worship the Gods, honor their parents, pay their taxes and serve their country, the Athenians were able to defeat the Persian army and become the defender of the (nearby) world.  

This must have been what the American colonists felt like — to face a much larger enemy at impossible odds, and to win! Two centuries later, the United States had indeed become the dominant world power, and the defender of freedom and democracy for all (at least in the minds of many.

The less powerful Greek states were glad, for a while, to pay tribute to the Athenians for their services, and Athenian democracy became a model of fair governance, at least for its citizens if not its slaves.  However, as the threats faded for Athens, and the tribute continued to roll in, a sense of privilege and entitlement grew and the culture of virtue faded.  Pericles, as a populist, was able to capitalize on those changes and rose to power under the banner of greatness, and partly on the proposal to pay citizens for their services, first as jurors, and, later, for voting. 

This reminds me of a recent claim that was made that we needed to build a wall between the US and Mexico – and make the Mexicans pay for it.  It sounded good, and the politician was elected.  Yet the claim was always a complete fraud.  Who did the Athenians think was going to pay for the benefits they were voting themselves?  And yes, the USA is paying for the wall.

The tributes to Athens from its neighboring cities, ostensibly held for future contingencies, were re-deployed to the building of grand monuments, temples and gold statues for the Gods, with the full support of the Athenians.  Pericles later escalated the conflicts with neighbor Sparta, resulting in the Peloponnesian Wars.  To pay for the war, the citizens of Athens invented sovereign debt by voting to borrow gold from the statues of Athena.  The debt was never repaid.

It seems our governments, at all levels, are now stuck between a virulent ethos against taxation and increasing claims for infrastructure, military spending, tax concessions and transfer payments.  The populists in the US and elsewhere, and those voting for them, seem to be able to ignore reality.  The debt continues to build and the talking heads say everything is going to be OK.

Athens eventually fell, after making unwise concessions to the rising power of the Macedonians in the hopes of winning the war against Sparta.

A key lesson of the twentieth century is that modern wars are increasingly disastrous for everyone, a lesson many politicians seem eager to forget.  Pretending to be strong by acting the bully seems to be in vogue around the world these days.  President Washington, in his farewell address, cautioned against “foreign entanglements.”  We have continued to entangle ourselves in active military conflicts around the world since the end of the Cold War, and continue to make threats of more.  These entanglements may yet prove to be our downfall.

What is Athens remembered for? 

Pericles died of the plague, but in his final speech he claimed that Athens would be remembered forever for its military strength and power.  The city’s subsequent defeat at the hands of Sparta belied that claim. 

Military power looks good and may protect for a time against foreign invaders, but it is powerless to defend against the deterioration of cultural virtue on the inside.  Building strong relationships with your neighbors is always a more effective strategy for long term thriving than building higher walls and spending on deterrence.  But it requires humility and listening skills, qualities in short supply among politicians and pundits these days.

Socrates, who was executed by majority vote for (essentially) asking too many questions, believed Athens would be remembered in infamy for killing a wise man.  He too was wrong, although his story is better known than Pericles’.  

The United States used to be a beacon for the oppressed and for the protection of human rights.  We now have one of the highest prison populations in the world, we belong to the very small group of mostly Muslim theocracies still committed to the death penalty and we lead the world in gun-related deaths.  This may, or may not, matter much for our future reputationin, but it makes a mockery of our mythology of being the world’s freedom-loving peacemaker.

Some have claimed, since the 19thcentury, anyway, that Athenian democracy was the beacon for enlightened governance – yet the romantic mythology on which that claim is based is a fraud.  According to Professor Samons, Athens has been remembered for its culture — “They produced a wealth of masterpieces in art, architecture, literature and philosophy.”

In the nineteenth and most of the 20thcentury, the mythology of the US as a beacon of hope and economic opportunity may have been largely true.  That image has been undermined by our huge military presence (including more military bases on foreign soil than all other nations combined) and our economic dominance, which many label as economic imperialism.  In some parts of the globe we are viewed as the world’s bully — but even in those corners of the world our science, our creativity and our culture are still admired. 

How do we avoid the fate of Athens?

Athenian democracy followed a course towards profligate spending, unsustainable debts, best-case-scenario thinking, and debilitating foreign entanglements.  That process was driven by changes in cultural values, which flowed directly from Athens’ sustained economic and military success. Athenians forgot the values of personal responsibility and collective commitment because they could – there were no immediate consequences. 

The USA has been blessed with personal freedom, military dominance and economic success for a very long time.  Is it any wonder that we have forgotten the kind of personal responsibility and collective commitment it takes to face significant challenges?  Our remarkable success has undermined our strength of character – and we have not yet begun to face the consequences.  At least the Athenians knew they were borrowing from the Gods — we are unwittingly borrowing from our grandchildren’s future. 

According to Professor Samons, the problem cannot be solved by appealing to the government for solutions.  It is not a governmental problem.  A cultural problem can only be cured by changing culture.   He also noted that The Athenian empire was defeated by Sparta. Curiously, Sparta, an oligarchy, outlasted Athens.  But with fewer monuments, Sparta did not fare as well in the historical record.  However, a Spartan motto survives today in our national anthem: “Land of the free, home of the brave.”   

The United States has risen on a culture of thrift, hard work, and collective commitment to the rule of law, the balance of power, and the values of free speech (including an independent press), personal liberty and equality of opportunity.  These cultural values created the environment in which our nation thrived and our governments, at all levels, functioned in spite of the inherent fragility of democracy.  How can we regain those values, or find some new framework of virtue that will save us from the ultimate consequences of our cultural drift?

First and foremost, we need to stop fooling ourselves!

Originally, in Athens, a common citizen seeking office was required to answer three questions:  Do you honor the Gods?  Do you take care of your parents?  Do you pay taxes and serve in the military?

One might ask, in our modern era, if there is space in our cultural dialogue, to re-frame the words spoken by John F. Kennedy in his first inaugural address:  “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  The question now is:  What is each of us doing for each other, and for the common good? 

If we learn to answer this question affirmatively, the fall of Athens and the erasure of its empire, may not be our fate as well.

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