Saturday, 20 June 2015

More Plutarch

I’m ready, I told my ten-year-old – can you come in for tonight’s lesson?

She slid into the room in socks. “Most awesome entry ever!” she said.

It is, I said, as I opened up Plutarch. Now, remember how we talked about Solon? I want to tell you how he established democracy, and how other people tried to take it away. We had discussed how almost all human group, in almost every time and place, was run by the most powerful males, and how they'd kill or enslave anyone who objected.

“Do you think some of them could have been good rulers?” she asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings?”

Those characters were more than human, I said – but even they were often corrupted by power. In this world, even more so, power corrupts, and attracts the corruptible. And for most of history, it wasn’t just that rulers didn’t respect individual rights or collective decisions – it’s that they had no concept of these things. These principles came from one time and place.

 “Ancient Greece?” she asked. Yes, I said, and what city?

“Sparta?” she started, and then stopped – “No, wait, they were just the opposite. Athens?”

 Athens it was, I said – but even they didn’t start out that way. All Greeks used to have kings, and everyone served them, but even back in the Iliad there were signs the people were unhappy with that. Remember when Agamemnon wanted everyone to keep on fighting, and one man speaks up against the king? And Odysseus beats him up?

“I was with that guy,” she said. “I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Odysseus when he got lost on his way home.” I’d agree with you, I said – but look on the good side. There were already people who would stand up to kings. A few hundred years later, they got so powerful they couldn’t be stopped.

“Why was it there?” she said. “Why didn’t it happen anywhere else?”

That’s a great question, I said – part of it was probably that a lot of Greeks could read and write, and were well educated. Everyone had to pitch in to defend the country, so a leader needed the people on their side.

They had lots of small, close-knit communities that could compete against each other, to test and share ideas, without everyone getting their information from the same sources. The United States, where I came from, used to be the same way, and democracy flourished there for a while too. Most of all, Ancient Greek cities were small enough that everyone knew each other, so it was hard for one of them to claim to be a god.

“I remember you read me that gospel story where the Egyptian priests were pretending to be the voice of a god from inside a hollow statue,” * she said. “In a Greek city people would hear that voice and say, ‘Hey, isn’t that Bob?”

I laughed – exactly, I told her.

“So in Athens,” she asked, “they could kick out the king and rule themselves?”

Well, that’s how movies go, I said – the rebels blow up the Death Star or crash the enemy spaceship, destroy the evil empire, and everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, though, violence puts the wrong kinds of people in power, and what follows a revolution is usually worse. Real democracies grow gradually from the bottom up.

 For example, I said, when the leaders of Athens kept killing each other to be the boss, they finally decided they would take turns each year. Term limits were invented, and that was Step One. “So one person would be the total dictator of everything, but just for a year?” she asked. Yep, I said – they were called archons. Arch in Ancient Greek means ruler, so you have a monarch (one ruler), anarchism (no rulers), arch-angels and so on.

“Why didn’t the first boss make a new rule that said that he’d be boss forever?”

 I’d think that would be too obvious, I said – like your first wish to a genie can’t be for a million more wishes. Step Two, I told her, was deciding that more than one person should be boss at a time, I said, so you had a small group.

 “What was Step Three?” she asked.

 Well, that’s where it gets interesting, I said. You know how sports stars get famous, and everyone takes them seriously as a hero because they scored lots of goals? Well, people were like that then too – a man named Cylon won the Olympics, and everyone said, “He’s so awesome, he should be our leader!”

Cylon and his people tried to take over the city by force, and they were killed, I said – which was a big deal, because in those days a lot of punishment was by revenge. If someone killed your father, you became like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride – forever seeking their death.

So the Athenians realised this wouldn’t do, and they took another step toward democracy – laws. Not just the law that everyone had to obey the boss, but laws that everyone, even the boss, had to follow. That was Step Three. Of course, you remember who made the laws?

“Draco!” she said with a gasp. “And the punishment for everything was death.” Right, I said – so it had some flaws.

Step Four happened when the poor Athenians had to go deeply into debt to support themselves, like Americans do today. So the rich Athenians feared the poor would revolt, and they called on one person that both rich and poor trusted – Solon.

 My daughter knew Solon, remembering him from our earlier lessons. “Solon got to be in charge? He was made king?”

 Leader, at least, I said – and he eliminated the practice of enslaving people who were in debt. He came up with a system where a large group of people were gathered to represent the community, and they would debate what the city should do – and for big decisions, every citizen of Athens thousands of them could gather and help decide. Then the number of people in favour of each thing would be written down, and a majority would get their way.

“They were voting!” she said.

It gets better, I said -- if people were accused of crimes, a group of people would gather to vote on whether they were guilty – the first juries, like we still have today.

And the person who would decide their sentence would be a judge – but unlike today, judges were chosen by a roll of the dice, so no one could predict who would be judging them next year. It meant someone could have power over you next time, so you had to be nice to everyone. “So with everyone ruling themselves, what did he do as the leader?” she asked.

Well, that’s the best part, I said – with his absolute power, he made everyone promise to obey these new rules, to vote and do their part and so on. In fact, he made everyone swear an oath – this is back when oaths meant something. Everyone had to raise their hand and say, I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years. 

“I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years,” my daughter repeated. Good! I said, playing Solon. Now that I’ve changed everything, I’m going on vacation … … for ten years. 

We laughed at Solon’s trickery, but then something occurred to her. “Daddy, had they made Solon the … um … leader what-do-you-call-it?” The archon? I said. Yes, he was the dictator, so everyone had to do what he said.

 Her eyes grew wide, as the implications of this sank in. “He gave up the Ring, Daddy!”

The ring? I asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings!” she said. “The Ring was power, so no one could bear to give it up – but he did! He was like Gandalf, or Galadriel – only real.”

Well done, I said. Yes, in this world too, the Ring tempts everyone – but in this world, too, you can walk away. And once in a while, someone does.


* A while back, I had read to her from some of the Gnostic Gospels, one of the many that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament. This one, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour, is a set of adventures that happened to Mary and Joseph as they carried the baby Jesus around the Sinai, helping people as they go. If it’s not too irreverent a comparison, it reminded me of 70s television shows like Kung Fu or The Incredible Hulk, shows where the homeless protagonists wander from town to town across an arid landscape, encountering people facing some localised oppression, seeking non-violent ways to help, until at the climax they finally use their power to terrify and destroy the oppressors.


Andy Brown said...

I was never much impressed with the founding father hagiography of George Washington. But the one achievement of his that seems the most significant and the most under-appreciated, was that at the end of his second term, he refused to stand for another. As the girl said, he gave up the ring, and enabled US democracy.

Brian Kaller said...


I felt exactly the same way about the worship of Washington, and the fact that he was not a particularly saintly man makes his choice all the more interesting.