(This column came about when my niece Haley asked me to help her with her seventh-grade History paper. As we pored through her reading materials and my copy of Plutarch’s Age of Alexander,* her eyes lit up quizzically when, in trying to engage her in this study of dead men and ancient civilizations, I told her that this issue is not only not dead, but still rages on with undiminished intensity 2,400 years later. I hope my adaptation of her work is worthy of the beautiful sparkle in her eyes.)*
Greece has been described as the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization, and of all the Greek city-states Athens did the most to promote these ideals and bring about a Golden Age.
That period in ancient Athens was an exciting time for its citizens, who were now encouraged to debate the finer points of self-government, engage in philosophical and scientific inquiry, enjoy a rich and enlightening cultural life, and explore questions about morality, patriotism, citizenship, and other issues of social importance.
When Persia attacked Greece, they did a lot of damage to various properties and monuments. Against almost impossible odds, the vastly outnumbered Greeks valiantly fought back against the Persians with help from the fierce soldiers from Sparta, and finally repelled them from their land. Pericles, a brave military commander, was made the ruler of Athens, and one of his first projects was rebuilding the city.
He focused on restoring the famous Parthenon, the temple to Athena, Athens’ patron goddess and protector, and he enlisted Phidias, probably the greatest of the ancient Greek sculptors, and made him supervisor of all the artistic restoration projects on the Acropolis, which included the Parthenon and several other monuments.
Athens wanted to recreate the Parthenon and the other buildings as part of an effort to build on their cultural heritage, of which they were justifiably proud, and to promote civic pride by rebuilding their famed monuments on a grand and imposing scale. This also advanced Athenian society by fostering a sense of cultural optimism: The temples attested to and celebrated the fact that Athens prevailed against the powerful Persian forces, and also provided a prestigious and compelling attraction that drew in visitors to worship and pay tribute to Athena, which brought money to the temples and to the local economy – which was fitting, since for a time the Parthenon also served as the treasury for the Delian League, an alliance of city-states and Aegean Sea islands led by Athens.
The Parthenon, richly decorated with sculptures and friezes, was considered the pinnacle of classical Greek architecture and artistic achievement, and its graceful proportions and eye-pleasing symmetry in gleaming marble became the model for government edifices worldwide.
In addition, these imposing monuments, and Phidias’ magnificent, gigantic statue of Athena, made of gold and ivory, stood out in the city of Athens and boldly made an undeniable statement to the world: that Athens was a world-class city capable of great works and whose citizens had talents and abilities that inspired awe, wonder and respect among those who visited from many miles away. All of which furthered Pericles’ city-building campaign and the cultural and social revolutions of the Golden Age.
Athenians reveled in the capabilities of humankind. In contrast to earlier, static depictions of man, their artists portrayed the human form in motion – part of a celebration of the dynamic, active, creative principle guiding all people. The conception of the common man and woman as a conscious agent of his or her own self-fulfillment and destiny has been a rallying cry for all free people ever since.
Similarly, Greek iconography was frequently utilized by the newfound American republic in its own official architecture and symbolism, such as the classical image of ideal female beauty that graced our $20 “Double Eagle” gold piece, designed by the famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and widely regarded as the most beautiful American coin ever minted.
At this time Athens was experiencing a period of intellectual and cultural ferment and tumult. Aeschylus, who fought the Persian invaders under Pericles, turned to writing plays in which he explored many challenging and timely topics. Aristotle wrote that Aeschylus also expanded the number of characters in theater and incorporated conflict between them as an innovative technique to drive the plot and create and resolve dramatic tension; previously, characters on stage only interacted with the chorus.
Because of his work and the work of Sophocles, Euripides, and other playwrights, Athens became known as an unrivalled cultural center.
The philosopher and gadfly Socrates also posed challenging questions to the Athenian public, using dialogue to advance his arguments. Socrates also inspired fellow Athenian Plato to continue presenting intellectual arguments in the form of a dialogue between two people, and Plato went on to create the Academy to promote scholarly thought and to educate people. His prize student was Aristotle, who went on to empirically catalog knowledge over a wide range of disciplines and subjects. In addition, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides chronicled those pivotal years to broaden understanding of the events that shaped their society and way of life.
People like Pericles, Aeschylus, Phidias, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle helped make Athens a bustling intellectual and artistic hub and a welcoming haven for creativity by provoking and stimulating discussion about what it means to live in and be a part of a vibrant and dynamic society. They also helped promote the value of knowledge and spurred on the people of Athens to a vision of living the good life through a life of reflection.
Athenian public life also included taking part in civic affairs, because under democracy eligible citizens could actually vote on some of the pressing issues of the time.
So Athens, which helped survive an existential crisis by successfully fighting back against an invasion by the superpower Persia, then went on to make its society more democratic, its people more free, and its public life more lively and stimulating by promoting civic engagement and intellectual, philosophical, artistic, cultural and scientific work.
During this period Athens enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, influence and prestige thanks to its far-flung network of trading partners, territories that paid tribute, and its dominance of the seas.
But Athens’ period of dominance as a naval power and trading empire would soon come to an end: After a plague that wiped out as much as two-thirds of the Athenian population, including Pericles, and a ruinous war with the larger and better-trained Spartan forces, Athens was devastated. It lost its foreign investments – its colonies – its entire naval fleet was destroyed, its docks were depleted, many of its youth were killed or imprisoned in a foreign land, and almost its entire army was sold off into slavery.
But it remained a cultural force and touchstone of edifying humanism and civilization that continues to inspire like-minded people to this day.
In an electrifying speech to honor the Athenian war dead in the first year of the grueling Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Pericles said, “Our form of government is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole people. In the settling of private disputes, everyone is equal before the law. Election to public office is made on the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular class. No man is kept out of public office by the obscurity of his social standing because of his poverty, as long as he wishes to be of service to the state. And not only in our public life are we free and open, but a sense of freedom regulates our day-to-day life with each other.”
Similarly, when our country was in the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt put millions of people to work, electrified huge swaths of the country through the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority, put strict regulations on Wall Street, established Social Security to save senior citizens from poverty, and fought to liberate Europe and save the world from fascism and imperialism.
And due to his planning for a postwar America, and robust government investments, progressive tax policies that channeled private investment into job-creating economic activities, and programs such as the G.I. Bill and the F.H.A. that enabled veterans to buy homes, go to school, and support and contribute to American prosperity, we were able to transition into the largest peacetime economy with the biggest technological base.
He also worked to foster the arts and promote cultural literacy and optimism, most notably through the Works Progress Administration. Painters such as Philip Guston, Moses Soyer, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jacob Laurence, Ivan Albright, Marsden Hartley, Philip Evergood, and Mark Tobey owed their illustrious careers in part to their participation in the W.P.A., as did the writers Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps and Zora Neale Hurston and such luminaries of cinema and theater as Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Canada Lee, Will Geer, Joseph Losey, Virgil Thompson, Nicholas Ray, E.G. Marshall and Sidney Lumet.
Contemporaneous with this heady cultural mix was the African-American intellectual, social, and artistic blossoming known as the Harlem Renaissance, which gifted us with such writers as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown and Jean Toomer. The groundwork for their cultural achievements and strivings was laid by the intellectuals W.E.B. Dubois and Hubert Harrison, but also hearkened to Reconstruction, when American blacks not only began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic self-determination, but also for their own cultural identity in the New World at a time when many white artists and intellectuals still looked to Europe for cultural inspiration and validation.
This prolific movement also saw the emergence and popular acceptance of jazz music – the only true American-born art form – which would develop an artistic soul that was as passionate as it was refined.
Sparta, in contrast, responded to a slave revolt by turning its society into a completely military one, where all boys at an early age begin training for the military and for fighting in wars.
America, too, responded to a sort of slave revolt – the Civil War, but it was a revolt instigated by the Southern slaveholders to preserve slavery – with the Emancipation Proclamation and then the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But sadly, Reconstruction was undermined by the forces of reaction in both the North and the South, presaging a vicious cycle of hard-fought advances followed by a series of setbacks:
Emancipation soon led to segregation, lynching, the emergence of white supremacist terrorist groups such as the KKK, and repressive Jim Crow laws;
The landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education led to the establishment of “segregation academies,” private schools that excluded blacks and provided a haven for racist whites seeking to self-segregate, as well as white opposition to school busing, which became a rallying point and organizing principle for reactionary racist whites; and
The civil rights movement, which culminated in significant legislative gains, soon led to the politically-motivated War on Drugs and mass incarceration and political demobilization of entire generations of blacks who disproportionately suffered break-up of family life, career setbacks, and loss of liberty, and who then lost their voting rights as a result of convictions for nonviolent drug offenses.
And more recently, in the midst of the worst financial and economic collapse of our lifetimes, a period that also saw two ruinous wars spinning out of control, this nation elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, a brilliant, tough and compassionate man who presented the rare combination of an inspiring vision, a deep and probing intellect, personal charisma and magnetism, and a compelling life story on his way to becoming the top presidential vote-getter in our nation’s history.
His opponents reacted as Spartans did to a slave revolt.
As President Obama immediately set out to rescue our cratered economy and restore hope to our beleaguered nation’s battered psyche, he was just as immediately met by forces of maximum resistance: the reactionary, racist and conspiracy-mongering Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
And despite his work as a teacher of Constitutional Law at the prestigious University of Chicago and as a community organizer, celebrated published author, state senator, and United States Senator, Republicans demonized him as an alien, malevolent force with a murky, dangerous background.
They questioned his faith, his family ties, his politics, and even his eligibility as a U.S. citizen to run for and hold political office. Religious leaders openly prayed for his untimely death, for his loving, gracious and devoted wife to be widowed, and for his beautiful children to be orphaned.
And though Democrats in recent years had rallied behind a Republican president and called for national unity after the attacks on 9-11, Republicans felt no need to reciprocate for the good of the country amid an arguably even-greater crisis.
During eight years of declared war against this democratically elected president, Republicans violated every norm and protocol needed to facilitate representative self-government, burned every bridge behind them, imposed austerity economics on a still-recovering economy in a calculated, heartless and cynical attempt to blunt recovery efforts for partisan political gain, and did everything they could to make this country ungovernable under a black Democratic president – even taking us to the brink of a national default by refusing to raise the national debt ceiling, and writing open letters to the leaders of the hostile Islamic Republic of Iran in which they urged them to reject the policies of our own president, even though rejecting a nuclear arms agreement could mean an unavoidable slide to war.
This is what we are up against: a political cabal whose agenda is more division and strife, more misery for working-class and struggling families, more bailouts, privileges and carve-outs for the powerful special interests, and a diminution of rights and redress for women, minorities and disenfranchised citizens.
And a public misinformed by divisive right-wing media, deceptive and misleadingly edited YouTube videos, partisan talk show hosts, and cynical and disingenuous religious extremists using anger, fear and resentment to promote reactionary politicians and policies.
And the result was the election of Donald Trump, quite possibly the most unfit, unqualified and corrupt president in the nation’s history, whose destructive policies and actions have brought us to this frightening crossroad in our nation’s history.
So now, Americans are preparing for the 2020 elections, and Democrats, after the devastating losses of 2016, are finding themselves with undeniable momentum: In a bid to return accountability and provide a check on Republican overreach and misrule, Democrats took back 40 seats to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and reclaimed seven governor’s mansions, seven state legislative bodies, and 400 state legislative seats around the country.
So, yes, this next year will be an exciting, even historic time, the times that we have been waiting for, as citizens work to take back the reins of power from Trump and an increasingly out-of-touch and elitist Republican Party.
And so, what we have before us is a choice: we can live and participate in a society led by smart, effective leaders who are guided by knowledge and evidence, who are willing to share power, and who work to solve problems and create a better quality of life for its people, on the one hand, and a regimented garrison state featuring hermetically sealed borders that is always demonizing its opposition and preparing for conflict while trying to dominate others, and with supporters who march in lock-step like Spartan formations and are defined and motivated by their ginned-up opposition to the Other.
The descendants of Athens have the moral high ground as they fight to uphold democratic ideals, but the heirs to Sparta remain a formidable foe, and have regrouped and extended their alliances with like-minded fanatics, extremists, despots and tyrants, and who are unrestrained and undeterred by concepts of justice, fairness, and the consent of the people.
Of the two, I choose Athens as a more rewarding place to live than Sparta, and I will proudly join my beloved niece Haley as we gird ourselves to fight for our spiritual Athens.
In the immortal words of Pericles, “The strongest are those who understand with perfect clarity what is terrible in life and what is sweet, and then go out undeterred to confront danger.”
Today, we are all Athenians.