July 20, 2019 | 83° F

FINNERTY: Rhetoric remains influential for value of democracy

Opinions Column: Waxing Philosophical


Amid the banter of American politicians, debating everything from fiscal equality to a particular candidate’s penis size (his own, mind you), there seems to be the same structure to which they defend, namely the idea of democracy. We toss this term around and bravely assure the curious world that democracy’s byproduct is freedom and equality. Countries have been invaded and wars have been fought over the idea. However, as much as the enlightenment has given by virtue of a neoclassical style, what did the ancients think of this newfound way of government?

During the 5th century BCE, democracy was birthed in Athens after a long tradition of a particularly harsh aristocracy. This feat, performed by the average Athenian citizen, was actually quite revolutionary in a world where most generally strong-man rule was considered the norm. Athenian citizens would assemble and do business, debating matters of the state and thereby affording some sense of equality to its voting members.

Before claiming lineage to this system, as many Americans and Westerners in general do, one must realize that the ideal image of Athenian democracy commonly held was far from the actual function. Athenian democracy was more tant bien que mal, or rather, mildly successful relative to the ideals we often think of in a democratic society.

Imagine now, the lights dim and draw downwards, the fatuous "Donald Drumpf" walks upon the stage with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) From the side opposite approaches the prevaricator former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with the populist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). All stand facing the American people, sweaty from the idea of chance as straws are distributed amongst them. The lights kick up and each candidate looks down upon their straw and the new president is … well, I won’t make it that easy. You see, in Athenian democracy, every citizen was equal and therefore chance decided executive positions, there was no need to vote.

Now one should also take note that only landing-owning men of age who’ve completed their military obligations were eligible to be citizens. Therefore, this so-called radical democracy wouldn’t take any of the current presidential candidates as fit to vote, let alone be a citizen. When the Geeks claimed equality, they meant it (in their own misogynistic and slave-owning way). There are of course many intricacies that I must omit from this brief overview, but for a free quality lecture on the topic I recommend Yale’s free online course, “Introduction to Ancient Greek History.”

“Democracy passes into despotism … the people always have some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness … this and no other is root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.” The latter quote is from none other than Plato in “The Republic,” and one can be certain that Plato did not see the population fit for rule.

Plato often feared the ability of those trained by the Sophists, a group of philosophers particularly good a teaching rhetoric. Regarding the common citizen as uneducated, Plato could see how a rabble rousing speaker could easily stir up the assembly to vote in a way desirable to one person, a sort of mob rule.

One of my favorite Greek comedies, “The Clouds” by Aristophanes which was believed to have been produced in 423 BCE, does an excellent job at displaying the anxieties held by Plato. In the comedy, Strepsiades and his son Pheidippides are in serious debt and seek training from Socrates, and after much intricate dialogue, the old man Strepsiades can no longer take the teachings of Socrates. Pheidippides on the other hand, comes out a master rhetorician and proceeds to debate his debt and his father (on the topic of a beating). Moral of the story: Perhaps the human mind is too easily swayed on the account of ego to produce any serious inquiry into the betterment of society. One line from the chorus leader makes this point in case, “… In fact, you must believe as every man of intellect should, that the greatest of all blessings is to live and think more clearly than the vulgar herd, to shine in the contests of words.”

Perhaps, for a modern society, we have a bit more structure and direction than that of the ancient world. However, one can easily observe the power of rhetoric and the many definitions available for words like “equality” and “citizenship.” As we scramble to elect our next leaders, we ought to remember the sophistry of the Athenian politicians and ourselves be the well-educated and reasonable members of society that Plato had hoped for.

Jonathan Finnerty is a School of Arts Sciences junior majoring in classics and philosophy. His column, "Waxing Philosophical," runs on alternate Fridays.


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Jonathan Finnerty

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