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November 4, 2013


My followers will recall that I have often written that “democracy is our most precious asset,” “that democracy is one of the few things left worth dying for,” and other such statements which glorify this system of self-government over any and all others.  Indeed I have written that the fight for democracy against fascism (and its dictators) was what WW II (a war in which I participated) was ultimately all about. So just what is democracy and where did it come from and how has it fared in other times and places as a linchpin in how particular societies govern themselves – and how is it faring in the here and now? A brief history of its Greek beginnings may be helpful. (Some of the following description is mine; some is extracted from the National Geographic Atlas of World History.)

The world grew more sophisticated during what historians call the “Classical Age” (500 B.C. to A.D. 500). Art and architecture flourished. The earlier Mycenaean Greeks had fallen into a quiet period for several centuries before the Classical Age began, but some of their latter day chiefdoms were still alive in the hills of Greece and began to expand into larger political entities (called poleis) which further morphed into city-states.

The city-states fought one another, did not unite, but were forced to unite after their defeat by Philip II, king of Macedon just north of the bickering Greek city states. Philip admired Greek culture even as he militarily subdued them. He was assassinated a few years later and his son Alexander, age 20, succeeded him. Alexander (called Alexander the Great by Romans) then proceeded to conquer most of the then-known world with a united Greece, spreading Greek language and culture over three continents. He died of “a fever” at age 32 and three of his generals split up his empire. They promptly started fighting with one another and all fell to the legions of Rome, who themselves copied Greek architecture, Greek gods (though most were renamed) and even Greek politics with their Roman Senate in pre-Imperial Rome.

Rome controlled the non-barbarian world at the time, but the language of their empire was Greek. The seed had been planted by Alexander during his brief life, who constructed Alexandria in Egypt and established a great library there (a rather unlikely event from a conquering general). The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen and probably spoke Greek. That great trio of Greek Athenian thought, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle encouraged debate and democracy. (A little known fact of history is that Aristotle himself was brought from Athens to Macedon by King Philip as a mentor to his son, Alexander, which I think had a lot to do with Alexander’s subsequent spread of Greek culture and architecture in his empire before his premature demise and the subsequent Roman military tsunami. Like Philip of Macedon, Romans admired Greek culture and even their democracy, which they practiced after a fashion until the Caesar militarists and their dictatorship took over. Rome did not use their democracy, or fight for it, so they lost it – which is a grim reminder to us today to use our democracy – and fight for it – or lose it.

There arose in the city state of Athens a new concept in governing that was unknown in human societies prior to this, i.e., governing by participation of common citizens, or democracy. The great Athenian Pericles set it out in succinct fashion. He said, ”We are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few.” Before this political invention for the ages, monarchy had been the way of nations for centuries, though there was a slowly evolving move to oligarchy, or rule by the few. Originally, the word “tyrant” only meant the absolute ruler or the lord of an area. Athenians made it a word to despise, a situation to be avoided, and insisted that government was the business of all males (excepting slaves and women) age 18 and over.

Athenians had no House and Senate in the exercise of their democratic government. They rather had a popular assembly which debated laws to be passed and regulations to be made. It was led by ten “generals,” CHOSEN IN ANNUAL ELECTIONS, and Pericles was the most influential of them for 15 years. He made it clear that he expected every Greek male citizen 18 and over to participate in government. He said, “We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs not as harmless, but as a useless character.”

Amen! Some 2,500 years later, his words still ring true. Those who do not participate in our democratic process risk losing it for all of us, as we can see in how the Roman Senate became corrupt and was swallowed up by militarist Caesars. I don’t see any anti-democratic Caesars per se on the scene today, but I do see a corrupt system where the new Caesars are the special interests who ply our politicians with “campaign contributions” in order to install their (rather than our) versions of law and regulations. I am sure that the highly ethical Pericles would be aghast at such an outrage to the democratic process, and for good reason. It IS outrageous and not in accord with democracy in any age, from Pericles to and including Obama, and we are risking our democracy by allowing it to continue. Citizens United did not help, is an affront to democracy on its face, and should be reversed.

Perhaps worse than just money in our present system antithetical to preservation of democracy is some of the legislation spewing forth from state houses across the country which amount to voter suppression. In Pericles’ day you were a “useless character” unless you had an interest in public affairs, including a primary obligation to vote. The idea was to expand the voting franchise, not to restrict it. Indeed expansion of the voting franchise has been the case and constitutional law in this country (see new voters formerly unable to vote by reason of age, gender and color) until recently, when some (in the exercise of their version of democracy) have decided that one needs a particular piece of paper with one’s picture on it in order to avoid being a “useless character” and deprived of his/her constitutional right to vote.

Nobody gave us democracy; we had to fight for it – and to repeat – it is our most precious possession. Thousands of barrels of blood were sacrificed to save democracy from the forces of oligarchy and the fascism of Japanese warlords and Nazi murderers, and I, for one, do not propose to give it up to ward-heeling politicians of any party and their special interest backers under any pretext without a fight.

Democracy: Use it or lose it. Let’s use it.  GERALD  E


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