Wealth brings saturation and saturation brings hubris!
If a child goes in front of a global map and starts reading states’ names, which words do you think is he going mention most? As you have rightly imagined the correct answer pertains to the terms of Democracy and its Latin equivalent, Republic. This simple notion tells a lot with regard to the identity of the most popular political system nowadays. To rephrase my argument, why states are so keen on describing themselves in this particular way? Merely because such a suffix (i.e. Democracy or Republic) is perceived as an added value with regard to their legitimacy, both on the eyes of their subjects and worldwide. To say it simply, Democracy is thought to be “cool”. This is why every now and then, great countries, like the US or France, praise themselves through ceremonies and events dedicated to the nobleness of Democracy. In this process, inevitably, they will have to pay tribute to Democracy’s cradle, Greece. Sadly, no matter how flattering these remarks are for my country they are quite misleading at the same time. And that is because the actual conditions that gave birth to Democracy deserve more attention than the landscape.
Why do I take such a stance? Just think for a minute how do the popular readings around the world depict Greece’s contribution to the evolution of governance and then you may get closer to my mind. All these positive, yet superficial and fragmentary, remarks which equal a well written posthumous speech have replaced history in the popular mind with a series of beatified fables. The latter, more or less, claim that the wisest of the people of all times, namely the ancient Athenians, came up with the idea to discuss how people should be governed. Thus, somehow a great symposium was organized in Academia* where nobles and scholars debated ceaselessly and passionately for the sake of humanity. Needless to say, the productivity of the dialogues was significantly boosted by the relaxing intervals during which the participants were able to enjoy themselves with good food, watered wine and …smoothly shaped young boys. Although the aforementioned scenario suits perfectly with the image that the average westerner has about ancient Greece I sadly have to confess that its relevance with the historic truth is comparable to the legendary monster of Loch Ness.
In this context, and with all the respect to those who still believe in Nessie, let me present the facts from a less idealistic perspective. During the seventh century BC Athens was a troubled city. Most of its citizens were poor and illiterate because a handful of nobles monopolised wealth and power. Despite their advanced financial status the greedy oligarchs never ceased to ask for more. If one looks at the conditions of the middle ages he will soon find a lot of similarities with the Athenian city state 650 BC. Given that, one is legitimised to wonder where the pioneering educated Greeks who put forward the great plan were. I am afraid I will disappoint you again but these people never existed. In other words Democracy was not the result of heroes, especially when the best of them, Hercules, was as wise as to let a king to direct his divine strength.**
Athenians were neither educated, nor wise; they were hugely indebted to their patrons. Does this ring a bell? In this context, people were forced to work all day in the fields but to little avail as their debts usually outflanked their hard labour. As a result many lost not only their property but also their freedom. Thus, they became slaves to their patrons which meant that they had to work more for less pay. At some point the number of the bankrupt peasants increased significantly and the outcasts, despite their illiteracy, stopped blaming themselves and started questioning the nobles’ motives. This is how an age of turmoil was inaugurated, an age which according to Aristotle lasted for many years.
The unrest was a dead-end for all the involved parts and this is why Athens’s nobility decided to compromise with the mob. In this context, they looked for a widely respected man who was supposed to come up with a solution. This man was Solon, one of the so called Seven Sages of Greece. The fact that he was a noble himself, although he had previously neglected and lost his property, may have made the rest of the nobility that he would impose some light reforms. And to be fair, his proposals were neither radical, nor complicated. On the contrary, he came up with a very simple idea … “seisachtheia” which was nothing but an overall debt relief. In this respect, one morning Athenians were deprived of their unjust debts and from that point nobody could put himself as a loan security. Moreover, Solon founded “Heliaia” which was a popular court. In other words, from this point differences among people would be solved by an assembly of commoner judges. And this is how he put foundation of real Democracy, because Democracy is actually a means towards the real goal; justice.
Of course, this was not the end of the story. Solon knew that many would be reluctant to implement his reforms and this is why, after the “signing” of the agreement, he forced all the Athenians to give an oath of respect to the new constitution. And what do you think Solon did afterwards? He left because he knew that if he was around he would be the recipient of contradicting grievances which, if taken seriously into account, would have given his reformation a lethal blow.
As it was expected grievances and second thoughts were not spared due to Solon’s absence. This is why Democracy did no come with Solon. Thus, it took almost another century of upheavals, reforms, coups and political assassinations until the “political discourse” flourished with what the West nowadays worships as “the Athenian democratic model”.
And this is not only a Greek story. On the contrary it’s the story of mankind. All you need is to recall how the western Democracy came to existence. Again it was born out of the severe French winter of 1788 when millions of French did not understand Neker’s reforms and therefore stormed the prison of Bastille in July 14, 1789. After that decades of amendments followed; wars, destruction, blood and last but not least, hope.
And whether we like it or not the show must go on for real democracy is still missing. In this respect, try to have a more analytic view whenever you read the news from contemporary Athens. Those who confront the police and therefore offer amazing pictures to the international media are not a bunch of drunken hooligans who need to be tamed by the honourable breadwinner police officers whose only task is the restoration of order. Such an explanation seems too good to be true. The roads of Athens are so active simply because all these leaderless, miserable and sometimes hopeless masses, who mirror perfectly the desperate Athenians of Solon’s time, fail to understand Troika reforms.
For those who think that my argument is nothing but a drivelling nonsense. For those who think that the system we are experiencing now is destined to be preserved for ever I can do nothing but to politely ask these souls to become familiar with Solon’s famous dialogue with Croesus, the last king of Lydia.
* The well-known term derives from the actual name of the Athenian neighbourhood where Plato used to walk and discuss with his students.
** The famous Hercules’s 12 Labours were set by king Eurystheus.
See you …soon