• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #8: Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy


And Sparta will pay for it!

As a student of history, I'm interested in most time periods. I've never really studied military history, so I can't go toe-to-toe with Civil War or World War II buffs, and I've never really delved much into the rabbit hole that is Asian history. But as we'll see during the course of this project, I've read fairly widely on medieval Europe, the Middle Ages, colonial and modern American periods, and nautical history. But two eras in particular have always been my favorites, both during my academic and reading-for-pleasure days. My greatest passion is for the American period from 1750 to 1830, from the push for independence through Constitutional ratification to the earliest days of the Republic to the Reform era. It's there that the story of how we became this America is really found, and we'll visit it many times this year.

The other era is ancient Greece and Rome, where the seeds were sown for Hellenic culture and proto-democracy that informed and inspired the Enlightenment in Europe and the revolutionary generation in this country. I know that it's politically impolite to focus overmuch on the role of our classic heritage and the white dudes who adapted it to create the United States. Yes, the tale of America is a much broader and deeper tapestry. But as a political scientist interested in how the governing structures were built that remain in place today, and why a constitutional republic was bequeathed to us with all its warts, the spine of the story begins among the olive-dappled hills of the Pelopponese, where humanity first dabbled in the art of self-aware self-governance.

For me, a book I've returned to time and again has been Kagan's treatment of Pericles, the towering figure of the fifth century BCE. It was a time when the emerging democracy of Athens could have toppled back into the totalitarian excesses of the age, but the city managed, for a time, to preserve the concept of self-rule. Pericles was central to that effort. Kagan quotes Greek historian Thucydides in regard to the necessities for a democratic statesman, and claims that Pericles embodied them all: "To know what must be done and to be able to explain it, to love one’s country, and to be incorruptible." Sigh.

One of the reasons I turn again and again to the story of Athens is that it still has lessons to teach us today. Kagan argues that if democracies are to succeed, they must offer more than economic prosperity: they must value personal virtue, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and political equality. Athens extolled excellence, individually and collectively, but did not construe that excellence through only the narrow prism of monetary accrual and business acumen. The arts, the sciences, athletics - these all held value. It's something we would do well to heed as we watch our own continuing experiment devolve into a contest of piling gold coins and measuring them against the other guy. If we are to survive and succeed as a constitutional republic with democratic values, we desperately need to remember that we measure ourselves by more than GDP and net worth. If we are to be a shining city on a hill, we need fewer tax cuts for the wealthy and more schools and hospitals with open doors.

We're moving in the wrong direction. Too often we wait for a Pericles to come and show us the way. What we really need is for more of us to find our inner Athenian.

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