March 9th, 2012
Head’s Weekly Letter – March 8, 2012
Dear Academy Families,
While I normally don’t discuss two speakers at All School Meeting (ASM) within one month, the reality is that last week’s speaker was equally as provocative and exciting as the one two weeks before, so I will make this an “exception to the rule.”
Professor Loren J. Samons Jr. is the chair of BU’s Classics Department, a highly decorated teacher (both at BU and nationally), and a widely published scholar (his list of publications is several pages long). Perhaps most important for his impact at ASM, he has a drop-dead hilarious deadpan comic style (think “Saturday Night Life”), and he is able to bring ancient Greek topics vividly to life in terms of our own contemporary issues.
This week at ASM Professor Samons spoke to us about the ancient Greek definitions of “democracy” and “citizenship,” demonstrating how dramatically they differed from our own modern definitions. “Democracy” is the conjoined Greek words for “people power” – he joked that English speakers prefer to borrow prestigious sounding words from other languages, rather than using our own. But while we Americans tend to think of democracy as providing certain citizen “rights” by birth (voting, trial by jury), these were not at all what distinguished ancient Athens as the first city state in Greece to practice democracy; for instance, other city states allowed the vote, even if a king ruled. Rather, ancient Athenians assumed that being a citizen was a group-given privilege (not a natural right) that involved other group-expected duties. Privileges included being chosen by lottery to serve in the legislature (just think of the savings in campaign spending if that’s how Congress were selected!), and duties included serving in the army almost yearly from age 18 to 59, for instance. If you think about these two examples, you’ll notice that the very people voting to go to war were the ones having to serve in it. And since you served next to your friends and family (often a father, brother, and grandfather at your side), the realities of battle were both more personal and more demanding – flight was either not an option during battle (observed by those you loved), or once Uncle Georgios fled, you were right behind him.
While Professor Samons went on to detail the Hoplite army model of ancient Athens, his main points focused on citizenship, especially how our culture has lost its understanding of privileges combined with duties, and replaced that understanding with a sense of entitlement based on natural individual rights. Our “political will” as a society reflects this, as we see presidential debates from both parties pander to what each voter wants, rather than to the spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good. Ancient Athens might have had many troubling qualities, such as an annual draft, but its spirit of democracy is a virtue we would do well to revive. At the Academy, learning about the classics helps to do just that!
James S. Berkman
Head of School