James S. Berkman: Democracy and Citizenship + RECAP

Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence, Government
James S. Berkman

Democracy and Citizenship

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!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

See Also:

2008: Creating a Smart Nation (Full Text Online for Google Translate)

Review: All Rise–Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity

Review: Citizenship Today – Global Perspectives and Practices

Review: Democracy Matters–Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (Hardcover)

Review: Democracy’s Edge–Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life

Review: Doing Democracy

Review: Downsizing Democracy–How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public

Review: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Review: Evolutionary Activism by Tom Atlee

Review: Extreme Democracy

Review: Gag Rule–On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy

Review: Human Scale

Review: Improper behavior–when misconduct is good for society

Review: Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate

Review: Just How Stupid Are We?–Facing the Truth About the American Voter

Review: Politics Lost–How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid (Hardcover)

Review: Public Philosophy–Essays on Morality in Politics

Review: Society’s Breakthrough!–Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People

Review: Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect

Review: State of the Unions–How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence

Review: The Coming Democracy–New Rules for Running a New World

Review: The Deepening Darkness–Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future

Review: The Parable of the Tribes–The Problem of Power in Social Evolution

Review: The Populist Moment–A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America

Review: The Tao of Democracy–Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All

Review: The Thirteen American Arguments–Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country

Review: Weapons of Mass Instruction

Review: Why Societies Need Dissent (Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures)

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