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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives

Plutarch
The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives

The Rise and Fall of Athens
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading a bit of Plutarch. I’m not sure why — it was on my shelf, and I haven’t touched it in about thirteen years, so I gave it a go. It was a lot more fun than I had expected, and not quite the way that I had remembered it. For example, while I had the story of Themistocles pretty well cemented in my head, my reading of it is so different now. When I was eighteen, I had read the story of Themistocles as the story of a tragic hero — a wildly successful general who leads the Athenian navy against the Persians and saves Athens, but becomes so popular with the people that the assembly is forced to ostracize him in order to prevent him from being appointed king. And while the facts of the story do go something like that, now I read it as a story about an arrogant, showboating dickwad who uses his many talents to ingratiate himself to people in power while making the steadfast civil servants look bad. It would seem my opinion of human social nature has changed over the years, and not in favor of Themistocles.
Plutarch
It’s been particularly fun to read the Greek Lives on the heels of Machiavelli. Athens is synonymous with Democracy, while Machiavelli is synonymous with Tyranny. The modern United States is supposed to be synonymous with “democracy building”. But guess what? Modern American federalism has far more resonance with Machiavelli than with Plutarch. We’ve got a plutocracy (at best) in which we elect our favorite millionaire based on American-Idol-style popularity contests, and the most popular millionaires get to create legislation. We’ve got Kennedy family dynasties, Bush family dynasties, Clinton family dynasties, ad nauseam. Poor ol’ W has to take weekend-long photo ops trimming brush on his Texas ranch — it’s hard work becoming a Man Of The People when you’re the multi-millionaire son of a U.S. President! Contrast this with the story told again and again in the Greek Lives, in which too much popularity is the political kiss of death. Ostracism was a pretty good incentive to stay humble. It wasn’t criminals or traitors who were ostracized (there were other penalties for those things); it was the public servant who had amassed too much power and had become a threat to egalitarianism. It was when people started murmuring things like, “Hey, this guy’s pretty good! Maybe we should hand over wartime powers to him — you know, just temporarily — until this situation with those terrorists in Sparta gets sorted out…” that the assembly would lay the chips on the table and suggest that maybe you needed to take a little vacation in Persia for oh, ten years or so. Or you could be put to death. Your call, really.

Of course, I don’t really mean to romanticize Athenian democracy. While it did strive for egalitarianism among citizens, citizens were defined as free men — free, as in “not slaves”, and men, as in “not women”. I do however, mean to point out that modern American “liberal democracy” is much closer to fascism than ever before, and nothing much like Democracy as Plutarch would have understood it. And that a little ostracism goes a long way.

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