BRILLIANT DREAMER

 

 

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed  “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time…” said Winston Churchill in ’47

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival of liberty.” said JFK in ’61.

I was 11 years old when I saw JFK speak these words on television.  I sensed a collective feeling of inspiration.  In those days there were only a few channels of televised news and every source seemed to echo the same response.  The cause of freedom was inseparable from democracy and this would prevail over authoritarianism.  I never doubted this assumption nor did I hear any discussion to the contrary.  We had emerged victorious from the death struggle with fascism and we were prepared to protect and project our cherished American ideals against post Stalinist communism or any subsequent variant threat.

Many years would pass before I was forced to appreciate that my country might reject loyalty to the Constitution, that blueprint of our political experiment.  I was not concerned that the fabric of democracy might be ruptured through popular ignorance and free choice.  We had seen the Weimar Republic destroyed through a democratic process in 1933.  But Germany had had less then two decades of experience with this political system in an environment of coercion by foreign enemies.  Certainly the roots of democracy were so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we were not susceptible to such a seismic shift.  So it seemed.

There would be many disruptions and the surfacing of cultural discontent in the media and on the streets particularly during the Viet Nam era, but I saw no signs of the abandonment of our collective faith in the essential governmental structure.  I did not detect significant attacks on the integrity of national elections.  Yet now this specter looms visible on the horizon.  Consensus on the perception of fact has been systematically assaulted and erosion of the guardrails against tyranny have been vividly exposed.  It was in light of this sad descent that I revisited Plato’s seminal work, The Republic.

In that work, Plato portrays Socrates discussing the nature of justice with fellow Athenians and foreigners.  After long and expansive questioning and answering between characters, the book focuses on the nature of the ideal government. The weaknesses of democracy are pointed out.  The metaphor of choosing a captain for a ship is central to this analysis.  Would one choose just anyone to take the helm or would a qualified seaman be chosen based on his skills?  Who should do the choosing, everyone aboard or only those knowledgeable enough to render an intelligent decision?  Given our recent experience with an unqualified President and the anguishing nature of the efforts toward voter suppression, these questions still beg answers.  Plato’s resolution seems to consider the individual to be an integral part of the City State rather than an independent element requiring self-determination.  His vision of the ideal state resulted in an entity that would be repugnant to my sensibilities.  Family structure would be disrupted with people raised by the state.  Citizens would be relegated to social classes based on birth with the intention of limited social mobility. The ruling class would be comprised of relatively ascetic intellectual individuals without their accumulation of wealth, hopefully producing a philosopher king. Property would be shared fairly among the people, not concentrated in the hands of the most productive or cunning.

It seems germane to note that Plato had witnessed the flaws of democracy contributing to the loss of the Peloponnesian War and Sparta’s replacement of the government with an oligarchy.  He had seen the swaying of the electorate by demagogues who clouded their judgement leading them into disaster.  Democracy’s first mature appearance, from the reforms of Cleisthenes in 507 BC until the Spartan victory in 404 BC, was a span of only 103 years.  Plato was born around 427 BC and thus was alive during the latter part of this time period when the democratic leadership of Pericles was still a recent memory.  The poem below asks rhetorically if Plato was enamored with democracy in his youth as was I.  Probably not, as he was born into an aristocratic family and democracy was a relatively new governmental system.  Democracy would reemerge soon after the Spartan victory suppressed it and it would sputter in various forms intermittently until the time of Augustus Caesar, but Athens never recovered its former power or confidence.

The trajectory of the rise and fall of democracy was therefore more compressed, more intimate then the arc of destiny appears to the post World War II generation.  I think the average American did not previously consider the demise of our form of government to be an issue of concern in their lifetime.  It probably crossed very few minds.  Given the arc of history this would seem naive.  But in our naivety we witnessed an age when social mobility was wildly accessible, when each citizen had an equal vote if they could overcome artificial barriers to the polls. It remains a place where intact families are cherished and personal property is respected.   The length of our run is remarkable, we have flourished despite the dangers we have endured.  Perhaps Plato would have had more confidence in this shaky edifice if he could have had our perspective.  The Spartan concept of the reduction of the individual into a component of the State seems to have influenced the esteemed Athenian. Trading the dream of an impossible ideal, such as The Republic suggests, for the rough and tumble reality of democratic Athens seems short sighted now that we have savored so long the fruits of our freedom.  It makes the confidence to try to make it work in spite of history all the more remarkable.  For that we have to thank and venerate the eighteenth century patriots who resurrected the ancient experiment.

 

Plato, you saw the danger.

Did you have faith when you were young

Before the Spartan wave proved that fragility

Was not a mere conjecture?

Did you have a youth like mine

Where we would pay any price

Bear any burden

To keep the flame secure?

 

When you were a boy

Were you ever a commoner at heart

Having no doubts that votes should prevail,

Before you roamed with Socrates,

Seeing the end approach

Before the lifting of the veil?

 

Acknowledging your genius

The ideal Republic you proposed

Was a world I would oppose

Cherishing family as I do

And freedom to rise or fall

To own that which I earned

With sweat or with thought

Still believing that democracy

Flawed as it will always be

Is still the best blossom

Upon the human tree.

 

I live at an hour

When Piraeus is turbulent

Whirling with uncertainty,

When the unthinkable may unravel

Our momentary intercourse

With this political marvel

Not in one lifetime

As in your run

But after two full centuries of travel.

 

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