May 27, 2009

The art of democracy

Leo von Klenze's 1846 painting of what classical Athens may have looked like. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The polis or city state of ancient Athens can lay claim to being the world's first self-styled democratic state (although there were no doubt other ancient societies that had democratic and egalitarian features). It also gave us the word.

It definitely had some features that strike us as undemocratic, including slavery and the exclusion of women from public life (with a few notable exceptions). But to the extent that it was democratic, it was very democratic.

It is an interesting fact that democracy and tragedy grew together and that the latter was considered to be an important part of the former. As mentioned before, attendance at tragic performances was a duty of citizenship. Judging the relative merits of tragedies was also democratic, as the audience would vote for the winning author of three competing poets.

As Paul Woodruff wrote in First Democracy: The Challenge of An Ancient Idea,

The early defenders of First Democracy are mostly lost to us, except for one magnificent set of writers--the tragic poets. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were poets of the people, proud to be Athenian, writing for prizes in contests that were decided, in effect, by popular opinion. It should be no surprise that the poets who won the prizes were champions of democratic ideas....

In ancient Athens, the citizens shared a continuing education at religious festivals. They could all see plays in the theater of Dionysus; in the fourth century the city covered the cost of theater attendance (by means of the theoric fund). In plays by Sophocles or Euripides, Athenians saw dramatizations of political dilemmas...The experience of such theater must have made the audiences more thoughtful about politics than they would otherwise have been. It was as if the whole city were following the TV series The West Wing.

In contrast, the whole of America watches only the Super Bowl. The theater of Athens was about freedom and tyranny, law and religion, power and language, even gender and difference. The theater of America is about winning. Can we do better than that?

INTERVENTION. Here's a mini-debate on government intervention in the economy from Business Week.

WHY WE STARE AT THE ELEVATOR FLOOR. Here's an evolutionary perspective.

TOOL USING ANIMALS. That is to say, birds.


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