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The Influence of Ancient Politics on Modern Political Systems

by December 2, 2020

Written by Michael C. Anderson, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Most people believe ancient political systems have had a minimal effect on politics of the modern and postmodern world. The common belief is that the ancient world was largely barbarian with human rights virtually non-existent, so history from that time must be discounted.

Is this a correct assumption, or is there something can we learn about politics from antiquity?

The earliest Western civilizations were theocratic, but that model became obsolete with the advent of warfare. Winning in battle required military leadership and the power generated by a military leader’s success led to the evolution of kingship as the center of civil power in the state.

The next step in the evolution of government was the monarchy, which bolted hereditary authority onto the kingship model. Monarchies were the most common form of government before the Enlightenment. They survived because the authoritarian state could manage the society efficiently and, at the same time, protect its status.

In the midst of the monarchies permeating the ancient world, stood two models that would foreshadow modern politics: the Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic. These governments were true innovations in the application of liberty and human rights.

Athens, Greece

The mountains of Greece were an opportune setting for democracy. They divided the Greek landscape into small spaces which acted as incubators for the development of rights-based political systems. After the Mycenean civilization ended, the Greek peninsula descended into a dark age period, where political and social advancement came to a halt. Then slowly, small communities, governed by the people, began to develop. These communities blocked attempts by the wealthy to gain power, keeping control in public hands.

The Polis evolved to became the standard form of government across Greece after 700 BC. Each Polis developed its own characteristics, but all featured the institutions of democracy. In time, Athens became the most famous of the Poleis, because of its size and influence over the Greek peninsula. Athens developed its final democratic form after periods of tyrants and a flirtation with republicanism under Solon. Its high point occurred during the so called “Golden Age,” in the fifth century BC, when Pericles was its leader.

The Golden Age was also the beginning of the end for Athens, because she would soon be defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The structure of the Polis had weakened and the advent of the sophists ushered in a new focus on the individual, replacing the cultural unity that had existed previously. It was only 60 years after the Peloponnesian war that Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander) subdued the Greek peninsula and the Polis passed out of existence.

The Roman Forum

The story of Rome was vastly different. Rome began as a hilltop community founded near a ford in the Tiber River, in a part of Italy known as Latium. The early tribes of Rome were farmers, married to the land.

Rome was far from the sea, and its people had no history of sea trade, so land was its most valuable asset. Early Rome was influenced by the nearby Etruscan civilization. Its customs and government structure were readily adopted by the Romans. Two of the early kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Rome could not tolerate a monarchy. It threw off the last of the kings in 509 BC and became a republic. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, or “thing of the people.” This thing of the Roman people was the rights they obtained through the people’s assembly. The republic featured an executive branch consisting of elected magistrates, led by a pair of consuls. The legislative branch consisted of the Senate and the people’s assembly. The assembly could pass laws but not propose them. The Senate could propose laws but not vote on them.

Representation of the Roman senate from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate

In the early days of the republic, Rome was dominated by the wealthy patrician class. Descendants of the three original Roman tribes, the patricians, controlled money and power in the republic. The Plebians had no rights in the beginning, but through organized efforts, they won for themselves an expansion of their rights.

They fought for executive branch representation, so the college of tribunes was created. They demanded written laws, so the twelve tables were posted in the Forum. They demanded access to all elected offices and this was also granted by the Senate over time. What made the Roman republic work was the willingness of the Senate to extend rights to all citizens. That reality prevented instability and allowed Rome to prosper.

But the republic did not survive. After 400 years, it began to crumble because of mistakes by the Senate, inefficient government, and territorial expansion, which required a large army. Until the end of the second century BC, Rome had a citizen army; farmers put down their implements and went to war.

In 107 BC, Gaius Marius, the leading general in the republic, created a professional army. This caused the soldiers to shift their loyalty from the Senate to their commander. Now any general, with a lust for power, could bend the army to his will and overthrow the government. That fear became a reality when Julius Caesar made himself permanent dictator, leading to the collapse of the republic.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890, Musée Paul Valéry

The founding fathers of the United States knew the stories of Athens and Rome. Most could speak Latin and Greek, and they had read the history of antiquity in the original language. When it came time to create the American Constitution, they thought long and hard about the design of their new government. The United States would be the first “new” nation in the last thousand years of Western civilization, but what form should its government take?

The founders looked to the models of Greece and Rome as templates. In a short time, the Greek model was rejected. The polis was small enough so that citizens could attend meetings of the assembly and vote. This was not possible in a territory as large as the thirteen colonies. The new government had to be built on representation; elected officials representing citizens.

The founders had the experience of the colonial governments to draw upon and they understood the British Constitution. They decided that adapting the Roman republic to America would be the most logical approach.

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, 1819

During the Constitutional Convention, the design of each branch of government was debated at length. There was early agreement on the Legislature which would contain an upper class of “elders” and a people’s assembly. There was a long negotiation about how the legislature should be constituted and how the representatives should be elected. A balance was reached by having two senators per state and an assembly determined by population distribution. Senators would be elected by the states and representatives directly by the people.

The executive branch was also subject of a lengthy debate. How would the chief magistrate (president) be elected and for how long? In the end, the delegates chose a presidential term of four years with the president elected by the states.

The founders looked at the new government as a republic of state republics. The states would share power with the Federal government with no overlap of jurisdictions. The founders believed that too much democracy was dangerous: that the public could be influenced to vote for a tyrant. Better to have the senior legislative chamber and the president elected by the states.

They also battled over the power of the Federal government. Some wanted it to be small, only functioning in areas inappropriate for states, like treaties with foreign governments. Others wanted it to have more power, thinking that professional politicians from the elite class would be the best managers of the country.

The Founding Fathers

America’s founders learned much from the ancient governments of Greece and Rome. They could read about the impact of citizens as direct participants in government. They had the luxury of analyzing systems that failed so they could avoid those same problems.

The debate about the structure of the American government has continued from the time of the Constitution until the present day. During the passage of time, the Federal government has grown exponentially, as the demand for its programs have increased, the courts have accommodated the shifting of the role of the Federal government to one as caretaker for society, and the American social culture has changed enormously. There is no playbook for how to adapt a political system to these types of changes, but we have history to guide for the direction we have to take now.

The Enlightenment helped us see that individual rights were important. That concept allowed democracies to take over the world as the default political system. The ancients taught us about the value of tradition as applied to changing societies. Tradition has to be used as a guide for moving forward, because too much change creates instability. The French Revolution warned us what can happen when all traditions are discarded.

Why is the study of ancient political systems important? The answer lies in the fact that all human societies are experiments in a public morality built by a consensus of the individual moralities of their citizens.

Man did not evolve to live among strangers; he evolved to live among small kinship groups. There are no human socio-psychological mechanisms to cope with living in societies, so each iteration becomes a unique model. The brilliance of the ancients is that their ideas can accommodate the postmodern society. The ancients understood human nature well enough to create models that are timeless and function at any time and place.

A Short History of Voting in the Ancient World

by November 4, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Like so much else in the modern world, voting was invented by the Classical World. The complex system of elections that we see today in America and other nations was first developed in Greece and Rome. However, voting in the Graeco-Roman World was often very different from today.

Tribal origins of voting

Many early tribal societies were democratic in that they elected their kings or leaders. Many even elected a council of elders. There is a long history of elections and democracy in so-called primitive societies. Many early Greek societies had a tradition of voting. This is most apparent in the first recorded use of voting, which took place in Sparta. This involved the election of the ephors.

Solon, who first gave Athenians the vote

Ancient Greece and voting

Under the Spartan Constitution, which was written by the mythological Lygurgas, enshrined a system of voting. There is also some evidence that leagues of city-states would often vote as part of their decision-making process.

In Athens, Solon introduced a new constitution in 574 BC that allowed members of the upper classes to vote. It was only with the reforms of Cleisthenes, that the suffrage was extended more widely. By the 5th century BC, most male Athenians could vote. Indeed, they could also vote on issues such as going to war and the election of generals.

Moreover, Athenians could even vote in criminal trials and one infamous trial, they condemned Socrates to death. Voting was also central to the ostracizing of people who were deemed a threat to the state. For instance, the Athenians voted to exile Themistocles, hero of the Battle of Salmis. The electors would write the name of the person they wanted to exile on a shared of pottery known as an ostracon.

Voting ostraca from 5th century BC Athens

All voting was in public and there was no secret ballot. It should be remembered that immigrants, women, and the many slaves could not vote. Athenian democracy has been categorized as a form of radical democracy.

In Athens many offices were decided by lottery because over time the voting process was corrupted. Many other Greek states emulated the democracy of Greece and soon voting was very common. It even continued when the city-states came under the domination of the Macedonian dynasties.

The Greek city-states continued to elect magistrates even once their democratic constitutions had been limited. The right to vote was one of the distinctions of the elite and was an important privilege. All through the Roman period, municipal voting took place in the Greek world and only really ended with the rise of the Byzantine Empire.

A coin showing a Roman casting a ballot, 63 BCE

Voting in the Roman Word

Rome was originally a monarchy and after expelling its last king, the Romans developed a unique form of democracy. The Senate was an assembly of legislators and policymakers who were elected indirectly.

However, over time the Romans developed a series of legislatures and assemblies in which citizens could vote directly. Roman citizens voted for nearly all their officials including the consuls. The Senatorial elite was able to manipulate this to ensure that their interests were safeguarded.

Roman voting often took place within tribes. The lower class, or plebians, could vote in certain assemblies and this gave them some say in the affairs of the state. However, most people could not vote due to rules on property. Rome developed a very complex voting system, and it was both a direct and an indirect form of democracy. They also were the first to introduce the secret ballot, now considered essential to free and fair elections.

Roman elections were also often brutal and bloody. From about 200 BC, Roman elections were marred by political violence. Gang leaders linked to politicians would intimidate voters and they often turned Rome into a battleground. There were very few safeguards and there was a great deal of vote-buying.

Augustus Caesar

It was only with the rise of Augustus that Roman elections became less bloody. Elections continued, and so too did voting in Rome. The Senate would hold regular votes but much of it was only symbolic and only rubber-stamping the edicts of the Emperors.

However, at a municipal level, many members of the elite fought bitter elections for municipal positions, which still had real powers. Romanization meant that voting became more common throughout the Empire and many municipalities had a great deal of autonomy. Even so, only the elite could vote.

The legacy of Rome and Greece voting

After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Classical World went into decline. Voting became very rare. The Byzantine Senate that was the successor of the Roman Senate continued to vote until the 9th century AD.

However, the tradition of voting continued to Medieval Europe, especially in urban centers. This was in part influenced by Greek and Roman examples. During the Renaissance, the Graeco-Roman World was widely studied, and its systems of voting inspired many to establish more democratic forms of government. 

This was enormously influential in the development of modern democracies. For example, the Roman and Greek voting systems were studied by the American and French Revolutionaries when they were drafting their democratic constitutions.

Communism, Class Struggle, and the Roman Republic

by September 9, 2020

Written by Titus, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Karl Marx said that humanity has been in a constant class struggle. According to him, the rich and poor have been in a perpetual war throughout history. His philosophy gave birth to modern communism which went on to add another dimension in the social and international divide between people and governments since the twentieth century. Marx gave what seemed to be valuable solutions to ending this struggle and achieve societal equality.
Roughly after a century, we have come to realize it was not as potent as it seemed to be. It was also not as groundbreaking or original. Ancient Roman society had successfully acknowledged and integrated the class struggle into their ruling apparatus thousands of years ago.
Roman society was much more successful than the modern communist and capitalist regimes as it incorporated both of these philosophies that often clashed with each other politically. It was a healthier inclusion of the working class into the government. It also made it infinitely more complex.

Bust of Karl Marx

As Rome continued to steamroll much of the known ancient world, its ruling class became increasingly richer. With more conquests, they got their hands on more assets and slaves. Slowly, it began to threaten the societal balance of Rome in a way never seen before in antiquity. The rich would buy off the land from the peasant and employ their slaves to work on it.
As a result, the peasants not only gradually lost their land; they also lost the prospects of jobs to the slaves. It strained the economic condition of the Roman State as it would be forced to feed the unemployed mass of people. Also, it posed a serious threat to military recruitment for the Republic as the individuals serving in its legions were supposed to own property.
The first attempt to correct this dynamic was made by the Gracchi brothers who were ultimately assassinated by the conservative faction of the Senate, called the Optimates. The Gracchi brothers tried to redistribute the land and the rich, unsurprisingly, were not happy to hear the possibility of relinquishing their wealth.
It is worth noting that Roman society did have checks-and-balances, as the Plebeians or the low-income citizens had their say in State affairs through the Tribune of Plebs office. It was an important power check on the wealthy class of Rome or the Roman Senate. As time progressed, the social divide became wider and ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Republic itself and the creation of the Roman Empire.

Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus

The social divide resulted in the emergence of military commanders as the key political players. As the soldiers were recruited from the low-income class of the Republic, they started to heavily rely on their generals for securing land for them after their retirement. This meant that their loyalty would be to their generals instead of the Senate. This made them willing to fight for their generals even against the other Roman armies.
The first civil war of the Roman Republic between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla saw how one general was able to march on Rome with his army. However, the victor Sulla was still from the Optimates faction and believed in the supremacy of the Senate. Things went back to the status quo after Sulla. However, the second civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus resulted in the irreversible chain of events that ensured the downfall of the Roman Republic.
After the fall of the Republic, the office of the Tribune of Plebs continued to exert a great power even under the shadow of the all-powerful Roman emperors; most often, it would be the emperors themselves who held the position of tribune. It ensured the goodwill of common people and helped them get their concerns heard by the highest level of leadership.
Gaius Gracchus

Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians.

The events that led to the fall of the Republic shed an interesting light into how Roman society worked and how complex it was as compared to modern times. The low-income class didn’t rise against their wealthy counterparts in a revolution; instead, they aligned themselves to individual generals who helped them secure what they needed.
This led to the clash of Optimates and Populares throughout the late Republic period, which in turn led to the end of Senatorial dominance in Roman politics and the emergence of powerful emperors. These emperors would work for the middle-class to increase their popularity much more than they would for the senate, even though the latter continued to function as a political organ of the State.

#CancelCulture: Lessons from the Ancient World (PART 2)

by July 24, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Classical Wisdom for Modern Minds
You remember our mandate.
Here we believe classical wisdom can ring true for modern minds. The great minds of classical antiquity still have much to teach us. You need only show up to class.
And if you’d like to know how this story ends, then open your copy of The Republic. It is to book VIII that our attention turns.
There, Plato presents a vision that is unnerving, unwelcome, and (probably) unwanted.
The Five Regimes
Living during the late fifth and early fourth century BC, Plato was the student and disciple of that granddaddy of classical philosophy, Socrates.
It was once believed that all a philosopher really needed to know could be found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s The Republic.
That’s overstating it, of course.
But give the old teacher his due.
The Republic is ambitious in its scope. Written in the Socratic dialectic tradition, the text tackles subjects spanning from ethics… epistemology… and—important to us—politics.

Marble statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Academy of Athens, Greece.

It remains one of the most influential pieces of literature in human history.
It is in book VIII where Plato describes the transitions of the “five regimes.”
They are…
Each regime—Plato says through the voice of Socrates—degrades and bleeds into the next.
In the oligarchical state, “the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.”
The oligarchs are the movers. The shakers. Today, they would have lobbyists, multi-billion-dollar government contracts, and modern offices in Northern Virginia.
Call them cronies. Call them “The Elite.” Call them the Deep State!
Plato calls them oligarchs…
Plato also tells us that oligarchies have “both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.”
We return only briefly to the 21st century to share a chart, created by America’s Federal Reserve and published by Bloomberg.
Dear reader, you don’t pay us to cheer for the winners. Or howl for the losers.
In fact, you don’t pay us at all!
Which makes our observations on this matter worth at least what you paid for them.
So, while we’re at it, let’s consider the question.
What shall the downtrodden do?
Rise up!
Classical Athenian Autonomous Zone
It is now that Plato introduces the drones. Think of them like murder wasps swarming around an otherwise productive honeybee hive.
Buzz. Buzz.
There are two classes of drones. Some with stings. And some without.
The latter “who in their old age end up as paupers.” But those with dreadful stings are of “the criminal class.”
The drones have no desire but to stir up trouble. They are to the polis “what phlegm and bile are to the body.”
The drones are always seeking to get a little “honey” from the oligarchs.

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE.

And it is the sting of the drones that compel the people to revolt.
The oligarchs, in turn, get tough!
Writes Plato…
And the end is that when [oligarchs] see the people, not of their own accord, but through ignorance, and because they are deceived by informers, seeking to do them wrong, then at last they are forced to become oligarchs in reality; they do not wish to be, but the sting of the drones torments them and breeds revolution in them.
But it is no use, dear reader.
Not tear gas… nor curfews… nor anguished pleas from elected leaders can stop the drones once their blood is up.
The demos eat the rich. Confiscate their property. And divide it amongst themselves. Welcome to the Classical Athenian Autonomous Zone, CAAZ!
The drones… of course… “reserve the largest for themselves.”
The oligarchical state has been washed away. Democracy reigns.
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

It’s important we understand Plato’s democracy.
It is not the measured, thoughtful constitutional democracy we learn of in Civics 101.
In Plato’s democracy, there are no checks. There are no balances. There is no separation of powers.
There are only the drones, and the mandate for 51% of the population—or perhaps even a vocal minority—to hoist popular fantasies onto the soul of the state.
You see where this is going…
American Drones
You know these drones, dear reader.
They set up “autonomous zones” and topple historical monuments in the dead of night.
They call for blood on Twitter and “dox” their opponents.
They post in suspicious 4Chan message boards.
They have distinguished careers on CNN… and Fox News.
They sting. And sting. And sting.

Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

And it is the stings that ferment hate into the well-intentioned pleas from the people. They “breed revolution” into justified movements for dignity and equity.
And yes, there are such movements. We mustn’t be misunderstood on this point.
Socrates saw his countrymen wallowing in the shade of ignorance and attempted to bring them to the light through peaceful—albeit uncomfortable—methods.
Treat your fellow man (or woman!) with dignity, we say. And speak up without doing harm.
Our quarrel is not with the demos. It is with the drones.
Because then comes the bloodletting.
The people—confused by the drones—nurse some champion (perhaps champions) into greatness.
The democratic champion(s) do away with their enemies by false accusations and banishments.
[H]aving a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands.
You know this tactic as “cancel culture,” which we have discussed previously.

Illustrated | Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.
Yes, dear reader. The drones have no need for discussion.
Maybe we should give this guy a chance to speak…
Hey… should we really set that on fire?
None of that…
Get on board this train or it will run you over.
And what is to become of Plato’s democratic state?
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (Series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

Tyrant Absolute
Overrun by the buzzing, stinging drones, there can only be one conclusion.
Plato once more [emphasis is mine]:
And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not ‘larding the plain’ with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute.
How does this story end?
Are you certain you want to know, dear reader?
It ends the way every story of an empire ends. Slowly at first… then all at once.
Impossible you say?
Don’t be so sure.

Ancient Greek ruins.

We quote the writer Peter Savodnik of Tablet, writing on the parallels between mid-19th century Russia and 21st century America…
[I] was wary of historical analyses that sought to trace major events like the Russian Revolution to any one turning point, but that we might think of this period, starting with the liberation of the serfs and culminating with Sergei Nachayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, as the moment, or series of moments, when the language of nihilism and death acquired a certain currency and the possibility of the end of the old order came into focus.
The metaphysical gap between mid-19th-century Russia and early-21st-century America is narrowing. The parallels between them then and us now, political and social but mostly characterological, are becoming sharper, more unavoidable.
That’s right.
We are not special.
We never were.
As Savodnik points out, history does not necessarily repeat itself. But we can “[descend] into a primal state we thought we had escaped forever.”
When? How?
We don’t know…
Even Czarist Russia limped on a few more decades from the mid-1800s before it collapsed to Bolshevism.
But have some imagination.
Peer over the horizon, dear reader. Look past the vanishing point.
And squint…
What do you see?
Buzz. Buzz.

#CancelCulture: Lessons from the Ancient World

by July 17, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sometimes, late at night when we can hear the ocean outside our window, we wonder what the ancients would think of us…
Would they be proud? Amused? Perplexed?
Surely, we imagine, we won’t repeat ALL the mistakes of our classical forebearers.
Somebody must have read Aristotle, Cicero, or Thucydides.
As we’re fond of saying… no disaster has been so disastrous… no calamity so calamitous… and no idea so idiotic that somebody didn’t give it a whirl over the millennia.
Somebody must have surmised that there are lessons to be learned from people who lived thousands of years before our “enlightened” time.
Alcibiades Death

La mort d’Alcibiade, Philippe Chéry, 1791. Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle. [In 404 BC, Alcibiades, exiled in the Achaemenid Empire province of Hellespontine Phrygia, was assassinated by Persian soldiers, who may have been following the orders of Satrap Pharnabazus II, at the instigation of Sparta.]

But no…

We seem determined—hell, eager! —to stumble headfirst into the same quagmires of classical antiquity.
The old saying is that you must learn history or else risk repeating it.
What they won’t tell you is that those who do learn from history have to stand by while everybody else repeats it.
The latest throwback comes in the form of ostracism-by-tweet.
That’s right. The grand old classical tradition of banishing your fellow man for no real reason is back. And in a big way!
You know it as “cancel culture.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s first look at how the ancients did it.
Ostracism in the Ancient World
In Aristotle’s Politics,  he tells us that ostracism was originally instituted as a means to allow the common people to check the power of the political players.

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE. [Following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchic government was imposed on the city by Lysander and the victorious Spartans. This government, which came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants as a result of its brutal actions, exiled or drove away a number of citizens.]

It was a way to give claws to the hare when he was going up against a lion.

…democratic states have instituted ostracism; equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracise and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.
– Aristotle (The Politics, Book III)
The procedure was rather simple. Plutarch tells us, in his Life of Aristides, that an ostracism vote was held once a year.

The citizens were allowed to write the name of any political figure on a shard of pottery. Should anyone’s name get 6000 votes, then that person would be banished from Athens for ten years.

What… we may wonder… were grounds for ostracism?
Must your fellow citizen commit a high crime?
Perhaps treason? Or murder?!

Voting ostraca. In Classical Athens, when the decision at hand was to banish or exile a certain member of society, citizen peers would cast their vote by writing the name of the person on the sherd of pottery; the vote was counted and, if unfavorable, the person was exiled for a period of ten years from the city, thus giving rise to the term ostracism.

No… not really.
“I just don’t like the guy” was sufficient grounds to banish a man from the hallowed walls of the polis.
Aristotle suggests as much when he writes…
 [Ostracism] has not been fairly applied in states; for, instead of looking to the public good, they have used ostracism for factious purposes.
That’s right, dear reader.
Ostracism was often used as a means to banishing your enemies for not toeing the line.
Fun fact: Socrates could have likely “chosen” ostracism over death during his trial in 399 BCE.
The philosopher was accused of “corrupting the youth” and “believing in strange gods.”
He was found guilty by his peers. But an interesting nuance of classical Athenian justice demands that the defendant and the prosecutor both suggest punishments in the event of a guilty verdict.
Socrates’ accusers chose death.
Socrates could have chosen—and likely would have been granted—ostracism.
But no.
He offers a grand feast and celebration as his penalty. In essence, it was a giant middle finger to the validity of the proceedings.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels), ca. 1782. Source.

And given those choices, the Athenians choose death.
And that brings us to the 21st century…
You might imagine our amusement when we first learned of “cancel culture.”
Yes, dear reader, ostracism is back. But put away those shards of pottery. Instead, hit the retweet button!
It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.
The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.
Imagine how many people the classical Athenians could ostracize if they only had Twitter!
Are you believing in strange gods, dear reader?
Are you corrupting the youth with your “open debate”?
What scourge might you bring upon our glorious city with your… ugh… tolerance of opposing ideas?
We simply can’t risk it. Out you go.

Dante in Exile by Domenico Petarlini. In March 1302, Dante, a White Guelph by affiliation, along with the Gherardini family, was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine to the new Black Guelph government. Dante refused and was condemned to perpetual exile; if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could have been burned at the stake.

You may already be familiar with the recently ostracized. But if not, allow us to bring you up to speed.
Taibbi again:
[F]rom a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!
In the most discussed incident, Times editorial page editor James Bennet was ousted for green-lighting an anti-protest editorial by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton entitled, “Send in the troops.”
#Ostracisimculsture has gotten so bad that a slew of troublemakers got together to sign “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
I quote from the letter [emphasis is mine]…
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
What a time to be alive for those of us with a classical background and a sense of mischief.
We chuckle. We guffaw. We laugh heartily…. and then we sob.
Ovid's Exile

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner. [Ovid, the Latin poet of the Roman Empire, was banished in 8 AD from Rome to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) by decree of the emperor Augustus.]

Re-killing Socrates

Have we learned nothing from our ancestor’s mistakes? Are we so eager to set fire to the intellectual scaffolding built over millennia?
Socrates was dubbed the wisest of all men by the Oracle at Delphi, but not because he knew the most.
Rather, the only thing the old teacher truly knew was that he knew very little… perhaps nothing at all.
Hence the now-famous phrase: All I know is that I know nothing.
From here, the Socratic tradition would teach us that we should accept humbly the limits of our knowledge.
We should doubt every certainty… question every unchallenged dogma…
And we should strive —sometimes awkwardly—towards understanding by way of contemplation, discussion, and introspection.
plato and aristotle

The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

The crowning achievement of the Socratic tradition was an emphasis on, and appreciation for, good-faith inquiry.
Wisdom is the only way to the Good.
And the only way to wisdom is to probe seriously, sometimes contentiously, into the questions of life.
But, no…
We live now in an age of saints. We are surrounded by enlightened soothsayers, untouched by sin or doubt.
Every moral truth is already known.
Every tepid question is taken as an affront.
And every gadfly is swiftly put to death.
We seem eager to kill the Socratic tradition just as they killed the old man himself millennia ago.
What would the ancients think of us?
We don’t know…
But somewhere in a far-off land, Socrates is rolling his eyes… and cursing under his breath.
[Featured image comes from]

The Classical Wisdom of the Founding Fathers

by July 3, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
The United States of America will turn 244 years old tomorrow.
From a historical perspective, the U.S. is quite a young nation. We’ve come a long way, and have much still to learn.
To those of you not already aware, it may come as no surprise to learn that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were heavily influenced by the classics. They had a good understanding of ancient history, philosophy, and politics, and utilized that when crafting the founding documents of this country.
Yet, it was not only the wisdom of the ancients but their failings as well, that guided the ideas of this new generation of statesmen.
How could the thirteen independent states avoid falling into the turmoil, civil wars, and revolutions that plagued the ancient world? 
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire: Destruction, Thomas Cole (1836).

That was the question on everyone’s mind. In fact, only 10 years after winning independence from Britain, a huge debate erupted in the U.S. over this exact question: the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.
During the summer of 1787, delegates from each of the thirteen states gathered in Philadelphia with the original intent of discussing and drafting improvements to the existing Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which had been approved by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. However, not long into the convention many of the delegates came to believe that the goal should be much broader, namely the establishment of a new system of government.
Those in favor of this new system of government were known as the Federalists. They supported adopting a Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation, uniting the states under a strong, centralized governmentAgainst them were the Anti-Federalists, who thought the proposed Constitution would consolidate too much power into the hands of the federal government, undermining the rights of the states and the people.
The Federalists won. On September 17th, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present. Yet, the Constitution would not be binding until nine of the 13 states ratified it. Thus began the real battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

Page one of the original copy of the Constitution.

A series of articles and essays were written by each side, responding to one another’s criticisms and putting their best arguments forward as to why their vision of the U.S. was the better one. This series of essays would come to be known as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers. 
The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, all writing under the pseudonym “Publius”—Roman for “the people,” but also a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, one of the first republican statesmen of ancient Rome.
While we know who the advocates of Anti-Federalism were, it is much less clear who wrote what when it comes to the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists were led by Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Monroe, just to name a few. As for the authors of the Anti-Federalist Papers, they wrote under the pseudonyms of Cato, Brutus, Centinel, and the Federal Farmer. Though there is no agreement, it is thought that the authors were George Clinton, Melancton Smith, Samuel Bryan, and Richard Henry Lee, respectively.
Not only did both sides use pseudonyms referring to famous statesmen of the ancient world, but they often made their arguments by appealing to the history of the ancient world. Though I could briefly summarize their arguments, I think it best to let each side speak for themselves.
Constitutional convention

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (1940).

The Federalists: United we stand, divided we fall
“Leave America divided into thirteen or, if you please, into three or four independent governments—what armies could they raise and pay—what fleets could they ever hope to have? If one was attacked, would the others fly to its succor, and spend their blood and money in its defense? Would there be no danger of their being flattered into neutrality by its specious promises, or seduced by a too great fondness for peace to decline hazarding their tranquillity and present safety for the sake of neighbors, of whom perhaps they have been jealous, and whose importance they are content to see diminished? Although such conduct would not be wise, it would, nevertheless, be natural. The history of the states of Greece, and of other countries, abounds with such instances, and it is not improbable that what has so often happened would, under similar circumstances, happen again.” – Federalist No. 4
“A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” – Federalist No. 9
“Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.” – Federalist No. 18

From left to right: John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton

The Anti-Federalists: The bigger the government, the bigger the problem
“In large republics, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views, in a small one, the interest of the public is easily perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a less extent, and of course are less protected…. the duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to its having continued with the same extent of territory after all its wars; and that the ambition of Athens and Lacedaemon to command and direct the union, lost them their liberties, and gave them a monarchy.” – Antifederalist No. 14
“All human authority, however organized, must have confined limits, or insolence and oppression will prove the offspring of its grandeur, and the difficulty or rather impossibility of escape prevents resistance. Gibbon relates that some Roman Knights who had offended government in Rome were taken up in Asia, in a very few days after. It was the extensive territory of the Roman republic that produced a Sylla, a Marius, a Caligula, a Nero, and an Elagabalus. In small independent States contiguous to each other, the people run away and leave despotism to reek its vengeance on itself; and thus it is that moderation becomes with them, the law of self-preservation.” – Antifederalist No. 3
“Where the people are free there can be no great contrast or distinction among honest citizens in or out of office. In proportion as the people lose their freedom, every gradation of distinction, between the Governors and governed obtains, until the former become masters, and the latter become slaves. In all governments virtue will command reverence. The divine Cato knew every Roman citizen by name, and never assumed any preeminence; yet Cato found, and his memory will find, respect and reverence in the bosoms of mankind, until this world returns into that nothing, from whence Omnipotence called it. That the people are not at present disposed for, and are actually incapable of, governments of simplicity and equal rights, I can no longer doubt. But whose fault is it? We make them bad, by bad governments, and then abuse and despise them for being so.” – Antifederalist No. 3

Three of the Anti-Federalists.

An Ancient Conflict
Do these issues and arguments seem familiar to ones you here today? Well, they should! As Jefferson knew, this disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was nothing new in the history of the world. There have always been those who put their faith in the people, and those who have distrusted them—the Anti-Federalist’s being the former, and the Federalists the latter.
“Men have differed in opinion, and been divided into parties by these opinions, from the first origin of societies; and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. The same political parties which now agitate the US. have existed thro’ all time. Whether the power of the people, or that of the ἄριςτοι [ancient greek for “aristocracy” or “nobility”] should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions; as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” – Jefferson to John Adams, June 27th, 1813
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.” – Jefferson to Henry Lee, August 10th, 1824

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Because the questions we struggle with today and which set us apart from one another are the same as those that faced the ancient Greeks and Romans, there is no doubt that we have much to learn from their wisdom as well as their mistakes. The Founders were wise to look to the ruins of the past for lessons on how to build the future.
Though the struggle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists culminated in the ratification of the Constitution and the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the struggle continues to this day—as it always has and always will.
There will always be those who, like Hamilton, are so distrustful of the people’s ability to self-govern that they think,
“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” – Federalist No. 55
And there will also always be those who, like Jefferson, question such distrust,
“Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” – Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801
Jefferson and Hamilton

Jefferson (left) and Hamilton (right).

The verdict is not out on who was right. History will have to decide.
In the meantime, as we celebrate the 244th birthday of the U.S., let us celebrate the wisdom of the classics and the failures of those ancient peoples embroiled in the same conflicts we find ourselves in today. Without their failures, and without our own, we would have little to learn from.
Let us also celebrate the rights and freedoms we enjoy, but not at the expense of forgetting how many in this country still are unable to enjoy the full protection and guarantee of them. Rights and freedoms are not just to be enjoyed but to be continually fought and struggled for.
In the words of Jefferson,
“For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”