I've been reading up on Athenian democracy, and came across this tidbit on Wikipedia:

A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word 'idiot', which finds its origins in the ancient Greek word ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs, meaning a private person, a person who is not actively interested in politics; such characters were talked about with contempt, and the word eventually acquired its modern meaning. According to Thucydides, Pericles may have declared in a funeral oration:
We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.


Joel Leggett said...

This is why, contrary to popular belief, the conception of freedom in the west, especially in the Anglo-Sphere countries owes far more to the early Germanic tribes than it does to ancient Greece. The Germanic tribes saw freedom as the absence of control and believed in aggressively asserting that right if it was threatened either from within or outside the tribe. There was no belief that freedom or independence could only exist as an exercise of political participation as the Greeks believed. In fact, this is Montesquieu, why the French political philosopher, claimed that liberty was born in the forests of Germany.

Grim said...

You would have been an idiot to ignore the government in ancient Athens, though: the opinion of your fellow citizens could deprive you of life as well as property, as in the case of Socrates within a generation of Pericles' oration. That is why both Plato and Aristotle (who faced similar dangers from the Athenians: he fled the city for his life) think of democracy as a corrupt form of government.

Aristotle prefers a constitutional republic as the least dangerous form, just because it protects individual rights (especially property) from the tyranny of the majority; but the ideal form, he suggests, is an aristocracy or even monarchy where ascension to the ruling class is a matter of virtue rather than birth or wealth. That ideal may not be achievable, though, so he considers easier-to-achieve alternatives like constitutionalism.

Grim said...

Joel's right, though: you should read Jefferson on 'A Pious Fraud.' His main target was the idea that America was working out Christian principles, but it applies to some degree to the Greeks as well: the major American institutions are Anglo-Saxon, that is, Germanic, except where they are Norse (e.g., the jury).

Tom said...

Can either of you recommend a good historical survey of the roots of our system?

I don't have time to read a bunch of monographs on it, alas, but a medium-length survey would be very useful.

Joel Leggett said...

"From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents" by David Gress. Another good book would be "Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World" by Daniel Hannan.

Tom said...

Thanks! I ordered both.

David Foster said...

"We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all."

Compare and/or contrast with the remark of a Nazi judge in the death sentence passed against Chrisoph Probst, of the White Rose resistance organization:

"He says he is a non-political man...hence, no man at all"

David Foster said...

I see my link to the trial transcript of the White Rose members no longer works (academic and media organizations do not seem to understand the concept of a permalink.) Looks like it can be found here:

jaed said...

There's an element of class stratification here: participating meaningfully in Athenian-style direct democracy required a great deal of time and a reasonable amount of status, both of which are more likely to be in great supply for a wealthy man of family than for a citizen-artisan or merchant.

The word also seems to have been used for a private soldier, for example - one who fought himfself, in contradistinction to an officer who could afford to outfit a company.

It's also interesting that "idiotes" can be translated loosely as "someone who keeps to himself" - a perfectly respectable status in American society, as opposed to a busybody.

jaed said...

(Sidelight: a web search also led to this extremely cool book, the ebook of which is available for free. A good book about etymology! Yes! YESSSSS!)

Tom said...

Grim, where can I find 'A Pious Fraud'? A quick internet search and an Amazon search haven't found it. Do you have it in a collection, perchance?

Ymar Sakar said...

the opinion of your fellow citizens could deprive you of life as well as property, as in the case of Socrates within a generation of Pericles' oration.

Precisely why Socrates is more the founder of Western principle than democracy ever could be or was.

"I would rather die having spoken in my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet in law ought any man use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death, if a man is willing to say or do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs deeper than death."-Socrates before the Athenian Death Panel

His comments and attitude was considered insane and clownish back then, not believable. Because obviously the power of the State and the Power of Life and Death is to be taken seriously, right. But the Norse, the Germanic tribes on the continent, the Celtics, all believed in something very different, as noted above.

Which is also why I'm naturally resistant to the idea that one's "duty" requires voting. That has little to nothing to do with freedom or security.

Ymar Sakar said...

The reason why Christianity is important is because without it, the Norse were merely raiders, thieves, and rapists. That's what their culture produced in terms of the outcome of their strength. Go raiding, get some women, population goes up, enemy populations go down.

Very similar to Islamic Jihad, except Islam as a religion coordinates the raiding temptations of all their organizations together into one, one that targets infidels rather than Muslims. Except for maybe the Sunni vs Shia divide, which is a heresy war.

Christianity also serves the purpose of harnessing offense based culture, raiding based culture, and make them less warlike or at least more controllable, in the sense that they stop killing each other at least.

Without Christianity, most tribals and raiding cultures like the Norse or Normans even, might have went down a very interesting path. The path of least resistance.

The Saxons were right below Jutland or I think they call it Daneland. And the norse were right in Jutland or in Scandinavia proper, with the exception of Finland they were something else entirely. Saxons and Norse shared a very similar religion if not culture at one time before 1000 AD. The Vikings had boat technology pretty early on, could row upriver or however they did it, and thus expanded their raiding territory immensely. Even to the point where the Byzantine Empire had Varangians. Via portage and various large river traffic, they could travel right into that sea above Constantinople.

The Anglo Saxon culture was created from numerous raids and cultural bleed through, as well as resistance to foreign raiders like the Picts (the Scots).

Without Christianity, I cannot think of what they would have evolved into. The Celtics (in Ireland at least) were long ago converted to Christianity and they lost much of their offensive potential right there and then, maybe too early for them. Christianity would have stopped them from expanding via aggressive wars and raiding, cultural occupation as Islam tends to do even in the 21st century. But without the offense and martial prowess of the Norse and Germanic tribes, where would Europe even be at.

It's an interesting quandary for their descendants.

For such a culture group, castles and full plate must have seemed like common sense development, given the eternal history of warfare on that continent. For them to fall as low as they have under atheism and Christian heresy, as the Swedes, English, Norwegians, etc have is... rather pathetic to see. A torch of willpower passed from before 1000 AD of mankind, sold for merely physical luxuries. The raiders have become the raided, the cycle is complete.

Grim said...


Here is the letter to which I referred.

Tom said...