1. The Covid-19 outbreak has been depressing as of late. Allow me to turn my attention to elucidate the concept of democracy. The idea may cause an instant jolt of negativity and cynicism among some of us. I do not blame you if you do. But do read on and you will realise everything is not as it seems.
2. In 2014, right after I completed my degree, I went on a short trip to Greece. I stayed in Athens for 5 days. In the process, I basked myself entirely at the wonders and splendours of a once-great city. Athens is the birthplace of democracy.
3. In the centre of Athens lies the Argos, or the “city centre”. The Argos was where all the government buildings and functionaries were concentrated in the city more than two thousand five hundred years ago. It is no bigger than 1-football sized stadium. People gather in the city to hear petitions, to raise their voices on political matters, and to even vote to who shall ever be banished from the city!
4. The Argos brought together men across Greece. There they deliberated issues and voted on policies that they feel concern them. Imagine a group of men in white robes given the chance to make their cases heard and have the people present vote for their ideas. If they lose, they lose. If they win, then their ideas get implemented by the state.
5. Among the principal figures of Athens who was active in the political matters was Pericles. He was a glorious statesman who ruled with the consent of the governed for a remarkable period of forty years. His principal achievement was to balance out the forces of the mob and to continually persuade them towards the right path through his rhetoric, wisdom, and leadership.
6. Pericles, to contemporary scholars, was branded as a demagogue. As stated earlier, he was able to sway people into his will and wants with ease. His ability to move the masses was unmatched. While demagoguery may have negative connotations to the word, Pericles redeemed himself by continually governing and protecting Athens’ best interest in the midst of the Pelepponisan War.
7. The Peloponnesian War was an epic war waged between Sparta and Athens. For decades, they fought tooth and nail for supremacy. You can read Thycidies’ work in the area to find out more. Coming back to the entire story, the war was so great that it took Pericles from Athens side to manage and win the confidence of the crowd to take tough decisions after tough decisions. He did so successfully, he was able to continually check the Spartan advance.
8. So powerful was his rhetoric and his reputation that he continued to maintain his eminent position as the first among equals in Athens, before eventually succumbing to the plague that raged Greece at that time. You can say Greece had its own case of Covid-19. But still, imagine going up to debate against him in the open public court, you will have no chance at all.
9. The great legacy he has left for Athens was the Argos itself. It was under him who led the construction of so many buildings, theatres, and even the magnificent Pantheon itself. These still stand to this day albeit weathered by two thousand five hundred years of history. But whenever people see Athens, they are continually reminded of her golden age era that it once enjoyed.
10. Pericles once said, leaving a legacy: “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men and their story is not given only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” I wholeheartedly agree.
11. Detractors may make value judgements and proudly claim how Athens practised slavery and gave zero rights to women, and hence connotate the idea of democracy as inherently flawed.
12. Putting value judgements to reflect on modern standards for what has happened 2,500 years ago is hardly an argument. Things have changed obviously. Even then I invite these people to look at the general standards of the West or countries practising democracy in comparison to others that are not rich in mineral resources let alone practise the aforementioned political system.
13. Anyway, Athens became the shining city in the hill whose leader Pericles heralded a new age where the people can participate and voice out their concerns in relation to the polity. People were able to judge, criticize and debate openly in the court of public opinion on any matters they want.
14. Those who have shown their judgements and rhetoric to be superior will be elected as leader, as Pericles was continually elected by his people. It ultimately clears the path to power for those who are wise and civic-minded. Yet those same individuals are still checked by others (be it the mob or the opponents) who can contest against the same position itself. To me, this is the essence of democracy.
15. I looked out onto the city and far away as I sat on top of the hill where the Pantheon stood and then looking down at the Athenian Argos feeling elated. I made my pilgrimage to the home of democracy; to the city Pericles once governed and where world history was shaped. I am at home.