Standing right below the Acropolis, where pure democracy began because public officials were elected by lot, I try to imagine if random political selection would be a good thing today. The answer is a resounding yes. Both Socrates and Aristotle questioned fundamental norms and values, and if they were alive today they would certainly question our acceptance of career politicians who have never had any other profession. (Corbyn, Biden… I could go on.) Socrates was skeptical about many things, especially the arts, because he believed they led us away from the truth. Yet nowadays so-called ‘artists’ influence public opinion as never before. The fact that even numbskull rappers have a say and can affect public opinion means that election by lot should be a must.
Old Socrates was obsessed with the truth, and politics is all about the propagation of falsehoods. Aristotle believed that many people are slaves by nature, and the proof of that proposition lies in the blind obedience of those hatchet-faced people in hock to leftist dogma who scream abuse on TV. (Aristotle would not get invited to chic parties were he around today: he opposed homosexuality, believed women to be biologically inferior and despised rule by the many.) The ancient Greeks may have invented everything useful, but they did not invent socialism, the system that makes theft legal. They were too smart to fall for its Siren-like attraction because they knew it would eventually kill all initiative. Yet politicians today demand more socialism, even after what happened in the Soviet Union, Cuba and Venezuela. Go figure, as they never said in old Athens.
I suppose it has to do with human nature. The politician who accepts power reluctantly and uses it sparingly is to be found only in Greek myths and in Shakespeare. Casting power aside without regrets is unheard of in real life. Which brings me back to Athenian democracy and random selection. Back then, it was for a term of one year, and citizens also had the right to ostracize any citizen who got too big for their britches for ten years. (Celebrity worship wasn’t tolerated. Aristophanes’ satires cut down egos quicker than one can say Alcibiades.) The hero of the battle of Salamis, Themistocles, was voted out of the city because he got too popular. It was called a pre-emptive measure. Shame-free self-promoters were as rare back then as they are ubiquitous today.
Never mind. The Athenians did not glorify power or indulge in leader worship, and the cult of personality was a no-no. The state was not seen as omnipotent or omniscient, but as a sort of church for its loyal citizens. I’ve often wondered why the Athenian experiment in democracy was not followed by later states; it was radical and fair. Then again, mankind is hardly the latter, so there you have it. The Athenian system is seen today as selective democracy, but is no more so than the present one, says the old Athenian philosopher Taki.
Athens was done in by 27 years of war with Sparta. A military oligarchy that feared Athenian cultural dominance cut my birthplace down to size. Athens had tried to export democracy around the Greek city-states, just like Uncle Sam is doing as I write. The good uncle is bound to fail, just as Pericles did. But who was the last man to learn from history? The Unknown Soldier, that’s who. And old Socrates, although pot-bellied by then and against the war with Sparta, went into battle as a common soldier, just like the other philosophers and playwrights. The elite fought on the front line back then. They did not send poor farm boys to do the dying for them. I can picture Margaret Thatcher leading a charge up Goose Green, but George Osborne? William Kristol? Fat John Podhoretz? The poison dwarf?
Otherwise, in today’s Athens, poverty is rife, with unemployment at 19 percent, and many of the well educated are working abroad. I do not know the new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. I knew his father, an ex-premier, well and kept a very nice suite for him in a hotel I owned for years. I once went to see Kyriakos’s sister, who was then a minister, and she treated me the way Saudis treat their servants. I got up and left her office without saying a word. She was famously rude to people probably because she was extremely unattractive. My father’s antiquities, which I had pledged to that government to be displayed in the ministry of foreign affairs, went instead to the Benaki Museum.
The trouble with Greece is overregulation and corruption. Ironically, Greek oligarchs have a very limited grip on the economy. Oligarchs are not the major obstacle to growth. Bureaucracy and over-regulation are. The past four years of socialism have done only harm. That bum Tsipras sold his country short and he’s now set up for life. The Greeks, being Greek, will vote him back in at some point in the future with his new false promises.
That’s about it. Walking around the Acropolis can be tiring, but I do it every time because it reminds me of good things. And as I sit under the sun and feel the dry, oppressive heat, I think of the great Pericles and the golden age of the city. It took my mother’s birthplace, Sparta, to bring it all down, so if Athens had to lose she could not have lost to a more gallant foe. Pericles for president, Pericles for president. He’s the one that people choose, loves the Irish and the Jews!
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.