Sunday, July 22, 2012

The choice is ours to make

The conflict between rich and poor is as old as the hills. The rich being powerful always managed to subdue the lower classes and spared no endeavour to protect their status and privileges.

In ancient Athens, the aristocracy augmented its power and wealth by acquiring agricultural land from peasants,   enslaving them for non-payment of loan. When the peasants reacted against the injustice, a legal system of Draconian laws was introduced to control them. Founded by Dracon, an Athenian statesman, these laws were very strict and the death penalty was applied to almost all crime. Solan another Athenian statesman annulled all mortgages and debts, limited the amount of land anyone might add to his holdings, and outlawed all borrowing in which a person’s liberty might be pledged. The last reform put an end to serfdom and slavery. Other economic reforms included a ban on the export of all agricultural products except olive oil and the granting of citizenship to immigrant artisans. Solon also made important constitutional changes. The assembly was opened to all freemen. His legislature made Athenian democracy strong and allowed the common man to take part in decision making. After completing his work of reform, Solon surrendered his extraordinary authority and left Athens. Cleisthenes further empowered people and is known as the founder of Athenian democracy. Under his system, all men 18 years of age and older were registered as citizens and as members of the deme (village or town) in which they lived. All male citizens over the age of thirty could serve for a term of one year on the Council and no one could serve more than two terms in a lifetime. Such an organisation was necessary, Cleisthenes believed, so that every citizen would learn from direct political experience. With such a personal interest in his democracy, there would be no citizens to conspire and attempt to abolish the system.

Once democratic institutions were established, the Athenian society flourished culturally and socially. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle introduced radical views in human thinking, enriching the human thought so that Athens became a centre of learning. Its reputation as a city of culture attracted scholars to Athens in quest of knowledge. The Epicureans and Stoics further continued philosophical traditions and the Athenian democracy. Sophists like Aristotle, Plato, and Aristophanes influenced Athenian politicians who learnt to argue and present their case in the democratic assembly.

In ancient Greece, Sparta, another powerful city-state, was quite different from Athens. Most Spartan men were soldiers and Sparta played almost no role in the celebrated scholarly and artistic achievements of other Greek city-states (particularly Athens). Individualism was not valued, instead a patriotic spirit was forged among its citizens. Lycurgus, the mythical law maker transformed the whole city of Sparta into a military camp. Boys were indoctrinated to fight and die in the battlefield. By law at the age of seven, they joined camps where they lived till they were 30. They were rigorously trained for war, walked barefoot, slept on the rough floor, ate sparsely and wore a single outfit for the whole year. Girls were also physically trained like boys. Their strength and dexterity was also aimed at being healthy mothers. When they gave birth, the baby was presented before a committee and unhealthy babies were thrown from the top of a mountain to die. Sparta produced the best soldiers and its army was invincible. But at what price? It produced no philosophers or writers. When its military power collapsed after 70 or 80 years, having no heritage or culture, Sparta  disappeared in the mist of history.

Athens was a democracy, the result of intellectual innovation, contributing richly to civilisation of mankind. Whereas Sparta, a warrior state failed to contribute to culture and wasted energy and talent on war. There is a choice for us; either to become an intellectually barren, warrior state like Sparta or a democratic republic like Athens with rich cultural and intellectual traditions.

Adapted from here 

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