Tag Archives: Athens

JFK s Solon

John F. Kennedy’s Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, April 27, 1961

‘Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed–and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment– the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution- -not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants”–but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.’

The politically fertile ground of Athens needed someone to sow the seeds of Democracy. That someone was Solon.

‘Society is well governed when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law’

Growing up in 6th c.BC Athens, he was fortunate enough to receive his education by the best teachers and he used to frequent among the most respected philosophers of the day. That superior education earned him the reputation of not only being the most learned Athenian of the day but also one of the wisest law-givers of the ancient world, admired both by Greeks and Romans.

SOLON
SOLON (640-558 BC, Athens)

Athenian society was on the brink of collapse and Solon was called in to save the day. He immediately introduced a number of measures:

  • He cancelled all debts
  • He forbade loans
  • He freed the enslaved

All this was possible after he persuaded all citizens of Athens that from now on, the Law and only the Law shall be above all.

We have to keep in mind that Solon lived during an age of tyrants. Athens was governed by rulers that were in possession of political power through violence and force. Solon’s behavior in this politically hostile and perilous environment was always dictated by his zest for freedom, equality and social justice.

‘Men keep their agreements when it is an advantage to both parties not to break them; and I shall so frame my laws that it will be evident to the Athenians that it will be for their interest to observe them’

Even when he was really old he never stopped reminding his fellow citizens that it was their duty to get rid of all tyrants as soon as possible -and he did this publicly, displaying unprecedented boldness.

He even ignored the continuous threats of the notorious Peisistratus -one of the most powerful and feared demagogues of the day. Even though Peisistratus’ rule was actually fair and temperate (Aristotle notes that his administration was ” more like constitutional government than a tyranny”) in the eyes of Solon, Peisistratus was still a tyrant, as he wasn’t chosen by ‘The People’. When the ruler’s attempts to shut the wise statesman ‘s mouth proved fruitless, Peisistratus asked him what makes him so determined to continuously oppose his government! Solon answered: “My old age” [Diod.Sic. Book 9,4]

jfk

Democracy as the Rule of Laws

Aeschines’ Speech on Democracy

Aeschines, an ancient Athenian politician, stated back in the 4th century BC that the defining characteristic of democracy is that it is rule by the Law! Not rule by a person, a group of chosen ones, not even rule by the people. In a democracy it’s a set of principles as expressed by a number of laws that govern a city. In a monarchy, an aristocracy or an oligarchy, in contrast, rule is by individuals and through intimidation.

Aeschines (389-314 BC)
Aeschines (389-314 BC)

“It is acknowledged, namely, that there are in the world three forms of government, autocracy, oligarchy, and democracy: autocracies and oligarchies are administered according to the tempers of their lords, but democratic states according to established laws. And be assured, fellow citizens, that in a democracy it is the laws that guard the person of the citizen and the constitution of the state, whereas the despot and the oligarch find their protection in suspicion and in armed guards. Men, therefore, who administer an oligarchy, or any government based on inequality, must be on their guard against those who attempt revolution by the law of force; but you, who have a government based upon equality and law, must guard against those whose words violate the laws or whose lives have defied them; for then only will you be strong, when you cherish the laws, and when the revolutionary attempts of lawless men shall have ceased.”

-Aeschines Against Timarchus

Or, as a US President repeated centuries later:

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924)

“Democracy is not so much a form of government as a set of principles.”

-Woodrow Wilson

Oscar Wilde – Euripides

A Vision

TWO crownèd Kings, and One that stood alone

  With no green weight of laurels round his head,

  But with sad eyes as one uncomforted,

And wearied with man’s never-ceasing moan

For sins no bleating victim can atone,

  And sweet long lips with tears and kisses fed.

  Girt was he in a garment black and red,

And at his feet I marked a broken stone

  Which sent up lilies, dove-like, to his knees.

  Now at their sight, my heart being lit with flame

I cried to Beatricé, “Who are these?”

And she made answer, knowing well each name,

  “Æschylos first, the second Sophokles,

  And last (wide stream of tears!) Euripides.”

Oscar Wilde .  Poems.  1881.

euripides

Euripides. The last of ‘The Marvelous three’ Athenian theatre play writers. The most rebellious one. His criticism on religion -and the Olympian Gods in particular- and his attacks on traditional, social and moral values were infamous, earning the dislike of many of his fellow citizens. Even one of the most open minded audiences of the ancient world, the Athenians, had trouble understanding him.

Later he became immensely popular.  Theatre goers and play writers alike since then, bow before his talent and unprecedented boldness.

As Oscar Wilde explains:

“For though Euripides has not the Titan strength of Aeschylus, that Michael-Angelo of the Athenian stage, nor the self-restraint and artistic reserve of Sophocles, yet he has the qualities that are absolutely and entirely his own. His broad acceptance of the actual facts of life, his extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind, his keen dramatic instinct for scene and situation, and his freedom from theological prejudice, make him the most interesting of studies. He was a poet, a philosopher and a playwright……..

…….He saw indeed that men and women as they are, are more interesting than men and women as they ought to be. He never tried to make humanity real by exaggerating its proportions. He cared little for giants or for gods. the sorrows of mortals touched him more than all the gladness of Olympus”

Diogenes: Politically incorrect

John William Waterhouse: Diogenes [1905]
John William Waterhouse: Diogenes [1905]
An anecdote that involves the cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.):

” When some strangers (visiting Athens) expressed a wish to see Demosthenes, he (Diogenes the cynic) stretched out his middle finger and said, “There goes the demagogue of Athens.”

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Book VI. Chapter 2. [34] 

So, there you go… The first recorded use of the middle finger!

There and back again. A Marbles’ controversy

Detail of the Erechtheion (acropolis of Athens)
Detail of the Erechtheion (acropolis of Athens)

Some Brits ask: “How can you own something that was made back in the 5th century BC?”

Some Greeks say: “Greek people want them back!”

Is it that hard to comprehend that they’re all missing the point? It is not the Greek State that owns them. It’s the Parthenon and the city of Athens that ‘want them back’. Both sides have to see this in a cultured, classy and sophisticated way.

The Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor has stated that it is the British Museum’s duty to “preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol”

Neil MacGregor
Neil MacGregor
Dimitrios Pandermalis
Dimitrios Pandermalis

He is right! The British museum should speak directly with the director of the New Acropolis Museum; maybe the mayor of the city of Athens too.

“OH, WAIT… SO THIS MEANS THAT ALL MUSEUMS AROUND THE WORLD SHOULD BE EMPTIED!”

Most of the ‘Elgin marbles’ are pieces of a larger structure. The Parthenon! It’s that simple.

Claiming that all antiquities from all museums should be returned to Greece, Italy (plus a whole list of other countries) is, for anyone that uses common sense, laughable.

  • The vast majority of statues and other artefacts stand and are being displayed as units. They are not part of something else.
  • Greek statues were exported & sold outside their place of creation.
  • They’re way too many. What’s the number of exhibits that are going to be returned? A few? A lot? Why not all of them? Where do we stop?
  • But really: the main and most important reason is that they are ambassadors, tangible examples (and not abstract ideas) of the Graeco-Roman world & civilization. The one that shaped the Western World as we know it today.
Parts of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum
Parts of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum
Copy of part of the Parthenon frieze on the Parthenon. ON the Parthenon
Copy of part of the Parthenon frieze on the Parthenon. ON the Parthenon…

The main problematic issue is this: both sides see a different frame of the dispute.

Many British officials claim that “legally the matter is on the side of the British Museum. So, the matter is of morality and function”.

I agree 100%! Morality and function. Reuniting the pieces of the Parthenon that are in London is a moral act; and this act serves a function too!

“AND WHO’S TO BLAME FOR ALL THE DAMAGE & DESTRUCTION?”

I know! let’s blame ‘Zee Germans’… There’s no point in going into the details of who and when did what damage on the Parthenon and its sculptured decoration. Unfortunately, the truth is that contemporary nations (modern Greeks, Venetians, British etc.) and not barbarians or the all-conquering Time, inflicted the most serious damage on the Acropolis.

Today things have changed considerably. I’m certain we can all agree that there are knowledgeable specialists both in Britain and in Greece that can take good care of pieces of art and ancient artefacts.

New Acropolis Museum
New Acropolis Museum
British Museum
British Museum

IN BRITAIN’S DEFENCE

There’s a sad fact: many Greeks that are actively involved in the campaign are clearly involved for reasons of private interest. It is a well-known fact that some people have and are being engaged in this controversy (pity that there is one) for irrelevant reasons. Money, fame, personal gains. From the level of legal advisors all the way up to ministers of tourism, they’re more interested (or only interested some of them) in promoting themselves than the cause itself. It is imperative that the directors of the two museums leave corrupt politicians and soldiers of fortune out of the ‘game’.

On the other hand we should keep in mind that Elgin’s act is causing controversy in Britain since the 19th century. Lord Byron himself wrote his poem “The Curse of Minerva” cursing lord Elgin for what he did. Today, many famous Britons (academics, actors etc.) have repeatedly stated that are in favour of the Reunification.

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry

Paul Cartledge, Anthony Snodgrass, Sean Connery, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench just to name a few. Stephen Fry believes that now is the time for the reunification. What is more, using legal pressure is not the gentleman’s way. It’s not the civilized way to proceed. Call him romantic but he’s right!

“Britain, should say: yes for 200 years we kept them safe. Perfidious Albion was an untrustworthy country with colonial ambitions. Let’s not be like this anymore. Let’s be a classy country.”