Notes from the May EnCore Book Club

An emphatic discussion was held last week Wednesday the 9th at the EnCore Book Club meeting.  Professor Loren J. Samons kindly attended our discussion of his book What’s Wrong With Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship (University of California Press, 2004). For those who are unfamiliar with Prof. Samons’ work, the book is an examination of the differences between the American and Athenian governments; a consideration of the value we place upon our form of government and the values we derive from it; an explanation of how an increasingly democratic society affected the Athenian polis over time; and a criticism of how misunderstanding of the institution has changed American society. A review praises how “Samons provides ample justification for our founding fathers’ distrust of democracy, a form of government they scorned precisely because of their familiarity with classical Athens” and we discussed that very distrust last Wednesday.

We welcomed several new members in attendance at book club last week, and several pertinent issues of contemporary politics were brought forward. For instance, where is the appropriate line drawn for government involvement in private life? As the 2012 election draws near, issues like gay marriage become more pertinent; however, this is not just a social issue; it extends into areas like economics, religion, and states’ rights, and therefore cannot be dismissed under the mantra that government has no right to involve itself in the private social connections of its citizens. Professor Samons pointed out that ancient Athens had no such compunction about exercising minute control over its citizens’ private lives: ancient Athenians could be punished for things like squandering an inheritance or taking inadequate care of their parents, things that Americans consider their private business. We even discussed, in the context of that particular issue, whether it is even right that marriage should involve the state; is the union defined by the celebration and recognition by friends and family, or by the piece of paper issued by the government?

We also argued about which subjects are taboo for polite discussion, and which are not. We talked about how polarizing political discussions have become, how vituperative and unproductive political speakers often are, when we might wish that they would be considerate and productive. We are allowed to criticize the slow processes and individual lawmakers, we agreed, but it would be shocking to hear someone say at a gathering, “I don’t think universal suffrage is a necessary part of good government.” Representative democracy. Professor Samons pointed out, has become “our religion [we hold it sacred], our sport [we passionately fight for our team] and our sex [we use it to control people]”, replacing commonalities that once held smaller communities together as the only thing really shared by all Americans.

We also mused over what Professor Samons would call his ideal situation: small communities of shared values who exert pressure to behave well as a condition of the privilege of being a citizen. If one does not share the values of a community, one would be free to move to another community whose values are more palatable. We discussed how people have chosen the benefits of globalization over the social unity of a neighborhood-style situation, and how the decision-making process could work among a smaller body of more connected citizens. It was pointed out that this is how ancient Hellas was structured, and those polei were constantly at war with one another, trying to impose their values on the polei around them; Professor Samons acknowledge that this was the case, that it would probably not be much different in a similar setup in the United States, and that Springfield is probably just going to be out of luck. In addition, someone pointed out the difficulty of forming those communities of shared values: if I currently live next door to someone whose community would look different than mine, but we both have ties to our geographical location, who has to move?

Another topic discussed was the concept of citizenship. The Athenians did not regard citizenship as the right of everyone living within particular geographical boundaries; they regarded it as a privilege given to those who made certain sacrifices and performed certain duties for the polis; one had to serve in the military, show filial loyalty, and otherwise actively support Athens. If one was not a citizen, one was protected as an individual, but only citizens could vote or participate in the government and reap the concurrent fiscal rewards. The concept of rights is a popular and passionate one in our 21st-century world, but what do we really mean by it? It was originally simply the opposite of the wrong – The king is wrong to take my property from me with no reason or compensation, ergo I have a right to my property. We discussed the evolution of this concept, the idea that spreading “rights” (including the right to vote) to disenfranchised countries around the world is for their definite benefit, and why citizenship fell into this category.

Many things were said and many laughs were had, but the Athenians would have applauded the sharing, shouting, and thoughtful argument that went on (to say nothing of the libations). We look forward to next month’s discussion of Augustus: A Novel by John Edward Williams on June 2nd, and hope that you will attend.