Learning from the Ancient Greeks

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November 01, 2013

Magdalena StuehrmannWhat can the world’s first democracy teach us about tackling today’s political polarization? In an essay written for Professor Diane Clines’ History of Ancient Greece class, undergraduate Magdalena Stuehrmann—a junior majoring in archaeology and English—discusses the importance of moderation, compromise, and consensus.

Around 600 BCE, the citizens of the city-state of Athens began to realize they were in serious political danger. The state had become deeply and bitterly divided into two political factions: the poor democrats, and the wealthy anti-democrats. Each faction was essentially a lobby for a special interest group; the poor wanted to end crippling debt obligations (the practice of having to sell oneself or one’s family away into slavery in order to pay debts had become a common form of payment) and to level the political and economic playing fields. The wealthy wanted to continue to be able to collect from their debtors and to maintain their positions in society. By 594 BCE, it became clear that the two groups were not only unable to reach a consensus on their own, but that the system also had the possibility of being stuck at an impasse, or erupting into violence. A solution was desperately needed.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Today, in the United States of America, our government is comprised of two special interest political parties: the Democrats and the Republicans. As in ancient Athens, one group tends to represent marginalized, usually poor or middle class citizens, the other the economically well off. Today’s economy is based largely on trade with other countries, and is struggling, much as the Athenian economy in the 590s BCE. And these factions have reached a long anticipated impasse: the government shutdown.

The complexity of both political standoffs makes it difficult to come up with simple solutions for either. When a people are so deeply divided along highly emotional, loyalty based lines, it becomes virtually impossible for a moderate solution to emerge from cooperation between the two. This is where a mediator needs to enter into the equation.

The Athenian government recognized the need for a neutral, moderate third party to become involved in creating a solution. They turned to a man known for his wisdom, the poet who coined the phrase, “Keep everything in moderation.” Solon of Athens was given the sole power to unravel the city-state’s political snarl. Keeping with his philosophy of neutrality and moderation, he created a solution that granted both sides some, but not all, of their desires. Debt slavery was ended, as well as the practice of debtors being forced to give parts of their land to the lenders. The aristocracy retained the right to collect on debts, and maintained much of the political control. Though, rather typically, no one was completely happy with the situation, it staved off serious political and economic disaster. Neither side received exactly what they wanted; a relatively common ground was reached from which to build on.

This is what we need now. American politics has become increasingly and obviously polarized, and we’ve reached a moment where that polarization has prevented our country from operating the way that it should. At this point, it doesn’t matter who can point the finger of blame at whom; what matters is a working solution. As the Constitution prevents Congress from handing over its power to a third party in order to create a solution, members of the parties themselves will need to build solutions. Compromise is a necessity in democracy, and is virtually impossible when both parties insist the other is the embodiment of evil. We buy into the pack mentality, and vilify those who are not members of our own group, without stopping to consider that a country divided against itself cannot function. The right and the left need to embrace one another, sit down together, and build a solution that favors neither one side nor the other, but enables each to give and take.