Saturday, June 4, 2011

A free and frank city

The Suppliants: lines 399 - 408


Who is the ruler of this land?
To which one shall I announce
The proclamation of Creon?

He has mastery of the lands
Of Cadmus, since Eteocles
Died under the blows of his own
Brother Polynices, outside
Thebes of the seven towers.


You begin your tale
Falsely, stranger,
Seeking tyrants here.

Not for us the authority
Of one man, rather we are
A free and frank city.

The people rule and are ruled
In yearly turns. And what's more wealth
Will not grant you the most, for even
With the day labourer are they equal.

Theseus killed the Minotaur. He became one of heroes who brought the Greeks into the light, into the world of the city.

I was struggling my way through the final chapter of "Politics in the Ancient World" by M.I. Finley, when he quoted from the Euripides play "The Suppliants." Anything to have a break from the arid style of the former Master of Darwin College, Cambridge. And anything in these dreary days of apathy across the Angloshpere that speaks to progressive ideas is a boon.

Knowing that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and with more enthusiasm than fluency, I dove into an attempt at translation.

I used ruler as opposed to tyrant in the first line, as I wanted to see this brief exchange as a critique on our own democracy. Euripides himself was both a supporter and critic of democracy. This is as it should be, criticism and self criticism. I thought it was important to use the world frank to describe the free city of Theseus. The phrase in the original is eleuthera polis, which means free city. I thought I had to go deeper, as it seems as if free is a heavily loaded word, one which means many different things to different people, one that over the years has lost some of it's lustre. A few of the synonyms for eleuthera included free, liberal, open, unencumbered, open to all, as well as my final choice of frank. One of the positive features of Athenian democracy was the idea of frank speech, even if only in theory. A citizen who was to speak before the assembly was expected to speak truthfully, including being truthful with themselves. This what is meant by the motto "Know thyself." How much this was actually followed in daily life I dare not say. Australians only have to look at their own mythology of mateship and the fair go to make their own conclusions as to how moderate and self aware the Ancient Greeks really were.

Beyond the 'woolly' idea of being able to speak frankly in the assembly, this simple exchange allows us to sneak a peek between the curtains, into a window on Athenian democracy in action. The people rule and are ruled in yearly turn. The citizens are expected to rule, to take an active part in the actual running the government, as well as debating and voting on policy and strategy. Ruling and ruled in turn. Beyond what we learn from Euripides, we know that Athenian democracy included payment for work done for the state, as well as the use of lotteries to allocate positions. Citizens were questioned before they took up their appointed roles, and reviewed at the end of the yearly appointment. We also know, if only negatively from the constant complaints of the literate aristocrats, that democracy in Athens was for a time extended to the lower classes, the rowers and the day labourers. Side by side with the well born the day labourer was expected to speak, and his speech was expected to be heard. Again as to how equal the assembly really was, I dare not say. It does seem as if the sheer expense of the political contest, as well as the large size of some electorates, act as a ration card for political activity by the great majority of people. Lotteries also seem to have an advantage, in that it would be harder for positions to ossify, as they do in our current regime. Lotteries and fixed terms form all positions would end the idea of people being in parliament as a career.

With the current impasse in politics in the West, any idea that extends the ideas of democracy is worth thinking about and discussing.

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