Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Isonomia: Getting Distracted Again

I observe the world as a hermeneutical spiral. That is to say, there are events, and their interpretations or iterations. Once upon a time, there was a singularity. Then the universe happened, and all of it is the hermeneutical spiral of that single event.

This is my way of claiming that criticism is as important as the art: the performance is the event, and the criticism makes senses of it.

This inevitably leads me to Fifth Century Athens. The political, social, aesthetic and philosophical evolution of this particular city state at this particular time counts as an even so impressive, it took Western Civilisation nearly two thousand years to get over it. Up until the 1970s, Classics was still crucial in the curriculum (with Greek generally regarded as the best bit). It took the combined forces of post-modernism, which fractured the ideal of a grand guiding narrative, and (sort of) socialist educational theory, which considered practical education better than immersing students in the stories of Grand Old White Males, to edge Classics out of the secondary class room.

I might have been one of the last generation who got Latin slapped into their timetable as a matter of course. By the time I came to teach Classics, we weren't able to pretend that it was relevant - even Glasgow University had abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement.

Forgive my sentimentality: I am researching the Fifth Century today, and it feels like a personal journey.

Yes, say The Kids. But what has this to do with us?

Right at the start of the period, the Athenian legal system came up with the idea of equality before the law. Now, there is plenty of boasting about how they started off democracy - and the complaint that this democracy excluded women and foreign residents. There's a pride in the growth of Tragedy (and comedy, but since that involves values that might make Jim Davidson blush, I'll ignore that). But I think that the equality before the law was the real breakthrough.

Wikipedia gives me two quotes on the ancient Greek attitude to equality before the law - without giving me the word in Greek, which is what I was looking for. Apparently, Aristotle reckoned that whoever controlled the law courts controlled the state. And Pericles thought it was so great, he mentioned it in his famous funeral oration in 431: it was the defining characteristic of the Athenian State.

The word is isonomia. Recently, Adam Scarborough suggested that Sortition, the allotment of responsibility by lottery, might make an alternative to the current nightmare of representative democracy. This sortition was used in ancient courts to select juries and councils - and depends on the idea of equality of all.

Quite clearly, I have become distracted again. I intended to write a timeline of Fifth Century Athens, and ended up taking potshots at modern politics. To be continued...

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