Rawlings: ‘American democracy not derived from Athenians’

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerHunter Rawlings, president of the Association of the American Universities, presents Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.
Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of the American Universities, presents Monday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

The prominent figures of Athenian society — Socrates, Aristotle, Plato — are widely considered to be the forerunners of American democracy. But according to Hunter Rawlings, classicist and president of the Association of the American Universities, these giants of history had little influence on Thomas Jefferson and the writing of the Declaration of Independence — and thus little influence on the democracy Americans enjoy today.

Rawlings’ 10:45 a.m. morning lecture in the Amphitheater was preceded by a performance by Bill Barker, a Thomas Jefferson interpreter dressed in full 18th-century regalia, complete with a tri-corner hat.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” said Barker, as he read from a scroll, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Rawlings, the first to speak on Week Five’s theme, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” explored the philosophy behind Jefferson’s most famous written document. He began by shattering the myth that Jefferson derived any kind of inspiration from ancient Greek society.

“Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness owes very little to the ancient Greeks or Romans,” Rawlings said. “They would not have understood what Jefferson was talking about when he said we are endowed by an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.”

Rawlings argued that there is a stark difference between Athenian society and the American democratic experiment.

“Happiness, in this sense, is a bifurcator rather than a common denominator,” Rawlings said. “To think of pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right, guaranteed to individuals by government, would have struck the Greeks and Romans as weirdly misplaced.”

The Greek center of community and civic engagement centered around the polis, the city-state. They believed that man’s very nature dictated total commitment to the polis, Rawlings said.

And politics was a way of life. For Athenians, contributing to the Greek system of direct democracy was not an option. Athenian men received a mandatory education in citizenship, served in the military from ages 18 to 60 and participated in the people’s assembly, which made public policy through discussion and voting.

“To live in a Greek polis was to commit oneself fully to the community, to public duties that dominated your time and attention,” Rawlings said.

The expectations for civic responsibility were so strong that the philosopher Pericles called those who did not participate “idiōtēs,” from which the modern term “idiots” evolved, Rawlings said. Solon, a Greek lawmaker, is credited with a law requiring all citizens to choose a side in the case of a controversy; it also encouraged the prosecution of those attempting to remain neutral.

“Athens was the only city I’ve ever heard of that made apathy a political crime,” Rawlings said. “We have a hard enough time getting 50 percent of Americans to vote, much less jump into political disputes in an active way.”

Another way that American democracy is dramatically different from Athens’ governance is the sense of personal privacy. Though not explicitly stated in the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights, Americans have always had a strong sense of the right to privacy.

“Our obsession with privacy would seem strange to the Athenians,” said Rawlings. “Athenians were not allowed, politically or legally, to have any privacy. They would have regarded it as essentially undemocratic to lead a private life.”

American and Athenian views on privacy are so dichotomous perhaps because Americans believe the government exists to protect citizens, while Athens believed its citizens existed to protect the community, Rawlings said. Athens assumed that people were the government, and as such, no one had the right to pursue individual happiness.

Jefferson’s commitment to the pursuit of happiness came from Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who wrote that it was the right of individuals to pursue life, liberty and property.

“We cherish individualism and so we emphasize individual rights, most of which, embodied in the Bill of Rights, protects the individual from the power of the state,” Rawlings said.

Locke wrote that people begin life in a natural state, and it is from this state that they come together to form government. It is not that democracy requires the sacrifice of freedom; rather, freedom becomes a state-granted right.

“Jefferson was confident that his fellow Americans agreed with him, that these were natural rights that we have from our time living in nature, and that we have guaranteed by making our contract with the government,” Rawlings said.

Where Americans saw the need for a Bill of Rights, Athenians saw the need for greater political participation. Where Americans believed they were born as individuals, Athenians saw the polis as their beginning and end. Where Americans saw wealth and prominence as values to be desired, Athenians saw service and community as the pillars of society.

“Our only true and solid happiness, Locke says, is the foundation of liberty,” Rawlings said, “because it frees us from other desires.”


Q: I was struck by what you were saying about ancient Greece and the commitment to society. When you talked about Mason’s work on the Virginia Statement in [1776], the line about the means to acquire property is a part of pursuing happiness, and yet, when you talked about Greece, you were talking about wealth, and yet property existed in human form there as it did in Virginia in ‘76 when those statements were made. Can you look back on humans as property in a Greek culture, and what, if any, threads of that same reasoning applied in 1776?

A: That’s a very good question, and it’s always worth remembering that the idea of freedom and democracy, which started in ancient Athens, which continued so strongly in this country, started at the very same time. Both of those countries had slaves, and it is a fact that slavery was an important part of both societies as they were busy proclaiming freedom and all sorts of ideals that did not apply to the slaves they owned. We should remember that, we should contemplate that, and we should try to understand that because it is a great enigma and there is no getting around it in both cases. Slavery in the two states was different, but that doesn’t change its essential nature. In antiquity, slavery was not at all based on race. In our country, it was based on race, but other than that, the slave systems were similar, and there’s no way from our point of view to excuse those systems, particularly in countries that were paradoxically so busy talking about freedom. That’s a very good point to which we can contemplate to great effect.

Q: If participatory democracy was so important to the Athenians, how were the Athenians convinced to move their government to that of an oligarchy?

A: That’s a good question, and just very briefly speaking, after Athenian democracy had lasted about 90 years, there was a coup. We’d been reading about a coup recently in Egypt — there was a coup in Athens in which an upper class of Athenians overthrew the democracy for reasons you could quickly understand given what I’ve been describing, and they overthrew the democracy and they established the rule of a small group of leading citizens, which they called an oligarchy. The average Athenians were so upset by this and so angry that, at great peril to their lives, they fought against the oligarchs and, in turn, drove them out and reestablished their democracy. So there was an interruption, in fact, there were two brief interruptions in the Athenian democracy, but they overwhelmed both and kept their democracy for over 200 years.

Q: Do you believe that happiness truly can be pursued, or is there perhaps another verb?

A: That’s a wonderful question, and it raises the issue, what does Jefferson mean by the pursuit of happiness? He doesn’t say that we are guaranteed the pursuit of life and liberty. We get life and liberty, but we get the pursuit of happiness, not happiness. So what does he mean by “pursuit?” Does he mean that we are seeking happiness, that that’s what’s guaranteed? Or does he mean the pursuit of happiness in the way we would talk about “the pursuit of law,” or the “pursuit of medicine,” in which we would mean the practice of happiness, in this case. So does he mean then that we pursue happiness as a right, that is, we try to find it or that we practice happiness as a right? That’s up for grabs, and I’ve seen good scholars argue both sides of the case. I prefer that he means striving after or seeking happiness because I think it’s hard to think of guaranteeing people happiness. That would require a whole lot of government action all the time, and I really don’t think he had that in mind, but some have argued that.

Q: What impact do you think our current society’s emphasis on individual rights has on doing things for the common good in our own country? Does it affect our overall happiness?

A: That to me is a really essential question, and I appreciate the person who asked that question today, and it’s a big one for all of us, I think. We have these rights, which we cherish. But sometimes I … think we put too much emphasis on these rights and not as much emphasis on our duties. I don’t mean by that that we shouldn’t have those rights. I think we should have those rights. We’re a huge country; we’re not a little city-state with 50,000 male adults living in it. We’re a gigantic country and we do need rights, but I think Americans have gotten so used to these rights and so proud of these rights and so happy with these rights, that that’s what they want to talk about all the time: “I have a right to bear arms, so I can carry them into any movie theater or marketplace that I want. Leave me alone.” Well, I don’t happen to love that particular right, so I have a very biased opinion on it, but I don’t think we ought to… so I think we should put a little less emphasis on these great “rights” that we have. Now, of course, I like freedom of conscience. The ancient Athenians, by the way, didn’t have freedom of religion. We do, thanks to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And I think it’s greatly important that we have freedom of the press, but I do wish sometimes our leaders would talk a little more about what we owe to the community and a little less about these wonderful rights we have.

Q: Ancient Athens was more homogeneous than 18th-century America, based in large portion on common religion. Because one’s civic duty was also religious, individuality like Socrates was detrimental to the state. Isn’t this a major reason for the differences between America and Athens?

A: Yes. That’s very very well-stated, I think, and it’s related to the point I made just a moment ago about the Athenians having no real freedom of religion. The Athenians did not separate church and state the way we do. They tried a bit to separate them, and they were somewhat successful, but for the most part, the state and the religion were tied to each other, they were together. And they were certainly more homogeneous by virtue of being a much smaller society than ours, and I think the demographics are an important reason for the differences between us, that’s a very important point.

Q: Economist Jared Bernstein said there are two views of people: “You’re on your own (YOYOS), we’re in this together (WITS). Does pursuit of happiness mean we should strive to be WITS, not YOYOS?

A: I tried to get at this a little bit by talking about what Locke meant by “happiness” and going back to Aristotle, and asking the extent to which this notion of happiness is a personal matter on the one hand or a civic matter on the other hand. Jefferson doesn’t tell us, exactly. He says we have a right to pursue happiness, but he doesn’t define happiness. So you have to then try to do some research into what others like Adams and Locke meant by happiness, and when Jefferson says that happiness depends upon virtue, and the test of virtue is utility, you can then argue, as I have tried, that he may have in mind, there, by utility, your contributions to other people. In that case, then, happiness depends on being cognizant of and helpful to other people. On the other hand, I think you can make a pretty good case that Thomas Jefferson, up on his hill at Monticello, studying his Greek and Latin authors and pursuing his contemplative life, was spending a lot of his time on personal fulfillment and contemplation. And he valued that very highly. On the other hand, it would be hard to argue that Thomas Jefferson didn’t devote much of his life to civic matters, because it’s pretty clear that he did.

Q: Were scholars in ancient Greece in public life or in private life?

That’s a really good question. Some scholars in ancient Greece were very public people. The historian I mentioned earlier, Thucydides, was himself a general in the Athenian army, he was a terribly active Athenian citizen, and most Athenians, in fact, almost all, were very active citizens. So there was no class of scholars the way we sort of have a class of scholars living in academia which is protected from general life. There was no such notion in ancient Greece. Everyone was a citizen in the fullest sense of the term. On the other hand, you could argue that Plato’s academy did try to segregate itself a little bit, sequester itself a little bit from public life. I want to avoid the word “sequester” from now on.

Q: If you have 501 jurors, how many jurors does it take to make a judgment?

A: A majority. I’ll tell you something pretty interesting: When Socrates was tried, and one, he was tried for two crimes — one was not believing in the gods of Athens (that’s the religious crime), and secondly, corrupting the youth of Athens (that’s the social crime) — when he was tried, at the end of the trial, the jury voted and they convicted him by a margin of about 30 votes. Now that’s not a lot — it was something like 270 to 230, roughly 30 or 40 votes. It was close. But at the end of a trial, when the defendant was convicted, there came time to assign a penalty, and the judge did not assign a penalty, the jury did. And the jury had only two options. One was the penalty that was proposed by the prosecution, and the other was the penalty that was proposed for the defendant. There was no other option for the jury. It had to choose the prosecution’s penalty or the defendant’s penalty. In this case, as you know, the prosecution asked for death. Socrates asked for free meals at state expense. Which one did you think the jury voted for? Death, and by a larger margin than the first time. Socrates had a way of getting under people’s skin.

Q: What regulations applied to Greeks who wished to leave their homes? Did Greek law recognize the consensual, contractual nature of citizenship?

A: That’s a good question, too. You could leave, you could leave, and when you left, you were then a stateless person. Does that remind you of someone right now? It’s an uncomfortable existence that Edward Snowden is, I guess, getting used to. In ancient Greece, you could leave your polis, but when you did so, you were giving up citizenship, which meant … you were giving up life. Because if man is a political animal and his life depends on the community and his contributions to the community, when you leave, you have no life.

Q: How does [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s assessment of American culture draw on the span from Jefferson from Locke and Jefferson back to the Greeks?

A: That’s another good question. Tocqueville was a very well-educated man, not only in terms of European and American cultures, but also ancient cultures. He was extremely well-informed, and I think he saw the American experiment with democracy as a remarkable new thing that was like what the ancient Athenians had tried … so I think he had a pretty keen appreciation of the history of democracy all the way from Athens through the Enlightenment to America, and that’s why his book Democracy in America is still so incredibly relevant today.

Q: Did he use the Bible at all as a source? Does the apostle Paul’s use of Ecclesia to speak of the church, how does that relate, if in any waym to the Greek and Athenian communal democratic values? 

A: When St. Paul speaks of “Ecclesia,” and when we use the word “Ecclesiastical,” he was using the actual Greek word, “Ecclesia,” for “The People’s Assembly.” So what happened was, the Christian church took the Greek term for “The People’s Political Assembly,” and used it for the church, so you had a political term being taken into the religious sphere in a very interesting way, so Ecclesia and Ecclesiastical come from the Ancient Athenian democracy and its political institutions. That’s actually a good example of the way these terms can be reused in a different context. Second, Jefferson knew the Bible very well, especially the New Testament because he read it in its original language, which of course was, Greek, and Jefferson read Greek really, really well; much better than the other founders who had a bit of Greek, but really didn’t read it well. Jefferson did, and you may remember that Jefferson created his own Bible by taking things out of the New Testament using the Greek itself … And what he took out were things like the miracles, which is why many people are quite upset with Thomas Jefferson for having changed the New Testament’s meaning rather strongly. This is why there are certain parts of this country that have literally taken Thomas Jefferson out of their textbooks. Now that goes a little far, but it is done because people resent the fact that Jefferson altered the New Testament. What I can at least appreciate is that he did it by using the Greek text. To me, it’s much better if you do it in Greek than in English, but I have a certain perspective on these things.

Q: You may know that there’s such a thing as a “Happiness Index” in which countries are ranked, and Switzerland, for example, is always ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. Does that mean that Switzerland has a highly engaged communal life?

A: I don’t like happiness indexes. I have to admit to a strong bias on these things. I don’t know how in the world you create a happiness index that has any real meaning, but since we have to rank everything these days —  including universities because that’s the way US News & World Report continues its existence — … I don’t really know, but I guess if I had to try to answer in some responsive way, maybe it’s not too surprising that Switzerland is high on the happiness index, it’s a tiny, tiny country. It reminds me a little bit of ancient city-states, and it tends to be, for the most part, pretty homogeneous. And I must say the Swiss are pretty darn community minded, so they have always had a strong sense of working on behalf of the community, so if you use Jefferson and Locke’s argument that I tried to bring out this morning that happiness depends to a certain extent on what you can do for others, then maybe that makes a certain amount of sense.

Q: How has Greek society evolved from the sorts of values that you ascribe to Ancient Greece and particularly to Athens to today’s manifestations?

A: Oh, you mean Greeks are in debt? That, I think, is the way we now think of Greece, and it’s really unfortunate. We think of Greece now and think, “That’s the big ‘debtor’ nation,” and it is true, the Greeks have a terrible debt. We have a terrible debt, so we should remember that when we’re talking about other countries. In trying to understand how Greeks have evolved from antiquity to today, I go to Greece a lot, and I would say Greeks today aren’t too different from Greeks in antiquity. They’re very public people. You don’t see them spending a whole lot of time sitting home watching television in the evening. They’re sitting out in the public squares, drinking a little Ouzo, and talking with the world that goes by, and they also tend to celebrate publicly a little more than we do, so they’re still very gregarious and public and curious, and they’re highly, highly democratic, by which I mean they argue all the time.

Q: So when Aristotle talked about values, he pointed out that they weren’t simply abstract, they were there to be exercised. The question is, what are the institutional influences in our society today that promotes the exercise of values? 

A: That’s a really great question, and I think most of you can answer that as well as I can, or better. All of our institutions that promote the public good, it seems to me, fit this description very well, and one thing about this country is its phenomenal commitment to volunteerism and to philanthropy. You can say a lot of things about Americans on the negative side, but we invented philanthropy… though it’s a Greek word.

—Transcribed by Chad M. Weisman