THE GHOST OF PERICLES by David Brin
I’ve started rereading David Brin's 1998 book 'The Transparent Society' again for the fist time in over a decade and just finished a short section titled 'The Ghost Of Pericles.”
This has got me to wondering why Plato is held in such high regard in America pop culture as well as history and philosophy courses throughout the Western world.
Check it out, it’s a good read and I highly recommend the book. It has turned out to be very prophetic in many ways and probably more to come.
THE GHOST OF PERICLES
We live in a time that spills over with contradictions. Extraordinary wealth gushes alongside grinding poverty. Episodes of horrific bloodshed contrast starkly with unprecedented stretches of peace, in which billions of living human beings have never personally experienced war. Within a single life span we’ve seen great burgeonings of freedom — and the worst tyrannies of all time. To find another era with as dramatic a range of highs and lows, you might go back twenty-five centuries, when another “golden age” posed towering hopes against cynicism and despair.
Like the world of today, classical Athens featured profound bursts of creativity in science, culture, and the arts. But above all, the vision we tend to retain is that city’s brief adventure in democracy, a brave experiment that lasted just a little while and would not be tried again in a big way for two millennia.
Even staunch fans of Athenian democracy admit it was imperfect by present-day standards; for instance, women, slaves, and those not born in the city had few rights. Yet its relative egalitarianism was impressive in an age of hereditary chiefdoms and arbitrary potentates. Across centuries of darkness, from that democracy to this one, the lonely voice of Pericles spoke for an open society, where citizens are equal before the law and where influence is apportioned “not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward for merit; and poverty is not a bar… .”
The virtues of this notion may seem obvious to modern readers. Today, citizens of many nations — those that I call neo-Western — assume that principles of equality and human rights are fundamental, even axiomatic (though they are often contentious to implement in practice).
So it can be surprising to learn just how rare this attitude was, historically. In fact, Pericles and his allies were roundly derided by contemporary scholars. Countless later generations of intellectuals and oligarchs called democracy an aberration, ranking it among the least important products of the Athenian golden age. Even during the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli had to mask his sympathy for representative government between the lines of The Prince, in order to please his aristocratic sponsors. After Athens’s flickering candle blew out during the Peloponnesian War ( 431-403 B.C.E.), none was more eager to cheer the demise of democracy than Plato, the so-called father of Western philosophy. He wrote:
The greatest principle of all is that nobody should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully… . In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.
Partly due to the influence of Plato and his followers — and for reasons discussed in chapter 5 of this book — the democratic experiment was not tried again on a large scale until the era of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison.
We all know in our hearts that freedom cannot survive such assaults, unless it is defended by much more than good intentions. For a time, in the middle of the twentieth century, it looked as if the Athenian tragedy might happen again, when constitutional governments seemed about to be overwhelmed by despots and ideologues. Writing under the shadow of Hitler, and later Stalin, Karl Popper began The Open Society and Its Enemies by appraising the relentless hatred for empiricism and democracy that Plato passed on through his followers all the way to Hegel — a philosophical heritage of self-serving, tendentious incantations (or “reasoning”) whose hypnotic rhythms were enthusiastically adapted by innumerable rulers, from Hellenistic despots to Marxist-Leninist commissars, many of them using contorted logic to justify their unchecked power over others.
Looking back from the 1990s, when democracy seems strong — though hardly triumphant — we can only imagine how delicate freedom must have seemed to Popper, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and others writing in the 1940s and 1950s. Did they feel the ghost of Pericles hovering over their shoulders as they worked? Would the candle blow out yet again?
Scanning history, those writers could see only a few other brief oases of relative liberty — the Icelandic Althing, some Italian city-states, the Iroquois Confederacy, and perhaps a couple of bright moments during the Roman Republic, or the Baghdad Caliphate — surrounded by vast eras when the social pyramid in every land was dominated by conspiracies of privilege. Ruling elites varied widely in their superficial trappings. Some styled themselves
as kings or oligarchs, while others were priests, bureaucrats, merchant princes, or “servants of the people.” But nearly all used similar methods to justify and secure the accumulation and monopolization of privilege.
One paramount technique was to control the flow of information. Tyrants were always most vulnerable when those below could see and hear the details of power and statecraft.
Today, the light appears much stronger than in Popper’s day, and new technologies such as the Internet seem about to enhance the sovereign authority of citizens even further. Yet the problem remains as fundamental and worrisome as ever: What measures can we take to ensure that freedom, instead of being a rare exception, will become the normal, natural, and stable condition for ourselves and our descendants?
In fairness, this same unease motivates many of those who oppose the notion of a “transparent society.” They share the apprehension Orwell conveyed so chillingly in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that freedom may vanish unless people promptly and vigorously oppose the forces that threaten it. So from the start, let me say to them that we are not arguing about goals, but rather the best means to achieve them.
That still leaves room for disagreement, for instance, over whether the sole peril originates from national governments, or whether dangerous power centers may arise from any part of the sociopolitical landscape. Moreover, we differ over which tools will best help stave off tyranny. Metaphorically speaking, some very bright people suggest that citizens of the twenty-first century will be best protected by masks and shields, while I prefer the image of a light saber.
These glib metaphors may cue readers that I won’t be presenting an erudite or academic tome on the same level as Popper The Open Society and Its Enemies, and that is certainly true. I shall not claim to prove or demolish any broad social rules. Above all, this book does not push an absurd overgeneralization that candor is always superior to secrecy! Only that transparency is underrepresented in today’s fervid discussions about privacy and freedom in the information age. My sole aim is to stir some fresh ideas into the cauldron.
If we have learned anything during the hard centuries since Pericles and his allies tried to light a flickering beacon in the night, it is that we owe our hard-won freedom and prosperity to an empirical tradition — in science, free markets, and the rough-tumble world of democracy. Only mathematicians can “prove” things using pen and paper. The rest of us have to take our ideas pragmatically into the real world and see what works.
In other words, this is not a book of grand prescriptions (though some suggestions are offered). I plan chiefly to discuss underutilized tools of openness and light that have served us well in the past.