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Aug 21, 2009 4:26 am


"He Who Wishes"



In modern democracies freedom is usually construed as freedom from contraint by others. The same was true in ancient Athens, the opinions of Plato and Aristotle notwithstanding. However, the Athenians belived that preserving freedom depended on the fulfillment of civic responsilbiities. Freedom, in other words, was both a prequisite and a product of citizenship.

But why is the citizen motivated to participation? This is something I would consider essential to preserving democracy and preventing the rise of an entrenched elite. Citizens must take the initiative. But we find less and less of that today, especially in the universities, which have become holding pens for inert and essentially passive consumers-in-training.

The difference between American universities and ancient Athens is that the latter depended on the willingness of members to take the initiative. 'Ho boulomenos," that is,"he who wishes" is a key figure in the operation of the Athenian democracy. He stands for office, speaks in the assembly, and brings charges in cases of injustice.

We do not possess a similiarly institutionalized role in the American university, nor do we attempt to inculcate the free exercise of responsible citizenship necessary to the preservation of liberty. Instead, we have"food courts," and the only decision we expect to be exercised is in the choice of high-fat foodstuffs. A course catalogue, these days, is the food court's intellectual equivalent -- and often contains roughly the same nutritional value. The Athenian"He who wishes,", however, was more than a consumer of cheese-doodles.

What might this mean for us? To institionalize the mechanisms of deliberative democracy, I suggest, requires that every citizen of a local rea has an equal change to participate. It matters that these citizens come to see themselves as connected, and not primarily transients for whom exit is an easy option. The local unit, therefore, must have a plausible claim to being an functional boundary. People must"feel" themselves to part of something both political and economic. I would therefore propose that within a locality a randomly selected group of citizens be invited to participate in a deliberation about a significant policy question.

The nature and functions of their deliberation -- and how they might contribute to the rehabilitation of the 'ho boulomenos' I will describe in a subsequent message.

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Bogdan Enache - 4/6/2009

The Liberty of the Moderns doesn't exclude initiative; you've misundertsand both the Ancients and the Moderns, to use Constant's terms. The private sphere is simply valued more than the public sphere by the Moderns precisely because liberty is understood - correctly - to derive from the former, not the later; from individual rights, not from collective sovereignity, i.e. citizenship. That's why initiative in the private sphere - commerce, art, charity etc - is valued more than initiative in politics.

On the other hand, the modern city or democracy, if you wish, doesn't have the methaphysical dimension of the quasi-tribal polis of the Ancient Greece. In a very real sense, we're not the slave of the city anymore, and therefore we can find the fullfillment of our "zoon politikon" independent of the political power, by pursuing freely our ideas, talents, desires, dreams etc, though not necessarily independent of other people.

Even though I agree that fastfood is a problem in the US and the difference with Athens is incommensurable, we don't want - as a rule - more Socrates sacrificed for the good of the city's youth, do we now?

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