Democracy is harder to practice than preach. In his work ‘Rhetoric’, Aristotle defines democracy as “a form of government under which the citizens distributed the offices of the state among themselves by lot.” Moreover, in his Politics, a citizen, “pure and simple is defined by nothing else so much as by the right to participate in judicial functions and in office.” In the United States, there are two such ‘offices’ widely distributed by lottery selection: jury duty and selective service. Most people bemoan the first and pray the second is never reactivated. Yet ironically, these ‘obligations’ seem to be the closest thing we have to authentically participating in a democracy…
Of course, as much as an ideograph as ‘democracy’ is in American public discourse, it’s doubtful that it will ever reach the metaphysical heights it did in the ancient Greek city-state.
In ancient Greece, the aim of being a citizen – ergo, actively participating in the administration of the city – was to live according to ‘truth’. The city was meant to emulate the harmony of the cosmos and reveal it through the interaction of its various components – chief of all, the coexistence of its citizens.
The Athenian concept of democracy is not synonymous with the Roman notion of republic. Even etymologyically, there is a marked contrast between ‘demokratia’ (‘demos’ + ‘kratein’ = ‘the people’ + ‘to rule’) and ‘res publica’ (‘the public thing/affair’). As administrative units began growing larger (provinces, empires), Hellenes continued to try and practice democracy at the local level. The ancient ‘ekklesia’ of the demos (citizen assembly) gave way to the ‘ekklesia’ of the faithful (the congregation/parish). Civically, villages and Diaspora communities prided themselves on their self-governance, with citizens taking turns exercising what authority they could, depending on the prevailing circumstances.
In its own way, this act of self-governance and self-sustenance – especially in the Diaspora, where nothing can be taken for granted – carries on the ancient Greek concept of democracy – albeit often unsuccessfully.
Still, it’s worth questioning whether we might live out the process of democracy more truthfully as a Community if we came to see our communal action as an act of preservation of our ancient heritage.
Whenever we attend some organizational assembly where it is evident that ‘the fix is in’, this failure to adhere to the civic standards of Hellenism should trigger our defense mechanism of ‘philotimo’, because we are accountable to both our forefathers and posterity. It might be expedient to stack an assembly with members who are not true stakeholders and just show up to vote the way they’re told, or to marginalize opposing views through procedural machinations or just plain obnoxiousness, but the mid- to long-term consequences far outweigh the short-term benefits.
We lament the lack of youth involvement in Community affairs or the fact that nowadays, it’s hard enough to generate a quorum, even when there’s important business to discuss. Perhaps this apathy and disinterest is a reaction to the absence of true discourse and dialogue.
It’s even more disheartening to see young people – in the rare instances where they do occupy administrative positions – perpetuating these democratic deficiencies.
Old habits die hard, but to authentically engage members from various demographics in the Community, we must embrace the dialectic method and promote dialogue. Our administrative bodies must become arenas of free speech and healthy argumentation, where plurality can spur interest, creativity, and collaboration. In-groups and conclaves will only continue to alienate the membership base, ultimately leading to a brain drain and plunging our organizations into decline.
From our parishes to our local organizations and societies, we must strive to rediscover the metaphysical significance of the democratic process. In the bigger picture, more important than whether a particular proposal we support passes, the ‘tropos’ or manner in which we reach a collective decision will determine whether or not our communal life has enough ‘unique otherness’ to find equilibrium, survive the test of time, and contribute something back to society.
Whether it’s assigning offices by lot, to dispense with any bickering about the voting process and electoral shenanigans, or something as simple as sponsoring regular debates regarding community issues, where the dialectical method can be used to foster desperately needed public discourse to counter self-serving behind-the-scenes engineering, it’s imperative that we try something – and fast.
Democracy is no easy thing, and there are sure to be more failures than successes along the way. But if we have the philotimo to persevere, we just might manage to preserve a defining quality of our heritage, enabling us to more authentically experience our culture.
Once we learn how to discuss our issues openly and constructively as a Community, we can begin to take meaningful action toward remedying the problems plaguing it.
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