Monday, January 24, 2011

Uncivil Discourse

Suddenly very busy. But I've been doing some brushing up on the Pelopponesian War and the rise and fall of the Thirty (very important for understanding the birth of philosophy in the West, and particularly for the rise of the Socratics), and found this interesting:

A memorial was later erected to Critias and the Thirty depicting a personified Oligarchy carrying torches and setting Democracy on fire. An inscription on the monument’s base, as recorded by a scholiast, read: “This is a memorial of those noble men who restrained the hubris of the accursed Athenian Demos a short time” (scholiast on Aeschines, Against Timarchus 39). The price of this “restraint” was the lives of at least 1,500 Athenians (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 35.4).

I don't know what it is, but there's just something about the idea of a memorial statue of Oligarchy setting Democracy on fire that I find rather funny, for all that it's actually a celebration, as the author says, of mass banishments and hemlockings. Perhaps it's something about the extraordinary brazenness of the statement made by such a memorial.

On the other hand, while our civil discourse has fortunately not degenerated to such an extent that people are tempted to put up statues of the Democratic donkey setting the Republican elephant on fire, or vice versa, it's not as if the bloody struggle between the Oligarchs and the Democrats in ancient Athens was always obviously in the cards, either. It doesn't necessarily take much.

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