When it comes to American politics it’s all ‘Greek to me’

If one were to use the expression “It’s Greek to me” to express resignation or bafflement concerning the bizarre behavior of the present-day occupant of the Oval Office, they might not be far off the mark. As I’ve suggested in two previous op-ed pieces, an important clue for understanding the mystery that is Donald J. Trump might be found by taking a closer look at the glory that was ancient Greece … This is the third (and final) installment of a series of essays about the modern implications resulting from a five-month, indepth study of Greek history and culture that I originally embarked upon for reasons unrelated to politics …

Students of “classical education” should know that many of the words used today to report or discuss political matters have Greek origins. One of these is “politics” itself — which comes from the Hellenic “polis” or “city-state.” While some folks today use the term “politician” mostly in a pejorative sense, its original definition was honorable — i.e. “one who practices statecraft” or conducts ‘the business of the state.” Another Greek word, “demagogue,” originally meant a “leader of the people” but came to mean any agitator who uses deceptive rhetoric or derogatory epithets (like “politician“) to to defame opponents or merely to get people worked up to suit his or her purposes. Demagogues were common in ancient Greece (one prominent demagogue in 5th century B.C. Athens was Alcibiades whose speeches urged his fellow citizens to support an unnecessary attack upon Syracuse in Sicily) and are still quite active in 21st century America where they use outlets like “Twitter” or Facebook to spread ignorance or incite violence or hatred of others …

Perhaps the most misunderstood word in the Greek lexicon is “democracy” — from “demokratia” (i.e. “people power”). While most ancient Greek cities (i.e. Sparta) were ruled by “monarchs” or “tyrants,” the city-state of Athens established (in 508 B.C. under the leadership of a progressive statesman named Cleisthenes) what was probably the world’s first constitutional democracy. Later, during the benevolent tenure of Pericles (who served as the city’s popularly-elected chief Assemblyman from 469 to 421 B.C.), even the poorest citizens of Athens were allowed to select leaders, speak freely, and participate in the government, but there were some limitations. Only free adult males whose parents were both born in Athens could vote. Out of an estimated 200,000 residents (many of whom were slaves or women), only about 5,000 regularly attended Assembly meetings (in some ways Athenian democracy resembled the caucuses held in present-day American states like Iowa). Pericles embarked upon a series of public-works projects (i.e. the Parthenon) that employed thousands of public-service workers who were paid out of city funds. Direct democracy in Athens lasted until 406 B.C., when the city was taken over by a group known to history as the “Thirty Oligarchs.” A popular uprising in 404 B.C. restored democracy for a brief period. It lasted until 338 B.C. when the Greek city-states were defeated at the Battle of Chaeronea by king Phillip II of Macedonia. From 336 to 323 B.C. it was part of the empire of his even more successful son, Alexander the Great. The so-called Hellenistic Age that followed Alexander’s untimely death was marked by innovations in art, literature, philosophy, architecture and science, but it was also a time dominated by personality cults, superstitious beliefs, and inbred, incompetent despotic rulers who insisted upon being worshiped as “gods.” After 146 B.C., Greece was ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks, and a variety of despots until, in 1821, it gained independence from the Turks. Since then, it has been a military dictatorship, a monarchy, a constitutional republic after 1974, and a cash-poor, defaulting member of the European Union … True democracy, it seems, is a fragile thing, and, once lost, it is difficult to replace …

The previously-mentioned Greek term “Oligarchy” is in the news a lot these days. Today it is mostly used to describe the form of government that has developed within the Russian Federation since the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991. It is defined as “exclusive consolidation of power by a small group of people based upon ethnicity, wealth or influence.” It applies particularly to the current system wherein the Russian oligarch Vladimir Putin and small group of extremely wealthy businessmen have expanded their influence via intimidation, the use of terror tactics (including the assassination of political opponents), and unbridled suppression of dissent, free-speech, and the voting rights of citizens. Lately, the Russian oligarchs have embarked upon a campaign intended to undermine democratic values by interfering with free elections in nations like Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States … Another Greek word that has achieved prominence in recent months is “nepotism.” This denotes a system wherein the leader of a city, state, or nation delegates an unwarranted and eventually unhealthy amount of power and influence to members of his own immediate family (in his 16th century political treatise “The Prince,” writer Niccolo Machiavelli warned potential rulers to avoid this practice which he called a sure recipe for disaster) …

Another ancient Greek word is “hubris.” It means “foolish pride or overconfidence” that leads to the downfall (“nemesis”) of those who would defy or emulate the gods.” Hubris might be a by-product of what is called “malignant narcissism.” This term was inspired by the Greek myth about a foolish lad named “Narcissus” who fell in love with his own reflection and was drowned in a forest pool … Examples of this and most of the other “gifts” from the ancient Greeks can be observed on a hourly basis on today’s television screens in the form of “breaking news” reports about our current president and his associates …

Fred O’Neill lives in Marietta.

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