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What Government Governs Best?
Is Democracy Still Our Best Bet?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
I was going to write about something very different... Mongolian warriors and Spartan blood pudding... you know, standard topics... but then.... last night happened.
For those unaware, the peoples of Argentina just elected Javier Milei, their first ever libertarian President.
If you were to judge the situation by the media up north, you would think it was chaos, an election that resulted in some sort of dictator, but really, it was remarkably calm, democracy in action.
What the headlines seem to casually neglect is that the opposition, the former Economic minister, was at the helm of a 143% inflation which put 40% of the entire population of Argentina into poverty.
When we moved here back in 2010, we only needed 3 pesos to exchange for a US dollar and an entire dinner could easily be purchased for one 100 peso note. Today, you need to take a stack of at least 30,000 pesos for that same succulent steak and wine.
So perhaps it’s not surprising then that the majority of people wanted something completely different. In particular, it was the workers and the youth who supported the man who managed to beat out both the far left and the far right.
But what does Señor Milei - a self proclaimed anarcho-capitalist - promise to do differently? Cut the government down to size... chop off full branches and reduce the bureaucracy.
Whether he is a true statesman or a fraudulent politician, I do not know. Whether this will be good for a country that was once one of the richest in the world but has been in decline for the last 70 years, I can not say. Nor do I know if the inherent corruption and entangled administration will maintain the status quo...
No matter what the case is, we’re watching a social and political experiment on a scale never before seen up close and personal.
Of course investigating what is the ideal state -and man’s relationship to it- is absolutely essential... and there has been no end of papyrus scrolls dedicated to the subject. As the old saying goes: if you don’t take an interest in politics, politics will take an interest in you.
So what of democracy? Of tyranny and oligarchies? What do the ancients have to say?
Plato famously penned his ideas on the matter in his Republic, writing that democracies are morally confused systems with little agreement on values. Indeed, he felt that they are so focused on image that political discourse is superficial. In Book VIII, he writes:
“Democracy is a charming form of government full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.”
He felt that given these flaws, it is not surprising that democracies are relatively short-lived forms of government... and that they eventually descend into tyranny. Instead of a vote of majorities, Plato proposed a regime ruled by a philosopher-king, a man who loves wisdom more than power.
Unfortunately, history has revealed an extreme dearth of such leaders, proving that his model is even less sustainable than democracy.
Meanwhile, Aristotle argued that oligarchies and democracies are the most common forms of government, with much alike except their allocation of power.
“For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy.”
It’s important to note though that Aristotle did not believe there was one clear cut system: “None of the principles on which men claim to rule, and hold other men in subjection to them, are strictly right.”
Then, almost three centuries later, the Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero, felt that the worst of the good states was a democracy, where all the people participated directly in running the government, because it eventually led to mob rule.
Cicero proposed that the ideal government, "is formed by an equal balancing and blending" of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy. In this "mixed state," he argued, royalty, the best men, and the common people all should have a role.
Finally, 1800 years later, the avid Classicist and great thinker Henry David Thoreau put forth the idea that when it comes to government, less is more.
As he put it in his Civil Disobedience:
I heartily accept the motto,—"That government is best which governs least;" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—"That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
So, where does this leave us, dear reader… in the here and now?
What is the best form of government for men and women to live under? What shape should it take? Is it democracy? Or something else? And should we have more... or less.. of it?
As always, you can write to me directly at email@example.com or reply to this email.
Now, onto today’s Mailbag responses on whether death should concern us, below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom Kids
P.S. War, simply put, was part of everyday life for the majority of ancient Greeks and Romans. Thus, to understand the classical world, we have to study their wars. It was part of their life, culture and art... But there is something else important we can gain from researching and reading classical combats.
Sometimes it’s more productive to study conflicts that are firmly residing in the past because we can employ that precious ‘thousand foot view’. We aren’t so emotionally blind or patriotically confused to not be able to learn, dispassionately, of the true movements, causes, and conclusions of the men on the fields and seas...And by understanding this great overview, we can see how our own histories and nations fit into a much, much bigger picture.
So this week, we will release a Classical Wisdom Litterae Magazine dedicated to the Peloponnesian War, a struggle between the greatest powers of the day: Athens and Sparta.
What can we learn about war by studying 27 years of battle, naval combat, famine, revolt, plague, treason, defection, exile, glory and death? Quite a lot...
If you aren’t a member already, please make sure to subscribe today to enjoy all our resources:
As a child I was terrified of dying and I think that developed when my Grandfather died when I was very young and I absorbed all the upset of the adults around me. When, at around age six, my cousin's other grandfather died I remember thinking that I was glad that he died away from home because that meant nobody would get upset. Strange reasoning. At 76, I have come more or less to terms with dying. It is inevitable so worrying does nothing at all. My only concern is that I do not want to die in excruciating pain or alone, but I can’t control that either. The Epicurean saying I was not, I am, I am not, etc is very apt. I am not religious, so do not believe in a hereafter but believe my quirks, quarks, God particle will return me to the universe out of which I came. I guess that is immortality.
Yes it should.
If you die before you die, you won't die when you die.
I think Homer through Achilles helps us engage in these thoughts.
First in the Iliad:
“Cattle and fine sheep may be taken; tripods and chestnut steeds won, but neither taking nor winning can recall a man’s spirit once the breath has left his lips. My mother, divine silver-footed Thetis, spoke the alternative fates open to me on my way to death. Remain here and fight at the siege of Troy, forgo all home-coming, yet win endless renown; or sail home to my native land, lose fame and glory, but live a long life, and be spared an early end.”
Finally in the Odyssey":
“Glorious Odysseus: don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead. Give me news of my son, instead. Did he follow me to war, and become a leader? Tell me, too, what you know of noble Peleus. Is he honoured still among the Myrmidons, or because old age ties him hand and foot do Hellas and Pthia fail to honour him. I am no longer up there in the sunlight to help him with that strength I had on Troy's wide plain, where I killed the flower of their host to defend the Argives. If I could only return strong to my father’s house, for a single hour, I would give those who abuse him and his honour cause to regret the power of my invincible hands.”
Death should not be dreaded. It is a natural recycling of the lifeform that has occupied our body since it first infused itself into our embrio. We are here to advance our knowledge of the Cosmos (all that is and beyond what we see as reality). We have been preyed on by those who would control us by their claim to advanced knowledge of what will happen to us if we do not accept their edicts and be cast into some awful place. Odysseus visited his Mother in a damp, watery and dreary place. So fiery flames came later in time when the people learned that hot lava came from underneath, hence the idea that those who refused to obey would be consumed with fire.
We are the victims of misinformation and there should not fear death, only the chance for another round of life better than this, if we have learned what would have been better performed in this allotted time.
I believe that preparation for death is not possible beyond certain means, just as preparation for certain combat or a major sporting contest. As a Kingdom Dweller I have the assurance of faith as to my final destination and some of the steps in that process from physical death. Basically, at death I leave Creation of space time and matter and move to a holding facility until judgment is performed. There I am made holy and sin can no longer reside in me, tempt me nor even exist in my presence whatever that presence has then become. Finally, I go from bond servant to step brother of Jesus. That is both glorious and joyous. Sadly for those that have not entered the Kingdom through Romans 10:9-10 here is a journey to the White Throne and eternal sentencing.
This week’s topic is well timed as my oldest cousin fell and broke his neck and severed his central nervous chord rendering him a quadriplegic. He has fought to recover but has now received peace and entered hospice. Death is the manifestation of the peace that passes all understanding….
I’m dying to read your next post.
Join our growing community, help support the Classics… And make sense of our modern world through the lens of ancient history. This week, we’ll delve into the Peloponnesian War. What lessons can we glean from this historic event?