In 510 B.C., Athenians drove the Peisistatrid tyrants from their city, and shortly thereafter instituted the world’s first democracy. A new creature was born – the polites, or citizen, someone who participates in their own rule, who, as Aristotle put it, both governs and is governed.
Of all the gifts the Greeks passed to us, this is the most radical, the most potent, the most viral. The concept of “citizen” made possible a whole platform of freedoms we in the West take for granted, from the right to dissent to freedom of religion.
And this concept is on the march. Alexander’s phalanxes may have long since receded, but Greek ideas have always been more formidable than its armies. And now, the sweetest of ironies: Persia, the ancient Greek nemesis, is experiencing the painful fever that is often (but not always) prelude to democracy.
Whatever happens in Iran, whether the nascent rebellion is crushed or nourished, the past weeks’ events make clear that there are many millions of Iranians who want a say in their destiny, who want to govern and be governed – who want to be citizens.
How ironic that, as political liberty penetrates deep into Mesopotamia and other regions where it had been heretofore forbidden, in the West itself liberty is contracting, as we daily trade greater amounts of freedom for state-subsidized comfort. While Iranians are fighting and dying in the streets for freedom from the tyrant’s boot, Americans and Europeans want, and are promised by pliant politicians, freedom from failure, freedom from uncertainty, freedom from want.
But only the dead know the end of these things, and governments that so promise in the end deliver only freedom from life. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Mao’s China – all promised to take away uncertainty and inequality by expanding government’s tentacles into every corner of society. And all consigned untold millions to the grave.
As we root and cheer for the Iranian democrats – and root and cheer we should – we ought also to stop and take stock our own democracy. We ought to assess its health and prospects in the wake of the current and enormous expansion of government power.
True, we are still citizens. We have our vote (bought with the blood of our fathers, let us never forget), and more often than not, it is counted. But we are fast becoming a citizenry who turns from the responsibilities of citizenship. We demand all of the rights guaranteed by our founders and more, but we increasingly shrink from the duties and virtues necessary to sustain them. And so public debt and obligation grows … and grows and grows. Our democracy is already groaning under these burdens – sooner or later, it will yield.
There is only one end to this road we are on, whether it be the soft tyranny of the entitlement state or a hard tyranny of dictatorship. A population that confuses rights with luxuries will in the end have neither. A people who want everything but are willing to pay nothing will in the end have nothing for which they have paid everything.
At the end of the sixth century B.C., the people of Athens drove out their tyrants; 2,500 years later, the people of Iran are poised to do the same. Will the Iranians prove worthy of this great and terrifying Greek gift?
Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington fellow and the author of “Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story.”