Shared values from antiquity.
Friday, October 12, 20070 Comments
By Tristan Dineen
“…I had lost the friends who had worked with me in the service of the State; and great men they were. When they were gone, I refused to give way to my distress – if I had not resisted by every possible means it would have overwhelmed me. Nor, on the other hand, did I just abandon myself to a life of pleasure; to do that would have been unworthy of an educated man.”
- Cicero, On Duties
The words of Cicero in reaction to the events of the civil war that would see the Roman Republic toppled and the destruction of civic virtue in the state he had served his entire adult life perhaps best capture my own feelings with regard to the present state of the world. Certainly I would not be writing such admittedly grandiose words (in this article and in others) if I did not think that the pen was mightier than the sword. Cicero certainly believed that the written word could conquer the ambitions of warlords such as Caesar and could rest assured in the faith that his work and the spirit of his work would outlast the legacy of such men who had ruined the society of public participation and spirit that he believed in so strongly (The Roman Republic arguably had stronger democratic institutions than ancient Athens did). In his words he expressed a passion for public service and a dedication to the commonwealth of his people that remains impressive to this day where the problems facing the world as a whole demand a new ethic of service from human beings everywhere – men and women alike. Civic duty is more important today than it ever was in the past.
The strength of a society can be measured in its cohesion and unity. Naturally a strong society will be one where the citizens feel intimately connected to and work to further the goals of society with passion and dedication. This communal spirit is essential to the wellbeing of any civilization. In a society where the individual and the community are constantly in conflict and where the interests of the individual and society constantly collide, there will be serious problems.
The concept of trust is what ultimately makes or breaks a society. As a citizen you have to feel confident that your neighbour will not steal from you or injure you. There has to be a certain level of solidarity where the individual can feel that he or she is part of something greater, that they are not alone and that their fellow citizens care about them. If someone is constantly looking over their shoulder and feels they need to be on guard against everyone around them then they simply cannot play a constructive role in society. They are too busy trying to protect themselves against real or imagined threats to themselves or to their families. This prevents a strong civic identity and creates a situation where every individual, every family, every ethnic group, religious group, or whatever views itself as against all other individuals, groups, and society as a whole. Such an environment serves the interest of no one except those who wish to impose tyranny over those weaker than themselves. It is not an acceptable condition and yet it has arisen in many areas of the world and threatens to arise in many others.
The concept of community and the key role of the individual within society is the cornerstone of Western Civilization, forming the basis for the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. It was firmly established in these cultures that a functioning society depended on the participation of an active citizenry. The ideal citizen was held to contribute to the social, economic, cultural, and political wellbeing of the society as a whole. The citizens of Athens, Sparta, Rome, and other examples of the polis, therefore possessed a strong civic identity and attachment to their respective communities: communities they often had to defend.
Fundamentally we still follow the same pattern. We still live in Western Civilization and inherit the same tradition. What has changed is the global environment in which we now live and such changes also affect how we think and how we see our place in society.
The dramatic increase in wealth and luxury following the Second World War meant that individuals and their families no longer had to rely nearly as much on communal support as they once did. Suburban living and the widespread availability of automobiles meant that people left their communities to work elsewhere and lost their economic ties to their community. Community is something many people pay lip-service to but it is a matter of great difficulty to actually describe suburbia as being a community when many people do not even know their neighbours.
People also became used to the notion of perpetual peace and the majority no longer felt a need to mobilize in defense of their nation against external threats as the Greek City States and even early modern nations had to do constantly. Indeed from the 1960s onwards the concept of service to one’s society has been diluted by counter-cultural arguments that condemn organized society as inherently oppressive and even murderous. The result was entire generations of people who largely rejected public service in favor of the private sector, self-interest, or simple rebellion against the establishment. These factors and others have created the current reality where human beings, for the first time in history, are quite literally atoms. They exist in their own little bubbles and often feel little or no obligation to society or community. Indeed if one actually reads John Locke or some of the other liberal philosophers of the 18th Century, you could say that their philosophical concept of the “atomistic” society, where society is but a mass of self-interested individuals, has come true. The idea that society is greater than the sum of its parts has taken a considerable beating over the violent course of the 20th Century (and the first decade of the 21st Century has hardly been reassuring either) and we have grown increasingly alienated from one another as a result.
For someone who believes in duty to one’s community the present situation can certainly be depressing. It isn’t easy to live in a society where trust is so fleeting and where we are often so wary of our fellow citizens. It isn’t easy to see all these cuts to social spending and assistance to the poor because the more wealthy elements of our society feel no solidarity with and cannot identify with such people. It isn’t easy to see government and business act so irresponsibly and undermine the public good out of short-term expediency.
I could go keep on listing things that I disagree with until I go crazy but I will stop now. In spite of all this I have not and never will give up faith in the virtues of public service and public trust and solidarity in society. When we work together to improve our society and participate as fellow citizens in its workings, we make things better for us all. When government defends the wellbeing of its citizens through effective social programs everyone benefits. When people see each other as part of the same society and common identity they will lose much of their suspicion for others and will be more willing to help one another. When the individual seeks to fulfill their potential within society and applies their skills to performing a particular societal role, regardless of how small, it contributes to society and benefits us all.
When I was volunteering with the Student Support Network here on campus it always gave me great satisfaction when the person who came to us for support and counseling came away relieved and a good deal happier than before, when their problems seemed like mountains. To know that I was there for them in their time of need and that was really able to help them was truly an amazing feeling: a human connection was forged and the artificial walls of suspicion separating us fell away as we opened up to one another. All of us who volunteered our time to help others like this were truly a remarkable group of people – a dedicated community in every sense of the word.
What is fundamental to my argument is that we are not rivals. There is no reason why we all should not share the same inclusive community spirit. We are all individuals living in a society and it is in everyone’s interest that society be unified, strong, and just and to achieve that everyone must play their part in society. Everyone has skills, everyone has something to contribute, and there is no excuse for those who choose not to contribute to their society. This is a shared existence and we are social beings. We need one another.
Today, following the incredible changes effected by globalization in all aspects of life, the world truly is a global city; an extremely dysfunctional global city by any standard but a global city nonetheless where its diverse inhabitants are interconnected and interdependent in so many different ways. Martin Luther King’s saying that “before you’ve finished your breakfast this morning you’ll have relied on half the world,” is truer now than it ever was in his lifetime and this reality presents us with a whole new range of challenges and possibilities in the 21st Century. It is our responsibility as global citizens to empower the global polis, to strengthen it and further the unity and harmony of its inhabitants as we strive to make the world a better place for future generations. Issues such as global warming are not issues that can be dealt with in a house divided; if we are to live in peace and dignity than we must stand together under the banner of a united yet diverse universal public spirit that transcends all borders and reaches all the peoples of the world. Universality is what is demanded of us in this new era where we must owe allegiance to humanity above all.
We truly live in a world city and if there is one tradition that we should remember and apply from antiquity, it is this tradition of the public good and service to the public good through civic duty. I have absolute faith that the strength of this tradition will win through and society will see the sheer merit it possesses. Whether working to improve the quality of our local communities, working to resolve ongoing global and regional tensions, or defending the lives of others, even if they are half a world away in places like Darfur or Afghanistan, the logic of civic duty applies. The human desire for togetherness and belonging will always win out over loneliness, alienation, and selfishness. Human dignity – like flowing water – will overcome all obstacles and, unlike water, humanity cannot dry up so long as justice endures in the heart of even just one courageous individual whose passion goes on to unite his or her fellow citizens. In this way the eternal flame of the human spirit, even when in the darkest state of siege, will always burn bright.