Authority, Liberal Education, Paranoia, and Democracy
Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli
In his The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America, Eli Sagan notes that "far from being typical of the Greek polis, Athens was the great exception...."1 He maintains that the greatest invention of Ancient Greece was the concept and practice of [democratic] citizenship [p. 75]. Note, however, that the sort of democracy he is speaking about occurs within a slave-society and that the citizens are all freeborn adult males.
In his book, Sagan maintains that:
no democracy is possible unless a large group have the capacity to live without the defenses of authoritarianism, militarism, and dogmatic ideology.
Paranoia is the problem. The paranoid position is the defense. Democracy is a miracle, considering human psychological disabilities [p. 22].
Compared to tyranny, [a] democracy is a messy, inefficient, unpredictable, uncontrolled society. The vote of some ignorant, garlic-smelling, uneducated peasant may affect the whole course of one’s life—when the vote is for war, for instance. Could one imagine a situation of greater dependence upon others? For the person of oligarchic extremist temperament, this is the most horrifying situation imaginable. The resort to assassination and political terror may seem a small price to pay for the restoration of order. Other people’s freedom drives some people insane. Total control pretends to be the only existent antidote to that madness [p. 155].
Ancient Greece and Israel brought profoundly different elements to this unique cultural phenomenon, but there was one view of the world which they shared and which set them off from the Archaic cultures that had preceded them. In the highest realms of thought and moral perception—represented in Israel by the prophets and in Greece by philosophy and democratic political practice—the concept developed that human nature could be morally transformed through education, culture, and religion. It is not a question whether or not human nature can be changed, since that is precluded by definition if one defines a thing’s nature as that which, in essence it is. It is a matter of declaring that human nature is such that human beings are capable of moral transformation, of becoming more just than they have been and of being able to create and establish a society manifesting a greater sense of justice than any society that went before. 
We are back to the ultimate question of justice within society, especially in a democratic society. Isocrates’ view, and in the final analysis Thucydides’ as well, is that, assuming the existence of democratic governments, some will act wisely and justly and others foolishly and arrogantly. Circumstances (perhaps the winning or losing of a war or a plague), and the spirit or spiritedness of the people are decisive factors. The future holds the prospect of a certain number of democratic polities, some of which will be governed justly and others not. This analysis lacks, historical, developmental dimension because the Greek world and especially democracy were so young that no evolutionary analysis of democratic society was possible. Without such analysis, however, there is no answer to the problem of justice within society. Therefore Plato and Aristotle could never answer the question.
One may reject the historical evolutionary view, but to do so is necessarily to assume a pessimistic position. If all that the future holds, as Thucydides would have it, is more and more repetition of the past, then human history has no meaning and the problem of justice within society has no answer. If the human psyche lacks an evolutionary, developmental thrust to overcome the paranoid position; if the psyche does not strive toward a democratic polity as a matter of psychic health; if the history of democracy, especially since the rise of liberalism and the creation of the great democratic societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shows no developmental impulse toward a more and more mature and more and more inclusive society (women, the poorest people), then justice will always remain a matter of mere chance and we will never awaken from the nightmare which is history. [197-198]
The discussion of warfare, genocide, and slavery has inevitably raised the question of moral progress. The answer depends directly on the possibility of a transformation of instinct. To what degree, if any, are the aggressive drives capable of sublimation and transformation? 
Although overcoming the paranoid position is “imminent in all men,” it takes a large dose of guidance and indoctrination to ensure the viability of the democratic spirit. The true telos of teaching in a democratic society is to enable people to live their political lives without exaggerated recourse to paranoid defenses. All discussion about the nature of educational curriculum—particularly intense these days—is an argument about means. The end of education in a free society is the creation of an environment in which the democratic spirit may thrive. Any morally valid changes in curriculum must serve that end. 
Sagan provides an initial view of the relationship of three of the four core concepts that the course will focus upon: democracy, paranoia, and authority. We will also be looking at the concept of a liberal education, and how it relates to the others.
1 Eli Sagan, The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy
and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America (Princeton: Princeton
U.P., 1991), p. 1. Further citations to this work will be provided
within brackets immediately after the citations. Back
Return to IDS 6937 Home-page