Everybody loves heroes. The public bestows laurel wreaths and pays attention when they endorse soft drinks. Sculptors idealize them; poets lionize them. And it doesn’t stop there. For most of history, dragon slayers and Gordian knot cutters have been elevated to king and emperor, whether suitable or not.
Like most societies, the Greeks loved their heroes. Their literature is jammed with tales of Olympian gods and goddesses. They pledged political allegiance to Perseus and Alexander. But rule by hero has its limits. Heroes are easy to elevate but hard to institutionalize. When the strongest or cleverest hero is gone – or worse, when the hero proves despotic or incompetent – what then?
The Greek solution was democracy. If the people rule, there will always be continuity. But from the earliest experiments in democracy to today’s, a fundamental problem has been evident. A hero learns at the feet of mentors, muses, and sages. What about everyone else? If government is on the shoulders of everyone, everyone needs to be smart, strong, and valorous. The Greeks called that paideia, the careful building of character through education of body, mind, and spirit.
Most societies accept the need for mental education, for literacy, numeracy, logic, and problem-solving. The global tech economy requires that. The ancient Greeks strongly supported that, too. But they were just as keen on physical education. The earliest Greek city-states convened athletic contests. The Olympic Games were one of many competitions always under way.
Pinnacle contests like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Cup showcase the world’s best athletes. But democracies require more than just admiration of the physically gifted, the mentally acute, or the spiritually reverent. As Pericles noted in his famed Funeral Oration, a democracy needs citizens with qualities that make them adaptable to the “most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.”
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games take place in a nation led by a man whose personal style tends toward the heroic (just check out Vladimir Putin’s man-of-action photo archive) and authoritarian. (See this excellent Monitor cover story for background and context.) For Russia or any country to become a true democracy – and for the United States and any democracy to remain democratic – the many need not only to be trusted to govern but must be prepared to do so. Attention to education of body, mind, and spirit isn’t just an ancient ideal. It is essential to democracy.
The spirit of the Olympics is not just individual glory; it should be a universal embrace of humanity’s betterment.
John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.