After the U. S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, a concerned citizen asked Benjamin Franklin whether the delegates had devised a monarchy or a republic. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied. More than two centuries into this ambitious political experiment, do we still have the will and the skill to keep it going? The Athenian tragic playwright Euripides pointed the way 2500 years ago: we have to strive to live up to our own ideals.
Here’s an example: representatives of a foreign authority come to a neighboring community and assault unarmed civilians, violating local laws. Think of the assault on protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC, May 16, 2017. Shocking, right? But not new. Euripides addressed this problem in his play The Children of Heracles (c. 430-425 BCE), as his contemporary Athenians struggled to preserve the world’s very first democratic government.
Historically and geographically, tyranny is the norm, democratic and republican governments the aberration. The ancient Greeks took centuries to reject tyranny and develop broader forms of political participation. The Athenians’ direct democracy lasted less than two centuries (508 – 322 BCE). The Roman Republic (from the Latin Res Publica, “the public business”) lasted more than twice as long (509 – 27 BCE), but civil wars plagued its final hundred years until it devolved into a military dictatorship. The Roman Republic was never egalitarian (Roman society was far too stratified and hierarchical). But the Framers of the U. S. Constitution considered the Roman Republic less susceptible to tyrannical abuse than the Athenians’ volatile experience of direct democracy. They therefore included many protections against radical direct democracy or populism. Although many people today use the terms “republic” and “democracy” interchangeably, the durability of our system, as Franklin understood, relies less on labels or institutional protections than on citizens’ ideals and conduct.
2500 years ago, Euripides’ Children of Heracles asked citizens of 5th-century democratic Athens whether they had the will to uphold their own ideals of asylum, free speech, and due process. The children of Heracles (Greek for Hercules), persecuted by the tyrant of Argos, have fled for asylum to the territory of Athens. Arriving in pursuit, the tyrant’s agent promises the children “justice” under the law of Argos: death by stoning. The Athenians insist, however, that Athenian justice forbids violence toward asylum-seekers. Claiming that the law of Argos prevails in Athens and everywhere, the tyrant’s agent tries to drag the children away by force. He strikes their elderly guardian to the ground. Preserving the sovereignty of Athenian law on Athenian soil, the Athenian king gives both sides in the dispute a hearing before deciding to defend the refugees.
Depicting far earlier times, when a king still ruled Athens, this play nevertheless explores 5th-century political questions and distinguishes Athenian democratic ideals from foreign tyrannical ones. Athenian characters call the foreign agent’s brutish actions barbaric. In return, the agent ridicules the Athenians’ celebrated compassion toward refugees, claiming Athens is unique among Greek citizen-communities and totally impractical in pitying defenseless asylum-seekers. This brutal foreigner sees compassion and self-interest as antithetical. He calls the Athenians fools for taking risks to protect the weak and vulnerable. But the play proves him wrong: receiving Athenian protection, the asylum-seekers in turn help defeat the foreign tyrant and his invading army. By upholding their own ideals, the Athenians prevail. (We also know that compassion and self-interest align. e.g. Giving sanctuary to Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany helped the Allies to victory in WWII.)
But this Athenian play isn’t merely self-congratulating, because its Athenian characters also abandon some of their own democratic ideals. (Greek tragedies never offer simplistic moral messages.) To appease the gods and ensure military victory, the Athenians sacrifice one of Heracles’ young daughters. She volunteers, it’s true, but while her self-sacrifice appears noble, the Athenians’ acceptance of it seems monstrous. (Not just to us; Euripides’ contemporaries did not practice human sacrifice.)
The Athenians also permit a foreigner to violate an Athenian law against killing a POW. The children’s guardian explains the reciprocal logic behind the law, anticipating by hundreds of years the rationale for the modern Geneva Conventions. “Wise people,” he explains, “should pray to battle against a wise person, not an ignorant person, because (in that case) one would encounter much respect and justice (i.e. even in defeat)” (Children of Heracles 458-460). But in the end, the Athenians fail to show wisdom. Having captured the foreign tyrant alive, they permit a non-Athenian, the children’s mother, to murder him. In the play’s final line, the Athenian Chorus congratulate themselves: by allowing a foreigner to do the deed, their rulers have acted “purely” or “effectively” (the Greek adverb means both). The asylum-seeking refugee violates Athenian law with the blessing of Athenians within the play. Euripides’ contemporaries must have shuddered.
After bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat up protesters outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC on May 16, the Turkish state news agency Anadolu explained that Erdogan’s guards intervened because local police failed to disrupt the protest. The DC police didn’t intervene because the peaceful protest was legal under the first amendment, and video footage suggests Erdogan himself may have ordered his guards to attack (see Washington Post coverage here). Apparently, DC police did intervene, not to disrupt the protest but to protect the protesters (see Fox News coverage here).
As in Euripides’ play, the effort of foreign agents to behave tyrannically on the territory of others reminds us of the fragility of our own constitutional principles and the need to defend them, even if that’s sometimes uncomfortable. For example, we shouldn’t forget that the reciprocal principle of diplomatic immunity protects our own diplomats abroad. On June 6, the House condemned the attack by Erdogan’s bodyguards (397-0) and demanded that the Turkish government waive the bodyguards’ claims to immunity (see McClatchy DC Bureau coverage here ). U.S. law enforcement officials now plan to bring charges (see NY Times article here). By indicting Turkish embassy employees, do we risk making U.S. diplomats more vulnerable to trumped up charges by despotic foreign regimes? We must recognize that the long-term benefits of upholding the rule of law (international law, in this instance) outweigh the short-term satisfactions of prosecuting Erdogan’s guards.
Euripides wrote the Children of Heracles during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, a catastrophic, 27-year conflict between Greek citizen-communities. As atrocities escalate on both sides, Euripides asks his contemporaries whether they will defend their own values or abandon them in the face of tyrannical violence from without and from within. The play exposes the difficulty of upholding democratic ideals of self-determination, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. The Athenians in the play are well-served by their restrained, far-sighted, and compassionate king, but they themselves ultimately fail to respect every human life and fail to hold a newcomer to humane, far-sighted Athenian standards.
Like Euripides’ contemporaries, we too must continually confront tyranny from without and from within. The play challenges us, as 21st-century U. S. citizens, to demand self-restraint, foresight, and compassion from elected and appointed officials and from ourselves. Will we protect vulnerable asylum-seekers from tyrannical abuse but also insist that they (and other visitors) obey U. S. law once they are here? Like the Athenians in the play, we have only had mixed results so far. Our failures must not make us abandon democratic, egalitarian ideals. Only by trying harder to live up to them can we hope to meet Benjamin Franklin’s challenge and succeed in keeping our Republic.