The Public Good

Democracy in the Cosmos

The beautiful and the good are at the core of the Cosmos and democracy in Greek thought and civilization. The natural philosopher Anaximander added equality and justice to natural phenomena for a harmonious Cosmos. Anaximander invented the apeiron or the boundless creator of everything in the Cosmos, including the Sun and the Earth and the almighty natural world.

Anaximander lived in late seventh to mid sixth century BCE in Miletos of Ionia, Asia Minor. This was his hometown. Miletos nourished Greek thought, especially in cosmology and astronomy.

Anaximander was the student of Thales, another son of Miletos and Ionian cosmologist who put water as a constituent of matter in the Cosmos. The Earth herself floated in the water.

The next natural philosopher of enormous influence was Pythagoras from the Aegean island of Samos. He was inspired by Anaximander, and, like him, he was a polymath that studied the Cosmos. He was a mathematician and a cosmologist who said the spherical stars emit music while circling around the center of the universe, a colossal fire, which he called the House of Zeus.

The other insight of Pythagoras that reverberates to this day is his affection for animals, urging his students and followers never to kill a living being or sacrifice an animal at the altars of the gods.

Pythagoras influenced Plato, so his key ideas about the Cosmos, mathematics, music, and animals survived. The Cosmos was beautiful and good, two key concepts that shaped Greek thought in the development of democracy and the priority of the public good.

Democracy in Athens

In the sixth century BCE, the polis of Athens institutionalized and lived direct democracy like no other polis or state in later times. Democracy means power of the people, hence the public good was democracy. Athenian citizens were very much involved in the governing and serving their state. Large citizen juries judged those who broke the laws. It was impossible to bribe a juror. There was no judge in the courtroom.

Generals were elected every year. Civilians run the military and the state. Athens had a fund paying very poor citizens to attend the theater because the plays / tragedies had a political purpose to educate the audience about the mythology / early history of the Greeks. To mind one’s business, as we do now, was alien.

The Greeks struggled with the idea of what is good and public good in particular. They were by no means perfect, though that was the purpose of philosophy, making people virtuous. In the heat and anger of their defeat in the Peloponnesian War at the hands of Spartans, the Athenian Assembly put to death Socrates, the stone mason and teacher of Plato who fought for Athens during the war. The Athenians probably avenged the doings of Alcibiades, student of Socrates. Alcibiades caused so much damage to Athens by joining the Spartans and the Persians and advising the Persians to keep funding Greeks killing Greeks.

Virtue is difficult to grasp

But how do you make any person virtuous? Which is to say, in our times, how do you bring up or teach a person to love beauty and the good? This is extremely difficult because we practice and teach the economics of the individual / private property, not the economics of the public and natural good. Certainly, we are often forced to try to correct the abuses of the private sector by passing laws saying, for example, it is forbidden to poison the well from which all drink water. But even that glimmer of hope gets blighted by some, say large farmers in the Central Valley of California, who dig holes in their private land and extract water belonging to all of us for growing almonds for export. A gallon of water is necessary for each almond.

We call the economics of private property capitalism. Despite its relatively recent name, private property economics is an extremely ancient way of making a living and supporting societies and civilizations. This capitalism has had a tumultuous history of small democratic and self-sufficient societies in the Greek poleis (city-states), monarchies, theocracies, tyrannies, and modern empires with slavery and colonies and independent states. People under these varieties of political arrangements experienced prosperity, poverty, slavery, dark ages, and war. Many of the problems facing us today are not entirely new.

Humans are political animals, but they are different from each other. That’s why we have families and schools and universities and religions trying to civilize them into some kind of common purpose and behavior to avoid mayhem. Take away their virtue, their inherent passion for goodness and beauty and love, and you have evil itself, what Aristotle called savage animals.

The legacies of the twentieth century

In the twenty-first century, humans are paying for the sins-crimes of the twentieth century of mechanizing everything and awesome wars raging all over the globe. Those wars boosted the anthropogenic crises of climate chaos by consolidating the hegemony of fossil fuels for war and peace and by accelerating the destruction of the natural world, especially decimating its beautiful biological diversity in food crops and wildlife. Factory agriculture, chained to petroleum, and especially animal farms, chained to cruelty and drugs, most likely brought us the third anthropogenic blow of the pandemic.

In the fear of this engulfing danger, the public good is all but forgotten. Even the environmentalists are divided over climate change and biodiversity:

“Climate” has displaced “nature” as the primary locus of activist concern, pushing biodiversity somewhat farther from the policy center as well and affirming that the two causes are related but distinct.”

This is muddled thinking. Climate and biodiversity are intimately related. They are the two sides of the same coin. Bad human actions revived the dragon of climate while diminishing the variety of life in the planet.

Will Trump pay for his failed coup?

But instead of thinking about these life and death issues and working together for the public good to diminish our evil influence on these two crises of climate chaos and shredded planetary biological diversity, we are bombarded daily by gossip. Listen to the news and you hear constantly about former President Trump and other billionaires. These Americans are the enemies of the public good and democracy.

The US House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by followers of Trump finally concluded its hearings and urged the US Justice Department to criminally prosecute Trump. He was responsible for trying to overthrow the government. His oath to becoming President demanded that he “take[s] care that the laws be faithfully executed.” He did none of that. He lost the 2020 election, but he tried to reverse the results. He urged state officials and Vice President Pence to deny Jo Biden the presidency. He still keeps saying the Democrats stole the election.

The fatal attractions of war

We hope the Justice Department will in fact prosecute Trump for his crimes against the public good. But I am concerned that President Joe Biden is too addicted to the war he is fighting against Russia through the convenient proxy of the Ukraine to care about Trump, much less about the engulfing dangers of climate emergency and declining biodiversity. In other words, the intoxication of war, even if this war could become nuclear holocaust, is so overwhelming that it does not have a successful competition.

Both the Democrats and Republicans love wars. In fact, war and the funding of the Pentagon remain practically the only issues of bipartisanship among them.

Which is why we need to wake up and fill the streets and tell Biden enough with war, act on climate and biodiversity. Defend the public good.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.