One Good Politician

Aristides and the commonerIt can be discouraging watching people vie for political power. That they are motivated by a concern for our good is often hard to believe. A man like Aristides is a refreshing reminder: it can be otherwise. There are people that have the moral as well as the intellectual qualities to govern.

Plutarch relates a famous anecdote of when a public vote was being taken in Athens on whom to banish for ten years. Citizens would vote by writing a name on a ‘sherd.’

As therefore, they were writing the names on the sherds, it is reported that an illiterate clownish fellow, giving Aristides his sherd, supposing him a common citizen, begged him to write ‘Aristides’ upon it; and he being surprised and asking if Aristides had ever done him any injury, ‘None at all,’ said he, ‘neither know I the man; but I am tired of hearing him everywhere called the Just.’ Aristides, hearing this, is said to have made no reply, but returned the sherd with his own name inscribed. At his departure from the city, lifting up his hands to heaven, he made a prayer (the reverse it would seem, of that of Achilles), that the Athenians might never have any occasion which should constrain them to remember Aristides.

The willingness of Aristides to oblige this man by writing his own name for banishment is noteworthy. But his prayer for the city as he is being banished is truly remarkable.

We must recall that to be banished, or ‘ostracized,’ was for an Athenian to lose everything one holds dear. And of course as indicated by Plutarch, Aristides was far from worthy of such a punishment. Yet not only did he forgive. He prayed. May they not have occasion to regret this. May what service I have done still bear fruit. For, my life is about their lives.

A few years later when the Persians attacked, again, Athens would recall Aristides. And he came, he saw, and he served.

We can look for more from our public servants. We can also give more and be better public servants ourselves.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men. This post is the final in a short series considering the life of Aristides (530-468 BC), one of the greatest of Athenian statesmen.

Image: Aristides writing his own name on the illiterate man’s sherd.

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The Glory of Being Poor

Cottage with Peasant, Van Gogh

“In fine, having established the dominion of his city over so many people, he himself remained indigent; and always delighted as much in the glory of being poor, as in that of his trophies.” Plutarch on Aristides

This renowned Athenian statesman’s attitude toward wealth and poverty remains something of an enigma. We are told not only that he steadfastly resisted the allure of riches, but that he even gloried in his poverty.

His poverty was not a squalor or a lack of necessities. It was a poverty of simplicity, a simplicity given special emphasis in comparison to the wealth that easily might have been his.

People that voluntarily choose poverty always have a certain fascination about them. The rest of us cannot but wonder: why did he do it? why did he choose poverty?

Christian monks are following their Lord and master. But what about Aristides? What is the root of his glorying in a kind of lack? We cannot say for sure. We do know that he valued justice, and the honorable good of his people, above all things.

Somehow he saw poverty–the willing rejection of all wealth not absolutely necessary for his life–as fitting with, and even aiding, those virtues he valued most. He was convinced that he would be happier with less and that less was truly more. Whatever our state in life, we might keep pondering: has Aristides seen something that we have not yet seen?

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men. This post is the second in a short series considering the life of Aristides (530-468 BC), one of the greatest of Athenian statesmen.

Image: Cottage with Peasant Coming Home, by Van Gogh

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Examining Our Relationship with Money

PowerballHow each of us responded to the Lotto jackpot gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with money. I posted this article today at Crisis Magazine.

My series on Aristides will return next Wednesday.

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A Greek You Should Remember

Themistocles,profile

“…he possessed himself of the most kingly and divine appellation of Just…” Plutarch, speaking of Aristides

Some might see reading about great men, especially of the ancient world, as simply a pleasant diversion, or even a kind of escape. Why, one might wonder, should I bother to remember?

Aristides (530-468 BC) certainly gets mentioned in ancient history class. He was one of the greatest of all Athenian statesmen. As a military leader he served with exceptional distinction at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. Yet he is far from being a household name, though Western civilization might not be what it is today without him.

What he was most known for was his justice. His incorruptibility while in positions of power was notorious, and this was borne witness by the fact that he lived in near poverty for his whole adult life. His interest was neither power nor wealth; so he wielded the former and avoided the later, for the sake of virtue, and of his people.

Plutarch relates of Aristides:

Of all his virtues, the common people were most affected with his justice, because of its continual and common use; and thus, although of mean fortune and ordinary birth, he possessed himself of the most kingly and divine appellation of ‘Just.’

So the people called him Aristides the Just. His influence then was not restricted to the immediate practical consequences of his leadership. He was a pattern—even while not a perfect one—of what it means to be human.

And he can do for us what he did for his people, when we remember him.

Memory is never simply about the past. To remember who Aristides was, is to begin to imagine who I should be today.

Note: For the next several Wednesdays I will present brief sketches of the life and character of Aristides.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.

Image: This is actually a bust of Themistocles, Aristides’ Athenian contemporary and rival. But it looks much like the bust of Aristides, and I was able to get a better image of this one…

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The Wisdom of the Magi

Magi and the Star
What can we learn from the Magi, and from the stars above us? On the traditional culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Epiphany, here is my meditation posted at Catholic Exchange: What Stars Can Teach Us.

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The Window of the New Year

New Year's Window

“On New Year’s Eve, at about quarter to twelve o’clock at night, the master of the house and all that are with him go about from room to room opening every door and window, however cold the weather be, for thus, they say, the old year and its burdens can go out and leave everything new for hope and for the youth of the coming time. This also is a superstition, and of the best. Those who observe it trust that it is as old as Europe, with roots stretching back into foreign times.”
Hilaire Belloc, A Remaining Christmas

Human life comes in years. Nature itself has determined this for us. The movement of the earth gives us discreet, repeating segments of time, and segments within segments. Most of all, it gives us years. 1976, 1995, 2013. My life is a series of years; some stand out from the others, but all have made up who I am.

Certain times call for a special attention to time. The days leading up to and including January 1st prod us to look backward and forward. While it would be too much always to look to and fro, we should take this as a special opportunity to look intently at the past year, and the upcoming year. There is surely much to see.

Looking back we take stock: of failures, and successes; perhaps most of all we should focus on how blessed we have been—even, and perhaps especially, in the face of sorrows we never anticipated. Looking forward we realize yet again just what a challenge it is to be human: to live up to the demands of the various relationships in which we stand. We decide on new practices, or perhaps old ones, that aid us to become our truer selves.

Hilaire Belloc recounts with approval an ancient tradition in England of opening doors and windows at the opening of New Year’s. This is a bodily incarnation of looking back and looking forward. With hope.

Though this particular tradition will not fit for everyone, all of us can take a cue from it. It is right and fitting that we keep the tradition of focusing on the passage of time, reflecting on what it means and what response it demands of us. And we should in some way enact this reflection with bodily ritual—-whether at midnight, or the evening prior, or the morning after—-in the presence, or even the pregnant absence, of those we love.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), born of a French father and English mother, was a poet, historian, and essayist.

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What Aristotle Says About Christmas

Aristotle
My piece at Ethika Politika: Aristotle’s Key to Christmas

Merry Christmas to all.

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