July 12, 2019
As far as I’m concerned, the Ancient Greeks invented or refined about everything that Western Civilization has benefited from: democracy, literature, art, the university system, architecture, dinner parties, athletic competition, philosophy…well, that’s enough. They did some bad stuff, too, but that’s for another day. The invention of ostracism is among my favorites. We’ll all familiar with the word; essentially it means to shun. As the ancient Greeks used it, with enough votes at anytime they could be rounded up, a citizen could scratch the name of a powerful politician they wanted to kick out of Athens on a broken piece of pottery and if enough citizens wrote the same name, that person would have to leave the city and could not return for ten years or so. But in the meantime, their property and other assets remained intact and when they did return, they could reenter public life. That’s the background; now for the real story.
Plutarch tells of a “utterly boorish fellow” who handed his ostrakon (broken piece of pottery) to Aristides, whom he didn’t know and who was a highly principled political leader, and asked him to write his name on the ostrakon inasmuch as he didn’t know how to spell it. Aristides, astonished, asked what harm he had done the citizen. “None,” was the answer, “but I am just tired of listening to him (or words to that effect.) Being a principled man who observed the norms of political life, Aristides scratched out his name and returned the ostrakon to the citizen.
Not a bad idea as a way of getting rid of someone you’re just tired of listening to.
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