Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE human genome project is all very astonishing, but a healthy dose of ancient Greek scepticism would not come amiss.

Ancient Greek democracy, invented in 508 BC, had more than merely constitutional consequences. The fact that every citizen had a right to participate in political decision-making by means of public, open-air debates in the Assembly ushered in a world where 'authority' could be questioned at every turn. A politician like Pericles had no divine right to rule. He had to persuade the people that his policies were correct. The same people who debated in the Assembly also formed the juries in the law-courts. Here no judges told them what to think. The jurors heard both sides of the argument and then voted.

The consequences of this refusal to be dictated to can be observed across the society. The habit, learned in political and legal debate, of testing arguments, weighing evidence and making judgments about different points of view came to be applied to other areas of human activity. In medicine, science and philosophy, for example, it became natural to demand intelligible accounts of the various claims being made, which could then be challenged and examined by the man in the street. Even long-held and deep-seated beliefs about, for example, the gods and the origin of things were not exempt from intensive debate. …

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