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Moses Finley – The essential riskiness of politics

November 24, 2014

“A genuinely political society, in which discussion and debate are an essential technique, is a society full of risks. It is inevitable that, from time to time, the debate will move from tactics to fundamentals, that there will be a challenge not merely to the immediate policies of those who hold the government power but to the underlying principles, that there will be a radical challenge. That is not only inevitable, it is desirable. It is also inevitable that those interest-groups who prefer the status quo will resist the challenge, among other means by appealing to traditional, deeply rooted beliefs, myths, values, by playing on (and even summoning up) fears.

The dangers are well known; impiety trials are but one manifestation. ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ No doubt, but like all truisms, this one offers little practical guidance. Vigilance against whom? One answer, we have seen, is to rest one’s defences on public apathy, on the politician as hero. I have tried to argue that this is a way of preserving liberty by castrating it, that there is more hope in a return to the classical concept of governance as a continued effort in mass education. There will still be mistakes, tragedies, trials for impiety, but there may also be a return from widespread alienation to a genuine sense of community. The conviction of Socrates is not the whole story of freedom in Athens.”

(From Democracy: Ancient and Modern [1973])

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