The American Sun
Whereas philosophers define religion as delusion, the Athenians defined religion as the prerequisite to action. The orator Isocrates in the “Panegyricus”, writing in the year 380 BC, argued for Athenian supremacy over the Hellenic city-states by recalling the blessing of Demeter upon the Athenian founders:
When Demeter came into the country in her wandering, after the rape of Persephone, and was kindly disposed to our forefathers on account of the services they rendered her … she bestowed two gifts which surpass all others: the fruits of the earth, which have saved us from the life of wild beasts, and the mystic rite, the partakers in which have brighter hopes concerning the end of life and the eternity beyond (Freese 4.28).
The appeal to antiquity, convenient considering their defeat in the Peloponnesian war, contained a basis in reality so far as tradition was concerned. Athens had a reputation as the oldest Greek city-state, commonly noted among ancient historians and verified by modern anthropology. Calling this precedent to mind, Isocrates bolsters his country’s claim to antiquity by noting the yearly religious tributes submitted to Athens “as a memorial of our old services … and those that omit to do so have often been commanded by the Pythia [the oracle at Delphi] to pay the due proportion of their produce” (4.31). Ceremonial though these were, the psychological impact they provided resonated with Isocrates’ audience, “for we alone among the Hellenes have the right to call our city at once nurse and fatherland and mother” (4.25). In Isocrates’ view, martial prowess could not be solely relied upon in the struggle against the Barbarian. The principles of religion demanded an ancestral basis.
Empowered by this special confidence, Athens enjoyed one of the most storied periods of cultural preeminence the West has ever known. Under their unique form of democracy, any man regardless of class or wealth could make a proposal in the Boule, a council of 500 chosen annually by lot empowered to decide questions of policy. If he delivered his proposal convincingly, he then delivered his proposal to the Prytaneis, an executive council also chosen by lot which allocated public money and manpower to successful proposals. If he were particularly gifted, he could stand for election as one of ten annual strategoi, the generals, admirals, and administrators directly responsible for leadership on the policy of the Boule, though even at the highest echelon were elections still subject to final lotteries. This dynamism gave Athens its most storied statesmen, who in turn funded marvels of art and architecture whose cultural significance remain unassailable. Their novel equality could be described as a ‘startup government,’ since few countries since have tolerated such a high degree of spontaneity and held such preference for individual merit. Yet by a paradoxical conservatism, the average Athenian, in the example of Isocrates, justified their success with religion.
A coming parallel of collective action and innovation, termed the creation of ‘startup societies,’ is the subject of The Network State, a collection of essays by tech entrepreneur and commentator Balaji Srinivasan. Uploaded on 4 July 2022 for free and indexed in five parts, with an accompanying dashboard of existing startup societies, The Network State advocates for this type of innovation just as much as it plays a role in bringing it about. Defined as “the sequel to the nation state,” the ‘network state’ is “a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action … and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition,” on-chain describing a decentralized ledger (1.2). The capacity for collective action in particular is relevant, since that is a feature no other institution can leverage as well as a national government. Srinivasan argues this can be scaled via decentralized incentive structures enabled by blockchain technology, assuming technological forces can muster a feeling in the hearts and minds of man once required by religion (5.3.8).