Renaissance man

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Renaissance man

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on February 1, 2007.

The name of Agamemnon's wife? The three plays of Aeschylus's Oresteian Trilogy? I sat bewildered. (Oh, yes; Clytemnestra!) But the victorious student at Ridgeview Classical School's Young Aristotle Competition breezed through the answers. That student, Hsing, had recently completed her school's unit on ancient Greece. In sixth grade. This school in Fort Collins is the sort of place that quotes Socrates in its evening's program -- in the original Greek -- and where the students debate the best English translation of the line.

It is the sort of place where historian John Lewis is at home. Lewis offered the keynote address for the Jan. 26 event. He was invited by Joe Collins, a teacher at Ridgeview who called Lewis "a historian of first class" and "a man of the Symposium."

Lewis based his talk on his recently published book, Solon the Thinker: Political Thought in Archaic Athens. Lewis has two other books in progress, one about ancient Greek law and the other about military history. He now teaches history at Ashland after working in industry for two decades and then earning his doctorate in Classical Studies from Cambridge.

During his trip to Colorado, Lewis gave three talks in three days. At the University of Colorado, Boulder, he spoke about the individualist alternative to the political right and left. Then he spoke at Ridgeview. Finally, he met in Denver with a group to discuss individual rights as applied to medicine.

On the way back from the third event, a friend who had given me a ride called Lewis a "Renaissance Man." I thought that was doubly appropriate. Lewis is a man of action and vast learning, and he is also someone who glorifies the historical Renaissance and who works toward a new renaissance for our times. A rebirth.

I asked Lewis what the bridge is that connects his talks. He said that, on the broadest level, the idea is to "provide a valid alternative to false alternatives."

Individualism is the recognition that each person has a right to live for his or her own sake. It is the political theory that holds individuals and their rights as primary. A group or a nation is a collection of individuals, and the purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals, not sacrifice people to the collective or the state.

The "left and right are coming together," Lewis argued. As an example, he described the books about family by "conservative" Rick Santorum and "liberal" Hillary Clinton. The writers agree, for instance, that the federal government should forcibly transfer wealth to fund education; they disagree only about the particular details of the program. True, Republicans tend to want a greater role for religion in public life, but "in terms of actual policy, there's virtually no difference" between left and right, Lewis said. Individualism offers a valid alternative.

In ancient Greece, Solon of Athens offered a new alternative to the forms of slavery, unjust acquisition of wealth by factions and tyranny that surrounded him. Against the view that human society is subject to the whims of the gods, Solon argued that the city-state is "something that can be understood," something subject to cause and effect, as are the sky and the sea.

Solon created a "whole new conception of freedom" for his city, "a conception of justice that is actually written into law." Solon in his poems (using Lewis's translation) wrote of Athenians who suffered injustice, including those "holding a shameful slavery, now trembling before their masters." Solon wrote: "I set them free." To institute this freedom, Solon wrote "statutes alike to the base man and the noble fitting straight justice onto each man's case."

Lewis summarized, "Without the law, there is no freedom." And this set the context for the revolutionary Greek thinking that eventually inspired Aristotle.

In his third talk, Lewis called for individual rights in medicine. This is the proper alternative to the largely politically driven medicine of today and the recent proposals for socialized medicine. A recognition of individual rights in medicine means, for starters, that doctors have a right to exist for their own sake and benefit. Doctors are not beasts of burden or serfs to be sacrificed for others or for the alleged "common good."

The relationships between doctors and their patients should be up to those parties to direct, not subjected to the whims and brute force of political bureaucracies. Lewis, who lived in England for several years, recited some of the horrors of socialized medicine in that country. He suggested that real reform starts with repealing the myriad of government interventions, regulatory burdens and taxes that generate the current problems in medicine and health insurance.

In each talk, Lewis pointed out that the alternatives among superficially competing forms of slavery, oppression and injustice can be overcome with deeply creative thinking rooted in the recognition of rights, liberty and individual sovereignty. This is the heart of any renaissance and the mind of any son or daughter of the Renaissance.

Lewis concluded his speech to the students of Ridgeview: "You are doing exactly what Solon tells us we must do. You are doing exactly the study of history, and the use of your minds, to understand the past, in order to understand the present."

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