2013/01/14: The importance of acquiring civic skills for active participation in civil society, and public life in general, is another issue that has not preoccupied only today’s thinkers, politicians and critical citizens. It was also a serious matter of debate in antiquity. The central disagreement between the philosopher Socrates and the sophist Protagoras was whether civic virtue, an essential prerequisite for participating in public life, was transferable. Responding to Socrates, who was doubtful that civic skills could be taught and transferred, Protagoras claimed that citizens could (and ought) to learn them in order to be able to develop sound judgement (ευβουλία) about private and community issues, and to be able to successfully manage their personal affairs and participate not just with words, but also with actions, in public life. Pericles’ words are also instructive:
For, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.
For Pericles, respecting one’s fellow citizens, accepting obligations from them and returning them to them, and acting justly were priceless skills for a society that belongs equally to each and every (Athenian) citizen, and were essential prerequisites for living alongside each other harmoniously. Today, 2,400 years later, social research agrees that civic skills advance democratic values: the more knowledgeable citizens are about civic principles, and the more they participate in voluntary and community-based initiatives, the more likely they are to support democratic values – starting with tolerance in others.
This ideal of civic virtue lies at the centre of an active civil society that is mobilised for collective problem solving. Only such a civil society can help cultivate the skills that Greek citizens so desperately need to develop.