Lakewood, the "American Dream," and Classical Athens

As a college freshman I took a Humanities course that dealt in large part with classical Greek literature. During one lecture, Professor Havelock, mentioned that the ancient Greeks, meaning primarily the Athenians, lived better than we do. There was no chance to discuss this remark in class, so through all these decades I have wondered what he meant. Perhaps Lakewood will show me.

Classical Athens had a population roughly comparable to Lakewood. Like Lakewood, Athens was a walking city. Beyond that, the comparison begins to fade, of course. We have no Sophocles or Aristophanes, no Thucydides, no Plato, no Pericles. On the other hand, we don't have any slaves. The classical Athenians did not have movies or TV by which they could view the works of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller or Tolstoy, nor did they have a library that allowed everyone to read these works.

More than any of these things, though, is a city's perception of the good life. The ruling conception in our nation today is the "American Dream." To the Puritans in New England, the American Dream meant creation of a virtuous community defined by their understanding of the Bible. To the Founding Fathers, it was a Republic devoted to preserving the Rights of Man undefiled by European corruption. To Southern planters it was a life of wealth and power, built on slave labor. All these ideas dissolved in the brainless media mixmaster to the most simple-minded common denominator; namely, having enough money to live a secure middle-class life with house and yard included. I can think of nothing more vacuous, shallow, and just outright vulgar than what we now see advertised as "the American Dream."

In contrast to the contemporary "American Dream," Professor Havelock might have set out the words of Aristotle. Aristotle said:
"The human good (happiness) is activity in accordance with excellence, and if there be more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete."
It is no coincidence that Aristotle lived much of his life in Athens, for Athens was a city devoted to pursuit of human excellence. It was large enough, and diverse enough, to offer a variety of viewpoints from which citizens could learn as well as test their own ideas. It was a participative city - an arena in which individual citizens exercised their creativity and intelligence through debate and joint action with one another, expressing their own identities while still being bound up in the community. The city existed for the purpose of allowing its citizens to live better lives in the process of making a better city.

The contrast between the Athenian ideal and the "American Dream" is plain. The former is active, creative and self-critical. The latter is passive, consumerist and smug. For the Athenians, the city was the focus of those common activities that constituted the good life. For the "American Dream," the city is merely a means through which citizens pursue their individual goals.

Lakewood's future is open. We can lift ourselves above the dreary "American Dream" and share the Athenian dream of a participative city whose citizens use their creative intelligence to craft a better community. Kids' Cove, the dog park and the skateboard park are forerunners. We hope The Lakewood Observer, we hope, will be among many projects that display a new spirit of committed creativity and intelligence. Athens on the Lake? We can do it.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 1, Posted 04.29 AM / 24th June 2005.