By: Catalina Popescu, ICDL Facilitator

It started with an article back in my MA years, comparing democracy to architectural features, the office with rotating magistrates to an empty center in a structure. Democracy is a group of stage-changing protagonists, and the actors are rated by an ever-present audience. It is easy to see the patterns of our complex political systems everywhere in nature, geology, at the cellular level, even in our own primitive forms of socialization in childhood. Aggregates of various forms start with a centripetal motion followed by a tendency to abandon the center, to innovate and branch out. We start helpless and depending on others and later we mature as fully-functional parts of an organism, ready to occupy our own centers. Our gregarious tendencies (when vulnerable) are followed by renewals and revolutions responding to natural centripetal and centrifugal rhythms in the physical world around us. 

I did not find ICDL. ICDL found me:  I followed a call for proposal with the enthusiasm of someone opening a colorful mystery box. I signed up for the annual camp and then for two meetings, and before I knew it, I was taking very opportunity to jump on Zoom to meet the community. The questions were candy for the mind: “what artefact would you use to teach about leadership or democracy?” For the artefact, I was thinking about an ancient ostracon, a simple shard of pottery, so simple to ignore as discarded trash, yet so powerful in the hands of voters. Athenians used to recycle the humble shards from objects meant for domestic comfort, into pieces of political power: they could vote their leaders into exile, by writing their names down on such simple objects. Scribbling a name with a half-literate hand back in the days could ruin a life. Such is the power of the democracy: to build and evaluate, but also to punish and destroy. One of the other community members thought of a kinder example of an object of teaching: the Lion King video and the explanation given in the Circle of Life where we see that leadership is part of the complex laws of nature. So limpid, a child can understand! I was surprised by such proposed example because it captures so well how our political selves are formed in childhood, through colors, stories, and animation. We are zoa politika even then, and the family is truly the essential cell of society. 

“What would be a good comparison to visualize the evolution of leadership?” To me, in social systems, just like in biological developments, ontogeny repeats phylogeny: our formation from childhood to maturity repeats the political forms of organizations of our ancestors. As children, we grow in amazement of our all-knowing parents, revered like ancient monarchs with quasi-divine prerogatives. The more we grow, the more we understand our own individuality, our own center of gravity, as we develop a need to dissent, to criticize, even cancel and vote out. Like rebellious Phaeton, we want to lead the chariot of the Sun. As we mature out of this youthful revolution, our parents resemble more and more retired officers. We do not believe them flawless anymore, but we respect and understand their worth in the hardest office of them all: parenting. And we are now ready to embark on our own offices as adults. Our growing selves evolve from the naïve awe at power to the maturity of thinking and electing, repeating at our own level the human social development.

Someone else in our meeting compared democracy to sowing seeds, offering them a chance to develop in the sun, to grow and become the best version of their embryonic self. The beauty of such simile just stayed with me: such an intellectual treat in an apparent casual coffee talk! The same participant pointed out how democracy allows you not only to embrace your vulnerability, but also to turn it into a tool of communication and strength. The vulnerable individual carries inside so much power.

I know what I will talk about in June at the ICDL. A Classicist like myself wants to discuss the cradle of democracy, the cultural shock of the Persian envoys in front of the Athenian system in Aeschylus immortal play… and how cultural surprises are part of being a World citizen even today. The democratic fiber, though, is older than historical Athens: the mythical heroes’ exceptionalism surprisingly nods to democracy as well: Theseus legendarily have offered his royal power to the people of Athens. Heracles was a model both for emperors, as a force of civilization, and commoners alike, because he knew the bitter taste of compulsory labor and turned it into a test of character. 

I cannot wait for June! The best part is not what I will talk about, but what the others will teach me. The schedule is reach with topics from various centuries and disciplines. Here is the real treat: enjoying the endless forms in which democracy and leadership relate to our everyday life, our passions, fears, revolutions, and routines. Leadership is performative art, entropy and order, jazz, dance, tragedy, laughter, trial, conflict, consensus, death, and rebirth. It is learning from the global assemblies or from your grandparents’ cozy tea parties, from children, from horses, from ants and cells on a Petrie dish, from tree-branch geometries, atoms, and stars… I hope I will never stop learning.

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