Two guys who did not become autocrats, although they could have

In an odd coincidence, over the last several days I’ve encountered a couple of remarkable characters who, in the most unlikely circumstances, rejected putting crowns on their heads for something much more complicated.

Oh sure, the first one, Theseus, was mythical, but if you think about it, you realize someone created his story and, ergo, someone in ancient times conceived of a government for the people, instead of for the king.


I had decided it was time to re-read The Iliad. Since I don’t know ancient Greek, I needed a translation and selected Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer because, as a cynical teenager, I’d embraced Pope. Of course.

I bought a nice hardcover edition and launched myself into it. The first two words are “Achilles’ wrath.” I guess I’d forgotten much more of the story than I thought. I didn’t know why Achilles was pissed. And why did Homer begin his epic in the middle of things, instead of at the beginning?

Obviously, I needed a prologue. The one Pope gave me was too compact, too crammed with kings, warriors, hostage maidens, fathers of the maidens and, inevitably, meddling gods, to answer my needs. But I knew who would: Edith Hamilton.

My father had been, as a collegian, a Greek and Latin scholar, as well as a-religious. That may be why the childhood books I grew up with were not fairy tales (or the bible, the gods forbid), but Greek and Roman myths, written for kids. So as a young adult I acquired Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

I knew Edith (I give myself permission to call her that) would narrate the Iliad in an accessible way; she’d be my CliffsNotes, would get me up to speed about why Achilles was sulking in his tent outside Troy.

I had to buy a new Mythology; my old paperback had dissolved over time. And rather than heading right to Edith’s run-down of the Trojan War, I started at Part One: The Gods, the Creation, and the Earliest Heroes. The Earliest Heroes section took me to Theseus:

So Theseus became King of Athens, a most wise and disinterested king. He declared to the people that he did not wish to rule over them; he wanted a people’s government where all would be equal. He resigned his royal power and organized a commonwealth, building a council hall where the citizens should gather and vote. The only office he kept for himself was that of Commander in Chief. Thus Athens became, of all earth’s cities, the happiest and most prosperous, the only true home of liberty, the one place in the world where the people governed themselves.

I was pretty startled. This mythological hero, created by who knows who (Edith says she has drawn upon the work of many writers, naming Ovid, Apollodorus, Plutarch, Euripedes and Sophocles, but doesn’t cite anyone for creating the myth of Theseus) gets credit for inventing democracy.

Mustapha Kemal Atatürk

I got thinking about Atatürk through a somewhat less intellectually rarified piece of fiction, a Turkish action limited series on Netflix called “Börü” —  in English, “Wolf.”

The series, really violent (the heroes almost always are lugging around and firing those huge weapons certain congresspeople love to pose with), got me intrigued and puzzled. There are numerous references to infiltrators of the government, to terrorists — only some of whom are given recognizable identities — and other evils whom the special force known as Wolf battles.

The series seemed to be set, with flashbacks, in 2016 or so. But I know almost nothing about Turkish history so I couldn’t tell whether Wolf was against Erdogan’s autocracy or for him. The dialogue was often deliberately fuzzy, I thought, and sounded somewhat paranoid.

One consistent image: a portrait of Atatürk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic, appears on walls. And out of the depths of my memory, I did recall something about Atatürk, something admirable.

Fortunately, I had an old world history on my shelves and found this:

The most immediately successful of the revolutionary movements was the one in Turkey…

After World War I, everyone invaded the Anatolian peninsula and occupied the territory. The Ottoman state was known as “the sick man of Europe,” and the Turkish people as “barbarous and incompetent.” The Allies determined to partition the land, and favored the Greek invasion.

In these circumstances a powerful army officer named Mustapha Kemal rallied Turkish national resistance. Gradually, and with aid from Soviet Russia, the Turks drove the Greeks and the Western Allies away…

The Nationalists, under the energetic drive of Mustapha Kemal, now put through a revolution scarcely paralleled in any country at any time. [My bolding: fellow Americans, pay attention]…

Where the Ottoman Empire had been a composite organization made up of diverse religious communities, among which the Moslems [sic] were the ruling group, the Turkish Republic was conceived as a national state in which the “people”, i.e., the Turkish people, were sovereign. Universal suffrage was introduced, along with a parliament, a ministry and a president with strong powers…

For the first time in any Moslem country the spheres of government and religion were sharply distinguished. The Turkish republic affirmed the total separation of church and state…Government was reorganized on secular and non-religious principles…The law of the Koran was thrust aside…

Mustapha Kemal urged women to put aside the veil, to come out of the harem, to vote, and to occupy public office. He made polygamy a crime. Men he required by law to discard the fez. He fought against the fez as Peter the Great had fought against the beard, and for the same reason, seeing in it the symbol of conservative and backward habits…..In 1933 [the Republic] adopted a five-year plan for economic development. The Turks, having shaken off foreign influence, were determined not to become again dependent on Western capital or capitalism. The five-year plan provided for mines, railroads and factories mainly under government ownership. At the same time, while willing to accept Russian aid against the Western powers, the republic had no patience with communism, which it suppressed. The Turks wanted a modern Turkey–by and for the Turks.

A remarkably heroic and brilliant man was Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, a 20th century Theseus.

This revolutionary Turkish Republic came into being only a few years after the Russian Revolution created the Soviet Union.

I’m now reading a biography of Lenin and am wondering why Trotsky and Lenin, et al., couldn’t create a state as modern as Turkey, with universal suffrage, instead of a murderous dictatorship?

And what has gone wrong with the Turks that they now reject the critical separation of church and state and embrace the severe restrictions of fundamentalist religion?

I don’t think such regression is inevitable, yet it does tend to surround heroes mythological and real with enhanced glory.

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