Invisible Means of Support

I have always been interested in architecture and design. Architects and designers create the visual evidence of the civilization we enjoy, so their success is our success. When archeologists uncover our world a hundred thousand years from now, perhaps the only enduring evidence would be indestructible Formica. We may be called the last Formicans . . . .

It is therefore intriguing that there is an even more important architecture and design that shapes civilizations. That architecture is invisible. Not only does this architecture create and support civilizations, it destroys them as well.

We are beginning to uncover, like societal archeologists, the structures and foundations of what makes for a strong and viable civilization. We are looking for what causes design to flourish, contributions to pour forth, nations to thrive. It is this psycho-social architecture that makes the visible architecture possible.

Perhaps the most famous birth of a civilization occurred in Athens, in about 500 B.C. From the time Athens became a democracy in 508 B.C., and until its fall, by the death of Pericles in 429 B.C., it gave birth to Western Civilization. Here are some of the names from that brief period: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Aeschylos, Sophocles, Euripides. It was the most productive period in history. In that brief moment of time, Parthenon was built, the Agora gave life to philosophy, science and learning; the Dionysios theater performed the great Greek tragedies; Phidias built the Parthenon and the Zeus statue in Olympia (deemed to be one of the seven wonders of the world); and inquiry of all kinds flourished.

What caused this burst of creativity to happen? I think it was the concepts of freedom and democracy. Democracy comes from the Greek words demos (people) and kratein (rule). The Assembly in Athens ruled the city-state through democratic rules, and with an eye to guarding individuality. The most important gift from the Greeks of that period was not the splendid Doric columns of the Parthenon, nor the design of a great city, but the invisible structure and foundation of freedom.

It is this idea that has caused architecture, science and art to flourish. And it is this idea that has been the most potent creative force behind the wealth that is enjoyed by free people everywhere.

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he drew upon insights from many sources, including John Locke and the French Revolution. But I detect the echo of Pericles 2,200 years back, in Jefferson’s magical words of statesmanship from July 4, 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Countries which live by these invisible concepts attract and foster the best and the brightest, and draw out extraordinary contributions to society. Perhaps because of that consequence, people are willing to sacrifice their "life, fortune and sacred honor" to defend it. It is a cause higher than themselves, and it is "self-evident" to everyone, and even more so to those who have been deprived of freedom.

Freedom allows us to work on the answer to the most important of questions: What kind of society do we want for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren?

It is interesting that freedom is a vision that is easily corrupted by power. When that happens, it has to be regained anew, in war or conflict. And when it reappears, it must be protected lest it again be forfeited.

Freedom has its own rewards. Because it fuels performance, as it did in Athens, U.S. per capita income in my lifetime has increased more than sixty times. And freedom’s productive force is in evidence elsewhere as well.

The oldest democracies in the world are also among the richest countries. The Icelandic Parliament was founded in 930 A.D., and Iceland’s per capita income in 2000 was $30,575. The U.S. per capita income in 2000 was $29,469. Even young democracies like South Korea show stellar results, having cast off dictatorship in favor of freedom and democracy. Like Athens, the transformation can be lightning fast; in an eye blink of history, South Korea flourishes. And in an eye blink, South Korea could fall.

In Me and Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin sings the following: "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." She has lost her lover, and she is free. And in that stark reality, we see freedom’s sorrows eye-to-eye.

Freedom does not guarantee happiness - just the pursuit of it -- and carries a certain measure of responsibility. In this country, we are free to exercise our right to vote for political candidates, and we are free to criticize those elected officials if they renege on campaign promises. We are free to pick and choose our words, our work and our wars.

And in the Temple of Poseidon, in the shadow of the Parthenon, we see the result of Phidias’ work. A creation so perfect that he was obliged to insert an imperfection so as not to offend the gods. But he offended envious mortals with his quest, so his life ended in jail and misery. Yet because of the creativity and freedom expressed in a brief, shining moment of time, Phidias’ work burst forth and endures to this day.

We should all be so lucky. To be free to pursue our own image of perfection; to realize our own inner drawing. If we are, we should be willing to pay the price, even though it may be our lives on this earth.


© 2002 Tor Dahl & Associates