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The Ephebic Oath

Learning the Pledge of Allegiance was probably my introduction to civic notions of “patriotism”, though that word had not yet become part of my vocabulary. Within a year or two, though, when we got our first television, I distinctly recall news coverage of the hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The senator had made unsubstantiated claims of the army and the government itself being riddled with Communists. And I also recall watching (kinescopes rather than live coverage, I suppose) the now famous exchange between attorney Joseph Welch and the senator: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

At age nine I didn’t know what to make of that. In hindsight I should have been more concerned about the Boys Club leader Verle B***** who was quietly accused of molestation. Perhaps I wasn’t his type. But neither did I comprehend what Communism was nor why we had to root it out. Though we eventually studied small-C communism in civics class — when did those disappear from school curricula, by the way? — any awareness of Patriotism was learned by osmosis, I guess.

During the 1960s (my coming of age) “love of country” was a hotly contested issue and remains so today, as we find remarkably different and often contradictory ways of expression. How do you suppose Archers (the name for anyone from Agincourt; it’s a history thing) are divided on the topic? They are, after all, in the center of the 7th Congressional District, Steve King’s turf.

All this came to mind when I chanced upon something called the Ephebic Oath, taken by young Athenian men at about the age of eighteen as a step in achieving citizenship. I found a wonderful (and mercifully brief) explication, not only its role in that process, but also contrasting it with our own time and practice; contrasting the positions between civic oaths and those for military service was especially interesting. Your Ancient Greek is probably as rusty as mine, so here is an English translation:

Alexander McAdie, The Ephebic Oath and Other Essays (San Francisco / 1903)

The Ephebic Oath

“I will not bring dishonour on my sacred arms nor will I abandon my comrade wherever I shall be stationed. I will defend the rights of gods and men and will not leave my country smaller, when I die, but greater and better, so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will respect the rulers of the time duly and the existing ordinances duly and all others which may be established in the future. Furthermore, if anyone seeks to destroy the ordinances I will oppose him so far as I am able by myself and with the help of all. I will honor the cults of my fathers. Witnesses to this shall be the gods Agraulus, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalius, Ares, Athena the Warrior, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, and the boundaries of my native land, wheat, barley, vines, olive-trees, fig-trees…“


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