Thursday, March 17, 2016

Immigrants and Terrorists in Ancient Athens

Stuart K. Hayashi

In her book Darwin's Ghosts, Rebecca Stott pointed out something I had not previously considered. Back in the days of ancient Athens, anyone from outside of your city was a foreigner. Someone who came to your city and was not originally from there, was an immigrant -- what was then called a metic. Aristotle was born near Macedonia, and he came to Athens. He was an immigrant.

The Athenians did not understand freedom the same way we laissez-faire liberals do: to Athenians, to be "free" mostly meant "not being a debt slave," and the Athenians were quite comfortable with the institution of debt slavery. Aristotle himself had debt slaves. But I think it is fair to say that the Athenians were generally more freedom-loving than were the Macedonians. To put it in our sort of modern terminology, the Macedonians were of a culture that did not respect freedom as much as the Athenians did. Aristotle came from a comparatively primitive, illiberal culture.

Eventually, Philip of Macedon began conquering neighboring city-states, and the Athenians reasonably feared that they would be next. They began to regard all Macedonians within Athens -- including Aristotle -- with suspicion. They feared these Macedonians might be subversives and spies secretly loyal to Philip -- the terrorists of their day.

Not wanting their freedom destroyed by outsiders, the Athenians began to presume Macedonians within Athens to be guilty of treason and they violently persecuted them. They harassed Aristotle and destroyed his property, driving him to flee from Athens. Thus, Aristotle fled to Lesbos, becoming a refugee, ironically, from one of the freest societies of Europe at the time.

At the lagoon at Lesbos, Aristotle made new and important discoveries, and therefore we might rationalize that we ultimately benefited from Aristotle leaving Athens. But we could also consider how, in their own time, the Athenians might have benefited from Aristotle's wisdom more immediately had they not driven him out.

There is a lesson in this. As the movie Ratatouille observed, "Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

It is sheer folly to dismiss someone as a burden, or, worse, violent, based on that person coming from what we judge to be a primitive or illiberal culture. In an underwater robotics competition, a team of brilliant engineers beat MIT's team, doing what MIT's robot could not. Every member of this team was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. One of the world's foremost brain surgeons first came to the United States illegally, working as a migrant farm laborer. When we shut out people, we might be condemning the next Aristotle to death before he makes his big breakthrough. When we close ourselves off from refugees, we imperil not only them, but ourselves as well.