Colombo Telegraph

The Athenian Oath: A Timely Oath For Sri Lanka’s Youth

By Srima Warusawithana

Srima Warusawithana

Young men and women are the life-blood of a nation. They are the torch-bearers of generations yet to come. Thus the principles that they uphold and revere become the destiny of the future.

In ancient Athens every youth when they reached the age of seventeen was required to take upon themselves a sacred oath that contained certain invaluable guidelines that helped them steer the right course and served to keep these young people honest and courageous, brave in the face of wrong, and still be gentle and compassionate human beings. Ancient Greece is famous for its wise men – the philosophers, scientists, mathematicians who have left an indelible impression on mankind generations later.

Participation in activities of the community, creation of a sense of obedience marked the coming of age and along with these the acquisition of scholarship constituted the blossoming of a full-rounded personality, geared to take up the varied functions of a nation. The principles that formed the basis for these ideas were: “Obedience saves many lives for those who act right”. Ideal citizenship is given an expanded version: “I have been useful, I have caused no pain to the old, I have not been hurtful to the young, I have not envied the fortunate, but pitied the unfortunate, I have not looked down on the poor, nor honoured wealth above virtue, (but virtue above wealth) I have not been useless in councils, nor lazy in battles, doing as ordered, obeying my leaders”

Learning Patterns

Social behaviour and attitude that young men adopt are learned from childhood, first from parents who are the first teachers and then from elders, from teachers and from mentors. The people with whom they associate, friends, peer groups also influence their thinking and these influences could be either positive or negative. Often adolescents tend to imitate or follow ideas and actions of peer groups, even at the cost of throwing aside wholesome values they had acquired in childhood. This is because of the prestige of recognition and acceptance they receive from a peer group. Social behaviour and attitude are qualities that show not only in the manner in which we conduct our private affairs but in our public life where we interact with different types of people, different situations in careers,sports and all other activities. Citizenship means the development of a sense of social propriety and investment in others.

This brings me to The Athenian Oath. This was the oath taken by the young men of ancient  Athens when they reached the age of seventeen.

We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.

We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many.

We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best 

to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us 

who are prone to annul them or set them at naught.

We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty.

Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less,

but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

In this brief and concise script lie all the norms of wholesome conduct expected of a young person that will equip him for the rigours and onerous tasks of public duty as a future citizen of any nation.

The oath has been revived for use in educational institutions worldwide as a statement of civic virtue and also as a code of discipline for young soldiers. In all these revised and modified versions one salient fact stands out clear and precise: “observe the laws – whatever laws the people in their wisdom shall establish”. Further it says: We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; should any one seek to subvert those laws or set them aside, him I will oppose either in common with others or alone. In these ways it shall be my constant aim not only to preserve the things of worth in my Native Land, but to make them of still greater worth.”   (inscribed on a bronze plaque at the Thacher School)

I shall never bring disgrace to my city, nor shall I ever desert my comrades in the ranks: but I, both alone and with my many comrades, shall fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city. I, alone and with my comrades, shall resist anyone who destroys the laws or disobeys them. I shall not leave my city any less but rather greater than I found it.  (Townsend Harris High School)

In another version with similar words, witnesses cited are nature and its bounties. “Witnesses to this shall be the gods and the boundaries of my native land, wheat, barley, vines, olive-trees, fig-trees..”

Decline In Discipline And Civic Consciousness

Urbanization has been a prime cause in present day youth developing unwholesome values and attitudes. In an age when technology was in its infancy, young people devised many innovative activities that helped build their personalities and character. Books that formed a part of young life were collected from each other’s homes and collected to form a miniature library that was set up in someone’s spare room corner or even in a little space in a garage. These vintage classics such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and many others were pooled so that the young people shared such resources, read them and learned both language and invaluable lessons from these treasures. Reading good books made them full men. I recall the vast collection of wonderful books that were part of my father’s little library in his home town in Balapitiya. My father called himself a village boy from a village school. Yet, his mastery of the English language was remarkable as he had as teacher – the Irishman Michael Ugbrecht Moore – a theosophist who instilled the love of language in his pupils. I know of rural school children that formed informal societies that conducted festivals, community activities, and sports events all by themselves in their hometowns during their spare time. It was an age when tuition had not entered into the agendas of students. If there was a student who took extra lessons they were the dullards, the not-so-smart ones. Teachers were also fully focused on the personality, character and academic development of their protégés, all for no extra remuneration. The joy and happiness of these teachers of yore seeing their students excel in every sphere of academia and discipline far outweighed the monthly wages they received. Of course, times have changed most will agree but the downward trend has also been the deterioration in discipline and values of civilized conduct. I know a father – a small time watch-repairer that had a family consisting of six young boys in a rural southern village. He was honest and hardworking but most of all a very wise man. The sons were all taught the skills he himself possessed. Each day after school they would go home, have their meals and come back to their father’s little workshop and learn to repair watches; first the large timepieces of that time and then when the boys, each of them had mastered the skill he would step on to repairing wall clocks and last of all the wristwatches. These skills stood them in good stead throughout life and the discipline and values imbibed in the young minds were invaluable. Only after an hour or two of this ‘skills training’ did these young boys go out to play with their friends and then back home to freshen up, do homework and eat their dinner and then it was bedtime. How simple life was back then. Father and mother were the “home school” in that era when i-pads, texting and violent movies were not even known.

It is not that hard even today to teach a young child a vocation, get them involved in a hobby and instill solid values to last them throughout life. We do see parents and teachers of this ilk even now but they certainly are rare possessions. Young children in the present day tend too often to rest on their parent’s laurels, even bask in the glory (often it is a misplaced glory) of their parents. Parents too are responsible for such a situation since they have permitted their offspring to take on powers for which they are not suited nor qualified. Integrity is an unknown word in the vocabulary of the youth of today. “Owning up” for omissions and faults was the “done thing” in our schooldays, a value that we have carried on throughout life. For inculcating such values and attitudes in us, we remain indebted to our parents and our teachers. The present trend is to pass the blame onto someone else without any sense of shame or guilt.

Tolerance, understanding, friendship, compassion

Education means the improvement of human faculties of thought and imagination and people’s capacity to live in harmony with others. Relationships and interactions with one another are not merely those to be used or manipulated to achieve an end. In the recent past there has been a distinct trend to improve the vocation-related value of education whereby the emphasis has shifted to what is taught and what is not taught in educational institutions. Even in the home this trend is evident where parents and elders place greater value to formal learning rather than to acquiring skills and solid values that would equip the children to become fully rounded personalities with wholesome attitudes. While promoting scientific and technical education, disciplines in humanities and social sciences and performing arts are indeed commendable, yet the trend to place more focus on these alone, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. There are clearly abilities other than those in science and technology that are useful and important for human beings to make their lives more complete and enabling them to achieve a more inclusive type of citizenship. No doubt, national interest does demand a strong and flourishing economy. Growth in business and technology is an important component of a strong and viable economy. But human life and technology become complete only when citizens of a country enjoy a free and unfettered climate, a culture of critical thinking based on inquiring and finding answers to varied aspects of individual and collective life coupled with the strength and ingenuity for creative innovation. To reach this goal, education in humanities and arts is necessary and indispensable. It is the quality of education and not the quantity that is important in education. Warped minds, centred around narrow thinking have led to breakdown in accepted norms of conduct and behaviour. Therefore, education must transcend barriers and reach out to imbibe values of integrity and honesty among our young. Politicisation has contributed largely towards not reaching this goal. Today’s politicians are mere time-servers, not statesmen with lofty ideals and principles. Most of our academics and professionals are people without accountability, honesty and integrity. They are the privileged strata in society but sadly lacking in humanity. One begins to even ‘wonder over’ a world of humans and not human beings.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 pronounces that:

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups”

In the Dhammapada the Handbook of the Buddhists, there is the story of Magha a youth who with his thirty two virtuous friends did enormous social service to the people of his community. It all began with a simple act of Magha where a seat he made to sit upon was taken by another and Magha went on to prepare another seat and then another – each time he was deprived of enjoying the fruits of his labour. This set the young man thinking positively on how he could use this little turn in life to do good to others. He was blessed in having virtuous friends – thirty two of them who rallied round him to do many charitable acts that helped make life comfortable for their fellowmen. History is full of hard-working men and women who used their imagination, ingenuity and often few resources to leave a lasting impact on human civilization. An oath to be taken by all young people in our country today seems very necessary in the present day context to induct a young person to uphold the ideals of discipline and virtuous conduct. Sadly, most of our youth are either oblivious to standards of honour, integrity and discipline or conveniently disregard such norms as they feel freer and easier to behave any way they like when opportunities arise for such misconduct.

The Athenian Oath with a few modifications to suit the youth of our Motherland should receive some attention in the educational sphere today. A medical intern solemnly pledges allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath; the nurses pledge their dedication to their noble profession of healing in the tradition of commitment of ‘the Lady with the Lamp” – Florence Nightingale. Just the solemnity of taking “an oath for youth” could instill some responsibility, stir up a sense of honour akin to “rites of passage”, and awaken them to their duties as a responsible citizen of the world.

Training in acquiring a simple way of life, to be satisfied with little, not clamouring for luxuries as the Buddha says are qualities to be nurtured; qualities that cannot be acquired through any external means. To be elated or arrogant when social status or position changes could verily lead to one’s downfall. External accomplishments shine only when wholesome qualities, wisdom and knowledge accompany these attributes. Human life is precious. Sharing one’s possessions – be it wealth, skills or time is a noble quality that young men should cultivate and bequeath to those who follow.

In a quarrel, those who win and those who lose are both losers. Alertness, mindfulness, prevent great disasters. Association with the wise shunning the company of those who are non-virtuous stand out foremost in the teachings of Gautama Buddha. These facts are valid today as they were over twenty five centuries ago as also are the virtues of equipoise and equanimity in all our actions.

Jean Jacques Rousseau – the renowned philosopher in his Emile – a masterpiece writing on the strategies for raising a young man states that “every society must choose between making a man or a citizen”. The idea is how a man can live within society.

Following on this are concepts associated with how education needs to be derived less from books and more from interactions with the world with an emphasis on developing their senses and the ability to draw inferences from these experiences. Rousseau describes how a boy has been successfully guided through this stage of learning. A simple activity in which every boy indulges as a child is flying a kite. The boy is asked to infer the position of the kite just by looking at the shadow. It is an exercise that has not been previously taught to the child, but he succeeds in giving a proper inference through grasping the phenomena in the physical world.

As the young child grows up, he is taught a manual skill appropriate to his age and his special talents. A role model of worth is an important feature. In the agricultural society of ancient days we know of farmers who took their sons to work in the fields. The children began young and simply watched their father and other elders at work whilst he helped by carrying a water pitcher or a cup of tea for the workers, even handing out implements and generally helping the adults. Building construction workers often during school vacations got their sons involved in the work they did and passed on their skills to the young whilst emphasizing that book learning and formal education is also important for a successful future. A mother I know had these words for her son in his schoolboy period, who tended to be more focused on his family business than on his studies. Her words of advice were ‘you will be a successful mudalali when you have a formal education as well’. It worked and the child acquired the highest level of education and yet retains his exceptional skills in carpentry and many other fields that are useful assets in adult life.

Rousseau’s Emile has now grown up to be a strong young man. He is able to observe and view the world around him with care and precision. He is “an active and thinking being”. Now in his adolescence, he is able to put himself in the place of others. It is the process of socialization. To complete the man Rousseau believes that this man should be a loving and sensitive being, capable of understanding complex human emotions perfected by compassion for others. Herein lies the clue to the problems that are encountered in our society today. Compassion and feeling for others are sadly lacking. This lacuna could only be filled by a concerted effort by responsible adults beginning with parents, teachers, spiritual advisors to instill proper values, attitudes and discipline in the young ones under their care and guidance. The positive results of these endeavours are living examples of people in all walks of life who have embellished their professions and left the world a better place than when they found it.

The Oath of the Olympic Torch bearer in Ancient Athens says it all in this poignant words:

“To hold the torch aloft,

To run a true and straight course,

To look neither to left nor to right,

To hand over the flame bright and clear

To the next man and at last

Disappear into the darkness”

*The author is a retired teacher – served for over 25 years and her last posting was at Royal College Colombo

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