The Athenian Oath

I have always been fascinated and drawn into oaths and what they dearly hold and represent. An oath is more than just a promise or a commitment. It has some sacredness involved in it. A person making an oath unleashes all his or her honor and dignity. A person who violates his or her oath is a shameful dishonor and a disgrace, unworthy of his or her person (or degree or profession, or accomplishment, or family and religion, or name and reputation). So it really struck me immediately when I encountered the Athenian Oath -- the philosophic oath of all free governments and public bureaucracies, of all visionaries, leaders, managers, planners and administrators from around the globe.

In a nutshell, the Athenian Oath swears to "leave this community better than when we found it!"

The Athenian Oath has become a very inspiring philosophical foundation of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of the Syracuse University in New York. Being the first and oldest public administration program in the world, and ranked as the No. 1 graduate school of public affairs and public administration in the United States, Maxwell School prides itself of shaping the evolution of public administration theory and practice in democratic societies worldwide. At the crux of this pride lies a very strong influence from the Athenian philosophers in the ancient Greeks from over 2,000 years ago.

The Athenian Oath of the City-State is thus proudly inscribed right at the giant wall by the entrance foyer of the Maxwell Hall just beneath the statue of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), political philosopher and one of the most influential American Founding Fathers (also the 3rd President of the United States) and who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776:

"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 the ancient Greece, Athenian men were obliged to make this oath when they reach the age of seventeen. A derivative of this oath -- known as the Oath of the Young Men of Athens and inscribed on a bronze plaque in the Thacher School in California -- also reads:

"I will not disgrace these sacred arms,
nor ever desert a comrade in the ranks.
I will guard the Temples and
the Centers of Civic Life,
and uphold the ideals of my Country,
both alone and in concert with others.
I will at all times obey the Magistrates
and observe the Laws
as well those at present in force
as those the Majority may hereafter enact.
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."

An earlier version of this oath, known as the Athenian Ephebic Oath (because they made the oath in the Ephebic College in Athens) reads more in elaboration:

"I will not disgrace my sacred arms
Nor desert my comrade, wherever I am stationed.
I will fight for things sacred
And things profane.
And both alone and with all to help me.
I will transmit my fatherland not diminished
But greater and better than before.
I will obey the ruling magistrates
Who rule reasonably
And I will observe the established laws
And whatever laws in the future
May be reasonably established.
If any person seek to overturn the laws,
Both alone and with all to help me,
I will oppose him.
I will honor the religion of my fathers.
I call to witness the Gods …
The borders of my fatherland,
The wheat, the barley, the vines,
And the trees of the olive and the fig."

Long live the Athenian Oath!