The Athenian legacy
Paul Cartledge talks ancient democracy, the English Revolution and the fate of people power.
‘No constitution has ever given more weight to the decisions of the ordinary man than did the Athenian’. So says historian and classical scholar Paul Cartledge, in his magisterial study, Democracy: A Life. But what was so remarkable about the democracy of the Athenians? And how far does our own polity diverge from the Athenians’ model? The spiked review decided to speak to Cartledge to find out.
spiked review: Accepting that there are several versions of it, could you say roughly what Athenian democracy was and why it differs from representative democracy?
Paul Cartledge: The essence of Ancient Athenian democracy was that the demos – which was a word that designated all empowered, adult male citizens, but could also mean the majority, the masses, the poor majority of the masses of that citizen population – held kratos, which means power, strength, might, force, grip. So the demos rules and it rules for itself.
The system of representative democracy is markedly different. The American Declaration of Independence begins with ‘we the people’, but we the people in Britain, in France, Germany, and America itself, do not rule ourselves directly. We choose people, usually through periodic elections, to rule instead of us, as well as on our behalf. So the fundamental difference between any ancient form of democracy, in its original sense of people power, is that the ancient versions are all direct. The people – however that’s defined – rule. So, as well as choosing people to hold office and so on, the ancient demos – via one man, one vote, public registration, face-to-face counting, and counting as the decisive majority – took decisions directly. Perhaps they didn’t do so on a day-to-day basis – the Athenian assembly, which was the central democratic institution in which everyone was free to speak their minds, met at its most frequent every nine days. But still, that is the equivalent of having a referendum every nine days.
Today, we have various forms of indirect democracy, in particular representative democracy, which we sometimes call parliamentary democracy. And there’s a good reason for that. We’ve had to struggle for what we currently have. Since the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, it’s taken 350 years to get over the idea of absolute monarchy, divinely appointed, with no popular participation whatsoever, to get to where we are now. Any form of democracy is hard won. The Ancient Athenians took about 200 years to prepare the notion of one adult male, one vote – that was an incredible accomplishment. Many would have wondered, as they still do, why a clever guy should have the same voting power as a stupid guy.
review: When was Athenian democracy at its height?
Cartledge: Scholars differ slightly over when exactly, but I would say that circa 500 BC, a version of popular self-rule, of early democracy, was introduced in Athens. This happened because of a revolutionary situation, both internally, where there were huge political and economic problems, and externally, due to the fact that Athens was under attack from one of its major enemies, the Persians. So democracy was not an easy achievement; it was an extraordinary achievement, and therefore very precious. Democracy continued to exist in Athens, with a couple of breaks, and several, sometimes significant modifications, for almost 200 years, until 320 BC.
The word demokratia persisted thereafter, but its meaning shifted to mean both independence, in other words, not being directly ruled by an outside power, and not being ruled by a king, because the Greek world, after about 300 BC dissolved into three huge power blocs, each ruled always by kings. So if you were a little city-state – and there were about a 1,000 Greek cities, all very different, all with slightly different, or very different, political systems – and you were not ruled by a king, you would define yourself as a democracy, and that really meant independence, republicanism. So this sense of democracy developed and persisted, but the sense of democracy as people power disappeared completely. Indeed, the Romans hated the direct democracy, as did the Byzantines. And by the Medieval period, in which divinely authorised monarchs were sovereign, the idea of people power had virtually been extinguished.
But during the Renaissance, with a revived interest in the ancient world, the idea of democracy, the notion of the people, the notion of the republic, starts to re-emerge. But it’s Rome, not Greece, that is the focus, the model. So it’s the Roman republic that becomes the aspiration, not the radical direct, democratic republic of Athens.
Nevertheless, during the American Revolution and the French Revolution, the democratic idea gathers momentum. Agitators demand that increasing numbers of ordinary people should have some say in the governance of their states. But they are always kept at a significant distance from day-to-day levers of power.
And as the states in Britain and America and so on have grown, so the possibility of organising our political life according to the Athenian model of direct democracy has grown, too. But it’s a very risky prospect. We’d have to think very hard about fail-safe mechanisms. If we voted one way and it was disaster, how would we cope with that, and how do we prevent it from happening in the future? The US has several fail-safe mechanisms. The Founding Fathers, for instance, created an electoral college. This means that people don’t actually vote for the president directly; rather, their votes are mediated by the electoral college in case some disaster conceivably occurs. We have some fail-safe measures, too, but we don’t, in my opinion, have enough to protect us against the pitfalls of direct democracy on a day-to-day basis.
review: Returning to Athens for the moment, it’s striking that at the height of direct democracy, political theory is dominated, by and large, with the exception of Herodotus, by anti-democratic thought…
Cartledge: It has often been thought a paradox, although I don’t really think it is. Because although the Ancient Greeks invented various versions of democracy, so ordinary people – that is, the male, adult citizens empowered as the demos – were not in the habit of theorising why they had democracy. So those who were most pro-democracy did not turn their sentiment into theory.
There is one quite simple explanation for this, I think. In its most radical form, Ancient Greek democracy was a democracy of the poor over the rich. The masses had their interests, and the elite few had theirs, and these sets of interests were contradictory, opposed. But the masses are the majority, so they therefore have the power, and rule over the rich. Now, the most educated people in the Ancient Athenian world were the well-off, the rich. They had the leisure to be educated, to learn to think, to write, to theorise. So it’s hardly surprising that much of the theorising about democracy that has survived is actually either against it outright or content to damn it with very faint praise. Aristotle, for example, is a case of the latter – he could see merits in democracy, although he wasn’t a democrat, whereas Plato, his teacher, hated democracy because it meant that the masses, who he thought were stupid, poor, ignorant, fickle, were ruling over their betters, who were smarter, richer, wiser, and therefore, in Plato’s view, better equipped to rule.
review: Is it fair to say that political theory, at its inception, emerges in response to, and as a critique of, Athenian democracy?
Cartledge: I think that’s exactly what gave rise to political theory. That was the impetus behind its emergence – the need of the elite, of the few, who felt they were dispossessed of their birthright, to show why democracy was faulty, and why their own alternatives, from oligarchy to aristocracy and even monarchy, were superior to democracy. However, there were known pro-democracy intellectuals in the ancient world. The statesman Pericles (495–429 BC) was one. But, as a practising politician, he didn’t need to write; he gave speeches, which he would have done without notes, and the speeches weren’t published. And another was the thinker, intellectual and Sophist, Protagoras, who drafted the democratic laws for the city of Thouria. He was a radical democratic thinker, and we have a version, probably a distorted version, of his pro-democratic views through Plato, in his dialogue Protagoras. So we do at least have an inkling of what, if you were a democrat, you might have argued.
And of course, in Herodotus’s remarkable so-called Persian debate in his Histories, a pro-democratic speech is inserted into the mouth of a Persian noble, Otanes. Otanes argues that all offices should be sortitive – filled solely by the use of lottery – which therefore treats all as equal, and that all these offices should be accountable to the people. He also mounts persuasive criticisms of oligarchy, aristocracy and monarchy, as variously factional, vicious and self-gratifying. So Herodotus was one of the few ancients to make a pro-democracy argument, albeit through an act of ventriloquism.
review: In Democracy, it’s clear that public festivals – especially the Great Dionysia or City Dionysia – played a significant role in what might be called democratic culture…
Cartledge: The Great Dionysia were annual play festivals. You can go to the theatre today and you can see a Eugene O’Neill play, or see a Tom Stoppard play, and you know you are looking at political theatre. But they’re not part of a national festival combining religion, politics and culture in the way that an Ancient Greek, especially Athenian, festival in honour of Dionysus was. The tragic playwrights in particular would actually question, and put centre stage, in mythical form, such questions as: what is justice?; who should rule?; is monarchy a good thing?; do humans make their own history, or are the Gods responsible?; what it is to be human?; what is it to be male or female?; and so on. And it was all public, it was all publicly funded, publicly managed. In Athens, there was actually a vote at the end of the festival to decide which playwright was the best, and even that was done democratically! Just 10 people out of the 14,000 watching were selected by lot, and these 10 cast their votes in secret, and there followed an extraordinarily complex set of procedures to ensure an objective result free of possible corruption. So, these festivals were in honour of the gods, but they were also a celebration of what it was to think and and what it was to be – they were a form of democracy.
review: In Democracy, the Putney Debates between members of Cromwell’s New Model Army over the political constitution of England represent a point at which democracy, and democratic thinking, seems to revive in a powerful form. To what extent did the likes of John Lilburne or Richard Overton draw on an Athenian legacy?
Cartledge: The answer is not at all. Very few people knew Greek, of course. Instead, they would have had centuries of an inherited tradition, in which the Greeks would have been seen as indulging a crazy system of mob rule. At most, the more educated among 17th-century Englishmen would have known something of Roman republicanism, which could be opposed to the then dominant monarchic tradition. So the likes of Thomas Hobbes picked up on that. And some 17th-century thinkers did know a bit about Ancient Greek democracy, through Plutarch’s Life of Pericles mainly. But there was no real sense in which the key protagonists of the period were using the ideal of Athenian direct democracy as a standard to which to aspire.
There were of course examples floating around during the 17th century of Athenian democracy leading to utterly crazy decisions being taken – deeply morally disturbing kinds of decisions – and we have a source for these in the shape of Thucydides (460-395 BC), the historian who follows Herodotus, chronologically and ideologically. Thucydides was very hot on the strategic errors of Athenian democracy, especially during war. He argued that everything was fine as long as Pericles was around, a figure who, according to Thucydides, was somehow above the fray, someone superior to down-and-dirty democratic demagogy. After Pericles’ death, as Thucydides tells it, everything went to hell in a handcart. That’s exaggerated, of course, because Thucydides was not a radical democrat, and was especially keen to point out the errors of the masses. But if you were an anti-democrat in the 17th century, and you knew Thucydides’ work, as one of his translators, Thomas Hobbes, did, then you had a stick with which to beat the idea of direct democracy.
review: At points in Democracy, I got the impression that, despite everything, you do almost venerate Athenian democracy…
Cartledge: Venerate is putting it strongly. What I’d say is that it’s quite extraordinary, given the world as it was in 600 or even 500 BC, that the idea that an ordinary person, a humble worker, a peasant farmer, should count equally with the grandest aristocrat, living on the finest farm, with centuries of tradition, and a line of descent that begins with a God or a hero… the idea that those two types of people should be counted politically as equal is an extraordinary achievement. And it’s not just Athens, because other democracies came into being, too. But that Athenian democracy – moderated and modulated as its democracy was over a couple of centuries – lasted as long as it did, is, to my mind, a huge feat, when we know how difficult politics is. I think I venerate politics, which is a free discussion, based on empirically grounded hypotheses and conducted in a reasoned and reasonable atmosphere, wherein one aims to find the best conceivable outcome. The Ancient Greeks invented it, and I venerate them for that.
But Athenian democracy had its upsides and its downsides. I’m astonished it managed to survive as long as it did operating according to the ideals of equality and freedom – these were the two principal slogans of Ancient Athenian democracy. But, on the downside, Athenians had slaves, they didn’t empower women, they didn’t respect minorities. So there are lots of reasons why I don’t, from a 21st-century perspective, venerate democracies in Ancient Greece.
review: To what extent is there a continuity between the contemporary appeal to expertise in politics, and Plato’s anti-democratic idea of rule by philosopher kings?
Cartledge: There is a continuity here. The word we invented to capture the idea of governance by experts, technocracy, is of course based on two Greek words – techne, which is skill, and of course kratos, which is power, strength, grip and so on. So the argument is that only those with a certain knowledge, understanding, insight and predictive power are able to take a rounded view of a particular policy, of its ramifications. And, therefore, only they should be entitled to wield power. But who decides that you’re smart enough, and how does one check whether those qualifications that rank your aptitude and so on equip you to be responsible for governing wider society. In Plato’s day, technocracy was a fantasy polity – it was the dream of the absence of politics. Plus society was less complex, and therefore much easier for the ordinary citizen to grasp – there was no need to debate economic policy, for instance, not least because the Athenians didn’t even have a notion of the economy.
Today, given the complexity of society, it is possible to argue that ‘I understand how the global economy works, or how the Euro works, better than you do, so I’m more entitled to have my views listened to, and my judgement respected. So therefore my position should be one of power.’ Yet, what’s happened, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, is that not only have experts disagreed – which they always have – they have also got a lot wrong. And not just wrong, but massively wrong. They have therefore given leverage to those who blankly, and blandly, invoke ‘the experts’ as a pejorative. Think, for example, of Tory MP Michael Gove saying people have had enough of experts, and we the people are much better judges of what’s good for us. The mood today is very anti-expert.
review: There’s a great quote you use towards the end of Democracy, from your fellow classicist Moses Finley, which makes a very good pro-democracy criticism of technocracy: ‘When I charter a vessel or buy passage on one, I leave it to the captain, the expert, to navigate it – but I decide where I want to go, not the captain.’
Cartledge: That’s right. Moses was making the point that politics, in the richest sense, has an ethical dimension, which is above and beyond any purely technical question of how, in this case, you steer a ship so that it doesn’t sink. Politics is not just about the means – it is also about ends. We’re going to have very deeply divided views on those ends, for all sorts of reasons. So politics must also be a way of solving deep, personal and ideological disagreements in as harmonious a way as possible.
When Moses was making this argument, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was opposing those who said that because the world was changing so fast, and many people were ignorant, then understanding the world was only something very clever people could do. The masses shouldn’t be invited to participate in policymaking. It should be left to the so-called eggheads. So political apathy and disengagement was the main problem Moses was warning against. Now we have less apathy, especially on social media, which entrenches and exacerbates antagonisms, and is replete in prejudice and animus, so I do wonder if Moses, were he alive today, might argue for much less mass involvement.
Paul Cartledge is a historian and academic, who, from 2008 to 2014, was the AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of many books, including most recently Democracy: A Life, published by Oxford University Press. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).
No paywall. No subscriptions.
spiked is free for all.
Donate today to keep us fighting.Donate online
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.
Want to join the conversation?
Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.