Athenian Democracy: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Here, for the first time in my brief career as a Public Humanist blogger, I am writing to an assigned topic–"Athenian Democracy"–a topic I accepted during the summer because I was reasonably confident it would provoke thought (in me, for a start). After all, I teach courses on ancient Greek history, philosophy, epic, and drama and I am about to cast a ballot in what is likely to be the most pivotal election of my voting lifetime.

The truth is, however, that there is little resemblance between ancient Athenian democracy and our post-modern American version of it, and thankfully so. The resemblance is arguably even less than that between the ancient games at Olympia and their Beijing descendants of last August. For a start, the radical democracy of ancient Athens awarded the vote to a small slice (perhaps 10–15%) of its population, by excluding all women, slaves, resident aliens, and anyone unable to claim an Athenian father and maternal grandfather. That said, the privileged few with a right to citizenship, the demos or "people," held what for us would be an unimaginable amount of kratos or "sovereign power"–the power, for instance, to debate and vote in open Assembly (the Ecclesia) that decided nearly everything, from making war to altering or even dissolving the Constitution. Still more unimaginable to us was that many of the highest offices in the state were filled by lot. This meant that every citizen was, rather than a heartbeat, merely a lottery ball away from practically every major leadership post in the government, excluding strategic command of the armed forces.

Classical Athenian democracy, the radical democracy accompanying the rise of Perikles and the fall of Athens, though a sentimental favorite of many political speech writers and high school civics teachers, was a failed experiment that lasted under a century, long enough to lose a long war, destroy the economy, divide the populace, undermine the constitution, abridge civil rights, and engage in shameless atrocities. In a matter of decades, Athens went from being the acclaimed liberator of the free world to its acknowedged tyrant. Enough said to see that it is not in our interests to tally and highlight the ways in which we may have managed to emulate our Athenian mentors. Philosophy and the arts are another matter. There, in my view, we still stand to learn from them.

Before we dismiss Athenian democracy altogether, however, we need to look over our shoulder and consider whether there is anything that we have overlooked or underestimated in our haste. I am still haunted by the size of the role that the Athenians handed over to chance in filling their public offices and intrigued by the implications of such a practice. There was no way to campaign for a lottery. The most that anyone could do was to be ever personally prepared for public office. In a polity like ours where typically fewer than half of the electorate move themselves to the polls to make their voices heard, and where those voices, I fear, are the product of as much misinformation as anything else, a lottery in place of an election might, like a placebo, have surprisingly positive results. Faced with the prospect of bagging groceries one week and holding a Senate seat the next, we might just see the point in being informed, truly informed, about the state and nation and world we share with millions of others like and unlike ourselves.

Another institution at the heart of Athenian democracy that offers a strange allure, at least from a distance, is that of ostracism. Each year citizens voted in the Assembly whether to hold an ostracism. If the vote were "yes" then citizens would cast their ostraka two months later in the agora or marketplace for someone in the state they wanted to ostracize or "shun" for a period of ten years. For devotees of reality TV, this is known as voting someone off the island. Ostracism carried no criminal penalty; but any ostracized citizen who returned in less than ten years would face the death penalty. Ostracism could be and was abused, but it remained a useful, non-violent tool for eliminating dangerous and powerful figures from the political scene, for the benefit of all. Considering that the required quorum for ostracism was 6,000 votes, representing 20–25% of all citizens, a modern president or vice-president, for example, with disapproval ratings of 70% or worse would be prime candidates for mandatory 10-year get-aways, giving the nation time to breathe at least different if not better air in their absence.

"Whenever the people are well-informed," said Thomas Jefferson, "they can be trusted with their own government." At the heart of Athenian democracy, and arguably any democracy, is open, informed discussion of the public good (and evil, for that matter). To do this, whatever the venue, we need to be infused with facts rather than injected with lies. Straight talk, however, requires not only truth but also trust; and we in America are short on both. Alexis de Toqueville, the prescient French admirer of American democracy in the 1830's, described American citizen-voters as carrying the Bible under one arm and the newspaper under the other. We need to notice here that Americans had two separate arms or sides and once knew the difference between them–one for praying, the other for voting. De Toqueville stressed the separation of church and state, as well as the pivotal importance of a free press. Both are at risk here as I write. Evangelical pastors around the country turn their pulpits into podiums, and today's dominant press–TV media–have no more commitment to telling the truth than do the advertisers who keep them on the air. Returning briefly to ancient Athens, Socrates and his pupil Plato, knew well the threat posed by sophists, ancient and modern, who make a living slaying great truths with puny lies. At the core of Platonic teaching lies the conviction that the human good resides in seeing reality as it is. Truth alone nourishes the mind and soul, and the natural habitat or house of truth is human dialogue, conversation. This same house is the birthplace of democracy, a house which I fear is or may soon be in foreclosure. Not yesterday but sixty-two years ago, Albert Camus wrote these words, as if to us on the edge of a potentially world-altering election:

"The years we have gone through have killed something in us. And that something is simply the old confidence man had in himself that he could always elicit human reactions from another man if he spoke to him in the language of a common humanity. We have seen men lie, degrade, kill, deport, torture–and each time it was not possible to persuade them not to do these things because they were sure of themselves and because one cannot appeal to an abstraction, i.e. the representative of an ideology.… We suffocate among people who think they are absolutely right… and for all who can live only in an atmosphere of human dialogue and sociability, this silence is the end of the world."

For now, I can think of nothing to add to that except to say "see you at the polls on November 4th."

Author: Bob Meagher

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