Chronicle 4. ON DEMOCRACY
/ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ/ Χρονικό 4. ΠΕΡΙ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑΣ
● Authentic Democracy: Direct and in No Way “Representative” ●
Castoriadis and Chaos ● The Trial of Socrates ● Ecclesia and Heliaea
● French and Haitian Revolutions ● Plato’s Republic
“ΟNE OF THE SEVERAL HISTORICAL PARADOXA” of antiquity, I underlined in Chronicle 2, “concerns the differences between the Aegean and the Orient in their political structures: the decentralized Grecian city-states”, on the one hand, and the “centralized empires” in the East, on the other. I tried to explain these differences as a result of objective conditions prevailing in the Orient vis-à-vis those in the Aegean, in order to speak about the birth of democracy –(1) the pure, direct and participatory, in contrast to today’s so-called “representative democracy” that was imposed on us. Here’s to you, my fellow voyagers: especially now, because of the crisis, it is good to make comparisons and have some reflections
- (1) Cornelius Castoriadis, nevertheless, attributed the birth of democracy to the realm of ideas. The Greeks, he said, differed from other societies due to their ideal of autonomy. The Cosmos, they imagined, stemmed from Chaos, while in contrast, the Hebrews believed it stemmed from the will of a rational entity, God, as described in Genesis. Thus the former developed a system of direct democracy, where the laws were ever changing according to the people’s will, while the latter a theocratic system, according to which man is in an eternal quest to understand and enforce the will of God. This radical idea of a “cosmos out of chaos”, as found in ancient Hellenic philosophy and cosmogony, means that the world was created out of nothing; therefore man can model it as he sees fit, without trying to conform on some “divine law”. Castoriadis rejected as well the term “city-state” used to describe ancient Greek cities, since the Hellenic poleis were autonomous. During colonization e.g., we observe for the first time in history that the Hellenes, instead of transferring the social system of the metropolis to the newly established colony, they legislated anew from the ground up. On the contrary, the Phoenicians, with a similar expansion then in the Mediterranean, were monarchical till the end, and their colonies paid tribute to the metropolis.
LIFE IN ANCIENT HELLAS was generally not a “test for some happy afterlife” – an idea the common people of the “Asiatic mode of production” should necessarily entertain. The Greeks were shaped and inspired by Hellenic Nature. They philosophized and discussed public issues under her beneficial influence. She “dictated” the forms of their state and political organizations – regardless if they both fomented discord. Their model was the polis; democracy was their ideal; freedom their highest virtue – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory.
Additionally, their democracy was pure, direct, and authentic; today’s so-called “democracy” is the so-called “representative”, where power is not exercised by the people anymore but by their so-called “representatives”, contrary to the very definition of democracy.(2) More and more oxymora and paradoxa… Let’s try to make them clear:
- (2) Democracy (δημοκρατία, “rule of the people”, from demos = people, and cratos = power) is a synonym to the Modern Greek λαοκρατία (“people in power”), and an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristocracy, “rule of some elite”), and ὀλιγαρχία (oligarchy, from oligoi = few, and archō = to rule). Which one represents our so-called… “representative” system, even a little child can say!
● The “father of Athenian democracy” was Cleisthenes, and its symbol was the Parthenon. A hill of Athens, the Pnyx, was the meeting place of the Ecclesia, with the speaker’s platform or bema. It is where the political struggles of the “Golden Age” were fought; from this bema, the speeches of the great figures of the time were delivered – but also of many ordinary citizens, who raised their hands responding to the question: “Τίς ἀγορεύειν βούλεται;”, “Who wishes to speak?”
As much as the Ecclesia of Demos can be related to the Ecclesia
of Christ, so much the pure and direct democracy can be related to
the so-called “representative democracy” – which is an oligarchy.
A deficit in democracy is accompanied by similar deficits in politics and justice. An entire country, Greece, was devastated by the politicians with the judges’ consent – i.e. by persons who are absolutely useless and extremely dangerous to democracy. Democracy has no need of politicians: the citizens themselves, as “political animals”, according to Aristotle, are involved in politics; they are the ones who decide. Democracy has no need of judges: the citizens themselves administer justice. Democracy – if it is indeed a state of the people in power – does not delegate such powers to anyone, not even to a Pericles! The memoranda of austerity would have no chance in the Ecclesia of Demos (that of Christ, the Church, I’m sure, would bless them)! The court of Demos, Heliaea, would have never sentenced Kolokotronis,(3) let alone to death! We have no democracy, let’s accept it! It’s the prerequisite for us to obtain it someday…
- (3) General Theodoros Kolokotronis, the pre-eminent leader of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans (1821–1829), was jailed (1825), sentenced to death and pardoned (1835).
Trial of Socrates
● But if Socrates was sentenced to death, why should Kolokotronis fare better? First of all, let’s make clear that Socrates was tried by democracy, while Kolokotronis by oligarchy. The people’s sense of justice was for Kolokotronis, but against Socrates. Why? Let’s have a look at the trial of Socrates, which took place in 399 BCE, after the defeat of the Athenian democracy by the Spartan oligarchy in the Peloponnesian War. It was a political trial in disguise because of the amnesty given to the oligarchs after the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, who were puppets of the Spartans. That’s why the charges against him were: asebeia (impiety) to gods, and corruption of the youth of the polis of Athens. Note that what we know about Socrates’ trial and verdict is mainly derived from the Apology of Socrates, by Plato, and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, by Xenophon – both students of Socrates, hence anything but impartial sources.
In Socrates’ face, democracy prosecuted its demons: specifically two other of his dear friends and students, Alcibiades and Critias.(4) Alcibiades was the main proponent of the absolutely disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BCE) during the Peloponnesian War, where almost all Athenians participating, more than 50,000 men, were killed or captured and enslaved. After being summoned to trial, Alcibiades defected to Sparta, then to Persia, returning with false promises to Athens, where he was driven out after another defeat by the Spartans, who finally killed him in Phrygia in 404 BCE.
- (4) The close relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades is clearly reflected in paintings such as: Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1791). Other painters (Jean Léon Gérôme, Francesco Hayez, etc.) show Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia… Discovering Him in Women’s Quarters… in a Hetaera’s House… or in a Brothel… and Reprimanding Him. The two of them are also depicted in The School of Athens, by Raphael, in company with Aeschines and Antisthenes (or Xenophon).
Critias, who appears in Socratic dialogues by Plato, one in his name, was the blood-thirsty leader of the Thirty Tyrants, who were installed by the Spartan occupation army as an oligarchic regime in 404 BCE, after Athens’ defeat in the war. Not only Critias, but also several other tyrants were students of Socrates, as well. They were in power for only eight months, but in this short period, they managed to kill 5% of the Athenians, exile a lot of others, and seize the property of the dead and exiled. Many wealthy citizens were executed or murdered by the oligarchs just to confiscate their property and share it among themselves, giving a portion to their followers. It was a terror regime, led by Critias, who became notorious for his cruelty and inhumanity, as he was determined to put an end to democracy – regardless of human cost. The uprising that overthrew the tyrants in 403 was organized by a group of exiles led by Thrasybulus. Critias was killed in the initial combats. Xenophon may have played an important part in this regime, as one of the two commanders of the cavalry, which were the Thirty’s militia.
Many prominent Athenians, who were opposed to the regime of terror, left the city. Socrates, however, chose to remain and his attitude was interpreted as acceptance of the tyrants – indirectly but clearly. The philosopher espoused anti-democratic ideas, such as the view that it’s not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which only a few experts possess. He often praised the laws of oligarchic Sparta. Plato reinforced these anti-democratic ideas in the Republic, advocating rule by an élite of so-called enlightened “Philosopher Kings”. This might have also been Socrates’ idea of himself, going as far as claiming in his apology he had been a “gods’ gift” to the Athenians… There’s a view that “Socrates’ real crime [was] preaching a philosophy that produced Alcibiades and Critias… but of course, under the amnesty, he couldn’t be prosecuted for that”. This is a rather favourable view about Socrates. Because there are some other views, as well, that the Republic of both, Socrates and Plato, may have been… implemented by the Thirty Tyrants, and that this “Philosopher King” was finally none other than Critias himself!
This crisis would be unthinkable in ancient Athens: the Ecclesia of
Demos would have never accepted what the creditors dictated.
UNDER THE SO-CALLED “REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRATIC” SYSTEM, the people, who supposedly “rule”, are in fact powerless and unable to rule out all those dire consequences of the crisis we are experiencing now. In ancient Athens, on the contrary, as in any other democratic Hellenic city-state, such a crisis would be unthinkable: the Ecclesia would have never accepted what the creditors dictated. The decision would not be taken by some president or prime minister, government or House of Representatives, court or even banker, but by the citizens themselves.
Of course, there were officials, but for limited periods of time, alternating and revocable at any time. Their powers were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They just administered rather than governed. They could not decide “for the people”, but simply acted on decisions already taken by the people’s Ecclesia. Before taking over, and after leaving office, the citizens were subject to scrutinies, reviewing their abilities beforehand (δοκιμασία = trial), and their performance afterwards (εὐθύναι = responsibilities).
The Ecclesia and Heliaea are the pillars of democracy.
Without one, democracy is lame; losing both, it’s dead.
There were no judges, just jurors, numbering hundreds, even thousands in the most serious cases. The Ecclesia-Assembly, with a quorum of 6000 (around 10-20% of the citizens), and the people’s courts, the Heliaea (6000 jurors) were the pillars of democracy. Without one, democracy would be lame; losing both (as in our so-called “representative” system), there would be no trace of democracy left… The 400-member Boule’s work was more or less bureaucratic overseeing and coordinating the state institutions, while some older ones, e.g. the Archons and Areopagus, were gradually stripped of real powers.(5)
- (5) The Areopagus (from Areios Pagos, i.e. “Ares’ Rock”) is a rocky hill, NW of the Acropolis, where the court met. In pre-democratic Athens, it was the elders’ council, similar to the Roman Senate. Its membership was then generally restricted to former archons. There were three archons at a time: archon basileus (king ruler, a relic of monarchy), archon eponymous (chief magistrate) and polemarch (war ruler).
● One of the “privileges” left to the Areopagites was to enjoy the beauty of… Phryne, the famous hetaera, stripped in front of them, when she was accused of impiety. The orator Hypereides, one of her lovers defending her, used his best “argument” to save her from death: he removed her robe before the judges to… “arouse their pity”! Her beauty (not his rhetoric) was so “convincing” that she was acquitted! The episode inspired Jean Léon Gérôme in his painting Phryne Before the Areopagus (1861).
What’s been left from ancient democracy in today’s political
system is the least democratic procedure: election…
Athenian democracy was participatory: the citizens selected for office served collectively. The selection was done mostly by lot, not election, because the latter usually favoured (and still favours) the rich, noble, educated, eloquent and famous. Each citizen could serve (in the real sense of the word) only once, in some cases twice, in such positions. Allotment was considered as the most democratic means to prevent the corrupt purchase of votes and give citizens a unique form of political equality. In this way, more and more Athenians were engaged in politics, “ruling and being ruled in turn”, as Aristotle wrote. It is not a surprise that what’s been left from ancient democracy in today’s political system is the least democratic procedure, that is, election – which has become almost a synonym for “democracy”…
Elected rather than chosen by lot (therefore, coming from the higher classes) were the ten generals, the strategoi, due to their necessary expertise in matters of politics and war, and also those who were obliged to handle large sums of money: any money embezzled could be recovered from their estates. Elected officials, too, were subject to review before holding office and scrutiny after that. And they, too, could be removed from office at any time. Citizens held to be acting against the interests of the polis, the demos, e.g. in cases of abuse of power or embezzlement, faced penalties that could be very severe, such as death, huge unplayable fines, confiscation of property, permanent exile and loss of citizens’ rights through atimia (disgrace), a form of disenfranchisement.
“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” (Pericles)
A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word “idiot”, from the ancient Grecian term ἰδιώτης, meaning a private person, someone who is not actively participating in politics. Pericles, according to Thucydides, declared: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
The intelligentsia of the time was mostly aristocratic. Hence, among the ancient Greek critics of democracy we can find Socrates (the most well-known victim of democracy), Plato, and Aristotle – i.e. the “heavy artillery” of Hellenic philosophy was anti-democratic – dramatists, such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes; and also historians, such as Thucydides, Xenophon, or even Polybius, who firmly believed that every democracy eventually decays into “a government of violence and the strong hand,” leading to “tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments.” (So: Down with democracy! Long live aristocracy! The aristocrats, the oligarchs, have a “mutual understanding”, a modus vivendi, without resorting to “excesses”!)
The victory against the Persians, the birth of drama, the great acme
of Hellenic civilization, would be unthinkable without democracy.
All the above “forgot” that the victory against the Persians, the birth of drama, and even the great acme of Hellenic civilization, would have been unthinkable without democracy. However, despite all precautions, we now know there was no check on the dangers of demagogy: that was democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Two notorious Athenian demagogues (from demos and the verb agō = manipulate, thus “people’s manipulators”) during the Peloponnesian War were Alcibiades and Cleon.(6)
- (6) This Chronicle’s aim was not a critical evaluation of direct democracy. I just wanted to show its colossal differences from the so-called “representative democracy”. I presented in broad terms how it worked to assess the feasibility of its implementation today if it’s appropriately adapted. Among its victims were not only anti-democrats, like Socrates, but democrats, as well, such as Pericles, or his tutor and friend, the philosopher Anaxagoras. They were both accused by Cleon, the demagogue – the former for maladministration of funds (he was soon reinstated), and the latter for “impiety”. Pericles was obliged to send Anaxagoras, for his own safety, to Lampsacus, where he lived the rest of his life.
● On the relation between democracy and art, see the conclusion of Chronicle 12.
The ancient Grecian polis died out together with Athenian democracy: it was the end of an era for this form of government that ceased to be a model, because no one really cared or was interested to counter the negative accounts of the ancient writers. The classical model that inspired revolutionaries and radicals in Europe and America was Rome, not Athens – although Res publica Romana was no democracy. Thus, the Founding Fathers of the USA in 1787 set up a Senate, not an Ecclesia, which eventually met on the Capitol… But times changed and Athenian democracy was gradually appreciated for the high level of cultivation that her citizens enjoyed. Since the middle of the 20th century, every politician declares he is a “democrat”, every country claims it is a “democracy”, regardless of the actual makeup of its government.(7)
- (7) The failure of democracy, as well as of the last two centuries’ revolutions that were described as “socialist”, aiming at communism, was, in essence, a failure homo “sapiens”, or a failure of man as a “political animal”. His inability to create democratic, or even classless societies, is ultimately blamed on his own inability to rise to the occasion.
Revolutions in France (1789) and Haiti (1791)
NEVERTHELESS, THERE are still many “sensitive souls” who lament on the “impurity” of Athenian democracy because it excluded women, slaves and foreigners, exercising “imperialist” policies – as if patriarchy, slavery, racism and imperialism were all born out of democracy! Patriarchy is still going strong; the same applies to racism and imperialism. Slavery was abolished quite “recently”, though I’m afraid it is also going strong under disguise… But where or when did you see slaves voting?(!) As for universal suffrage, Finland was the first nation to give all adult citizens (men and women) the right to vote and run for office in 1906. Greek women voted for the first time in 1953. Note that the First French Republic, after the French Revolution (1789), was the first nation that adopted universal male suffrage in 1792, i.e. excluding women – let alone the slaves.
Apropos, have our “sensitive souls” ever heard of the great Haitian Revolution (1791), the only successful slave insurrection in history? It broke out two years after the equally great French Revolution and with precisely the same slogans: “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; but the Haitian aspirations for Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood, were denied by the great French revolutionaries on the basis of their… armed forces – sending even mercenaries (e.g. Poles) to Haiti to suppress the insurrection: such privileges were meant exclusively for the “noble, white Frenchmen”, not for negro Haitian helots!(8)
- (8) What was their reward? The country where the only victorious slave revolution ever took place is now probably the poorest all around the world. The so-called “international community” never forgave them for their heroism and punished them severely because they raised their heads in their desire to live free.
Plato’s Republic: a Dictatorial Monarchy!
● Plato’s Republic, the first recorded utopian proposal,(9) is one of the most influential works on philosophy and political theory. The “citizens” are categorized into a rigid class structure of golden, silver, bronze and iron socio-economic classes with limited social mobility (reminding us of the Indian caste system). Golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year-long educational program to be benign oligarchs, philosopher kings.(10) The wisdom of these hereditary rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources. Yet, true knowledge is reserved for the élite, while the lower classes are expected to fulfill their functions to the state loyally until the end of their lives. Censorship is common, to prevent impiety and immorality from corrupting the youth. The Platonic Republic has few laws, practices a form of eugenics to weed out the disabled, and deliberately hires mercenaries to conduct wars in the hope that the more warlike populations of nearby countries will be eliminated (what the Punics did until finally Carthage was razed to the ground). Indeed, who would like to live in such a harsh, unfree utopia, if his/her metal were not noble? In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper singled out Plato’s Republic as a “totalitarian dystopia”, with a distinct hereditary governing ruling class, while the lower working class is given no role in decision making, and treated as “human cattle”. Undoubtedly, the greatest utopia is to expect solutions from such “philosopher kings”, even if they are world-famous and have influenced generations upon generations of thinkers.
- (9) Utopia: an imagined community or society with highly desirable or nearly perfect conditions for all its citizens. Utopian ideals place emphasis on egalitarian principles, with the method of implementation varying according to the ideology of each proposal. The term utopia was coined by Thomas More for his book Utopia (1516), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic. The word comes from the Hellenic οὐ (not) and τόπος (place) and means no place. Eutopia, from the Greek εὖ (good) and τόπος, meaning good place, is the correct term to describe a positive utopia. Utopia and eutopia in English are homophonous; so they became synonymous, as well. The opposite of eutopia is dystopia, from the Hellenic δυσ- (bad) and τόπος, i.e. cacotopia or anti-utopia.
- (10) Finally, the Platonic Republic is in fact a monarchy, or a dictatorship, since the “philosopher king” resembles another equally imaginary being: a “benevolent dictator”…
● The Republic was written around 380 BCE, more than twenty years after its implementation in practice by the Thirty Tyrants, in 404-403. Therefore, we conclude that Plato was an unrepentant anti-democrat all his life… He even attempted to spread his ideas to Syracuse, even though he was disgusted with the “sensual” life in Sicily. According to Diogenes Laërtius, Plato initially went to Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius. The latter’s brother-in-law, Dion, became one of Plato’s disciples, but the tyrant himself turned against him. Plato almost faced death, and was sold into slavery. Anniceris, a Cyrenaic philosopher, subsequently bought his freedom and sent him home.(11) After the tyrant’s death, according to Plato’s Seventh Letter, Dion requested him to return to Syracuse to tutor and guide Dionysius II to become a “philosopher king”! Dionysius seemed to accept Plato’s teachings, but he became suspicious of his uncle and exiled him. Dion would finally return to overthrow Dionysius and rule Syracuse for a short time before being in turn… overthrown and assassinated by a fellow disciple of Plato, Calippus, who had traveled with Dion to Sicily to capture Syracuse! Calippus also ruled briefly before being ousted from power himself. Afterwards he commanded a band of mercenaries, who later killed him with the same sword that he used to kill Dion! That was the end-result of the second attempt to implement the Republic!… Plato reminded me of Pythagoras who also tried to combine his philosophy with the politics of Crotone, in Magna Graecia. The consequences would be disastrous for himself and his disciples. I wonder. How would Aristotle rate the two of them as “political animals”?
- (11) What a disgrace for Plato! He was saved by Anniceris, a representative of a philosophic school he despised, as the Cyrenaics were famous for their sensual hedonism!
Next Chronicle 5. IBERIA’S ODYSSEY ● Hellenes in Portugal ● Fado and Fate ● Odysseus and Calypso in Lisbon; Their Son in Santarém ● Creto-Iberian Ties: Bull Worship and Bullfight