Voyage 2*. On DEMOCRACY
THERE ARE “SEVERAL HISTORICAL OXYMORA” in antiquity, as I have tried to make clear in our previous Voyage 2. One of them concerns “the differences between the Aegean and the Orient in their political structures: the decentralized Greek city-states”, on the one hand, and the Eastern “centralized empires”, on the other. What I had in mind was to explain these differences as a result of objective conditions prevailing in the Orient vis-à-vis the Aegean – above all to speak about the birth of democracy, pure, direct and participatory, in contrast to today’s so-called “representative democracy” imposed on us all. Here’s to you, my fellow voyagers: especially now, because of the crisis, it’s good to make comparisons and have some reflections
LIFE IN ANCIENT HELLAS, as a rule, was not a “test for some happy afterlife” – an idea that 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 city-state, polis; democracy was their ideal; and freedom their highest virtue – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory… Moreover, their democracy was pure, direct, 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.(a) More and more oxymora and paradoxa… Let’s try to make them clear:
As much as the Ecclesia of Demos can be related to the Ecclesia (i.e. Church) of Christ, so much the pure (direct, participatory) democracy
can be related to the so-called “representative”, which is in essence
A deficit in democracy is accompanied by similar deficits in politics and justice. An entire country, Greece, was destroyed 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 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 – let alone to death! We have no democracy, let’s accept it! It’s the prerequisite for us to obtain it someday…
● 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 examine 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 are 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.(b) Alcibiades was the main proponent of the totally 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 eventually assassinated him in Phrygia in 404 BCE.
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 many 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 engagements. 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 elite of enlightened “Philosopher Kings”. This might have also been Socrates’ idea of himself, going as far as claiming in his apology he had been a “god’s 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
would have never accepted what the creditors dictated.
UNDER THIS SO-CALLED “REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRATIC” SYSTEM, the people who supposedly “rule” are in fact powerless and unable to rule out the dire consequences of the crisis we are experiencing now. In ancient Athens, on the contrary, as in any other democratic Greek city-state, such a crisis would be quite 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 people themselves.(c)
There were officials, of course, but for limited periods of time, alternating and revocable at any moment. Their powers were precisely defined and their capacity for initiative limited. They just administered rather than governed. They did 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).
Ecclesia and Heliaea: 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’s institutions, while some older ones, like the Archons and Areopagus, were gradually stripped of real powers.(d)
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 regarded 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 citizens 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”…
What’s been left from ancient democracy in today’s political
system is the least democratic procedure: election…
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 people, 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.
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 Greek 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.”
“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)
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, like 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.” (Conclusion: Down with Democracy! Long Live Aristocracy! The aristocrats, the oligarchs, you see, can have a “mutual understanding”, are always able to find a modus vivendi, without resorting to… “excesses”!)
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 δῆμος and the verb ἄγω = manipulate, thus “people’s manipulators”) during the Peloponnesian War were Alcibiades and Cleon. (But again, we mostly know about them from the Histories of the above mentioned writers).
The victory against the Persians, the birth of drama, even the great acme
of Hellenic civilization, would be unthinkable without democracy.
The ancient Greek 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 the 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 has declared to be a “democrat”, every country has claimed to be a “democracy”, regardless of the actual makeup of its government.
NEVERTHELESS, THERE STILL ARE 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’s also going strong under disguise… And where or when did you see slaves voting?(!) As for universal suffrage, Finland was the first nation in the world to give all adult citizens (men and women) the right to vote and run for office in 1906. Women in Greece voted for the first time in 1951. Mind you that the First French Republic after the French Revolution (1789) was the first nation that adopted universal male suffrage in 1792, 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 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!(e)
A Republican Appendix
● Plato’s Republic, the first recorded utopian proposal,(f) 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.(g) The wisdom of these hereditary rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources. But true knowledge is reserved for the elite, 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 surrounding countries will be eliminated out (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 the Platonic Republic as a “totalitarian dystopia”, with a distinct hereditary governing ruling class, while the lower working class is given no role in decision making, treated as “human cattle”. Undoubtedly, the greatest utopia is to expect solutions from such “philosopher kings”, even though they are world-famous and have influenced generations upon generations of thinkers…