Voyage 2+. On DEMOCRACY
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 inspired and shaped by Hellenic Nature. They philosophized and discussed public issues under her beneficial influence. She “dictated” to them 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 the highest virtue – regardless if they lived in a slave and “male” society. It seems contradictory… Moreover, their democracy was pure, direct; 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” one, which is in essence an oligarchy.
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 in 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 – does not delegate such powers to anyone, not even to Pericles himself! 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 some day…
* 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) against gods, and corruption of the youth of the polis of Athens. Note that what we know about Socrates’ trial and death penalty are mainly derived from the Apology of Socrates by Plato, and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon – both of them students of Socrates, hence anything but impartial sources.
Democracy prosecuted its demons in Socrates’ face – mainly two other of his dear friends and students, Alcibiades and Critias. Alcibiades was the main proponent of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415-413) 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 two 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 regime of terror 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 revolt. 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 opposed to the terror regime left the city. Socrates, however, chose to remain and his attitude was interpreted as acceptance of the tyrants – indirectly but clearly. The philosopher espoused antidemocratic 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 antidemocratic ideas in the Republic, advocating rule by the elite of enlightened “Philosopher-Kings”. This might have been Socrates’ idea of himself, going as far as claiming in his apology that 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 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.
The Ecclesia and the Heliaea were the pillars of democracy.
Under a so-called “representative” system of the so-called “democracy”, the people who supposedly rule are in reality powerless, unable to rule out the dire consequences of a crisis like the one we are experiencing now. In ancient Athens, on the contrary, as in any other democratic Greek 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, or government, or house of representatives, or court, or even banker, but by the people themselves.
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 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 (ευθύναι = responsibilities).
In addition, there were no judges, just jurors, numbering hundreds, even thousands in the most serious cases. The Ecclesia-Assembly, with a quorum of 6000, and the people’s courts, the Heliaea, were the pillars of democracy. Without one of the two, 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 mostly bureaucratic overseeing and coordinating the state’s institutions, while some older ones, like the Archons and Areopagus, were gradually stripped of real powers.
This democracy was participatory: Athenians 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 offices. 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: 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. Politicians held to be acting against the interests of 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, 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 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. Therefore, among the ancient Greek critics of democracy we can find the philosophers Plato (his teacher, Socrates, has been the most famous victim of democracy), and Aristotle; the dramatists Aeschylus and Aristophanes; the historians Thucydides, Xenophon, and also Polybius, who thought that every democracy eventually decays into “a government of violence and the strong hand,” leading to “tumultuous assemblies, massacres, banishments.” (So, why bother? Is that what he means?).
All the above “forgot” that the victory against the Persians, the birth of drama and, of course, 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 – and that was democracy’s Achilles’ heel. Two notorious Athenian demagogues (from δῆμος and the verb ἄγω = carry/manipulate, thus “people’s manipulators”) during the Peloponnesian War were Cleon and Alcibiades. But again, we mostly know about them through the Histories of the above mentioned writers.
The victory against the Persians and the birth of drama, even the great acme of Hellenic civilization, would have been unthinkable without democracy.
After the demise of Athenian democracy, few looked upon it as a good form of government. This was because no one was interested enough to counter the negative accounts of the ancient writers. The classical example that inspired the revolutionaries and radicals in Europe and America was Rome rather than Athens – though Res publica Romana was no democracy. Thus, the Founding Fathers of the USA in 1787 did not set up an Ecclesia but a Senate that 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 country has claimed to be a “democracy”, regardless of the actual makeup of its government.
Nevertheless, there are still now many “sensitive souls” who lament on the “impurity” of Athenian democracy because it excluded women, slaves and foreigners, and led to “imperialist” policy – 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 exactly the same slogans: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”; but the Haitian aspirations for Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood, were denied by the equally great French revolutionaries on the basis of their… armed forces – using even mercenaries (e.g. Poles): these privileges were reserved exclusively for the “noble, white Frenchmen”, not for negro Haitian helots!(b)