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People Power

John Swift

Athens: A History of the World’s First Democracy, by Thomas N Mitchell, Yale University Press, 368 pp, $20, ISBN: 978-0300246605

No one pretends democracy is all-perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms which have been tried from time to time.
Winston Churchill, House of Commons, November 11th, 1947
So distribution should undo excess, / And each man have enough.
William Shakespeare, King Lear

In ancient, as in modern times, democracy has not been short of critics. Such criticism ranges from scepticism through mild cynicism to the brutally dismissive – that the mind of the masses is the mind of a child; or the choice is between government by the corrupt few or by the foolish many; or democracy is government by the uneducated, aristocracy government by the badly educated. HL Mencken’s savage quip, that democracy consists of “the worship of jackals by jackasses”, is merely abusive. None of these viewpoints is without its kernel of validity, but Churchill’s comment contains the larger truth. Many of the greatest minds of antiquity, including Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides were far from enthusiastic regarding extreme or absolute democracy. In the twenty-first century, as in ancient Athens, a related and fundamental question is what has political democracy to do with earning a living? Or is there such a thing as economic democracy?

Democracy was established in Athens approximately two and a half thousand years ago and with two brief interruptions it remained the system of government there for about 180 years, from 508/7 to the 330s BC. It is worth noting that less than a handful of modern democracies have as yet lasted that long. The foundations of democracy were laid by Solon, who ended exclusive aristocratic rule, instituted a new, more flexible class system and assigned different roles to each class; this basis was extended largely by Cleisthenes, and further developed by Ephialtes and Pericles (the latter died in 429 BC). The context was a Greece of almost a thousand city-states, (polis, plural poleis) emerging from the Archaic Period, with a developing system of laws, which in Athens included precisely defined citizenship, with political responsibilities strictly confined to adult males only. The number of such citizens in Athens, including its contiguous territory and about 140 villages, probably increased from 30.000 to almost 60.000 by 480 BC; the total population population of the city, counting in women, children, resident foreigners and slaves, may then have reached  about 300,000 souls.

Professor Mitchell’s book is elegantly produced, with clear maps, good, though few, illustrations and a fine index. The bibliography is particularly impressive, with over 325 references to relevant books, studies and specialised articles. Unsurprisingly, much of the content consists of well-trodden ground; classical Greece must by now have generated as much analysis and commentary as the Bible. Apart from the development of his main themes, Mitchell touches more briefly but impressively on a number of other areas. He makes a persuasive case that Hesiod, the poet and near contemporary of Homer, in his very early emphasis on the ethical framework of politics, especially with regard to justice, peace and personal conscience, contributed to the later acceptance of democratic ideals. While he is not an admirer of Sparta, the large and inveterate opponent of Athens, his account is balanced and perceptive, not least in the stress on the Spartans prioritising the equality of all its citizens. The books, lives and philosophy of the Greek historians, and especially Herodotus and Thucydides, are dealt with in compelling fashion. Herodotus may justly be considered the inventor of the new genre, “the enquiry into the past” (historie). The intimate connection between Athenian politics and drama, especially comedy, which caricatured and ridiculed current personalities, issues and events is also stressed. If Athenian democracy was the foster-mother of Greek drama (through its public financing), it is no less true that the plays of Aristophanes and his successors are the best possible proof that in this era democratic freedoms existed and were cherished in reality as well as in theory.

What then was the shape of this democracy, as established by Cleisthenes and added to in the following century? It centred on four pillars. First, Cleisthenes replaced the old social order of kinship-linked networks, favourable to the ascendancy of the hereditary elite, with a completely new structure of demes and tribes. The deme was based on the local village, settlement or city ward, each having its own assembly, elected by all registered residents, who also chose its chief officers and held them to account through annual scrutiny. Membership of a deme became the criterion of citizenship. Democratic cells were thereby created in every local community, loosening the hold of local aristocracies and educating citizens in political awareness and habits of mind. Second, the demes, numbering about 140, were linked into higher groupings of ten new tribes, which mixed citizens together geographically and socially. The tribes served as a basis for the recruitment to and organisation of the army, and for the election of its commanders.

They were also the basis for the election of the third pillar, a new council of five hundred, and of its important steering committee of fifty, comprised of one from each tribe. This council was the linchpin of the new constitution, as it eventually acquired administrative, judicial and deliberative functions; it acted as the chief executive committee of the assembly, setting its agenda and examining issues in advance. The council was thus democratically elected at local level, and was intended to be inclusive, egalitarian and to give control to the whole people. The apex of the whole system, and its fourth pillar, was the assembly (ecclesia), the one arena inclusive of all citizens, where all were entitled to speak and thus the voice of the people could be directly expressed and its will determined. In commenting on these reforms, Herodotus stresses their inspiring and liberating effects as stemming especially from isegoria, the equal right of all citizens to speak in the assembly, and isonomia, the full equality of all citizens before the law. A final addition was the law of ostracism, a mechanism by which the people could vote once per year to send a citizen they feared or distrusted into exile for ten years. This power was used sparingly and was, according to our author, clearly intended to equip the citizens to take exceptional precautionary or prudential action to avert a danger to the state and its people. In effect, it was a type of special powers act, but vested directly in the people, not in executive officials or even in the assembly.   

This then is the overall structure which entitles classical Athens to be called democratic. According to Professor Mitchell, these were not piecemeal or ad hoc measures but a well-thought-out political approach of a radical, innovative and transformative nature. Its defining idea was that it was the whole body of citizens, not their representatives and certainly not the privileged few, who had the right to political power, the right to control directly the course of political affairs. The word “democracy”, (from kratos/power and demos/people, that is people power ) probably came into currency later than the reality.

Given the paucity of direct evidence from two and a half thousand years ago, it is not surprising that many aspects of the classical world still give rise to controversy. Most of what has been said above regarding the positive side of democracy in Athens is now an historical given; even the idea of electing your commanding officers for times of war has a plus in that it concentrates the mind wonderfully. But one commentator I have read believes that Mitchell has painted too rosy a picture of life in the poleis, and this has probably to do with his relative lack of detail and depth in respect of the negative side of things. Such flaws might cover especially the position of women, and also the issues of slavery and Athenian imperialism.

As regards women in democratic Athens, there is a body of opinion which holds that their  status and scope for action was close to that of their modern Saudi Arabian counterparts. They may have had the status of citizens but they could not vote, could not give evidence in a court of law or inherit property in their own right, and had limited powers to buy and sell. They remained effectively under the control of their male guardian, and their position was not very different from that of a slave. Effectively, a woman’s degree of freedom depended on her social status by birth or marriage. “Respectable” women stayed at home, may have been frequently veiled when outside the home, and earned respect by not talking and not being talked about. By the 340s BC, an orator could hold that “we have courtesans for pleasure ... and wives for the production of legitimate children and for being a trustworthy guardian of the contents of our household”. Women were not educated, schools were for boys only and only the most eccentric philosophers, like Pythyagoras, had women hearers. It is not even certain that women could attend the theatre, although Mitchell holds that they probably could. For the quality of democracy, the important point is that the political limits were absolute. In mitigation of this important limitation, we should recall that it did take a further 2,400 years for it to be rectified in Western civilisation, and certain related issues are still very much a work in progress.

One of the most interesting sections in Mitchell’s study is the discussion of contemporary critics of democracy in classical Athens. This incorporates especially the views of Plato and Aristotle. Plato took a proto-totalitarian position on the learned and the wise, and it was only late in life that he advocated the rule of law rather than the rule of wisdom. His most cutting criticism of democracy is that it gives equal rights to the equal and unequal alike. Aristotle provides a stronger endorsement of many of the central tenets of democracy, in particular the rule of the majority. But he strongly opposed the system which emerged in the wake of the Persian wars, especially after the naval battle of Salamis, which he saw as enshrining the tyranny of the poorest (the thetes). He believed in a mixed system, with the major political offices being awarded solely on merit, and the majority being composed of ciizens of moderate means, those in the middle socially and economically (hoi mesoi). Only this could ensure the stability derived from a constitution which commanded the firm loyalty of a majority across society and over time (homonoia).

Professor Mitchell is brave enough to take issue with the argument of Aristotle on these questions, pointing out that it does not fit with what is otherwise known of the structure, functioning and outlook of Athenian democracy at this time. In substance, Aristotle’s argument is based on theory, and his fears of a lawless tyranny of the poor were never borne out in practice. The democracy never threatened to overthrow the rule of law or to act oppressively against the interests of the high-born or the wealthy. The thetes undoubtedly raised their status and strengthened their influence but they never achieved anything approaching a controlling influence in the assembly; increased prosperity, upward mobility, overseas colonies and a lack of organisation and leadership all contributed to this. The other two divisions of the demos, the hoplite class, “sturdy yeomen” largely based in the rural parts of Attica, upon which the land army depended, and the wealthy, still mostly aristocratic, elite remained better placed to control decisions.

What this suggests is that Athenian democracy was more “mixed” than Aristotle suspected or than Mitchell is sometimes prepared to allow. Freedom to and freedom from, political equality, payment for and annual rotation of office, choosing by lot, etc, etc, seem to have been sufficient for the masses. While it may have been exaggerated by Herodotus and Thucydides among others, as well as by some modern commentators, there is little reason to doubt that the bulk of the Athenian people were energised and stimulated by the reforms of Cleisthenes. But economic and social reform were not on the agenda. The Athenians appear to have been content to live with their social heritage and use talent where they found it. Political preferment on the basis of merit, especially in relation to the most senior financial and military posts, was prudently accepted as compatible, even if this meant in practice confining many of the highest positions of leadership to a relatively narrow elite of birth, education and wealth. Mitchell’s best formulation is that “what emerged, at some cost to ideological purity, was a balanced modus vivendi between the social classes that offered no threat to wealth and that gave a de facto monopoly of the most important offices to the elite while maintaining the ultimate control of the demos over leaders and the broad course of public affairs”.

A somewhat different perception may be found in Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler, (a history of inequality in wealth and income from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century). He considers that classical Athens was also exceptional in its economy: that its close and arguably self-reinforcing connection between a strengthening of citizen rights, expansion of military participation and redistributive measures acted on balance to favour the commoners over the wealthy; and that this also helped contain economic inequality to a greater extent than was usual in pre-industrial societies. Its per capita GDP was high for a pre-modern economy, perhaps up to four times physiological subsistence, similar to sixteenth century Holland. Scheidel’s judgement is that by the fourth century BC, democracy , near universal mobilisation, relatively progressive taxation, a sizeable state share in GDP, substantial civilian spending  and limited inequality lent Athens a curiously and precociously “modern “ appearance.

The two views are not totally irreconcilable. But Mitchell’s argument, which I find more persuasive, suggests that democratic Athens had the same difficulties as twenty-first century democracies in extending democratic freedoms into the economic and social arenas. Its philosophers, including Aristotle, believed it was important to keep the gap between rich and poor as small as possible. To achieve this in our era, there is no shortage of solutions which are simple, clear, straightforward – and wrong. There is no simple remedy for the excesses of twenty-first century, finance-led capitalism, no clear way to find a consensus on how it should be modified. Where, for example, is the balance between the very human wish to leave property and material possessions to family members and the need for strong inheritance taxes to ensure and fund a more-or-less level economic playing field for all citizens? How do we incorporate and restrain the “superfluous and lust-dieted man / Who will not see because he does not feel”? At the end of the second decade of our century, as was pointed out by Roslyn Fuller in her review of the first edition of Mitchell’s book, the problems of democracy are not just about who wins the next election; they concern the very nature of our society.

Finally, on a less sombre note, the Norse scholar Torgrim Titlestad has recently discussed the substantial hiatus which exists between the ending of Athenian democracy in 332 BC and the revival of a sustained practical interest in democratic institutions by European thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and has speculated that the gap might be bridged, at least partially, by developments in Norway and Iceland, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, as recounted in the Kings’ Sagas and rooted in the local assemblies (the thing). (“Viking Legacy – a Cornerstone of World Civilisation”, Sagabok, 2018).This may seem counter-intuitive in Ireland and Britain, where we are still inclined to associate the Viking Age with aggression, warfare and ruthless brutality rather than with freedom of speech, the liberty of the individual and the relative equality of women. But before dismissing this line of inquiry perhaps we need to imagine what the inhabitants of the neighbouring polis of Megara thought of the freebooting marauders who came across their borders in the very early days of Athens.


John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).