Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Cartledge and Castoriadis on democracy: politics, philosophy, religion and tragedy

Democracy, in which the biggest blockhead has the same right to vote and the same weight in voting as the genius, is a form of madness... (Thomas Bernhard) 

Democracy is under attack, not just by populism and authoritarianism in the West, not just by those who want to place limits on parrhessia (free speech) – the right and ability to criticise and, ultimately, upend society’s prevailing institutions and ideas and, of course, the right and ability to defend society’s prevailing institutions and ideas; and not just by the West’s more vehement civilisational opponents, who reject the idea of mutable, man and woman-made laws, in favour of laws that were supposedly divinely conceived and revealed; but also by those who want to wrestle the concept and meaning of democracy from the West and claim it wasn’t a Greco-Athenian invention – for this is to commit one of the worst sins in the modern world, to privilege Western civilisation. For opponents of the West’s exclusive claims to democratic creation and custom, democracy existed and was practiced in other, non-European civilisations, in the Middle East, India, and China prior to classical Athens and, during the so-called European Dark Ages, in Islamic societies and in pre-colonial tribal life in Africa, North America and Australia

It is this attempt to claim that democracy was not an Athenian (and hence Western) innovation that motivated Paul Cartledge to write Democracy: A Life. What he’s produced is a necessary and scrupulous antidote to those who bandy the term democracy about without understanding its unique history or intricate meaning, the full implications of the demos obtaining and discharging kratos. Refuting arguments that activities like public discussion, deliberative assemblies and responsive government are proof of complex democratic life, Cartledge describes how Athenian democracy originated after the long rule of the Peisistratid tyrants, operated in its various iterations, presents us with its proponents, who equate democracy with political freedom and equality, and its critics, who see it as a license for demagoguery and a recipe for social turmoil (stasis), then guides us through democracy’s travails and demise in the heterogenous grandiose Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine empires, its resuscitation in the Italian medieval communes and city states before its full-blown resurrection in American, French and English politics and political thinking from the 17th century onwards. 

Cartledge identifies three distinctive characteristics and components to Athenian democracy.

1. Following Aristotle, Cartledge asserts that democracy is more than the rule of the masses or the many. It is the rule of the poor, a conscious attempt by one social class to curb the oppressive power and influence of another. (Similarly, oligarchy, is not the rule of the few or the elite. It is the rule of – or, perhaps more correctly, for – the wealthy). 

2. Democracy is the specific and ‘highly codified system of laws and practices/precedents developed over decades’. (Moses Finley’s ‘devices and institutions’). Perhaps surprisingly to moderns, for the Athenians it was not elections that defined their democracy – elections had a whiff of elitism about them with their elevation of, supposedly, the most qualified or the best (the aristoi) and were used sparingly in Athens. Rather, sortition (the random drawing of lots) was the preferred method for choosing archons (magistrates) to run city affairs, officials to sit in the the Boule (Council of 500), with terms restricted to one year and service only possible twice in a man’s lifetime, and the Dikasteria (popular jury-courts). The Ecclesia (Assembly) was open for attendance to all male citizens, while devices such as ostracism – the exile of citizens threatening to become too powerful – and graphe paranomon (accusation of unlawfulness) – the timely revision of a law deemed to have been made in haste or as a result of bad arguments or advice – were designed to keep in check the demagogue or those with tendencies to tyranny.

3. Cartledge also asserts that for the political aspects of democracy to exist and flourish, there must also be an accompanying culture of democracy. This is what Aristotle called the ‘way of life’ and Isocrates called the ‘soul’ or ‘animating spirit’ – the ‘life and soul’– of a polis. 

For Cartledge, following Jean-Pierre Vernant, democracy only becomes possible with the ’desacralisation of knowledge’, when the Greeks make the breakthrough of jettisoning religious (or mythical) ways of thinking about the universe (cosmos), nature (physis) and, ultimately, society, and adopting a more rational approach. 

‘With the Milesians,’ Vernant says, ‘the origin and ordering of the world for the first time took the form of an explicitly posed problem to which an answer must be supplied without mystery, an answer gauged to human intelligence, capable of being aired and publicly debated before the mass of citizens like any question of everyday life.’

One of the most striking expressions of the demise of myth-based explanations of the universe and human affairs was the emergence in Athens of a new art form, tragedy. Rooted in the cult of the god Dionysus and his annual festival, the Dionysia, Cartledge argues tragic drama functioned to question Athens’ most fundamental beliefs about itself. 

According to Cartledge: ‘The slippery, ambiguous, and ambivalent nature of Dionysus (deadly violence alternating with ecstatic release) made his worship an excellent medium and arena for such profound questioning without running the ultimate risk (always lurking in the Assembly) of causing outright revolutionary upheavals.’

Cornelius Castoriadis: democracy and Chaos
For another theorist of Athenian democracy, Cornelius Castoriadis, the Ionian intellectual revolution had its origins in Hesiod’s Theogony – the narrative that sought to explain to Greeks the genesis of the gods and the universe.

For Hesiod, Castoriadis points out in The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy, in the beginning there is Chaos and it is out of this total void that the cosmos is created. However, this cosmos is impermanent, subject to corruption, decay and death, with Chaos always lurking ready to reassert itself.

The fact that the world is neither fully chaos nor fully ordered creates the conditions for politics and philosophy.

‘If the human world were fully ordered,’ Castoriadis says, ‘either externally or through its own “spontaneous operation”, if human laws were given by God or by nature or by the “nature of society” or by the “laws of history”, then there would be no room for political thinking and no field for political action… no sense in asking what the proper law is or what justice is.’ 

Similarly, in terms of philosophy, if the world were sheer chaos, ‘there would be no possibility of thinking at all’, while if it were fully ordered, as it is in religious or totalitarian societies, ‘there would not be any philosophy, but only one, final system of knowledge’.

Since men and women, unlike God, are flawed and since they are not coerced or chained by any ‘laws of history’, the responsibility for instituting society falls on their weak shoulders in the full knowledge that this process is precarious, never complete, always contested and subject to rupture and change.

Politics, then, is not court intrigues or factional rivalries but the explicit questioning of the established institution of society – and the positing of alternative ways of instituting society; while philosophy is not the musings of the sage or the religious expositions of the priest-mullah-rabbi-shaman, but the explicit questioning of the instituted collective representation of the world – and the positing of alternatives.

Politics and philosophy, or judging and choosing, were created in Greece. Good and evil, just and unjust, true and false, thinkable and unthinkable were not determined by sacred books or prophets – Greece had no Moses, no Bible and certainly no Mohammed and no Koran; it had poets, philosophers, legislators and politai (citizens), The laws of a city were not miraculously revealed, they emerged as a result of society’s deliberations.

Religion and democracy
While it would be specious to characterise Greek cities – even the most radical ones, like Athens – as irreligious or indifferent to the sacred, religion was, as Moses Finley says, ‘pervasively in the background’ and as such provided the intellectual space for doubt and interrogation regarding the role of the divine in human affairs.

This questioning of the role of religion and the gods in society is demonstrated by Hecataeus of Miletus – ‘The tales (muthoi) told by the Greeks are many – and ridiculous’; and by Plato, particularly in the Timaeus but also in the Republic, wherein the philosopher sought to establish a new creation myth for the Greeks that would supplant Hesiod’s Theogony, which Plato objected to on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently edifying – he was outraged by Hesiod’s depiction of the gods as unjust, malicious, envious and resentful of humans. 

Furthermore, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the poet makes clear that the Olympian gods – whose rule is depicted as arbitrary and spiteful, characterised by ‘eternal anger and an inflexible mind’ – the epitome of that most loathsome of regimes to the Athenians, tyranny – took power by overthrowing the previous government of the Titans, led by Kronos – who himself had brutally usurped power from his cruel father, Ouranos – and that the Olympian gods will perish in the same ruthless way.

Burning with resentment at his treatment at the hands of Zeus, Prometheus revels in the knowledge that the king of the gods will soon be dethroned, that he will go from being a ruler to a slave, who ‘will suffer even greater pains than those I am suffering now’.

If the gods can be called ridiculous, condemned for their dubious morality and oppressive rule, considered vulnerable to being deposed, then it’s not such a big step to claim that the gods don’t exist at all.

‘As for the gods’, Protagoras says, ‘I can know nothing; neither how they are, nor if they are, nor if they are not, nor about how they might look.’ 

Indeed, Protagoras places man, not the gods at the centre of the universe. ‘Man is the measure of all things’, the Sophist says; while in Sophocles’ Antigone, this extolment of man is suggested by the chorus’ famous observation that: ‘Πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.’ (’Wonders abound in this world yet no wonder is greater than man’).

Man’s deina – his awesomeness, power, wondrousness, which the chorus then proceeds to characterise in detail – ingenuity, hard work, mastery of speech and thought, skills in adjusting to nature, propensity for good government – don’t make man better or superior to the gods, but distinguish him in that he has the ability to change, learn and create. 

The gods, Castoriadis says, cannot change – ‘they are what they have been since they first existed and what they will be for ever’ – but man, and only man among all beings, has the power to alter himself, to transform his relations not only with nature, but also with his own nature.

In terms of politics and philosophy, this uncertainty towards the gods and their benevolent predisposition allows – or rather impels – the Greeks to decide for themselves what sort of society they want to live in, what laws they should and shouldn’t have, how they should live their lives without the gods holding their hand, guiding them through the morass of ethics and morality, politics and philosophy.

At its best, this break with the gods can tend to democracy and freedom, at its worst, to tyranny or social breakdown. (In the modern era, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Camus have all wrestled with the problem of morality in a godless world).

Democracy and tragedy
How then do democracies resist the temptation to permit everything? If democracy is necessarily unwilling to constrain what can and cannot be questioned, if, theoretically, nothing is off-limits, if there are no boundaries and no taboos as to what can be said and thought, how do democracies gain legitimacy and allegiance, establish a common identity and interest among citizens, and prevent a slide towards fragmentation, nihilism and self-destruction? 

For Castoriadis, elaborating on Cartledge’s view of tragedy as a means to critique society, tragedy’s role in Athens was, primarily, ontological, to remind the audience that Being is Chaos – there is no order or meaning attributable to the world, what we intend and desire and what life offers us are at odds, mortality is inescapable, hope for a just and happy afterlife under the regime of a benign god are vain. If there is an afterlife, it is far worse than life in the material world – as attested by Achilles in The Odyssey, when he admits to Odysseus he’d rather be a slave condemned to an existence of back-breaking humiliation than Lord of the Dead: 

‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.’

Democracy is only possible on this tragic ontological foundation – freed from hope for a blissful afterlife, man is ready for thought and action in this world – which was why Plato, the ferocious anti-democrat, rejected it, asserting the ‘philosophical monstrosity’ (according to Castoriadis) that Being is good, that there is an underlying harmony and rationality in the world, that God’s motive in creating the universe is to advance goodness. (Nietzsche noted that ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’).

If tragedy was democratic, Castoriadis says, because it was a conspicuous reminder of mortality, that is, ‘of the radical limitation on human beings’, then democracy is a ‘tragic regime’ because the demos has to consider where its power stops and to set its own limits. Just as man is circumscribed by death, so the demos is circumscribed by awareness of its own temporality.

Tragedy’s political dimension, Castoriadis argues, its inextricable association with democracy, is that it presents to the demos the question of hubris, warning of the consequences of going too far, of exceeding boundaries and of the necessity of self-limitation, i.e. limitation not set by extra-social admonitions or precepts – the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount – but by the commonwealth of citizens in constant discussion.

This is the lesson of Sophocles’ Antigone, not its modern interpretation of standing up to power, of rebellion against the state, but that being the sole one to think right (monos phronein) – which both Antigone and Creon are guilty of – is an act of hubris and makes you apolis – beyond the political community of men.

Antigone, Castoriadis says, demonstrates that ‘contrary reasons can coexist and that it is not in obstinately persisting in one’s own reasons that it becomes possible to solve the grave problems that may be encountered in collective life.’

Democracy today
Both Castoriadis and Cartledge agree that the challenge for modern societies is to become more democratic – to continue with the project begun by the Greeks 2500 years ago. Both agree that what exists in modern Western societies would not be recognisable to Athenians as a democracy. Rather, the Greeks would identify our political system of representative democracy as oligarchic – rule of/for the few or the wealthy – even if Castoriadis would term them ‘liberal’ oligarchies. Democracy, Castoriadis says, does not mean human rights, lack of censorship or elections. It means direct democracy. ‘There is no democracy but direct democracy. A representative democracy is not a democracy.’

Indeed, Cartledge reminds us that those we are led to believe played a major role in reviving democracy in the modern world, setting the standards the West has followed for the last 250 years, i.e. the Founding Founders of the American republic, were in fact vehement anti-democrats, fearing that Athenian direct democracy amounted to mob rule and devising a system to avoid such an unpalatable outcome.

Castoriadis and Cartledge also agree that the prospects for making liberal oligarchy or representative democracy more democratic – or enhancing the elements of it that tend towards democracy – are not good.

This pessimism stems from the emergence of human (individual) rights and their superseding of political (collective) rights – the right to be involved in civic life, the making and unmaking of laws – and is reflective of Benjamin Constant’s belief that modern men and women are not interested in public affairs but only in the protection of their ‘delights’ from the state. 

For Castoriadis, democracy is in crisis. The fetishisation of these ‘delights’ has been followed by a descent into apathy, privatisation and individualism, the erosion of the democratic ethos – ‘responsibility, shame, frankness (parrhessia), checking up on one another, and an acute awareness of the fact that the public stakes are also personal stakes for each one of us’. This state of affairs is best described by two words: conformism and insignificance – conformism expressing the waning of social and political conflict and insignificance the sterility and banality of contemporary culture.

Meanwhile, Cartledge points to the growing hostility both outside of and within Western societies of religiously-minded actors who contemptuously reject the democratic imperative of parrhessia and of man-and-woman made laws in favour of the inviolability of divinely-inspired speech and laws that brook no questioning let alone offer themselves to variation.

For Castoriadis, a religious structuring of the world that posits a deity who has miraculously transmitted his strictures and laws to humanity via a chosen messenger, strictures and laws that are immaculate – for god is immaculate – and must be upheld and obeyed for all time, is the antithesis of democracy and democratic life. The philosophical foundation of democracy is secularism – a recognition that religion must be detached from the state and curtailed in public life – the defence of which used to be the preserve of the radical left, though a significant part of the left has now, in the name of anti-imperialism, found alliance with religious believers in a shared resentment and hostility to Western political values and history and entertains anti-democratic religious discourse and practices as an affirmation of cultural egalitarianism, a conviction that all cultures have the same intrinsic value and worth. 

Cartledge, Paul: Democracy: A Life (2016)
Castoriadis, Cornelius: The Greek and the Modern Political Imaginary, in The World in Fragments (1997)
The Retreat from Autonomy: Postmodernism as Generalised Conformism, in The World in Fragments (1997)
Castoriadis, Cornelius: The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy, in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (1991)
Power, Politics, Autonomy, in Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (1991)
Castoriadis, Cornelius: Aeschylean Anthropogony and Sophoclean Self-Creation of Man (1991), in Figures of the Thinkable (2005)
Heritage and Revolution 1996), in Figures of the Thinkable (2005)
What Democracy? (1990), in Figures of the Thinkable (2005)
Castoriadis, Cornelius: Postscript on Insignificance: Dialogues with Cornelius Castoriadis (2011)
Castoriadis, Cornelius: The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Finley, Moses: Politics in the Ancient World (1983)
Pender, E.E.: Chaos Corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s Creation Myth, in Boys-Stones, G.R. & Haubold J.H. (eds) Plato and Hesiod (2009)
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Vernant, Jean-Pierre: The Origins of Greek Thought (1984)
Whitmarsh, Tim: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2017)