Saturday, 30 January 2021

Athenian democracy: people power or mob rule?

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)

Above is a good podcast in which Professor Paul Cartledge provides an introduction to the nature of democracy in ancient Greece. 

In fact, Cartledge starts off by reminding us that there was actually no such thing as ancient Greece but rather a collection of 800-1000 communities that spanned the Western Mediterranean to the Crimean peninsula, united by language and religion, but by no means a nation-state called Greece or Hellas. 

Each community had its own particular system of governance, though the three that have come down to us are those associated with Athens, Sparta and Macedon – a democracy, an oligarchy and a kingdom. 

So, Cartledge says, when we talk about democracy in ancient Greece, even though democracies existed elsewhere in the Greek world, what we are really talking about is democracy in Athens and the Athenian polity. 

Cartledge reminds us that democracy is a composite of two words – demos and kratos. Kratos, he says, is a relatively straightforward word to translate and understand – it means power, strength, might, force; but demos is more ambiguous – it can mean a geographically defined social unit or settlement – like a village or town – but it can also mean the community of free men (and it is usually men) who live in the demos – the people, the masses, the poor. 

If we follow this definition, then democracy means power of the people, or power of the masses. This puts it in opposition to rule of the few or the rich – which would be an oligarchy (oligos means few, archo means rule). 

Democracy, is, then, according to Cartledge, a result and expression of class struggle, a triumph of the poor majority over the wealthier few. 

Critics of democracy identified rule of the masses with rule of the mob (ochlokratia – okhlos meaning mob, kratos meaning power). They particularly objected to the reliance on sortition – the drawing of lots – to decide how posts in the Athenian polity were filled. 

Elections – which to the modern mind are the be all and end all of democracy – were to the Athenians anti-democratic, designed, in fact, to thwart democracy. Elections – which depend on money, currying favour, family, friendship and other social networks – were seen as representative of an oligarchic system. Sortition, which randomly and anonymously chose leaders, was seen as far more egalitarian. 

The only exception to the Athenian political lottery were positions associated with military and financial affairs – where a certain type of expertise was deemed necessary. This concession to expertise in democracy was the crux of the hostility of democracy’s enemies. Why – critics such as Plato, Antiphon, Xenophon argued – aren’t all political matters in the hands of experts? Why are the ignorant and fickle majority ruling over the better educated, wiser minority?