When we think about democracy, it is natural that Athens in the antiquity comes to our mind. Not only the origin of the word, but also the first application of the concept links it to ancient Greece. Yet, as Bernard Crick reminds us, Pericles’s concept of democracy differs significantly from the modern concept, particularly because the social contexts are radically different. A much smaller part of society was involved in decision making in the Antiquity, yet their participation was very intensive.
Nevertheless, Ancient Greek democracy is not only important in the history of political thought because of the identical words, but because the major thinkers and politicians in the 17th to 19th centuries, who formed our understanding of democracy, were all influenced by the Greek ideals (especially through Thucydides –e. g. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is proved to be directly influenced by the Periclean Funeral Oration in the History of the Pelopponesian Wars).
The relevance of studying ancient thought in understanding our own concepts was confirmed by the expert of classical philosophy Myrthe Bartels, who recently gave a talk organised by the Institute for Advanced Study of Central European University in Budapest. What follows is my reflective summary of this most valuable lecture that focused on the 4th century (BC, naturally), as that was the time when systematic treatises on ethics and politics arose.
Athens with the Agora
Dario Sušanj, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the significant statements that Myrthe Bartels made was that there had been several other democracies outside Athens (for instance, Argos). The reason why the current capital city of Greece has become the par excellence democracy in the ancient world is that we know very little about all the others, but the Athenian politeia is well represented in written sources. Yet democracy was only one of the competing forms of government in Greece (the main alternatives being oligarchic and monarchic rule). Aristotle famously criticised democracy, but it was also considered problematic by some others as well.
The chief reason why democracy was criticised by ancient intellectuals was the problem around expertise – democratic government, where decision making is influenced by those who are not learned enough to be leaders, was not considered suitable for realising the common good – in sharp contrast with contemporary expectations, where democratic rule is often used synonymously with good government. However, this does not mean that democracy was considered altogether faulty. In ancient 4th-century political thought it was assumed that the various modes of government all inspire certain ways of life. Whereas democracy, chiefly because concerns about the lack of expertise of decision makers, was considered problematic in terms of the common good, it was understood to be beneficial for the psychic welfare of citizens, though concerns also occurred about the excessive freedom democracy provided. The democratic way of life – as it was understood by some in 4th century BC Greece – was characterised by the absence of self-control and an inability to distinguish between needs and excessive desires.
When Myrthe Bartels spoke about ancient Greek authors’ worries about the inability to constrain oneself to real needs, I had a feeling she described contemporary Western consumer society. Whether it will be common sense or ecological disaster that teaches us the necessity of moderation and self-control, only depends on us, whether we live in democratic or undemocratic societies.