Monday, December 25, 2006

Un-Democratic? Or TOO Democratic?

First of all, I would like to thank all who have commented on this blog and encourage more to do so. This is exactly why I wanted to start Classics Reloaded. It is easy enough to sit around by yourself, coming up with ideas, tossing them around your own head, with no one to challenge or support you, then moving on. I was hoping that this would be a place for me to do more than that. This will be for me a testing ground of sorts for different ideas, theories, etc. that I may come across. Ideally, I want this to be a conversation. I am just starting off in the field of classics. I know I have a lot to learn. It is my hope that this blog will be a place for me to share my thoughts and receive criticisms and encouragement from you, the readers.

That being said, the most recent comments on my last two posts, both on democracy in Athens, have really got me thinking. As I read them over, I realized that I do indeed need to take a closer, more critical look at my own thoughts on this topic. I believe that I may have been too hasty in my judgments of Athenian democracy. I think that I may have come out too strongly in my posts against the Athenians, sounding as though I was certain of the undemocratic nature of Athens rather than accurately conveying the state that I was in – one of questioning and doubt. I believe that the events that I discussed were intriguing occurrences in a democracy and warrant a closer look. I do not, however, claim to have the answers.

Looking more closely at my issues with the cases of Alcibiades and Nicias, I realize now that it is not the democracticness, as you might say, of Athens that I should be questioning, but rather, perhaps, the fairness, or justness of the system. (I am still searching for the correct word here, for neither of these are quite accurate.) The problem may not be that Athens was not democratic enough, but rather quite the opposite, that it was too democratic. With the citizens having the right and expectation to vote on quite literally everything, there were no checks on the swings of public opinion. If there was a particularly persuasive orator speaking against Alcibiades, he would be put to death. Is this wrong? Not technically. If that is what the people want, then, in a pure democracy, that must be what happens. Morally, however, it is easy, hopefully obvious, to take issue with this possibility. This very well may be a flaw in the system. One that was remedied with modern democracies, beginning with America. This is precisely why today we have a republic, not a true democracy. The legislature and judiciary, in essence, are in place to protect us from ourselves. I believe the necessity for this protection can, at times, be seen in ancient Athens.

Again, this is a topic that requires far, far more discussion than what has already taken place. I hope that anyone who has anything to contribute will post a comment. As you can see, I may at times, be a little too hasty to post my thoughts on here. That’s when I hope you will call me out on it. The comments here have forced me to reconsider my opinions, to take a closer look at stories I already thought I understood and find a more convincing argument. Hopefully with more time and research, I will yet again fine-tune my opinion on this and other topics. We shall see...


Phil S. said...

In many ways, you have put your finger on the problems in your last couple of posts (the last of which I had been hoping to post on, but didn't have time what with returning to school after a couple weeks off with my wife and new baby). There is a real distinction between democracy and democratic rights.

You suggestion that Athenian democracy may have been too democratic is pretty much the assessment of conservatives in the ancient period. Plato, Xenophon or Aristotle, much less the Old Oligarch for roughly contemporaries who would agree with that (later examples also abound). Remember that Athenian democracy in the fifth century was unusually democratic and it was always viewed askance as a result. The argument that this was mob rule or tyranny of the majority is a very long-lasting one.

I think this explains the American and British systems, for instance, because it was felt that some controls needed to be set in place. Many of the democratic values that we take for granted like attention to minorities comes from memories of the excesses of 'pure' democracy.

Still, this has been an interesting discussion and has given me a fresh direction to take when I teach Athenian democracy in Classical Civ in a couple of months.


Macuquinas d' Oro said...

If you are interested in a contemporary example of a highly democratic system, may I suggest you look at the cantonal ( state ) governments of several of the so-called Landesgericht Swiss cantons. Much of the business of the canton is handled in a mass assembly of the citizens or, alternatively, in binding referenda. The Swiss Federal system also makes extensive use of referenda for important decisions. One way or another, Swiss citizens decide directly by their vote most of the important political decisions that are made in the country ( surely a good functional measure of democracy ). See the work especially of Mogen Hanson, for whom I am indebted to much of this info.

I won’t suggest any comparisons with American “democracy”, but in light of the Swiss model it is useful to consider whether American voters have the power to decide ANY of the important issues or actions the government takes. Some US states do conduct referenda on a limited slate of issues, but outcomes are subject to so much legislative and judicial review that they rarely take effect.

A system were the people have no power to decide the important issues but only select their rulers was not considered a democracy by the Greeks. They styled it an elective monarchy or oligarchy.

Edgar said...

I meant to comment on your original post regarding democracy, but couldn't find the time during exam period (heck, I probably shouldn't have been reading blogs at all... heh.)

I concur with Phil. I think you're much closer to the mark with this post!

Keep up the blog. It's always great to read that classics has a new recruit. :)

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