Alumnus Dr Paul Cartledge ponders how democracy has been constantly reconstituted and reinvented since Ancient Greece.

Trump  Popular – or populist – politics triumphed over more conventional political wisdom and practice over the course of 2016

By Dr Paul Cartledge

We are all ‘democrats’ today, are we not? Well, of course not, actually, as a matter of literal fact. But democracy in its multifarious guises has been all the rage, not only in the Western world but globally, at least since US President Woodrow Wilson was so very keen on making the world ‘safe for democracy’. Christian democracy, People’s Democracies, the Democratic Party of the USA – it’s everywhere, isn’t it. But this year, 2016, has been the most extraordinary year for the practice of democracy in my own personal political experience, which goes back to 1970 in formal, voting terms (I was born in 1947, and the voting age of majority for me was 21, so 1968). First, the Breferendum of June 23rd, then the Trumpery of November 8th. In both cases, opinion polls got it very seriously wrong, even up to the point of exit polling. In both cases, popular – or populist – politics triumphed over more conventional political wisdom and practice.

My ‘trade’ book Democracy: A Life was published by the Oxford University Press (New York) before both those manifestations – on March 24th 2016, coincidentally my 69th birthday. I am by profession an ancient historian, a cultural historian of ‘ancient Greece’ during mainly the last millennium BC(E), when democracy – the word as well as the thing – first emerged, anywhere. As such, therefore, I have a particular academic interest (in both senses) in bringing to light and spreading the word about what was so special in that world that it gave birth to such a devastatingly game-changing political phenomenon.  

But I am also a politically engaged public intellectual of a minor kind, so I care very much whether our contemporary democracy is properly understood and practised, and one of my preferred argumentative and pedagogical gambits (employed, for instance, at literary festivals from York to Hay to Edinburgh to Buxton to Folkestone) is to point out the seeming paradox that, although our word ‘democracy’ is ultimately a loan-word from ancient Greek demokratia, our democracy and the ancient Greeks’ have almost nothing directly in common. It was not therefore a natural extension of normal democratic politics to hold ancient Greek-style referendums in Scotland in 2014 and in the UK as a whole in 2016 – but a direct antithesis and contradiction of them. With predictably problematic results in 2016 and for the foreseeable future, as I have myself blogged and argued in podcasts, on radio (Start the Week), and in lectures and talks to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in London, Cottingley Village College School, etc etc. The recent High Court judgement – or rather certain reactions to it – offers a rather terrifying reminder (cf. the 1930s) of how complex, precious and tender a plant representative democracy is, requiring constant vigilant tendance.Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln, who spoke of  ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ 

The Decalogue that follows is naturally only a (personal, very) selection, from all the many things ‘you should know about democracy in ancient Greece’, but I venture to claim that at least they are ten of the most important things. As I go through them, it will I hope be noticed that a keynote of the list is difference: namely, the deep and wide difference in both thought and practice between what the ancient Greeks meant by the form – or rather, forms – of democracy that they practised and any contemporary ‘democracy’ of our 2016 world. That, I believe, is as it should be. Comparative history works most effectively to my mind when it highlights fundamentally important contrasts in the ideas and institutions of different human cultures. But it does so most effectively of all, I would add, when one of those cultures – our own – apparently draws directly from another – that of the ancient Greeks, and yet there is in actual fact no direct continuity let alone identity of the cultural artefact – in this case, democracy – that is in question and at issue.

1. Demokratia, the ultimate origin of our word ‘democracy’, is a portmanteau abstract noun (feminine) in ancient Greek, combining the two words Demos and Kratos. Kratos meant Power, Might, Strength, Grip. (In modern Greek it is the word for ‘state’, as in ‘the nation-state of Hellas’.) Demos is a very ancient Greek word, attested as far back as the second millennium BCE among the ‘Linear B’ archival clay tablets produced by the bureaucracy of the – very much not democratic - Late Bronze Age/Mycenaean kingdoms of mainland Greece and Crete. There it meant village, a local designation that persisted into classical Greek, but already in the epic poems of Homer (c. 700 BCE) it had come to mean also ‘people’.

2. However, demos in that sense of ‘people’ is ambiguous and therefore ambivalent, since it could be taken to mean either i. (All) the People or ii. the Masses (the majority, specifically the poor majority) of the People. So, to use deliberately anachronistic modern analogies,demokratia might be translated/interpreted as either i. ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ (Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1863) or ii. ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Karl Marx followed by V.I. Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin). In that ambivalence lies the explanation for the class-conscious struggles in antiquity to define and implement (or oppose) demokratia: who is/are the demos that holds and wields the kratos, and over what or whom is the kratos being held and wielded?

AristotleMost known ancient Greek writers, historians and theorists were non- or even anti-democrats, including Plato (very hostile), Aristotle (much less hostile) 

3. Most of our political vocabulary is either ancient Greek-derived: politics (from polis), anarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, tyranny … democracy. Or Latin-derived: citizens, constitution, dictator, empire, liberal, republic, state - and power and people. But there is a fundamental difference of kind between our (‘liberal’, ‘Western’) systems of ‘democracy’, which are representative (indirect), and all ancient Greek systems (plural: there were several types/varieties of ancient demokratia), which were direct. To an ancient Greek democrat, our systems would all count as ‘oligarchy’ (rule by the few): even if – and because - elected by the many, They, our elected representatives, rule instead of - as well as for - Us.

4. There was no single ‘state’ of ‘ancient Greece’. Instead, there were about 1000 separate ancient Greek political states and communities (most were poleis, citizen-states), and only a minority ever practised any form of demokratia – most were most of the time more or less moderate or extreme oligarchies. Athens is the best-known and most extreme of the democracies – but there was no such single thing as ‘Athenian democracy’. Athens created at least three different versions over a roughly 200-year period (508/7-322 BCE), with two very significant interruptions – anti-democratic oligarchic counter-revolutions in 411-410 and 404-403 BCE respectively.

5. Most known ancient Greek writers, historians and theorists were non- or even anti-democrats: e.g., Plato (very hostile, chiefly on intellectual-moral grounds – democracy was the ignorant, fickle, stupid mob of the citizenry ruling over or dictating to their social and intellectual betters), and his best and most famous pupil Aristotle (much less hostile, and more careful to discriminate between different types and degrees of democracy, but still not an ideological democrat). Conversely, the number of known ancient Greek writers, historians and theorists who were certainly ideological and/or practising democrats can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Pericles, Demosthenes, Protagoras, Democritus, possibly Herodotus … Why so?

The statue in the foreground is an Early Greek Kouras (youth) Delphi, Greece, c 570 BCThe statue of an Early Greek Kouros (youth) from Delphi, Greece, c 570 BC at the Ashmolean

6. The earliest known extant example of developed political theory is to be found in the Histories (‘Enquiries’ or ‘Researches’) of Herodotus (c. 425 BCE), in Book 3 (chapters 80-82) of a nine-book behemoth trying to explain why Greeks and Persians came to blows at the beginning of the 5th century BCE, and why the resisting Greeks had won. Herodotus’s so-called ‘Persian Debate’ has a dramatic date of c. 522 BCE, but is quite un-historical! Its value lies in its exposition of Greek political theory, based on the perception that all forms of government are versions of just three basic types: Rule by All, Rule by Some, Rule by One. The word demokratia does not appear anywhere in the Debate, but elsewhere Herodotus makes it clear that democracy is crucially at stake throughout. The first of the three speakers, effectively a democrat, argues for a version of Rule by All, which he calls isonomia: ‘equality under the laws’, in his view the ‘fairest of names’. As he represents it, this stands for or embodies above all the following three uniquely choiceworthy characteristics: i. the selection of all officials is done by use of the lot (election was considered oligarchic, since it favoured the rich and famous); ii. all officials are at all times responsible to the people; and iii. all major public political decisions are taken by the people (all qualified citizens) by majority decision.

7. The other two speakers in Herodotus’s Persian debate are respectively for Rule by Some (pro-aristocracy) and Rule by One (pro-monarchy, in the form of legitimate autocracy), but they are both equally anti-Rule by All or in effect democracy, which for them was merely mob-ocracy, mob-rule. All Greeks believed in – or paid lip-service to - equality (e.g., isonomia), but they differed often radically and irreconcilably over who should count as relevantly, politically, equal. To a non- or anti-democrat, democracy was the world turned upside down: the poor (and therefore ignorant, stupid, fickle, uneducated) masses ruling over the rich (and – perhaps – well-informed, clever, sensible, educated) elite few.

8. Ancient Greek democrats were radical egalitarians: one citizen = one vote, regardless of birth, wealth, beauty, strength, intelligence etc. (We, in contrast, prefer weighted voting systems – except, obviously, in referendums.) Everyone should count for one, and no one for more than one – and votes were counted, sometimes but not always secretly, in mass jury-courts as well as in Assembly. (The ancient Greeks did not recognize our ‘separation of powers’ – between the deliberative, executive, and judicial branches of government: the People ruled equally in all three.) The Spartans, who were not democrats, voted not by ballot nor by raising their hands but by shouting – thus there was no strict one man/one vote egalitarianism in operation there.

9. But in one respect no ancient Greek democrat was (an) egalitarian: gender. The Greek city (polis) was a men’s club: only free, legitimate adult males could be citizens (politai) with political power. Which gave rise to a (no doubt apocryphal) Spartan joke: when asked by an Athenian democrat why the Spartans didn’t practise democracy, the Spartan allegedly replied – we’ll introduce democracy into our public decision-making when you Athenians introduce democracy into your own homes… Athenians were notoriously sexist and patriarchal.Alumnus Dr Paul Cartledge on how democracy has been constantly reconstituted and reinvented since Ancient Greece.A cast of an overlifesize figure depicting Poseidon or Zeus which is to be dated c. 460 (the original is still in Athens)

10. The changes over time in the valuation of ‘democracy’ – from depreciation of ancient, direct demokratia (the word as well as the thing) to upwards revaluation of indirect, representative ‘democracy’ today – tell a powerful story, as my Democracy: A Life tries to show: 

i. there was hardly any genuine demokratia (people-power) anywhere in the Greek world after 300 BCE.  

ii. demokratia came typically to mean ‘republic’, i.e. not-monarchy, or/and freedom from direct rule by either Greek autocrats or by Rome.

iii. Rome (first the Roman Republic, then the Empire) hated Greek-style direct democracy; the Latin for demokratia was democratia… The rule of the Roman People even under the ‘free’ Republic was variously mediated and in effect nullified by the power of the - aristocratic-oligarchic – Senate.

iv. the Byzantine Greeks, who called themselves ‘Romans’, were ruled autocratically by divinely authorised monarchs, and by the 6th century CE the term demokratia had been so devalued that it could be used to mean ‘riot’, a form of ‘mob-rule’.

v. Not before the 17th century did the word ‘democracy’ start creeping back into political discourse as a potentially viable system of governance, only to be firmly and overwhelmingly rejected – by both the American and the French revolutionaries -within the largely negative reception of ancient Greek direct democracy as little better than mob-rule.

Democracy: A Life was published by the Oxford University Pressvi. Only with the invention of representative, parliamentary democracy – since then variously morphed into ‘Western’, ‘liberal’ democracy, based on universal adult suffrage – did democracy become an accepted governmental norm. It remains a fragile achievement. 

Two ‘lessons’ may perhaps be drawn from this brief comparativist exercise.

First, the past, as L.P. Hartley (author of the novel The Go-Between) wrote, is a ‘foreign country’. They (in this case the ancient Greeks) organized political ideas and their reception quite differently there.

Second, a real puzzle remains as to why and how ‘democracy’ – the word as well as very various and disparate versions of the thing – so rose in estimation from its late 18th century disapproval to its generalized approbation (and too often mis-appreciation) today.

Paul Cartledge (A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge; emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge)


Images: Shutterstock, Oxford University Images


By Ian Phillips

Paul Cartledge's reminder that democracy is a delicate flower could not be more relevant, with the Brexit Referendum judgement/appeal hanging in the air.
Will the judges deal completely dispassionately with all the presented evidence and come to a unanimous and truly logical verdict? Or will there have to be a vote between two opposing camps, where all we then have is a reflection of their personal stances dressed up in legalese? If the latter, we have simply replaced the vote of around 30million UK subjects, with that of just a dozen or so individuals with the professional qualification as "Supreme Court Judge".
As with the widely expected 'remain' outcome of the June vote, which did not materialise, I hope my rather cynical outlook to be wrong for a second time, and that the Court will support the government's right to act on the referendum decision.
I sincerely hope the judges have all closely studied the evidence submitted by "Lawyers for Britain", which is well, and unemotionally, set out on their website.

By Lesley MacDonald

I enjoyed this clear and straightforward synthesis. It helped me make sense of all sorts of bits of things I vaguely knew or suspected. Thank you.

By Sarah Bevan Meschutt

Exciting article. I shall share this with my colleagues at the recently opened American Revolution Museum at Yorktown Virginia USA. There we have films and exhibitions on the Constitution of the USA framed in 1787 and enriched with various amendments in succeeding years. We are reaching out in these exhibitions to a target audience of historians, schools and independent families embracing "homeschooling" of their children across the nation. Over 400,000 people visit each year the two main sites of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Virginia in Tidewater Virginia at Jamestown and Yorktown.
Our permanent galleries focus on the "American Revolution" interpreting with films, recreated environments and dioramas and films, the social and economic and political landscape in the former 13 British colonies of North America in the second half of the 18th Century, and providing a context for the events of the American War of Independence 1775-1783.
Out final galleries have displays of artifacts and documents that resonate with historical analysis [ provided in the text panels and a chronology of events] and an explanation of this transformation of the colonial empire of Britain in mainland North America to an independent nation state, towards the making of a new nation based on the political theory of Locke and Montesquieu, British common law, the separation of powers and the notions of the founding fathers of the republic of the USA.
The past really is a foreign country. That is what I find exciting to learn about.

By Mark Whitwill

Maybe here in Switzerland, we are closest to the ancient Greek democratic ideal. The constitution defines that the people are sovereign; they are consulted through referenda on most major legislation and can even initiate constitutional changes through popular initiatives every three months. However, even here there is a compromise between representative (a.k.a. oligarchy) and direct democracy. Perhaps some sort of compromise is inevitable, when you are dealing with a "Demos" of 8 million people.

By Iain Houston

Paul Cartledge is careful not to attach a value to our relatively recent experiment with representative democracy, but I think we should be careful as we face the challenge of extending democracy beyond the representative version.
So I disagree with the spirit of Ian Phillips' comment above as not all Brexit Referendum voters were equal in a most important sense: voters ranged from people with no knowledge or previous interest in public policy, through - for example - people who listen to the BBC Today and PM programmes four hours a day; through people who've studied the history of Europe most of their lives and have a deep understanding of the implications off previous decisions. And yet - despite this range of knowledge - each Referendum voter has an equal effect on the outcome. This is not a fair distribution of responsibility and is unlikely to produce the best result for the common good either in this country or Europe. Now, whether our system of parliamentary democracy is the answer - where parliament, not the government, deploys yet more checks and balances to the fair distribution of responsibility - is uncertain. But learning and understanding of issues in European history must have some greater value than indifference in policy making, surely? Otherwise, what's the point of learning about these things if they have no democratic value?

By Glyn Roberts

Paul Cartledge is right to remind us of the historical facts. All the same, we ought to remember that democracy brought to light the germ of a powerful idea, which now can’t be uninvented and is not easily suppressed (though we need to be eternally vigilant in its defence). The idea is that public decisions can be reached after open discussion and choice by the governed (or at least some of them), rather than being secretly and arbitrarily settled by a powerful individual or class. Once that idea is current, those outside the system can claim to be included. It becomes possible for states to recruit from “below” by extending the vote as they did in Europe. The USA still has a way to go, but it is no longer the slave state that declared independence in the 18th century. Maybe the Greeks invented more than they knew.

By Timothy Roberts

" the Breferendum of June 23rd, then the Trumpery of November 8th. In both cases, opinion polls got it very seriously wrong,.." Many think that the voters likewise got it seriously wrong.

By Jonathan Moore

The argument could be made that democracy has been shown to be an ineffective form of government since ancient Greece. Plato isn't simply "very hostile, chiefly on intellectual-moral grounds", The Republic is an extensive work on the need for a professional government and how it could work, written in the background of Athenian military failures following disastrous democratic decisions.
To a certain extent the UK has the professional layer in the Civil Service though in recent years political appointments may be working against this.