What's Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship

What's Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship

by Loren J. Samons II

Paperback(First Edition)

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Fifth-century Athens is praised as the cradle of democracy and sometimes treated as a potential model for modern political theory or practice.
In this daring reassessment of classical Athenian democracy and its significance for the United States today, Loren J. Samons provides ample justification for our founding fathers' distrust of democracy, a form of government they scorned precisely because of their familiarity with classical Athens. How Americans have come to embrace "democracy" in its modern form—and what the positive and negative effects have been—is an important story for all contemporary citizens.

Confronting head-on many of the beliefs we hold dear but seldom question, Samons examines Athens's history in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in order to test the popular idea that majority rule leads to good government. Challenging many basic assumptions about the character and success of Athenian democracy, What's Wrong with Democracy? offers fascinating and accessible discussions of topics including the dangers of the popular vote, Athens's acquisitive foreign policy, the tendency of the state to overspend, the place of religion in Athenian society, and more.

Sure to generate controversy, Samons's bold and iconoclastic book finds that democracy has begun to function like an unacknowledged religion in our culture, immune from criticism and dissent, and he asks that we remember the Athenian example and begin to question our uncritical worship of democratic values such as freedom, choice, and diversity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520251687
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/23/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 327
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.75(d)

About the Author

Loren J. Samons II is Associate Professor of Classical Studies and Associate Dean for Students, College of Arts and Sciences, Boston University. He is author of Empire of the Owl (2000), editor of Athenian Democracy and Imperialism (1998), and coauthor, with Charles W. Fornara, of Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles (California, 1991).

Read an Excerpt

What's Wrong with Democracy?

From Athenian Practice to American Worship
By Loren Samons

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Loren Samons
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520251687

Chapter One

Democracy and Demagogues

Election, Voting, and Qualifications for Citizenship

But I consider it right as a citizen to set the welfare of the state above the popularity of an orator. Indeed, I am given to understand-and so perhaps are you-that the orators of past generations, always praised but not always imitated by those who address you, adopted this very standard and principle of statesmanship. I refer to the famous Aristides, to Nicias, to my own namesake, and to Pericles. But ever since this breed of orators appeared who ply you with such questions as "What would you like? What shall I propose? How can I oblige you?" the interests of the state have been frittered away for a momentary popularity. The natural consequences follow, and the orators profit by your disgrace. Demosthenes 3.21-22, trans. J.H. Vince

We must realize that it is very hard to save a civilization when its hour has come to fall beneath the power of demagogues. For the demagogue has been the great strangler of civilization. Both Greek and Roman civilizations fell at the hands ofthis loathsome creature who brought from Macaulay the remark that "in every century the vilest examples of human nature have been among the demagogues." But a man is not a demagogue simply because he stands up and shouts at the crowd. There are times when this can be a hallowed office. The real demagogy of the demagogue is in his mind and is rooted in his irresponsibility towards the ideas that he handles-ideas not of his own creation, but which he has only taken over from their true creators. Demagogy is a form of intellectual degeneration. Josi Ortega y Gasset, History as a System, trans. Helene Weyl

"The will of the nation" is one of the phrases most generally abused by intriguers and despots of every age. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence

In this chapter, I seek to test the modern democratic faith in election, voting, and low qualifications for citizenship. Analysis of the Athenians' practices in these areas will demonstrate the negative impact of their reduction of property qualifications for full citizenship and of their use of the vote to determine policy, while outlining the positive effects of continued noneconomic qualifications for citizenship. An examination of Pericles' career will illustrate the benefits and dangers of charismatic leadership in an environment of popular rule. I hope to suggest that the vote-especially in an environment with few social restraints or civic responsibilities-represents a threat to, as much as an instrument of, justice.

The vote has not always served as the defining feature of democracy. As strange as it may seem to moderns, Aristotle considered election to be an oligarchic or aristocratic element in government. As Aristotle noticed, even in regimes with no property qualifications for citizenship or office, wealthier citizens tend to dominate elected positions. The philosopher thus identified democracy not with the act of voting but rather with popular control of the courts, the absence of a property qualification for citizenship, the use of the lottery to fill public offices, and the rule of the poor in their own interests. Nor was Aristotle's view completely idiosyncratic. Since even nondemocratic classical Greek poleis used votes by the citizen body to select at least some important officials or to determine policy, the Greeks understandably did not see voting itself as a defining quality of demokratia.

Nevertheless, most moderns consider the casting of ballots in free elections the defining element of democratic government, and the Athenians did make policy and choose fellow citizens for particular state offices through votes in an assembly open to all citizens. Analysis of their electoral practices thus offers us a potential analogue for modern regimes.

Perhaps most important, the Athenians elected ten men annually to hold the office of strategos. These strategoi were Athens's highest military officials, acting as generals on land and admirals at sea and wielding significant political power in the city during the fifth century. Of course, successful military leaders have always had the opportunity to exert political influence, regardless of the type of government they have served. But in Athens, the close connection between Athens's empire and its democracy's funding, as well as the people's direct role in managing the empire, offered great scope for the elected strategoi. The political aspect of the generalship was emphasized and developed by statesmen like Pericles, who held the office for fifteen consecutive years.

By Athenian reckoning, Pericles held not only the official position of strategos, but also the informal place of rhetor (political orator), making proposals in the council and assembly and thus acting as what the Athenians would later call a demagogos (plural, demagogoi), literally a "leader of the demos." The Athenians initially seem to have used the term demagogos without pejorative intent, and it has been well said that the so-called demagogues served a necessary function in the Athenian regime. Such men served not merely as the voices of various political interests but also as remarkably free critics of the very populace they sought to influence. That is, the best demagogoi attempted to change popular opinion and thus, as Thucydides puts it in his praise of Pericles, to lead the people "rather than to be led by them" (2.65). Indeed, since the term demagogos explicitly denotes someone who leads or shepherds the demos, the eventual use of this word as the primary epithet for a political panderer represents a virtual reversal of its original meaning. The word demagogos in fact implies that the people need someone to lead them and that political power, at least in part, is exercised appropriately through this leadership.

As early as Pericles' day, some Athenians apparently expressed or implied reservations about allowing a citizen body including even those without property to choose Athens's leaders and make policy via votes in the assembly. Although justifiable as a way of permitting all citizens to participate in their government, such a practice obviously enabled the poorer citizens to empower leaders who had improperly ingratiated themselves with them, placing the interests of a faction above those of the polis as a whole. The latent dangers in allowing greater participation to those without property began to emerge after Pericles proposed that Athens begin to pay citizens for jury duty. These payments led to others: if jurors deserved daily payment, why not members of the Council of 500 or those holding other magistracies?

After the mid fifth century, payment for public service served as a fundamental and defining characteristic of Athenian democracy. In the years following Pericles' innovation, it undoubtedly became increasingly difficult for a leader opposed to this use of public money to win out over Pericles and his supporters. Although many Athenians were willing to consider ending payment for public service beyond the military (at least temporarily) as late as 411, after the Peloponnesian War and the discredited oligarchic regimes of 411 and 404 (which had curtailed state pay), only proposals to increase public payments seem to have had political viability in Athens.

That these conditions encouraged the rise of what we call "demagogues" is entirely comprehensible. In an environment where a public figure can help secure his own election to office or the success of his legislation by proposing the distribution of more public money to a large enough portion of the electorate, and where there is no strong feeling among the populace that such a distribution is shameful or morally wrong, leaders proposing increased payments possess a tremendous advantage over their opponents. Nevertheless, Athenian government did not collapse immediately after the institution of public payments, nor did the Athenians immediately vote themselves into public bankruptcy. Indeed, not until the 420s do we begin to see evidence of the potentially harmful effects of these practices.

Several factors in Athenian society and government apparently slowed the debilitation of the people's morale through political pandering. Since we know of no laws restricting the Athenians' actions in this area, informal social constraints (deriving from the Athenians' ideas about the propriety of distributing public money) apparently limited both the extent to which the people would support leaders seeking to ingratiate themselves by distributing public funds and the number of leaders attempting such ingratiation. In addition, the fact that the office of strategos was a burdensome and life-threatening position probably helped diminish the rate at which mainly self-interested individuals became powerful political voices in Athens: strategoi gained political power or glory while literally risking life and status, both of which could be lost at the hands of the enemy (in battle) or the Athenian demos (in court or through ostracism). Finally, the system of selection by lottery for members of the Council of 500 and other officials (like the treasurers of the sacred funds), provided a potentially significant check on the dangers of demagoguery. That is, many important Athenian offices simply were not filled by election, but instead relied on individuals chosen by lot serving their fellow citizens for short periods of time. Despite these checks, our sources indicate that "leaders of the demos" after Pericles increasingly pandered to the electorate and (unlike Pericles and some others) often told the people only what they wanted to hear.

The election of leaders represents only one of the important votes cast by members of the Athenian assembly. As we have noted, the citizen assembly also acted as a court, policy-making body, and sovereign legislature, limited in authority (until the late fifth century) only by itself and deciding the most important issues of the state, including issues of war and peace. Under this system, to vote was to rule one's neighbor in a very direct and public fashion. By raising his hand in the assembly, a citizen openly demonstrated his own desire to make war or peace, to tax other men's property, to impose rules on his fellow citizens, or to elect a corrupt person to office. But again, most Greek city-states had citizen assemblies or councils in which members of the citizen body voted on at least some important matters. What made Athens's system odd was its payments for public service and its low property requirements for full citizenship, both of which encouraged greater participation by the common people in political decision-making and administration.

Qualifications for Citizenship

Most Greek poleis in the classical period seem to have had property qualifications for full citizenship. These qualifications apparently tended to coincide roughly with the amount of property necessary to enable someone to provide his own weapons and thus serve in the citizen militia of hoplites. Similar property qualifications were also common in the United States, even after the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution. Thus economic limitations on full participation in the political life of a regime are not inconsistent either with the ancient Greek ideals of eleutheria and isonomia ("liberty" and "equality of the law") or with the principles embodied in the American Constitution.

Nevertheless, by the 450s the Athenians had removed all but the most nominal economic restrictions on free Athenian males for full (or almost full) participation in political life. Athenians of the lowest property class, the thetes, could vote in the assembly and (probably) serve on the Council of 500. And although the property qualification for the office of archon remained at the approximate level of the hoplite-farmers (the zeugitai) after 457, Aristotle suggests that in the fourth century this restriction was not enforced. Thus by the mid fifth century even the poorest free Athenian males could vote, and by the end of the century they could hold most of the major public offices in the polis.

The Athenians' removal of property qualifications for citizenship might encourage us to analogize citizenship in democratic Athens and citizenship in modern democratic regimes, in which property qualifications long ago passed out of use. But this analogy is very misleading, first, because moderns tend to associate citizenship primarily with the rights and privileges this status guarantees rather than with the qualifications it requires or the duties it implies. Moreover, many of these protections for citizens (e.g., the right to own property and the protection of one's person or free speech) are thought to be virtually universal "human rights" that do not-or, rather, should not-depend on a particular form of regime or on a distinction between citizens and resident aliens. (Neither, of course, do they sanction a class of slaves living alongside citizens, as in ancient Athens.) Thus many Americans value their citizenship because it ostensibly ensures rights they believe are due to everyone, and not because the duties they perform as citizens entitle them to privileges that distinguish them from other persons. The analogy between ancient and modern democratic citizenship also fails because, despite the lack of a property qualification in classical Athens, Athenian citizenship-unlike its modern American counterpart-did entail very real obligations and requirements.

First, after Pericles' citizenship law of 451/0, all Athenian citizens were required to be sons of free Athenian parents; neither parent could be a foreigner or a slave. Young men were presented to their fellow deme members for enrollment on the citizen list at the age of eighteen. The demesmen voted under oath, confirming both that the prospective citizen had reached the legal age and that he had been born "in accordance with the laws," apparently a reference to the parents' citizenship. The Athenians obviously took these hereditary requirements for citizenship very seriously, since the attempt to pass off an ineligible individual as a citizen seems to have resulted in the city selling the impostor into slavery.

Having been enrolled as a citizen on his deme's register, the eighteen-year-old Athenian entered a two-year period of state service known as the ephebeia. The young "ephebes" received military training and acted as a kind of home guard for the polis.


Excerpted from What's Wrong with Democracy? by Loren Samons Copyright © 2007 by Loren Samons. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Athenian Society and Government
Chapter 2. Democracy and Demagogues: Election, Voting, and Qualifications for Citizenship
Chapter 3. Public Finance: Democracy and the People’s Purse
Chapter 4. Foreign Policy I: Democracy Imperial
Chapter 5. Foreign Policy II: The Peloponnesian War
Chapter 6. National Defense: Democracy Defeated
Chapter 7. Democracy and Religion


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