It is one of the biggest ideas in world history -- and one of the most misunderstood. The purpose of this essay is to bring clarity to the idea of democracy.
On the face of it, democracy is an institutional arrangement for rule not by the one or the few, but by the many, and it provides for collective action amid the disagreements that inevitably arise.
Pure democracy -- defined as 50 percent plus 1 -- is not adequate. The majority (or a strong plurality) can be wrong. Consider:
- Hitler came out of Weimar;
- Bleeding Kansas came out of popular sovereignty;
- Hamilton and Madison recognized in the Federalist Papers that the minority needs protection from the majority, which is why there are rights in the body of the Constitution; the 14th Amendment broadened the idea of citizenship and insured that these rights would be respected throughout the United States.
To avoid the pitfalls of pure democracy, this form of government needs boundaries – rules of the game – just as freedom does: these boundaries include the Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, important court cases like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. You can get a majority to implement whatever policies it desires within the agreed upon rules of the game -- especially that the people can fire their present rulers. This is the key to legitimacy.
Originally: "Rule by the Citizens in Assembly"
Today we have lost the sense of how revolutionary democracy is. What the Athenians invented 2,500 years ago was radical then, and it remains radical now where it threatens monarchs, dictators, aristocrats, oligarchs, special interests, or any group of people who have grown comfortable with the status quo.
Democracy comes from the Greek demokratia meaning “rule by the people,” the demos. Note that the Greek words ho demos connote the citizens in assembly, not a mob. The core idea is variously described in terms familiar to American ears: self-determination, popular sovereignty, participation in government, self-rule, power to the people. Classicist J. Rufus Fears adds that democracy is “based on the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens”; it comes about when citizens impose on themselves “the awesome responsibility of self-government.” Lincoln’s taut line in the Gettysburg Address summarizes it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” When he gave the address, Lincoln stressed not the three prepositions “of,” “by,” and “for,” but the thrice-spoken “people.”
Lincoln’s hope that democracy shall not perish from the earth was justified. There were long stretches of time when it was hardly even remembered in the West, much less in the rest of the world. The radical experiment in self-rule did not become a widely adopted European idea until after the French Revolution, nor a widely adopted global idea until after the First and Second world wars. Nowadays we take democracy for granted – so popular it’s worshipped. However, we’d do well to remember Winston Churchill’s backhanded compliment that cuts democracy down to size: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
As Churchill suggests, democracy, for all its merits, has had a checkered history. Most Greco-Roman authors from Plato to Plutarch were skeptical of the quality of the polity it produced. No wonder most of America’s founders, tutored by the ancients, refused to be seduced by its promises.
Ancient Athens invented classical democracy on a sun-bleached hillside called the Pynx. The Pynx (pronounced puh-NIX) is where the assembly met under the open sky. It was not the indirect republican form of government of the U.S., in which representatives meet on behalf of the people. Rather, the Athenian constitution required citizens to participate directly in their governance. Athen’s experiment in self-rule evolved over the sixth century B.C. out of remarkable developments under Solon, Peisistratus (ironically a tyrant who nevertheless conditioned Athenians to love the rule of law), and Cleisthenes. By 505 B.C. the Athenians were calling their form of government a democracy. Some five decades later, the statesman Pericles allied himself with radical democrats and urged far-reaching reforms, angering the aristocracy but dramatically broadening the franchise. From that point forward, there would be no property qualifications to take part in the assembly (hence the peevishness of the aristocrats). To attend or run for office, you just had to be a free adult male. Any citizen could attend the assembly and propose a motion. If a quorum of 6,000 citizens was present, policy changes could be openly debated and laws passed by a simple majority. The process was wide open; public office was open to all; the assembly was sovereign; and there were minimal checks and balances in the American sense.
Rufus Fears makes a striking point. He writes that the “characteristic cultural statement” of Athenian democracy was the literary output of the great tragedians. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides submitted their tragedies to the judgment of the Athenian people in a great cycle of civic festivals. Not only was attendance at these dramatic festivals a “civic duty,” but also the tragedies were filled with oblique references to pressing contemporary questions: Why did the plague afflict Athens? Are our rulers wise? Is the war with Sparta taking our city down? Is our empire unjust to allies? Nor was it just tragedies that served a civic function. Comedies by Aristophanes and other playwrights served a similar purpose, prodding citizens to examine critical issues in a new light. Even the great philosopher Plato began his career as a playwright. So the great plays of fifth-century Athens were more than entertainment; they were tutorials in citizenship.
Thucydides argued that the democratic statesman par excellence was Pericles, who inaugurated the era of radical democracy in fifth-century B.C. Athens. So impressive was the statesman’s legacy that Greece’s “Golden Age” is also known as the “Periclean Age.” In Thucydides’ rendition of the “Funeral Oration” on behalf of Athens’ fallen citizen-soldiers, Pericles praised the very democracy he had helped craft:
“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the laws; and when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability that the man possesses. No one, so long as he the ability to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.”
Neither conservative aristocrats nor the city’s best philosophers were happy with Pericles’ reforms. Plato, Aristotle, and an obscure critic known as the Old Oligarch sharply criticized the Athenian constitution. To the rest of Greece, Athens had “an absolutely insane form of government.” To give you a better feel for direct democracy in its heyday in fifth-century B.C. Athens, permit me to quote from Kenneth Harl’s lecture on the subject:
It’s a remarkable system…. [Athenians] had more direct experience in governing themselves than any modern democracy. Men from the age of 18 on regularly attended the Assembly and voted…. It was a very savvy and very, very difficult audience to address, and the Athenians developed oratory to a very high degree. Athenian statesmen such as Pericles and Themistocles were world-class orators. The Athenian love of drama, tragedy, and comedy all centered on the agon, the political debate…. The Athenians were accustomed to hearing debate, two sides of an issue, then voting. And that tradition of debate – point, counterpoint, weighing the issues, and voting – was a hallmark of the Athenian Assembly. And that very often allowed unpopular positions to be advanced….
Let me just close with one aspect of what public life was like in Athens, and that is the ability of the Athenians to indulge political dissent, which is really why it is so endearing to moderns. Aristophanes was a political conservative. He was no friend of Pericles, and he felt that the Peloponnesian War had been concocted by Pericles for private reasons, and he was deliciously wicked in the way he parodied Pericles. His play in 427 B.C., called The Achanians, is a remarkable play in which he calls for the end of the war. He criticizes Pericles. He is dismayed by the ravaging of Attica by the Spartans. And for all the Athenians to witness that play, it was quite an experience, because this was now into the fourth year of the war, and if you stood on the acropolis of Athens you could see the burning of Attica, each year that Peloponnesian army raged over Attica. And Pericles and his successors kept the Athenians from going out and fighting. And here is a man producing this comedy, criticizing Pericles, saying the demos were a bunch of fools to bamboozle, that he bamboozled them into the war. The demos votes Aristophanes first prize for his comedy – and then goes out and votes to continue the war. A remarkable government, indeed.
While Athenian democracy was remarkable in its day, and a legacy for all time, it had a whiff of the unsavory by today's standards. (1) It depended on slavery. (2) It violated such basic rights as freedom of speech, famously fining the politically incorrect playwright Phrynichus. (3) It morphed into a bullying empire. (4) The franchise was small – full political rights were denied to nine of every ten people in Athens. (5) Women were excluded from civic participation. (6) It formally ostracized some of its leaders or sent them into exile, including the estimable Themistocles. (7) It famously executed an innocent man, Socrates, arguably one of the wisest human beings who ever lived. (8) Despite a popular assembly and executive leadership whose duties of government were divided, Athens was prone to control for years at a time by one powerful general (think: Cimon and Pericles).
These blemishes aside (for no regime is utopic), Athenian democracy was undeniably a great achievement requiring great citizens. Aristotle pointed out that each form of government tends to cultivate corresponding virtues in the citizenry. Monarchy, for example, wants subjects to be obedient to the one. Aristocracy requires the excellence of the few. Democracy asks the many to participate in self-governance and in critical moments to subordinate self-interest for the sake of the common good.
Democracy and Peace?
An Absurd Assumption
Today the idea of democracy is closely bound to the idea of peace. It is generally thought that democrats are reluctant warriors. A curious notion, this. Democracy’s beginnings are bound up with war. Aristotle famously remarked on the relationship between a nation’s constitution and the military obligations of its citizens and their fighting style. Monarchs fought with chariots. Aristocrats fought with cavalry (because horses are expensive to keep). Republics fought with landowning, citizen, hoplite soldiers (since oligarchs were wealthy enough to outfit themselves with armor and weapons). And democracies fought with navies (whose trireme warships were manned by many citizen rowers). Since Athens was a great naval power, it needed a large number of citizen rowers, and so developed into a democracy. Fighting for one’s polis was a duty and an honor. And if landowners fought for their polis, then they certainly expected to be able to vote in the assembly. The reason women and children were not full citizens was that they served no direct military function. So the whole impulse behind a democratic constitution is its way of war.
Another curious notion people have nowadays is that democracies do not go to war against one another. Yet some of the most consequential wars in human history were fought not strictly between kings, but between nations whose citizens voted either directly in assembly or indirectly through representatives to go to battle. Among the more famous citizen wars in world history are:
- Athens vs. Sparta in the First and Great Peloponnesian Wars
- Rome vs. Carthage in three Punic Wars
- Britain vs. the Thirteen Colonies in British North America in the War for Independence
- French revolutionaries vs. states with popular assemblies in the 1790s
- Britain vs. the United States in the War of 1812
- And on American soil 150 years ago, the North against the South. Both these constitutional democracies fought each other in a civil war that resulted in more casualties than all other American wars combined.
Little remembered today is how important juries were to the development of democracy. (Pangle, The Great Debate – lecture 4?)
Democracy in America
There is much misunderstanding about democracy in America. First, there is no direct line of descent from Athenian democracy to modern democracy. Athens is technically not the “cradle of American democracy.” For when King Philip II of Macedon snuffed out democracy in ancient Greece, the idea was not rekindled for more than a thousand years. It surprises students to learn that modern representative government owes more to the Middle Ages than to ancient Greece. Over the last thousand years, two institutions evolved that laid the foundation for modern democracies. First there arose the Italian communes that expanded decision-making among the popolo, the people; and next came the English royal courts that increasingly curbed the king’s powers and morphed into Parliament. These two jewels in the crown of feudal times – communes and Parliament – are more direct ancestors of modern democracies than fifth-century Athens.
Second, the United States was not founded as a direct democracy, not at all. Now, the Founders, when it suited their purposes, occasionally used democratic means to attain republican ends. After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the framers wanted to submit the new Constitution neither to the Confederation Congress nor to the 13 state legislatures, so they opened up the ratification vote to as many property-owning citizens as possible. For the most part, however, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of the “masses.” The so-called Father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, was downright disparaging of direct democracy and did his best at the Constitutional Convention to keep it out of the final document. The Founders’ Greco-Roman tutors had taught them to fear mobocracy. That’s why they wrote the Constitution of 1787 to curb populist impulses. Most of them felt vindicated when the French Revolution turned ugly in the early 1790s.
Another widely held misconception is that, in the American experience, democracy preceded capitalism. Actually just the opposite is true. In the U.S., democracy did not precede but followed the development of capitalism. In the modern world, there has never been a democratic polity that did not [first] have a capitalist economy. Yet there are many instances – China, above all – of capitalist economies that are not democracies.
Spread of Democracy around the World
Since the 1920s, democracy has made remarkable inroads on every inhabited continent. But its record is not flawless. In 1933 a majority or delegates in the Reichstag elected Adolf Hitler chancellor of Germany. After World War II, communist states in the Soviet Union’s orbit slipped the word “Democratic” into their countries’ names.
Israel on the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and until recent times South Africa – all have had significant democratic representation, yet all have denied fundamental rights to whole classes of citizens. If democracy is flawed, it is because human beings are flawed. Despite its checkered history, most people concur with Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government – until it’s compared to every other form that’s been tried.
 According to Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, chap.102), the Spartans kicked Athenian hoplites out of their homeland, the Peloponnese, when they saw how revolutionary, enterprising, and prone to doing new things Athenian citizens were.
 Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, p. 81.
 J. Rufus Fears, “Aeschylus, Oresteia,” in Books That Have Made History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 168-69.
 David Zarefsky, Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 1999), audio lecture 23.
 Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, pp. 80-91; Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), pp. 39-43.
 J. Rufus Fears, “Aeschylus, Oresteia,” in Books That Have Made History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2005), pp. 168-69.
 Thucydides, excerpt of the “Funeral Oration,” History of the Peloponnesian War (Landmark edition?)
 Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 9, 18.
 Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2007), vol. 1, pp. 90-91.
 Regarding the limits of Athenian democracy, consult the course by Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), lectures 6-7.
 Harl, lecture 2
 Harl, lecture 1
 Rufus Fears
 Robert Garland, Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2008), p. 38.