Democracy's roots are far from liberal
By Bettany Hughes
The word democracy has become ubiquitous. It is used to justify everything from regime change to parking meters. The internet is drenched with talk of e-democracy, open democracy, local democracy, consensus democracy, liberal democracy, illiberal democracy. If this is going to become one of the most exploited words on the planet, we need to be clear about what we mean when we use it. Democracy is too potent and exciting an idea to be trifled with. We take the term from ancient Athens, but Athenian democracy, the product of an age remembered as egalitarian and high-minded, bore almost no resemblance to ours. In the ancient world, some thought that Demokratia meant not the rule of "the whole people" but the rule of the mob.
From the harbour at Piraeus, Athenian oarsmen rowed out to claim new territories in the name of democracy. They were not always welcome. At Melos, all men were slaughtered, all women and children enslaved when the island preferred to "put our trust in our gods, to try to save ourselves" and preserve their liberty rather than accept Athenian-style democracy. Little surprise, then, that when recording the "free cities" in league with Athens, there is sometimes a slip of the chisel: instead of "our allies" on inscriptions, the Athenians can refer to "the cities that we rule". None of these details diminishes the Athenian achievement, but they do nuance it. We love Golden Ages. It comforts us to think that, in a distant time and place, mankind achieved some kind of high-minded perfection - a utopia we can replicate.
As a society, we want to remember that, long ago, democracy, liberty and freedom of speech were created as touchstones for civilisation. We uphold them as pure and robust entities. But we owe it to ourselves to recognise the Realpolitik. First, Athenian democracy was a dead end. Athenian direct democracy was transparent, face to face. Every adult Athenian citizen was a politician; he could propose motions, vote in the assembly - rule and be ruled in turn. Kratos meant hold or grip, and the Ancient Athenian would have been under no illusion that he had a real, direct grasp on power. Six thousand citizens at a time could fit on the bare rock of the Pnyx, where they voted on how they should run their lives. There was no notion of individual liberty - all was enacted for to koinon, the commonality.
I remember listening to an American on Radio 4 shouting that, in a democracy, of course kids had the right to buy cans of spray paint and do what they liked with them. Athenians would have hooted: the babbling of a maniac. The democratic club in Athens was also very small. It was only Athenian men over 18 who could vote: no foreigners, and eventually - following reforms by Pericles - only those whose parents had both been born in the city. Athenian women were less than second-class citizens - Aristotle considers them sub-standard. They were thought to pollute. Female bodies were porous: evil could come oozing from open orifices, their mouths and eyes. And for this reason they were kept not only covered but veiled. The first hard evidence we have of the use of the full face veil comes from Athens.
What London and Washington do share with Ancient Athens, across a gap of 2,500 years, is a firm belief in the power of words - ancient Athens was littered with inscribed stone stele, all showing the workings of the democracy - plus a passionate relationship with one word in particular. As time went on, Demokratia was worshipped as a goddess. In Athens's Agora Museum, you can still see her, carved on a stone stele, crowning the people with a wreath. There are other similarities between then and now; a delight in litigation among them. Athens could expect to hear more than 40 cases a week by anything up to 6,000 jurors. Our adversarial political process is also prefigured by the Greek belief in argument and counter-argument. Athenian society was deeply competitive. The word for competition, agon, gives us "agony". We have whips in the Commons possibly because, through the streets of Athens, slaves, with ropes dipped in red paint, would tickle the reluctant up to the Pnyx to vote. The Athenians, like us, were fascinated by this thing democracy, and wanted to find deeper tap-roots for their new political system, fantasising that the origins of the way they were stretched over the millennia to the Age of Heroes. They invented myths about their local superhero Theseus, calling him the world's first democrat. Yet as an ideology, Athenian democracy's horizons were narrow. The rule of the people emerged through chance, not design; it was a tentative, fluctuating system that existed before a word was dreamt up to nominate the unusual situation.
I have no doubt that the Athenians of the fifth century BC would be slack-jawed to learn that Demokratia was being marketed around the globe. Liberty, democracy and freedom of speech were established as means in Athens, not as ends in themselves. In Ancient Greece, those who preferred a private to a publicly aware life were categorised idiotes. Idiots indeed. Equally idiotic to peddle chimerical promises of "democracy". The rule, or grip of the whole people is not a panacea, it cannot be identikitted out across the globe; it is too important, too strong to be commodified. Liberty, equality, freedom of speech, human rights, the greater good, universal suffrage are all the finest goals, but true democracy, the absolute rule of the people, is not universally or necessarily the finest way to achieve them. Remember, when the Ancient Greeks imagined Demokratia a goddess, they did not abstract her. She was made incarnate. The Athenians knew that the gods and goddesses walked the earth. They ate, they drank, they made love, they argued. When they made democracy divine, they also admitted that she was flawed.
Remember, too, the men of Athens, fired up by their solidarity, voting to go to war, to slaughter "barbarians" and fellow Greeks alike. When we talk of bringing democracy to the world, we must be careful what we wish for.
[What a fascinating History lesson……………… and a lesson for the future too about the dangers and stupidity of exporting the Democratic idea to other cultures. As with most things, one size does most definitely not fit all.]