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Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, & Culture - The Nature of Athenian Democracy: An Answer to a Reader's Question

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The Nature of Athenian Democracy: An Answer to a Reader's Question


A reader asks in a comment on my post The Character of Socrates and His Bad Arguments: The anti-democratic dialectic:

March 8th, 2008 - 08:16 pm
"Jerry,

"A couple of questions:

"1) When Plato uses the term democracy does he refer to the practice of Athenian government (which I take it was something like the government envisaged by the American founders, a government of the "right people" who own property)? Where could he have gotten a more radical concept of democracy from?

"2) Though the allegory of the cave is supposed to be a metaphor about knowledge (the difference between opinion and true knowledge), it does present a suggestive picture of an actual political state. If so, what state is it meant to depict? Seems unlikely that Plato would depict an ideal aristocratic form of government in this way, though that is what it seems to be.

This discussion is further confused by current opinion that Strauss and the neoconservatives were inspired by Plato's idea of a ruling class of philosopher kings."

I will answer the first question in your comment in this post. But I urge the reader, whoever he or she is, to spur me to go on to the second question because it is the more complicated question. To answer the second question involves an evaluation of the place of philosophy in a democratic society. It requires literary judgment about the place of Plato's "allegory of the cave" within the Republic. It urges a contrast between our current philosophical interpreters of Plato and Socrates with the historical interpreters of Athenian society that produced Socrates and Plato. (In our specialized academic factories the philosophers rarely talk to the historians, except in the most trivial ways.) Finally your question can be properly back-lit by a contrast between Karl Popper and Strauss, who came to complimentary conclusions about Plato but for opposite reasons. When dealing with the political web of the allegory of the cave and its many connections a short answer is simply not enough. This is true if for no other reason than that the allegory comes in the context of explaining who and what a philosopher is and how he (for Plato a philosopher must be gendered "he") can guide and guard the state. So dear reader, please hold me to my promise to go down into this cave and come back out with a bit of explanation.


As for your first points, let me state bluntly that the premises of your questions are wrong. What I offer below is an explanation of the radical nature of Athenian democracy and a historiographic explanation for why the nature of Athenian democracy has been ignored or slandered.

Periclean Athens was a democracy of all citizens. Athens remained a democracy for more than 300 years and I would argue, at its height, was one of the most radical democracies in history. After the Age of Pericles Athens continued to be a democracy, except during brief periods of political unrest and Spartan sponsored tyranny. Even after Alexander conquered the city, and ended Athenian independence, internal affairs were run democratically until Athens organized a rebellion against Macedonian rule.

The time of Socrates and Plato was part of the most expansive periods of Athenian democracy. If you were a citizen you were a person who could, and probably would, serve on the administrative and policy making councils of the Athenian demos. Practically all of the important political positions were filled by lottery. All citizens in good standing were eligible for the lottery. Important issues were put to the vote in the assembly of all citizens. To maintain control of the aristocratic classes individuals of the upper classes were encouraged to bring law cases against other members of the upper classes, and the judges of those cases were large juries chosen by lots. Aristocrats were rewarded for ratting on other aristocrats for nonpayment of religious dues to maintain public festivals. If an aristocrat became too powerful he would often be ostracized.

Modern day societies could learn a lot about control and punishment of rulers and owners by studying Athenian methods. Imagine if Corporation X could be rewarded by forcing another Corporation Y to pay Corporation X's taxes if X discovers that Y is violating health and safety rules, or is polluting, or is not paying its taxes. Such a situation would mean that "trial lawyers" would constantly be hired by one corporate entity to make sure that other corporate entities do not violate the commonweal. This was essentially the situation between aristocratic families in democratic Athens. Also, imagine if every five years or so we could vote to confiscate the property and send into exile any CEO that we choose by a simple majority vote. That might help keep the CEOs in line and stop them from laying off or transferring factories to non-union environments.

Athens was, of course, a limited democracy, but what limited the democracy was the exclusivity of citizenship, not economic restrictions within Athens. Some of the richest residents of Athens were non-Citizens, called "metics," who had been invited to Athens because of their expertise in some craft or trade. Cephelus, who the reader meets in the first book of "The Republic," is reputedly the richest man in Athens and yet he is not a citizen and neither is his son Polemarchus, who was probably born in Athens. Foreigners and their descendants, no matter longer how long they lived in Athens, nor how successful they became, could not become "Athenians." Women were not considered citizens, nor did they have many legal rights, or rights of property. There is also the historically contentious problem of slavery, and the debates of slavery's relation to democratic Athens. Citizens could not become slaves, because of the reforms at the root of the democracy. But there is a good argument that imperialism fed slavery, and that slavery allowed for leisure even among citizen-tradesmen.

Still, those who served on the assemblies and committees that amounted to the Athenian governmental apparatus were selected by lot. There was no property qualification for citizenship and no property qualification for being selected by lot to serve in the government apparatus. *[See bibliographical note below.]

My questioner is wrong to say that Athens was a government of the owners of property. And the questioner is mostly wrong to point to Athenian democracy as a model for the Revolutionary generation of the American colonists in the future United States.

For that last statement I would like to make some qualifications. Some of the more radical revolutionists anticipated some of the more radical "romantics" and did indeed look back to Athens as part of the "republican" tradition that they aspired to. The challenging radicalism of Athenian democracy was never accepted in all of its messy "populism". Thomas Paine is one such radical, but there were others. These were mostly "localists" (my term). It must be emphasized that many of these "radical democrats" were not themselves aware of some of the more radical aspects of the Athenian constitution. A list of aspects of the Athenian polity they were unaware of were "punishment" of powerful aristocrats through the encouragement of law suits, annual votes of ostracism, and other anti-aristocratic measures that might have transformed "radical republican" thinking into "radical democratic" thinking. In the debate over the Constitution these "localists" became anti-Federalists.

Of those who drew up the U.S. Constitution, the evidence shows that James Madison was influenced by the Roman Constitution as a model, or rather the Roman Constitution as they knew it through Polybius and Montesquieu. The concept of separation of powers, with each power as a check on the other was from the Roman constitution. The concept of "mixed" government -- monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy -- balanced in a republican form of government, was also considered a reason for the success of the Roman Constitution and was copied by Madison. *

Even given the mistakes in the premises of the above questions they are still good questions. Such questions and misconceptions get to the heart of a long debate in the literature on the basic nature of Athenian democracy. The debate has taken place on both the left and the right. But the debate has not been over the nature of the Athenian constitution, per se, or over whether all citizens could vote in assemblies. The historians are certain of these aspects of the Athenian city-state. The debate is over whether Athenian Democracy was merely a democracy, de jure, but a de facto oligarchy.

There are three political traditions that have through the ages framed the debate over the nature of Athenian Democracy: (1) The radical democratic supporters of democracy; (2) Conservative and reactionary critics of all democracy as a form of mob rule; (3) Liberal and social-democratic critics of ideology and propaganda.

It will not surprise most readers that until the late 19th Century most historians fell into the second category of conservative and reactionary critics. The people I am terming "radical democrats" were mostly left out of the "official" historical debate. Thus you would find the radical democratic arguments among non-historians such as Romantic poets, or in the speeches of politicians, or as a negative reflection of the arguments of philosophers. It was not until the generation of 1968 found made its long march through U.S. and British universities that notions of radical democracy found its reflection among professional historians. Liberal and social-democratic historiography appeared late on the scene and was mostly concentrated in Germany. Most of the social democratic historiography only survived for a short period and found its demise with the rise of fascism.

All three of these traditions divided among themselves along similar lines. Was Athenian democracy a façade for elite or oligarchic rule or was it the real thing? If it was the real thing was Athenian democracy a form of terror inducing and redistributive "mob rule" or was it a stable form of "rule of law" with norms for elite control of the mob and democratic control of the aristos? Was the "slave mode of production" and imperial domination essential to the success of the "democracy" (thus making "democracy" a façade for the exclusive domination of Athenian citizens over others) or was Athenian domination of others simply a side-effect of the strength and patriotic unity of the democracy? Along with these questions a number of subsidiary questions formed: for instance, was some amount of equality imposed upon the aristocratic classes at the expense of liberty? Was the demand for equality in Athens simply a façade used by some factions, or individuals, of the aristocratic classes to politically defeat or ostracize other aristocrats?

What might seem a bit strange is that the debate over Athenian democracy was crystallized around contemporary evaluations of the rise of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. But I think most readers with a working knowledge of 20th Century history can see how the problematic aspects of Athenian democracy could be worked out around the multiple crises (and failures) of revolutionary socialism between 1917 and 1939, i.e. the rise of Fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, and the triumph of the Stalinist dictatorship. In a sense, the question of whether Fascism was a form of mob-rule, and thus a deformed form of democracy, was the same as the question of whether democracy in Athens was the rule of the "demos" or a façade for the dictatorship of the demagogues. The question of whether Stalinism was the dictatorship of the proletariat or the terror regime of the nomenklatura was posed in similar ways in the historiography of Athenian democracy.

It is also a bit strange, to me at least, that the main polemical statement articulating the negative side of the debate over Athens was in a book about the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate of Augustus. The book is one of the best classical histories written in the 20th century and rewards reading by historian and non-historian alike, Ronald Syme's "The Roman Revolution." It was published in June 1939 and Syme wrote under the pressure of the events in Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia during the darkest period for liberals and social democrats. Syme stated that "The Roman Revolution" was both a historical and political intervention against the dominance of Stalinism and Fascism.

Near the very beginning of Syme's elegantly written book is what has been termed "Syme's Law."

"In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade." (p. 7)

That sentence is the statement of Syme's Law. Once stated, many historians, for good and ill, and on the left and right, recognized the truth of Syme's Law.

But is it a universal truth? Put it this way. It can easily be seen that our Republic here in the United States, for a long time, was simply a Republic that was acknowledged as a national oligarchy with some local democracy. As John Jay said: "Those who own the country should rule it." But are all democratic forms actually a façade for the rule of a small group of "men"? Is this true of all small towns as well as the country as a whole. Is there any tug of war between oligarchic dominance and democratic institutions?

Apply some of these questions to the Athenian city-state. The history of the rise of democratic forms in Athens is the history of the suppression of family based alliances in favor of economic-based alliances. The rise of democracy involved the suppression of the arbitrary rule of family-dominated clans who exercised sovereignty over land and slaves as if they were proto-states, in favor of small landowners who farmed their own land. These smaller landlords increased their social power by making alliances with a small group of tradesmen, skilled and unskilled. This final point, the rebellion against the arbitrary rule of richer landlords and their family alliance, is what we usually call the formation of "the rule of law."

The rebellion against family rule and the formation of the rule of law is paralleled in the city-states that under went a military revolution based on the hoplite phalanx. It seems that the military revolution that occurred around the same time in these city-states promoted small landowner unity against the rule of the big man or big family -- the chief, or the king and his allies. This occurred because the phalanx was the best military formation yet invented for a relatively small city-state. In order for a phalanx formation of hoplites to work, a high-level of training and trust must be maintained within the formation. The training of an army of citizen-farmers and the necessary high level of solidarity between those farmers led to group formation and group consciousness against the aristocrats who were mostly on horses. Thus around the 8th and 7th Centuries B.C.E. in many of the Greek cities throughout the Mediterranean legal rules were first formed and eventually individual rule was replaced by collective rule. Athens was unique both for the relative low quality of its land and the resultant size of its trading classes. This made the base for the transformation to collective rule much wider in Athens than in other city-states. Add to this the necessity of training a citizen-navy further increases the social weight of the citizens necessary to create a democratic city-state. Eventually collective rule encompassed all citizens. Simultaneously a number of "limiting" rules were instituted to prevent the reassertion of oligarchic rule of any kind, most particularly the choosing of government administration through a lottery where all citizens participated.

But it was mostly the political and ideological influence of Syme's Law that pushed the debate from 1939 onward. The debate over Athenian Democracy in the post-war period paralleled the debate over the difference between "stable" democratic societies, that respect the rule of law, and private property, and "mob rule" that aims at revenge against minorities or confiscatory redistribution of wealth.

Plato recognized the radical challenge of Athenian Democracy to the rule of "the best," the rule of the nobles. Was politics really only the rule of the strong? Do the strong set the definition of what is called justice? It challenged him to question the nature of every political construct and constitution. It led him to realize that the "rule of the best" and the "rule of the strong" did not coincide, especially since he had before his eyes the example of the strong "demos" and the weak aristocracy. How could an "aristocracy" become so weak? That was the next question. And the answer was because the aristocracy was in truth not made up of the best men, of the "true" elite. Plato further saw that all of the "best" aristocrats (Pericles for instance) had adapted themselves to the democracy by taking up "speech-making" and it was the job of those faux-philosophers "the Sophists" to teach the aristocrats how to make speeches. The Sophists gained the enmity of Plato because they taught the aristocrats, the "natural" ruling class, to accommodate itself to democratic forms.

But the main reason why Plato opposed democracy is that he saw clearly that its "truths" were formed in the market place, the agora. The coin of the political "market place" was not gold or silver. The coin was rhetoric. In the view of Plato, rhetoric created values, false values from his point of view, but false values that could be exchange in the dirty politics of bartering for power. In the Assembly and in the Law Courts the Athenian's philosophy, a philosophy of the masses, was formed everyday. Plato believed that this was a false philosophy, what we would call today an "ideology". But he did not deny its power and he did not deny its origins in the democratic practice of debate, of give and take. Ultimately mass juries of citizens formed the power of democratic ideology in the crucible of "judging" guilt, innocence and punishment in the open courtroom of the agora. And as a result of the rhetoric of debate in the agora mass assemblies of citizens gathered and made political "decision" that turned "ideology" (this "false philosophy") into the reality of power.

It is precisely at here, at the crossroads of mass power and debate, decisions and rhetoric, that Plato's "Philosopher Ruler" and the "allegory of the cave" can be seen as a solution to this mess of mob rule. Plato would oppose the false philosophy of the masses making decisions as a collective with the true philosophy of the eternal thoughtfulness.


* Bibliographical note: A book that goes through the arguments over the nature of Athenian Democracy is Josiah Ober's "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens." I highly recommend Ober's book for those interested in the technical issues of the status of democracy in classical Athens. Ober, in my opinion, is a bit of an old fashion "radical democrat" in his point of view. He is not a Marxist in his method. Ober writes from within a tradition of American pragmatism as he reinterprets it through John Searle's "Speech Act Theory." I am heavily indebted to Ober's work though in the end I would emphasize the "exclusivity" of the citizenship requirment as a crucial factor in Athenian cohesion.

A historian who argues for a conclusion similar to Ober's is Ellen Meiskins Wood in her book "Peasant, Citizen, & Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy". She writes from within a Marxist tradition. It is especially interesting how the class analysis tradition of Meiskins Wood contrasts with the elite-mass analysis if Ober.

Both of these books are interventions in a long argument about the nature of Athenian democracy. Thus one of Wood's point is that the great Marxist historian G. E. M. Ste. Croix was wrong to emphasize that Athens relied heavily on slavery in his great book "The Class Struggle in the Ancient World." Ober's book argues against what might be called "the American functionalist view" that Athenian democracy was a facade for elite or oligarchic control. Meiskins Wood argues against some in the Marxist tradition of interpreting Athens as if slavery and slavery alone could define its mode of production.

For a general introduction to Athenian Democracy I would suggest two short and easy books, "Athenian Democracy" by A. H. M. Jones and "The Birth of Athenian Democracy: The Assembly in the Fifth Century B.C." by Chester G. Starr. Both of these books can be found cheaply and the Jones book is usually available at good libraries.

For more on the Roman Republic and the U.S. Constitution see Paul Rhae's "Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution." Also see William Everdell's "The End of Kings" and for an old succinct article that I think I can email to anyone to see, The Influence of Rome on the American Constitution, R. A. Ames, H. C. Montgomery, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Oct., 1934), pp. 19-27. There have been many books written on this subject but this short article sums up the view of the influence of the Roman Constitution in a few short pages. I think one conclusion United Statesians should draw from this is that in order to understand the origins of their constitution they should read Polybius.

In the main body of the text I bibliograph Ronald Syme's "The Roman Revolution". I suggest that the reader look at the book for himself. But if there is a need to know the extent of the impact of Ronald Syme's book on classical historiography I suggest looking through Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principles edited by Kurt A. Raaflaug and Mark Toher. Most of the essays reflect directly upon the impact of Ronald Syme.


Jerry Monaco
10 March 2008
New York City



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