Skip to comments.Athenian democracy an imperfect system that led to mob rule, says classics prof
Posted on 02/28/2005 11:59:26 AM PST by Destro
Athenian democracy an imperfect system that led to mob rule, says classics prof
By Brian Fitzgerald
The word democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, a combination of demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning power.
Democracy: power of the people. Its the ideal form of government, isnt it? Loren J. Samons says no not the way it was practiced by Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Athenian democracy was remarkably direct, rather than being representative, he says, and Americas founding fathers regarded this form of government as unstable and dangerous.
Most Americans generally believe that we live in a democracy, but the United States government was designed instead as a representative republic, in part to shield elected leaders from the sometimes volatile public will, writes Samons, a CAS associate classics professor and associate dean, in his recently published book Whats Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship ( University of California Press, 2004).
Samons says that over the course of the past 200 years, Americans have increasingly and erroneously applied the words democracy and democratic to our form of government, in which a people express their sovereign power through elected representatives, under a Constitution that ensures individual rights.
So, many citizens were in for a rude awakening during the protracted period following the 2000 presidential election, when candidate George W. Bush won the number of Electoral College votes necessary for victory, but had a minority of the popular vote. People were astonished to realize that we dont live in a true democracy. There were calls for election reforms and the abolishment of the Electoral College.
But the Electoral College is still in place, and thats the way the creators of the American regime intended it. They didnt trust the masses. They certainly didnt want to emulate the voting system in ancient Athens, where a citizen assembly made policy decisions. There were 30,000 to 40,000 citizens eligible to vote, Samons says, but no more than about 6,000 would meet in an assembly. Measures were put before them, and they voted by literally holding up their hands. As for public officials, a council of 500 was chosen by lot to serve administrative purposes and put measures before the assembly, but final decisions rested with the assemblymen themselves. Policy questions such as, Should we go to war with Sparta? were put before the people thats how decisions were made, he says.
In 431 B.C. the Athenian general Pericles persuaded the assembly to provoke war with Sparta, leading to Athens defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
The great irony to me is that in the last 15 to 20 years, some modern historians of ancient history have begun to look to Athens as a model for the theory and practice of modern politics, says Samons. A lot of their works paint an overly optimistic picture of Athenian democracy. To me, if were going to use Athens to study America, the first question we ought to ask is, Did Athens succeed? One thing we know about Athenian democracy is that it didnt last. During the nearly two centuries of Athenian democracy Athens suffered oligarchical revolutions twice.
Samons points out the Athenians also waged rash imperialistic wars. They lost virtually every war they fought against major Greek powers, he says. They were pretty good at bullying little Greek states, and they were successful against the Persians, but not against Sparta or Syracuse. Before we begin to look to Athens to better understand or even alter our own government, we should look at how well Athens succeeded. Indeed, at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 B.C., the Athenian empire was not only humbled, but also overthrown. He notes that Athens foolishly refused to make peace early in the war, even when offered favorable terms by Sparta.
Samons says there is much to admire about Athens: its literature, art, architecture, and philosophers; but its experiments with democracy led to many mistakes and failures. After all, an Athenian jury of 500 citizens even voted to execute the great philosopher Socrates.
Despite the publicity the Electoral College received in 2000, Samons says, many Americans still believe that our country is a democracy and look to Athenian democracy as something we should strive for.
I think we talk about our regime now as if its a democracy, he says. You hear politicians, for example, trying to align themselves with what the American people want. This inspires a view that this is the best thing for the country majority rule. After the 2000 election, I heard more than one politician talk about the will of the majority instead of discussing why the Electoral College exists, and what the reasons are for a distance between the immediate will of the people and political action in the American system.
Samons, who has written or edited three other books on ancient Athens, including one on Athenian democracy, says that he wrote Whats Wrong with Democracy to get people to recognize and accept nondemocratic aspects of our regime. He also wants readers to realize that we shouldnt rely on our political system to improve society. Many Americans tend to think that there is a political solution to every social problem, he says. This reflects a misplaced faith in the political process a faith sometimes spawned by the modern idealization of democracy.
Americas founders werent as foolhardy, according to Samons. They clearly recognized the dangers of having a mass of citizens make policy decisions on the spot, he says. They were familiar with classical Athens, and the ancients proved that majority rule can devolve into mob rule.
4 February 2005
To even compare the two, is foolish.
"democracy an imperfect system that led to mob rule..."
Now they tell us.
Founding fathers said much the same thing.
About Democracy that is.
Trying to adopt such a model for anything much bigger than that is a bad idea.
Well, hell---its not as though generations of American children haven't been force-fed the idea "democracy good--Constitutional Republic bad" by the self-appointed intelligentsia, who actually HATE the American form of government.
Thomas Jefferson quotes (US 3rd US President (1801-09). Author of the Declaration of Independence. 1762-1826)
Democracy is a sheep and three wolves voting on what to have for dinner........
Another interesting point about the Athenian way: they used random selections, to give the G-ds an opportunity to intervene. For many decisions each voter (and the franchise was limited) wrote his selection on a pottery shard, or had someone write it for him. The shards were placed in one of several (say 12) urns. A single pottery shard was selected from an urn with the numbers 1 through 12 in it. The selected urn was kept, and all other votes were discarded. The selected urn had its votes distributed among the other urns, and again, one urn was selected, and the votes in the non-selected urns again discarded. This continued until the single vote was selected.
It is obvious that anyones vote could be counted, but hardly anyone's actually was!
It is hard to get inside the head of the ancient Greeks. So much good sense, mixed with so much other.
It creates a problem I suppose when we try to "democratize" other countries, and certain folks in those countries think that by "democratize" we mean "purely-democratize", and call us hypocritical if we insist on bills of rights, constitutional separation of powers, etc.
But again, all we need to is reiterate that by "democracy", Americans don't mean pure democracy and never did.
Aristotle said the same thing over 2300 years ago. The least they could have done is mentioned him in this piece.
One can hardly expect a BU academic would ever understand Greece or democracy. Athens was ruled by elitists just as our electoral system was intended to impose...and does by giving representation to 100 Senators, some of whom represent 300,000 folks and others many millions. Joe Biden is somewhere in the middle and that qualifies him as representing the mob...and all four Senators from NY-nj of course are members bought and paid for by the mob.
The problem with democracy - if you think in terms of a car engine - is that democracy can get the car engine going turbo charged but it tends to over heat. A republic is slow ans steady like a desiel truck engine.
It's an important point. The welfare state (a political "solution") resulted in vastly increased poverty and single-parent families. Want to solve the social problem? Remove the political "solution" and you are well on the way to success. Politics can't fix everything.
Even on a 'small scale' they will always evolve into a dictatorship of the majority.
BTW. The correct definition of the United States is a Constitutional Republic employing a Representative form of Government.
Actually, until FDR became President, our military manuals proudly called the USA a Republican and stated that democracy was bad, leading things like anarchy and mob rule.
Gee, I wonder why that changed?
Sure. But the USA still fits the definition of a democracy.
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