Ancient Athens is often hailed as the home
of democracy by politicians, journalists and academics alike, yet how accurate is this
statement? Irrespective of how democratic you think many modern democracies actually
are, given the power held by special interest groups, it is still interesting to explore
the genesis of an idea that is invoked so often in our times.
The initial shift towards democracy in ancient Athens can be traced to the reforms of the
legislature and poet, Solon, in approximately 593 BC. Solon’s reforms were in part aimed
at increasing the level of citizenry representation in the Athenian political institutions of
the Assembly and the Council. This put ancient Athens on the path towards democracy, however
it was not until more than eight decades later that the move towards democracy truly began
to gain traction. In 510 BC, the reign of the tyrannical family
known as the Peisistratids came to an end, with the final nail in the coffin coming when
Sparta invaded Athens and the wider region of Attica. Two years later, Cleisthenes, a
statesman who is often referred to today as the ‘father of democracy,’ advocated that
the constitution should be modified in a way that would place the sovereign power of the
Athenian political system in the hands of the male citizenry. This is thought to be
the first recorded proposal of democracy in the world, a revolutionary moment in history.
At its core, Cleisthenes’ radical proposal would require that the popular assembly should
decide the outcome of all the key public issues facing the Athenian population.
Cleisthenes’ break with the tradition boundaries of politics in the ancient world was met with
resistance however. The most notable opponent was the Athenian aristocrat, Isagoras, who
appealed to Sparta for assistance. The Spartans invaded Attica once again, yet they were met
with fierce resistance by much of the populace, with the Spartans forced to surrender and
retreat shortly after invading. With the Spartans defeated, the support for
the proposal of Cleisthenes skyrocketed. The distinguishing feature of Athenian democracy
was that the voice of every male citizen was considered equal when debating an issue, irrespective
of class or property owned by the citizen. For the next one hundred and eighty years,
democracy existed and grew in Athens, with only a few short reversals back to oligarchy.
One such instance came after an alliance led by Athens was defeated by an alliance led
by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. Following the Athenian defeat, a Spartan-imposed oppressive
oligarchy was installed, known as the Thirty Tyrants, yet this was quickly replaced by
democracy again. So, it is clear that ancient Athens had many
elements and principles that we would recognise as democratic today. Yet the form of democracy
in ancient Athens would not be considered a democracy today, as the Athenian form of
democracy did not include a major dimension of democracy in the modern context: that of
inclusion (meaning who is eligible to vote and participate politically). In ancient Athens,
there were severe restrictions as to who could participate in the democratic process. Women
were excluded entirely, along with slaves and those residents who were not Athenian
citizens. Considering these limitations, it is perhaps better to think of ancient Athens
as a quasi-democracy or part-democracy, as opposed to a fully-fledged democratic system
in the modern context. Another curious feature of the relationship
between democracy and ancient Athens is the fact that many of the most prominent and preeminent
philosophers who were born or lived in ancient Athens were not great proponents of democratic
government. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all far from zealot democratic advocates.
One of the central criticisms of democracy that both Socrates and his student Plato voiced,
was that they believed that the electorate in a democratic system was unable to select
officials who were adequately qualified and trained to rule effectively.
Furthermore, Plato was explicit in his condemnation of democracy, as he argued that it stifled
true leadership and that the idea of democracy itself was grossly impractical. Interestingly,
in the Republic, Plato writes – through the Socratic dialogue – that in nature as well
as in politics, an extreme form of one thing can often produce an extreme reaction in the
opposite direction, in an ancient variation of what is known today as Newton’s third
law of motion – which essentially states that for every action, there is an equal and
opposite reaction. Through this logical structure, Plato argues that democracy can produce tyranny
and tyranny can produce democracy, in a perennial process of constitutional instability.
Aristotle – who was a student at the Academy of Plato and who also went on to tutor Alexander
the Great – was much less critical of democracy than both Socrates and Plato, although he
did still voice scepticism towards the idea. Writing in his book The Politics, Aristotle
believed that democracy was an “erroneous” constitution along with tyranny and oligarchy.
Aristotle noted that one of the main vulnerabilities of democracy that often led to the democratic
system being overthrown stemmed from the “unprincipled character of popular leaders” that would
sometimes ascend in democracies, with these leaders forcing opposition to arise and eventually
try to overthrow them. Despite Aristotle’s critique of democracy
on one hand, he does offer support to democracy on the other, in particular he promotes one
of the foundational principles of democracy; namely, that it is better and more just for
many people to rule than only a select few. Aristotle argues – with certain limitations
– that there is at least a degree of truth in the belief that a large group of individuals
have more collective wisdom than a few individuals who are highly skilled, “as each [individual]
has some share of virtue and practical wisdom” that is collectively aggregated in a large
group. To illustrate his point, Aristotle notes that a feast in which many individuals
contribute is better than a feast where only one individual contributes.
On balance, it perhaps the case that the relationship between democracy and ancient Athens is far
more nuanced in reality than the way it is often portrayed.