Lesson from Athens: Democracy ≠ Freedom

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One of the recurring themes here on The Hannibal Blog is the tension between two distinct concepts that we (in the West) usually conflate nowadays:

1) democracy and

2) freedom.

They often appear together, but they are not the same, and indeed they can on occasion become enemies. America’s founders understood this, and they distilled this insight in large part from their meticulous study of ancient (Attic and Roman) history.

Athens, as the first and to this day the “purest” democracy (James Madison’s term), offers one lesson about how democracy can threaten freedom: through the “tyranny of the majority”. (That is also Madison’s term, although Madison, with his incredible acuity, foresaw an even greater greater danger from the mixture of democracy with “factionalism”, which ancient Athens did not yet have.)

So here are my notes from Bettany Hughes’s The Hemlock Cup that pertain to this paradoxical relationship between democracy and freedom in ancient Athens. (The Hemlock Cup is the excellent biography of Socrates I recently reviewed here.)

1) Ostracism

It seems that whenever members of the species Homo Sapiens congregate, the groups they form tend to ostracize individual members. In the context of this dynamic, democracy is merely a way to administer the resulting injustice, as is evident from the word ostracism itself.

The ostraka (see picture above) were shards of pottery which the Athenians used as ballots to vote individual citizens out of their city, ie to exile them. The victims (among them illustrious ones, such as Aristides and Cimon) need not have done anything wrong or bad. It was enough that a plurality (with a minimum of 6,000 votes, according to some sources) were sufficiently pissed off at them.

The exile lasted ten years. Hughes (emphasis mine):

… ostracism came to be a handy way of eliminating the unsuccessful, or unpopularly successful, individuals. The piles of scratched ostraka in the Agora Museum in Athens are hard evidence of lives ruined; ‘Kallias’ is ostracised in c.450 BC, ‘Hyperbolus’ in 417–15 BC and another ‘Sokrates’, ‘Sokrates Anargyrasios’, in 443 BC….

An interesting twist is that the practice of ostracism was most popular during Athen’s most “enlightened” period, ie its Periclean Golden Age. Once Athens started losing the war against Sparta and flirted with oligarchic juntas — roughly from 415 BCE onwards — the practice gradually disappeared.

As Hughes says (emphasis mine):

… shamed by their defeats in war, confused by the freedom their own political system gave them, the Athenians from around 415 BC onwards chose oppression over liberal thinking. After c.415 BC there was no further need for ostracism – because now the state could harry and censor at will. Socrates’ death came at the end of more than a decade of intellectual and political persecutions. We must never forget that although Socrates is the most famous victim of Athenian oppression, there would have been scores – perhaps hundreds – more like him whose names have escaped the historical record.

2) Scapegoating

When something went wrong (plague, defeat, etc), the Athenians also picked some compatriots for permanent expulsion. (The word for such a victim was pharmakos, which is the root of our pharmacy. Go figure.)

This practice subsequently became known as scapegoating.

Scapegoating, democracy and religion formed a potent cocktail of institutions in Athens. Hughes:

I think it was no coincidence that Socrates was killed in May/June – the ancient month of Thargelion. Every year at this time, in an obscure ritual known as the Thargelia, two people – either male and female, or representing the male and the female by wearing a necklace of black and green figs respectively – were exiled from the city as scapegoats. Flogged outside the city walls, their expulsion was a symbolic gesture. The Athenians believed their sacrifice would prevent pollution and stasis from seeping through the city-state.

3) Demagogy

Our word democracy (= people power) is closely related to our word demagogy (= people leading). The two concepts were indeed very close in Athens. And the Athenians were quite aware that in a democracy it is not necessarily the best argument that wins, but the best oratory.

Thus Hughes quotes Thucydides (one of my ‘great thinkers’, for his ruthless depiction of Athenian “realism”), who reports a speech by one Cleon in the Assembly (emphasis again mine):

In speechifying competitions of this sort the prizes go to the spin-doctors and the state is the loser. The blame is yours, for stupidly encouraging these competitive displays … If something is to be done in the future, you weigh it up by hearing a good speech on the subject, and as for the past, you judge it not from your own first-hand, eye-witness experience but from what you hear in some clever bit of rhetoric … You all want to be the first to make a speech, and if you can’t do that, you try to sit there looking as though you are one step ahead of the speaker … you demand changes to the conditions under which you live, and yet have a very dim understanding of the reality of those conditions: you are very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a paid public speaker than the council of a city.

4) Leadership

When democracies are unlucky, they fall prey to demagogues. When they are lucky, they have leaders. Athens, for a while, had such a leader: It was Pericles. Although he was technically no more than one among equals in the Assembly (this was a pure democracy, after all), his opinions held sway.


Hughes (emphasis mine):

Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence, and his known integrity, could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was he who led them, rather than they who led him, and, since he never sought power from any wrong motive, he was under no necessity of flattering them: in fact he was so highly respected that he was able to speak angrily to them and to contradict them. Certainly when he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence, he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; and when they were discouraged for no good reason he would restore their confidence. So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.

5) American parallel: populism vs elitism:

It is tempting, of course, to compare ancient Athens with America today. Try, for instance, to swap the words America/American with Athens/Athenian in this passage from Hughes:

This tension between oligarchs and democrats, between aristocrats and the people, charged Athenian politics and culture, and infected its very atmosphere. And Socrates would be both an exemplar and a victim of Athens’ great dilemma: in a true democracy, where power and responsibility are shared equally amongst all citizens, what is the place not just of the good, but of the very great? …

… Socrates goes further, he suggests that tyranny is spawned by the liberty of all in the demos. Here he is the first to suggest that liberty is an illusion fostered by the great to keep the many happy. Come then, tell me, dear friend, how tyranny arises. That it is an outgrowth of democracy is fairly plain….

19 thoughts on “Lesson from Athens: Democracy ≠ Freedom

  1. A very interesting and, perhaps, timely post. As we enter yet another election cycle way too early (I think), we are splintering into Madison’s feared factions. He worried more, I believe, about a multitude of factions than about the idea of two strong extreme factions such as we seem to be forming.

    • As I was reading that piece you referenced, I came across this: California is also unique, in America and the world, in treating every successful initiative as irreversible (unless the initiative itself says otherwise). The legislature cannot change it. In effect, this makes initiatives a higher class of law.

      We have that here in Florida. Our initiatives are virtual amendments to the state constitution. There are some safeguards, of course, review by the court prior to acceptance on the ballot is one. The ballot initiative is one of the things I once liked about California though there were periods where they overwhelmed the ballot, it seemed. We have fewer on a ballot here in Florida at any time and some have been rather amusing (like the one about treatment of pigs) but, for the most part, I like the concept. We here in Florida have not yet reached the point where the judicial system is routinely dragged into the fight when an initiative passes… we’re still in the “honeymoon” phase.

      Great article, by the way.

  2. When democracies are unlucky, they fall prey to demagogues. When they are lucky, they have leaders.

    True, but the tricky part is to determine who’s a demagogue and who’s a leader. In practice, everyone we disagree with and who has a following is a demagogue, and everyone whose message resonates with us and who has an audience is a leader.

    • “… everyone we disagree with and who has a following is a demagogue, and everyone whose message resonates with us and who has an audience is a leader…”

      That symmetry is too clean and makes it too easy for us: It IS possible to disagree with a leader and still respect him/her as such. And it is possible to point to demagogues. Then there are all the cases where, as you say, it depends.

      I changed the background color. What sort of machine are you that you know number codes like this?

      BTW, I thought that making the background orange a hue lighter than the book jacket color would be a good idea, lest the background overpower the site or the jacket. No?

    • No, I like the uniformity. In fact, I’d also change the color of the comment separation lines to the same shade, as well as that of the RSS icon. Maybe the link color, too. Not sure. Would have to see how it looks. The dark blue is hard to tell from the black, and there’s no blue on your book jacket.

      Alternatively, if you do want the background a lighter shade of orange, I’d make it the shade of the comment separation lines (#FFA61F). This, in my view, clashes less with the book jacket orange than the cantaloupe you had before. But my preference would be to stick with one shade of orange throughout. Also, I’d make all gray fonts the shade of the elephant (#A6A5A1).

      Furthermore, I’d use the same fonts that are on the book jacket, i.e., a serif font for the headline (Hannibal and Me — can’t quite tell what font it is on the book jacket; my color detector works better than my font detector; looks closest to DejaVu Serif, although not quite), the subtitle font for the post headlines (might be the one you have now anyway), and whatever font is used in the book for the actual post text.

      In the end, it’s all a matter of playing around and picking whatever works, i.e., feels right. My experience from designing my own site has been that I often have an idea that makes perfect sense, I execute it, but when I see the result in front of me, it often doesn’t feel right for inexplicable reasons.

      And yes, it is certainly possible to disagree with a leader and to agree with someone we consider to be a demagogue. In general, however, I find that we tend to view the opposition as run by strident and loud-mouthed, fear-mongering demagogues who place partisan politics above the common welfare; and those who whistle our own tune as leaders who have the courage to speak out and raise legitimate concerns for the good of the country and the world.

    • Great suggestions, Cyberquill. However, I’m using a pre-fab theme (called “Linen”) now, and I can’t fiddle with this kind of granularity. Background color and font is all I can control.

      Keep up the analaysis, though. I can add, remove or move pages, menu items, navigation tools etc….

    • So what’s the story with the orange line that appears above your replies? I can’t imagine it’s this shade of orange by default. Because here, for instance, there is no line at all. If you can’t change its color, I suppose you could get rid of it altogether. The only reason it annoys me is that it’s a different shade, and—to me at least—it looks like an accidental mismatch rather than a conscious choice.

      On a more profound level, this is yet another refutation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which states that the language we speak shapes our thinking. It clearly does not. I know exactly one word for orange, yet that doesn’t prevent me from being able to distinguish myriad different kinds of orange.

    • PS: You see, the here in the third line of my previous comment is a link, but one almost cannot tell. The blue is too similar to the black, and it isn’t underlined like the links in the post itself.

  3. I agree with Douglas–very timely. Interestingly, when I read the title of your post I thought you would be talking about events/conditions in Greece today, where the issue of democracy freedom is being played out with respect to the capitalist system.

    And thanks for the insignt on the source of the word ostracize!

    • That possible confusion between Athens then and Athens now occurred to me as I was writing the title.

      What does it say about me that I briefly pondered clarifying the point … and then decided not to?

    • It probably says that you have enough respect for your readers to allow them to make the connection without being led by the hand!

      It’s different from me having intended to mention California as a failed state in my comment but forgetting!

  4. I agree with Thomas. When our benevolent institutions such as the I.M.F. and the World Bank along with our dominant “democracies” go into the helping business it is pretty much “my way or the highway”. The Greeks are now experimenting it but the Africans have been submitted to it for a long time along with Haiti.
    Of course there is a big difference here, it is happening in our own ballpark.

    • Not to get too geeky about this, but….

      (When somebody opens with this disclaimer, you know he is about to get too geeky.)

      The level of analysis does not apply here. In international affairs, we have a system of “anarchy” (ie, no world government, neither democratic, nor oligarchic nor tyrannical). So you have countries (which may or may not be democratic internally) conspiring to influence other countries.

      The ancient Athenian analogue to the IMF and World Bank, ironically, might be the (Athenian-led and overbearing) “Delian League”.

    • With reference to contemporary Greece, by slashing government spending, and selling off the family silver to international carpetbaggers, Greece is doing what the IMF and World Bank want, and, what is most important, is doing also what the Economist wants.

      Is the Economist ever wrong?

    • This is a great opportunity to remind everybody of something important here on The Hannibal Blog:

      Andreas Kluth writes for The Economist, but Andreas Kluth ≠ The Economist.

      In this particular case, I haven’t even kept au courant with what “we” are thinking about this issue, so I couldn’t possibly comment intelligently.

    • “………I haven’t even kept au courant with what ‘we’ are thinking about this issue, so I couldn’t possibly comment intelligently……”

      From what I’ve been able to glean, The Economist isn’t in favour of lending any more money to Greece. Rather, the present Greek debt should be restructured, which is to say the debt would not have to be paid back on time, and that not all of the debt would be paid back, ever.

      This is what the Germans would like – a position The Economist appears to endorse.

      As to selling off the family silver (state assets), The Economist approves of this as a general principle, as long as the selling-off is “well-designed”. In the case of Greece’s selling off the family silver, The Economist does recognise that the Greeks oppose this vehemently, and that there isn’t as much Greek family silver to sell off as first thought. These, then, should be factors mitigating how much, and the circumstances under which, Greek family silver is sold.

      Knowing all this, you won’t now need to spend your precious time keeping au courant about this issue.

      For your further edification, here are links to a couple of articles in the Guardian (UK) of possible interest:

      *This piece* makes a strong case that Greece must leave the Eurozone.

      *In this piece*, the writer says that raising the ECB’s targeted levels of inflation would be a way to effectively reduce Greece’s debt.

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