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.

Pericles

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….

The rape of Melos: Thucydides as great thinker

Thucydides

One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history and all of political philosophy (and yes, I am aware that this is a bold statement) is the so-called “Melian dialogue”. Its subject is power.

Its author was Thucydides (above), whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.

I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.

So the purpose of this post is:

  1. to include Thucydides in my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers, and
  2. to try to give you a short and easy intro to that famous dialogue.

1) Background

The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and her allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and her allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).

One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first (parallels?), Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League but was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:

Athenian Empire.svg

If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was, in short, a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.

The premise of the dialogue, then, is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed. (!)

The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.

In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.

And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.

2) The dialogue

Notes:

  • You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
  • Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)

Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….

Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…

Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …

Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope

Athenians: Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…

Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…

Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do

Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians’] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians: But they would have others to send…

Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:

  1. A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
  2. A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
  3. A: Were you not listening? Because you would live! M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
  4. A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
  5. A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
  6. A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
  7. A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
  8. A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
  9. A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
  10. A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.

The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.

And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians

put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

3) Exegesis

  • Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
  • Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
  • Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.


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