Lesson from Athens: Democracy ≠ Freedom

Click for credits

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….