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….

Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’.

Isn’t that a great little detail? When strung together densely in one single narrative, these details transport you to a place and a time, to Athens during the life of Socrates. Kudos to Bettany Hughes for achieving such intensity in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

And oh, what an Athens it was. This is the Athens of aromas and stink; of sweat, blood and sperm; of tanners pissing on their hides and Adonises oiling themselves for war games; of parades, assemblies and battles; of sex, slavery and domesticity; of democratic group-think, individual liberty and massacre; of humanity at its highest and simultaneously its lowest; of strutting health and vile disease.

Regarding disease, for example, is it not obvious that a plague such as the one that fell on war-torn Athens during Socrates’ prime must have influenced the subsequent events and the worldview of Socrates and his compatriots?

[W]ithin a year the disease danced its way through the caged population of Athens and across the hot streets; 80,000 died. At a cautious estimate, at least one-third of the city was wiped out. It had started in 431 BC.

Imagine one third of Americans, 100 million, dying in one year from a plague.

But we also need the lighter moments. For example, that time (beloved by artists, as above and below) when Socrates’s wife doused him with piss:

Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow.

So Hughes accomplished something big: She brought that world-historical character, Socrates, to life. It’s a scandal how dull ‘philosophers’ (as opposed to historians) usually make Socrates. We needed this ‘biography’. She makes reading about Socrates easy and fun and personal. That is what I tried to do with Hannibal and the other characters in my own book.

(And, by the way, a reminder: Don’t ever assume that a thread on The Hannibal Blog has ended just because it slumbers for a few months. Both the series on Socrates and that on the Great Thinkers will continue. I have big plans for them.)

Another recent book on Socrates and the great philosophers is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. It tackles a selection of thinkers, one per chapter:

  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Diogenes
  • Aristotle
  • Seneca
  • Augustine
  • Montaigne
  • Descartes
  • Rousseau
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Nietzsche

Since three of my own favorites were on the list, I bought the book. (The three, each with his own tag here on The Hannibal Blog, are Socrates, Diogenes and Nietzsche.)

Miller, too, sets out to write a biography (as opposed to a philosophical essay). His conceit, if I may paraphrase it, is to examine the lives of those who examined their lives.

Put differently, he wants to see how various philosophers lived and whether they just ‘talked the talk or also walked the walk’. Did their lives reflect their love of wisdom (= philo-sophy), or where they hypocrites?

Socrates, in this exercise, comes off splendidly. He embodied the love of wisdom and lived accordingly, searching for the good and treasuring simplicity. From Miller:

Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.” … Abjuring the material trappings of his class, he became notorious for his disdain of worldly goods. “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’ ” He took care to exercise regularly, but his appearance was shabby. He expressed no interest in seeing the world at large, leaving the city only to fulfill his military obligations.

And, of course, he died for his principles.

Diogenes, whom I admire so much for his extreme simplicity/freedom, arguably became the caricature of this Socratic lifestyle:

While Diogenes regarded Plato as a hypocrite, Plato saw Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”—and by Plato’s standards, he certainly was.

Masturbating in public and living in a barrel can give you that kind of reputation.

Plato and Aristotle arguably started that other trend, that of the hypocrite philosopher, talking/writing sophisticated words while, one way or another, selling out in private life. By the time you get to Rousseau, the hypocrisy becomes hard to stomach (I’ll leave that for another post some day.)

Storytelling lesson: unity vs fragmentation

But that’s not what I was mainly pondering after reading these two books, one after the other. Instead, I was reflecting why one author succeeded in a big way, and the other possibly failed in a small way.

Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, succeeded big. She tackled an intimidating subject (intimidating because Socrates is not exactly an under-covered subject) in an innovative way and rose to the challenge by presenting one single, unified tale, no part of which a committed reader would dare to omit or skip.

By contrast, Miller, in Examined Lives, put forth a list, then broke his narrative into discrete chapters for each person on the list.

There is a problem with such lists: Why this list, and not some other list? Why Augustine and not Aquinas? Why Descartes and not Spinoza? Why Montaigne and not Montesquieu? Et cetera.

The result is that the reader, as he progresses, is increasingly tempted to skip the chapters that don’t interest him to speed ahead to those chapters that do interest him. I confess that I did that. Life is short, and I was a bit bored on some pages.

A good author reins in his readers as a charioteer steers his horses. He has readers asking the questions he, the author, is asking, not some other question (such as: where is Hegel?).

What could Miller have done differently? He could have woven the various lives together so that each chapter was about a theme, not an philosopher, and the various philosophers that interest him reappear at the right places.

My choice

You should take this with a grain of salt, because I have a reason to be thinking such thoughts.

A few years ago, when I first contemplated the book I wanted to write, I also envisioned it as a collection of chapters about various individuals that interested me (around the theme of triumph and disaster being impostors). (Hannibal was to have one chapter, Scipio one, Einstein one, Roosevelt one, et cetera.)

When I pitched that to an agent, he suggested that a better (but also more challenging) book would thread the lives together into one unfolding story, so that readers would not be tempted to disassemble the book and cherry-pick among the chapters. That structure would also force me to do the hard work of actually teasing out the themes concealed in these lives.

I took that advice. You can soon (on January 5th) decide whether I succeeded at it or not. For now, I simply observe with fascination how other authors approach this choice.