The Magazine

Democracy on Trial

Is the American version destined to follow the Greek?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By AARON MACLEAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What's Wrong with Democracy?

From Athenian Practice to American Worship

by Loren J. Samons II

California, 327 pp., $27.50

It's easy to make fun of classicists these days. Here is another article in a learned journal, entitled "Ocheia, Mules, and Animal Husbandry in a Prometheus Play: Amending LSJ and Unemending Aeschylus fr. 189a R," which takes 21 pages and cites 43 other works to establish that a two-line fragment of Greek poetry, of agricultural and reproductive significance, has been misunderstood. There is a new volume, the first of a forthcoming series, called Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, which, the publishers tell us helpfully, "deals with the definition and boundaries of narrative and the role of narrators and narratees."

Meanwhile, as the piffle proliferates, ever fewer undergraduates actually major in the field (out of more than a million bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States during the 1990s, fewer than one thousand went to classics majors). Squandering their efforts either on petty philological minutiae or trendy theory, the professional students of Greece and Rome fail to honor the legacy which depends upon their care.

This lament has often, and justly, been sounded in the last few years, most passionately by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath in their Who Killed Homer? Yet, even while we blame the old poet's murderers, we should take care to praise those classicists who actually trouble to perform their duties. With this aim in mind, a happy place to look--even during these years of decline--is the fascinating controversy regarding the historical legacy of democratic Athens.

The rule of the people in that ancient polis lasted, with two brief oligarchic interruptions, for only 185 years. Some hold that its story is a tragedy, with democracy playing the splendid and flawed hero; others, that it is a triumph. Speaking broadly, it is the conservatives who claim the tragic line. Certainly, a long line of authors claimed by modern American conservatives--the Athenian Thucydides himself, with others like Hobbes, Burke, and the more federally inclined among the American Founders--have held it.

The tragic tale, very briefly: Having, with Spartan aid, defeated the Persians in 479 B.C., the Athenians took to consolidating their position among the Greeks. (This defeat of their Achaemenid invaders is an indisputable triumph which, incidentally, seems to remain a sore spot for those who inhabit the Persian homeland: At the exhibition Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, at the British Museum in London, sponsored by the government of Iran, a placard notes, with a detectable sulk, that the struggles with the free Greek city-states were nothing more than an attempt to impose order on troublesome border territories, which bore little significance to affairs back in Persepolis.) Athens established itself at the head of an alliance--the Delian League--which had, as an explicit raison d'être, the mandate to take the war to Asia.

There turned out to be very little of this sort of thing. In fact, the coalition mutated through the middle of the fifth century into an organization through which Athens exercised the coalition's power at home, and for its own profit. The democracy repeatedly voted to use the tribute collected from its "allies" to build new and ever grander buildings in Athens (including the Parthenon). Speakers took to reminding the assembled and sovereign multitude that their future renown and present comfort depended on their city's militarism. The naval service, and the industry needed to maintain it, provided employment for poor, voting Athenians, who otherwise might have been destitute.

Popular rule and empire made comfortable bedfellows, and bore a few genocidal rug rats: In 467 the island of Naxos was "reduced" when it attempted to leave the Delian League. Much the same happened, in 463, to Thasos. In 416, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, mandated by a vote of the city's male population in the assembly, the Athenian navy besieged and then destroyed the Spartan colony of Melos. The women and children were enslaved, and the men executed. Five hundred Athenian colonists were sent to occupy the emptied island. It was to no avail in the long run: The war with Sparta ended badly for Athens, and the fourth century, in the traditional view, was a long twilight ending in tyranny.

Since the mid-19th century, a movement among academic historians has sought to improve this interpretation of Athenian history. The revisionist party has such names to its historical credit as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Grote, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, and, more recently, Princeton's Josiah Ober. For them, the crimes of the Athenian people are to be understood as products of their culture and time: The democracy itself is held to be a radically progressive element of Athenian civilization, to be celebrated as a precursor of modern liberalism.

Crucially, the school prefers to focus on Athens's history after its empire was dismantled following the Peloponnesian War. The fourth century, which was traditionally of less interest to scholars than the fifth, has come to be lionized as the golden era of Athenian democracy, a time when the city's old religious prejudices weakened, when a new goddess named Demokratia was established in the pantheon, and new cults, of Zeus and Dionysos Eleutherios (literally "of freedom"), were celebrated. The older school of scholarship preferred to emphasize the initial appeasement of (and ultimate capitulation to) Philip of Macedonia. The new school describes these phenomena, respectively, as "realistic" and "inevitable." Just what was inevitable about Macedon, but preventable about Persia, is rarely addressed.

Given that the ideological lines of this interesting and valuable scholarly dispute have long been drawn --conservatives favoring the darker tale, progressives the revision--it is a telling curiosity of the genealogy and influence of the contemporary center-right that it is now Republicans and the Bush administration who advocate the spread of democracy abroad, cherishing it as the cure to our world's manifold ills, to be administered on a nation-by-nation basis. (That liberals now condemn such a path, despite their ideological sympathy with it in the past, seems a tad opportunistic.)

Loren J. Samons's What's Wrong With Democracy? seems intended, in part, as a caution to those conservatives now in the democracy-promotion camp. In just 200 pages Samons gives us a detailed historical analysis of Athenian history, very much out of the Athens-as-tragedy school. The point of the analysis is to draw lessons relevant to contemporary American policy and society.

This is an engaging, even important, book, catering both to the classicist and the general reading public. It aims to criticize fundamental political and social principles which most Americans, however well read, rarely question. That historical analysis serves as the tool of this inquiry is itself a principled stand, as Samons makes clear in his introduction. He explicitly seeks to avoid the popular left-wing approach (practiced by Princeton's Ober) of compiling a narrow "history of ideologies." On the other hand, he has no inclination to be a Straussian, seeking to imbibe wisdom from a few articulate voices--Thucydides, for example--across the intervening chasm of the ages.

Rather, he seeks to reaffirm, for those who have forgotten, that historical analysis is necessary to an understanding of man's society and politics. (Whether or not it is sufficient is not addressed.) It is possible to see this book as a love song to Thucydides, whose stated aim of creating something both beautiful and useful Samons explicitly sets out to imitate. Indeed, he has harsh words for those among his colleagues who long ago gave up on this.

It is a relief to discover that, as Samons is well aware of the dangers of false analogy, he does not simply seek to tell a cautionary tale, and draw some tortured moral. Rather, his central critique of democratic politics, or at least his most compelling, is fairly subtle. He feels that Americans have lost sight of something that Athenians knew very well, at least in the fifth century: That government is a means to perceived social ends, be they justice, private property, strong families, or other plausible suggestions. Our rhetoric frequently mistakes a means (democracy) for an end. Of course, when we get to thinking about it, we recall that ours is a liberal democracy, designed with at least one end very much in mind: to protect individual liberty (something which would have seemed curious to the Athenians, who did not share our modern notion of a state from which one needs protection, oppression being an intimate, neighbor-on-neighbor affair in those days). This retort does not impress Samons. In his own words:

The idealization of freedom through democracy has led modern America to a precipitous position. Implicitly denying man's desire for a society based on beliefs and duties that lie beyond a system of government and the rights this government (democracy) is designed to protect, we have replaced society's extrapolitical goals with the potentially antisocial doctrines of freedom, choice, and diversity.

Samons praises the very thing about the (fifth century) Athenians--their strong set of social and religious practices, and the sense of political duty with which they purchased their freedom as a city--which many contemporary historians prefer to dismiss as retrograde, or at the least as uninteresting aspects of Athenian society, while he blames that very thing--democratic government--which is widely held to be their greatest achievement. He feels that the modern American polity suffers from a sort of moral drift, and that, as happened to the Athenians in the fourth century, we now like to discuss our rights more than we like to perform our duties. Liberty, after all, seems pretty thin gruel when separated from responsibility.

What sort of health, Samons inquires, can one attribute to a society in which abortion is viewed not as a violation of the duty to one's own but rather as a right, an exercise of personal liberty, which might even be celebrated?

Pretty reactionary stuff, to be sure, and all with the never-stated but always implicit suggestion that we had best understand our own regime's failings before we set out to export it around the planet. It is, of course, fair to question if Samons fully appreciates our regime's successes to the same extent that he perceives its shortcomings. His social critique, that an obsession with personal liberty has led to a deterioration of our sense of individual obligations, may well stand. The conflict between social integrity and personal liberty may well be an enduring problem for democracies.

But what of the great political achievement of modern representative and liberal democracy: the prevention of tyranny, something which the Athenians, regularly tyrannized by their own majorities, could never manage? The issue is just as much what democracy helps one to escape as it is what democracy helps one to achieve. Samons notes in his introduction that any critique of popular rule is invariably met with the counterclaim that it is, in Churchill's tired formulation, "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Fair enough--but any complete critique of democratic government must address this proverb, creaky as it is, and Samons does not. It is a separate question entirely as to whether or not liberal democracies can avoid tyrannizing others as effectively as they avoid tyrannizing themselves. Certainly oppression abroad is possible, as the liberal and democratic British Empire demonstrated not that long ago. Now the United States, inspired by an obscene act of aggression and mass murder, seeks in self-defense to take its own form of civilization abroad. In Kabul and Baghdad, the people are struggling to build liberal democracies, underpinned by Islamic social practices and beliefs. In Cairo and Beirut--not to say in Hong Kong and Katmandu--people march by the tens, even hundreds, of thousands for their freedom, and for the democratic means to that end. Samons raises the question: Will history judge our polity's efforts on their behalf to be noble, as many of us think they are, or to be just another recitation of an oft-told tale: the oppression of the many by the many?

If we find Samons's critique insufficiently disquieting, it is worth considering that the Athenians, too, were exceptionalists of sorts. Take, for evidence, Pericles' famous Funeral Oration, as transmitted by Thucydides, which commemorated those who had died battling Sparta during the Peloponnesian War's first year. This masterpiece of rhetoric has been read in many ways. Revisionists regard it as a startling, prescient ode to the Enlightenment principles of liberty and equality, and to the democratic form of government which is their source. Samons seeks to correct this, observing that Pericles is proud of Athens's "progressive" achievements only to the extent that they aid its renown and dominion over the other Greeks.

Yet another reader, Paul Ludwig, has recently argued (in his Eros and Polis) that what interests Pericles is love--the romantic kind. His oration depicts the city as something beautiful, a place of glory, a school for all Hellas, and he encourages his audience literally to "become her lovers." But love, famously prone to visual impairment, has trouble distinguishing fair objects from foul, and so it was at Athens. Athenian exceptionalism, at least in the political form which Pericles articulates, is based on Athenian power, and so was bound to come up short, power being a passing and decidedly unexceptional achievement. (It is a lasting irony of the Funeral Oration, which Samons justly notes, that Pericles is dismissive of Athens's cultural achievements, as compared with her political success, given that the cultural legacy truly is exceptional.)

The American response to the Funeral Oration is the Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln clearly modeled his speech on Pericles' remarks, at least in part; but the point of interest is that Lincoln's words are genuinely idealistic. He praises the Founders not for securing dominion or renown, but for conceiving a new nation in liberty, and for establishing a government dedicated to a hypothesis regarding human nature, that men are created equal.

Pericles also speaks of equality, but not as an end in itself. Rather, he portrays it as one more means to social success, to military victory, to lasting renown. He wants his listeners to fight not for their liberty and equality but for their polis, for Athens, right or wrong. The Gettysburg Address asks for nothing of the sort. A full critique of American democracy will have to struggle with Lincoln, who was--and remains--the ablest spokesman for our own exceptionalism. We may hope that the extent to which Lincoln's words differ from Pericles' words, and to which our national actions are distinguished accordingly, is the extent to which we can avoid the old imperial fate.

Aaron MacLean, a Marshall Scholar at Oxford during 2003-06, lives in Cairo.