The Magazine

Democracy on Trial

Is the American version destined to follow the Greek?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By AARON MACLEAN
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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.