Greece was the birthplace of democracy, but our own political system would be unrecognisable to voters in Ancient Athens. As Classicist Paul Cartledge explains, however, that doesn’t mean that our ancient forbears have left us with nothing to learn.

We can’t take over Athenian democracy lock, stock and barrel, but we can use it to inform and change our perception both of their system and our own

Dr Paul Cartledge

Imagine the following situation, which may be familiar: The United States is edging towards armed conflict with an Islamic dictatorship which, it claims, is harbouring powerful weapons of mass destruction. In Britain, the Government vows to stand shoulder to shoulder with its American ally, but there is widespread protest from the voting public. As the deadline for invasion looms, the voice of the people seems to be falling on deaf ears. The country, apparently against the majority will, teeters on the brink of war.

Now imagine that this particular version of Britain has also recently undergone radical democratic reform. Thanks to the miracle of the new “e-democracy” website, any eligible citizen can have their say on the issues of the moment and the Government must abide by the wishes of the majority. On an appointed date, you log in and, along with millions of others, cast your vote on whether this war should happen. The result is a resounding “no”. British forces are stood down.

Cloud cuckoo land? Science fiction? We forget that in democracy’s cradle of Ancient Greece, the principles at play here would have been utterly recognisable. In Athens, the most famous and radical of the Greek democracies, such issues were decided by an “ekklesia”, or assembly, comprising every eligible member of the voting public. As in the imagined e-democracy, each vote cast counted for one and decision was by majority.

So if Athens, the original democracy, was so different to our own (real) system, have we, in Britain, really come to terms with what democracy means? It’s the sort of question that has clearly been bothering plenty of people since the recent General Election prompted calls for an overhaul of our allegedly “undemocratic” and “broken” electoral process. It is also a theme central to Professor Paul Cartledge’s lecture at the Hay Festival on June 3rd.

Cartledge is A G Leventis Professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge and has written a multitude of books and articles on Ancient Greece and its political thought and practice, along with many other themes. Where politicians frequently invoke democracy’s name because of its potency as an ancient, almost hallowed principle, he is at pains to point out that the Greek interpretation was radically different to our own.

“The only real continuity between ancient and modern democracy is the name,” Cartledge points out. “In fact, the two ideas are so distinctive that it has become a real question for historians of later periods as to why democracy was chosen as the name for this new, representative system that we have now.”

The Athenian ekklesia is probably the most stark example of this lack of continuity, but there are many others. Ancient Athens had no political parties, no government and no opposition. Even the body of officials which set the ekklesia’s agenda was chosen by random lottery, in which any eligible citizen (this meant male citizens who were “of age”) was potentially electable.

“An ordinary guy could get appointed to a pretty senior governmental position, or find himself as a juror in a crucial state trial,” Cartledge says. “There were some exceptions, but the Athenians were radical. They made the lottery a major political act.”

All of this certainly sounds completely alien compared with our own system. The fact is, however, that democracy has always defied clear definition. Taken literally, the term is an amalgam of two Greek words – “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos”, meaning power, but nobody has ever really been able to agree on what the ensuing “people power” should mean.

The Lincolnian definition, for instance, was government of the People by the People for the People. Leninists, on the other hand, regarded it as meaning the triumph of the proletariat over a ruling elite. For a long time after the demise of the Athenian version, the term was even associable with mob rule. In 6th century (AD) Byzantium, the word “democracy” meant a riot.

In short, when it comes to the precise meaning of democracy, the jury (however it has been elected) is very much still out. None of which has stopped modern politicians, from the leaders of our newly-installed Coalition to successive leaders of the free world, from identifying it as a symbol of human civilisation that has echoed down through the centuries thanks to the Athenian example.

Cartledge reckons that there are two reasons for this. First, the sheer audacity of Ancient Greece’s radicalism is striking even now, particularly when one considers that until then, any state system had imposed a sharp division between the masses and the ruling elite.

Secondly, Athenian democracy in particular is culturally seductive, because it coincides with some of humanity’s greatest achievements. “The Parthenon, Pericles, Socrates, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle… one can go on,” Cartledge says. “It’s a bit like Renaissance Florence. There was an extraordinary flowering of culture and that includes political theory.” Never mind that some of the key theorists, like Aristotle, were vehemently opposed to democracy because of its unsavoury, mob connotations.

You could argue that if our own system is indeed both different and “broken”, modern politicians could do worse than look to the Athenians for a few ideas to help them patch it up. The growing accessibility of the internet means that “e-democracy”, for example, however space-age it may sound, is increasingly feasible.

This might seem very attractive if we just imagine ourselves voting against war with Iraq. If we think of the same system applied to a nationwide vote on immigration, Europe, or the reinstatement of capital punishment, however, it becomes clear that it is more volatile than we might at first presume.

In fact, a huge gulf between us and the Ancient Athenians prohibits such acts of simple transmutation. “Their governmental system worked because it was direct and face-to-face,” Cartledge says. “The Greeks had tiny communities of a few hundred or a few thousand; not millions.”

“One lesson you learn from Ancient Greece is that it’s not just a matter of technique but a matter of culture. For democracy to work in that form, you had to live it and understand the nuances of the different positions and issues at stake. Nowadays, for very good reasons, we privilege the world of work, or our private lives, over and above politics. It’s very difficult to be democratic.”

So why study the Greek model at all? For Cartledge, the ongoing fascination of Greek democracy is not in its role as a model for our own time, but, more subtly, the set of principles it represents.

“The fundamental principle is a notion of equality,” he explains. “We might not be able to translate the techniques, but we can translate the ideas. What the Greeks show us is that democracy involves creating institutions that most do justice to treating every person’s contribution as politically equal.”

Using Athens as a highly distinctive point of reference helps us to ask important questions about how well our own process is representing the notion of “people power”. Some of these questions are being asked of our electoral system right now. A referendum on alternative voting certainly involves the application of one citizen, one vote, for example, but it could be argued that proportional representation would be truer still to the egalitarian principles at stake.

Cartledge believes that the lottery system used to elect officials could also be “creatively employed” in a modern context, perhaps when it comes to allocating government funds in certain cases, or the selection of an upper house. Recalling the way in which Tony Blair dealt with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he even, (half) jokingly, wonders whether a system of selective ostracism – the Athenian process whereby a citizen who had made bad political calls could be dismissed, harmlessly, from the political community by popular vote – might work on the odd occasion.

Broadly, however, it is for lessons, ideas and warnings that we should look to the Athenians, rather than systems that we can simply plunder and claim as our own. Whether or not we ultimately go down the route of more referendum politics or dramatically change the way we vote, the merits and drawbacks of these approaches were debated ad nauseam in the Athenian assembly.

“We can’t take over Athenian democracy lock, stock and barrel, but we can use it to inform and change our perception both of their system and our own,” Cartledge adds. “They helps us to see what underlies the notions of ‘the people’, political empowerment and equality. We tend to lose sight of those ideas, because our own world is much more complex. Understandably, that means that in our own time, there is perhaps more reluctance to empower ordinary citizens than there was in Ancient Athens.”

Paul Cartledge will be speaking at the Hay Festival on June 3rd, at 10.30am.

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