Is ὀχλοκρατία the future we have to look forward to? What can we learn from the Athenians? A basic intro for VIth Form

When does democracy cease to be democracy? At what point, if there be a defined point, does the concept of democratic process and structure become ochlocratic? Is it possible to define a set difference between the ‘good’ government by the people and the ‘bad’ government by the baying mob – the ochlos?

The power of the mob – the uncontrolled populace, or the unled/badly led populace – has always been the amongst the greatest threats in any form of government or organised state.

For the ancient political philosophers, particularly in this Plato, Aristotle and Polybius, the processes of government in a state followed the κύκλος (Plato, Republic, VIII – IX) or for Polybius, the ἀνακύκλωσις (Pol. Histories, VI) both standing for a cyclical form of government (though they differ in the number of processes they decide upon) – for Aristotle, the governmental sequence was linear, rather than cyclical, marking a birth and a death of a governmental system, if not necessarily the state per se.

Where, then, do we draw the lines? As Ober (Athenian Revolution) has pointed out, Aristotle and Plato had different ideas regrading this question. For Aristotle, the question of “who did and who should constitute the political authority” (156) was paramount. It is due to this that many have argued that he was, in actual fact, anti-democratic. For Plato the key point was the concept of knowledge: Plato brought “into question the basic assumptions on which democratic knowledge rested: he questioned the validity of mass wisdom as a basis for judgement, the efficacy of public rhetoric as a prelude to decision making…” (156)

How far can the masses be imbued with the wisdom of a ‘hive mind’ in which the collective decision is, by definition, the correct one – the Athenian political system “was grounded in the assumption that the collective wisdom of a large group was inherently greater than the wisdom of any of its parts.” (Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, 163) Can we allow this as an acceptable hypothesis? Is this truly the hypothesis upon which all democracy must invariably rest in order to justify the participation of all strata in the political process as being of equal validity and right? There must be one deciding factor for Plato – the level of knowledge on a political level that is passed on to the people in order that they be an assembly that can make a rational decision as opposed to nothing more than either a group led to wrong decisions by a corrupt individual who has his own agenda based on his own knowledge (epistēmē) and therefore can be understood to be untrustworthy (Isocrates, 13.8) (reminiscent of Michael Gove’s statement of 2016 that people were ‘sick of experts’).

Who, then, has the right to decide what the level of knowledge open to all citizens be? Might that knowledge also be open to those who do not constitute part of the citizen body? To what extent are  liberty and equality (eleutheria and isotēs) permitted – at what point does personal liberty become subservient to the requirement of the greater good through the collective decision? Do laws and restrictions unnecessarily restrict eleutheria? (Hdt. 3.82.3) These are questions which remain as relevant today as they have since the democratic concept became the chosen form of government of some early states:

“For if liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will best be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost. And since the people are in the majority, and the opinion of the majority is decisive, such government must necessarily be a democracy.” (Arist. Pol. 1291b 34-38)

In the supposed Periclean Funeral Oration in Thucydides, the Athenian democracy has, as its fundamental base, “es tous pleionas oikein” (administration in the hands of the majority) which is supported by “pasi to ison” (equality of all) alongside “eleutherōs politeuomen” (the freedom intrinsic to public life). To what extent, however, to return to our original question, can such freedom truly be allowed by a democratic society? We can examine this in the idea of parrhēsia: the right to freedom of speech, both in and outside of the political arena of the ekklēsia. Expectation is that such a right to freedom of expression (remember that such expression was protected when delivered in the ekklēsia) allows ergo for the free speaking of one’s mind. However, as Saxonhouse has pointed out:

Parrhêsia is not toleration of diversity. No wall of separation divided a protected public speech in the Assembly from a potentially unprotected private speech – or the reverse.’ (Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, 2006)

and Finlay:

‘[there was no activity] in which the state could not legitimately intervene provided the decision was taken properly…Freedom meant the rule of law and participation in the decision making process, not the possession of inalienable rights.’ (Democracy: Ancient and Modern, 116)

The state, democratic or otherwise, had an obligation to put limitations on the seemingly inalienable rights which supported and bolstered that state. The trial and execution of Socrates is an example of the state brooking no direct challenge to the fundamentals upon which the democracy lay – Socrates, in questioning these fundamentals and persuading the young men to challenge and question the functioning established order, was perceived as a direct threat to that established order, despite the required parrhēsia. Does eleutheria by definition in a functioning democracy have to be restricted as zēn hōs bouletai tis (the right to live as one choses without external oppression from others or the authorities) to the areas of private life, but with accepted restrictions by the state in the public sphere for the sake of the greater good? (Thuc. 2.37.3) The next question is self evident – who decides on the common good and what that is? For the Old Oligarch, the answer was obvious:

“…the common people at Athens recognise which citizens are good and which are bad. But, although recognising this, they like those who are friendly and back their interests, even if they are bad, and it is rather the good citizens that they hate. For they do not consider the ability of those to be naturally inclined to their advantage, but to their harm. However the opposite applies in some cases – that those who are in fact of the common people are not sympathetic to the common people by nature.” (Const. of the Athenians, 2.19)

In other words, the whole democratic system serves none other than the democratic system, the people deciding on who is good (those who support their prejudices and interests) and who is bad (by definition, those who do not) rather than the necessity of the effective democracy, that it is for the good of all, if we accept that isotēs (equality) of all participants is of equal importance. The second critique here is the implied fickle nature of the assembled people – compare here the Mytilene Debate (Thuc. 3.36-49) where Kleon uses his oratorical power to become an almost tyrannical demagogue, persuading the Demos to mass murder of prisoners and the destruction of the rebelling polis, yet the following day, after deliberation, the people repent of their decision and attempt to rectify it by cancelling their decree of the previous day (though in vain). After their change of heart, Klēon, “the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with the commons” verbally attacked the Demos for its change of heart:

“The most alarming feature in the case is the constant change of measures with which we appear to be threatened, and our seeming ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority; that unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination; and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their wit in more important matters, and by such behaviour too often ruin their country; while those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate, instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions.”

Is it therefore, as Klēon appears to be arguing, a weakness of the state that it can change its laws so quickly? Granted, here is an unusual and extreme case in arguing what should be done to a state which has revolted against the hegemony of the Athenian people (though again – revolution against an Empire or the decision to leave an Alliance?), but it begs the question of how far the decision and will of the people can be accepted as such, and when it becomes little more than the baying crowd. The reason that I chose this example is due to the fact that, despite the change of heart and repentance of what might be seen as the ochlocratic decision to massacre the inhabitants, the attempt to rectify such a decision came too late.

Again, we return to the level of knowledge which was available or in fact DESIRED by the plēthos (cf Thuc. 1.20.3 “Such is the degree of carelessness among the many in the search for truth and their preference for ready-made accounts.”) If the democratic rule of hoi polloi (the many) is nothing other than a self serving process (ie democratic decisions serve the democracy alone) and that those who make those decisions are loathe to seek out the complex procedure of examining what the leaders tell them and questioning the alētheia of such accounts, preferring simply to accept as fact that which panders to their preconceptions and innate prejudice against whichever group (eg the Mytileneans or those perceived as oligarchic) be out of favour at that time,  rather than listening to the forewarnings of those who are more knowledgeable in the field (what we term experts) then is this truly democracy or does it become ochlocratic?

The “rule of the mob” has never truly required groups of angry people running through the streets with clubs and flaming torches (though often in history it has, (eg the mobile vulgus) of the late Roman Republic at election time). As I have attempted to show at what I hope will be an intelligible level for A-Level, thoughtless or ill considered decisions without examination and questioning can lead to what amounts to the ὀχλοκρατία, something which imperils the democratic processes and possibly even the actual democracy itself. The questions here are points to consider, ones which are imperative if both apathy and ochlocracy are not to be the end of the democratic systems which we supposedly hold so dear.


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