Pt 2: How did the Athenians Tame the Democracy up until 403BC? (VIth Form intro)

The problem with democratic rule was always the radicalisation of the demos, either by a demagogue or through circumstances. The collective decision, while regarded as being the most reliable under the Athenian constitutional process, was subject to collective hysteria, carrying the majority to make decisions which were of questionable validity at best and downright knee-jerk barbarism at worst. While this did happen on occasion (eg Mytilene and the massacre, falling under the spell of Kleon or Alcibiades etc), it was most certainly NOT the norm – indeed, had it so been, Athens would surely have been highly unlikely to survive as the great democracy, hegemon of the Delian League and mistress of the Athenian Empire. How, then, were the Athenians able to tame the radicalisation and the virtual hysteria which might so easily have dragged the democracy into a state of anarchic mob rule?

Despite the democratic rule at Athens, there was always the presence of oligarchs, aristocratic families and many whose sympathies lay with other systems of governance. Philosophers, dramatists (both comedic and tragedian), were some of the greatest challengers to the democratic extremes as well as the legal restrictions which were instigated in order to tame the democracy, but  arguably the most dominant group who tamed the extremes was also the one which was best able to whip up the hysteria when required – the rhetoricians – the great men who stood up and addressed the Ekklēsia, using their persuasive abilities for an immediate impact rather than the requirement of reflection after a play or the (for many, most probably the majority of the citizen body) the theoretical other worldliness of the political debate in the philosophers’ circles. This is not to underestimate the influence of the perceived challenges as such people as Socrates (after all, it did cost him his life), but the DIRECT influence on the everyday man in the street or fields (such as is embodied in Aristophanes’ Dikaiopolis in “The Akharnians”) must per se have been minimal in comparison with that of the leading citizens they heard speaking on the Pnyx.

The diametrically opposed perceptions of the Democracy at Athens are best represented by Euripides:

Theseus: …The city is not ruled by a single man but is free. It is the people who rule; offices are held by annual turn; they do not assign the greatest honours to the rich, but the poor have an equal share.

Herald: …The city from which I come is ruled by one man and not by the rabble. There is none to fool the city with his flattering speech, and lead it this way or that way depending upon his own advantage – at first he is welcome, he gives much pleasure, but after he causes harm and via the clever use of slander, he conceals the earlier misdeeds and wriggles out of the hands of justice…

(Suppliant Women)

In this, Theseus puts forward the Athenian belief that it was their freedom which was most important, brought by the democracy, and which gave, through isotēs (equality before the law) equal rights of participation in the state to all (though this is limited – the archonships and the annual magistracies were limited to the upper social classes under the Solonic and Kleisthenic reforms – the thetes remained extremely limited outside of the Ekklēsia, even if they had greater influence than under many other governmental systems). The leading roles are permitted for one year only and then are handed on to others, elected by the demos (though again, repeated re-election to the position of stratēgos (general) was far from unknown and was legally permitted in order to carry through successful military campaigns, such as Pericles). The power perhaps lay more in the people FEELING that they had the power, at least of the definition put forward by the Theban Herald from Kreon is to be believed. He, on the surface, puts forward an external criticism from a period long prior to the writing of the play – is he talking about legendary Theseus? – but to what extent would the arguments be relevant at the time of performance? The criticism of the demos falling under the spell of  flatterers who appease the will of the people (or do they manipulate it…?), subsequently using lies, corruption and demagoguery to escape the consequent protections before the dikaisteria (law courts) they undoubtedly deserved. Where does the truth lie in these two critiques of the Athenian democracy? Did it depend upon the circumstances at any given time? Is the former Thesean description a true representation of the democratic processes in fifth century Athens; do the Herald’s criticisms from the oligarchic viewpoint represent the reality of the contemporary democracy, or are they little more than a cynical attack by a minority of the wealthy who are frustrated at the restrictions which the democratic processes put on them? Or, as is so often the case, does the truth lie somewhere in between (if the the truth be at all fully accessible)?

To what extent was the right of parrhēsia (freedom to speak) and isēgoria (the right to that freedom and to address the Ekklēsia) used as a limitation of the democracy? The Old Oligarch:

“Someone might say that they (the Athenians) ought not to allow everybody to make speeches and serve on the Boulē (the Council), but only the cleverest and the best. But in this, too, they are the best advised, in allowing even the bad to speak. For if the good spoke and served on the Council, there would be excellent consequences for those like them, but not excellent consequences for these sympathetic with the common people. But now, when anyone who wishes to get up does so and speaks, (some bad men), he discovers what is excellent for himself and those who are like him. But someone may say ‘How could a man like this recognise what is excellent for himself and for the common people?’ The Athenians recognise that this man’s ignorance and depravity and goodwill profit them more greatly than the good man’s ability, wisdom and ill-will.” (Const. of the Athenians, 1.6-8)

In other words, it is the lessons of experience over a long period of time which are the way the democracy learns – however, as Zuckert points out:

“Practical wisdom or knowledge itself is accumulated gradually and slowly on the basis of much experience. The problem is…that recognizing their own ignorance and need for knowledgable leadership, people cannot identify the right leaders.” (in Ancient Greek Political Thought, Cambs. 202)

So, what happens while this experience is being gathered in order that the correct choices might be made? In 346/5, Aeskhines stated:

“Among all meant it is agreed that there exist three types of constitution: Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. Tyrannies and Oligarchies are managed according to the characters of those who hold power, while democratic poleis are governed by their laws.” (1.4)

The restrictions, stated bluntly here, are the laws which the demos decide upon in the gathered will of the Ekklēsia and are therefore correct in that they are the combined will of all the citizen body if Aristotle be taken as correct:

“The basis of a democratic state is liberty: which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state:…Every citizen, so it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy, the poor have more power than the rich, because they are the greater group, and the will of the majority must be supreme.” (Pol. 1317a40)

Of course, this also implies that everyone who has the right to participate in the political process will choose to do so. In this, he (remember the gender restrictions in full citizenship) will bring his experience to the process of the collective phrōnesis (the ability to discern the good in others’ abilities to work practically for the good of all). By definition, this can only happen in a democracy (outside of the democratic structure, such participation is at best limited by the ruler) where the desire is to participate – he ‘who elects to play no part in political life has, willingly…to surrender crucial aspects of his or her life to the direction of another and thus abandons the task of phronesis, “to deliberate well about what is good and advantageous for oneself, not in particular areas, such as what promotes health or strength, but with a view to living well overall” [NE 1140a25-28]’ (Taylor in Camb. Companion to Aristotle, 242). This, indeed, is the reason why it is extremely doubtful that any ancient Athenian would have looked upon our representative democracies as anything other than an oligarchy by another name – after the vote, we abjure further responsibility and cease to participate in the processes of governance, handing that right to others. Pericles defined the situation in Thucydides: ‘‘an Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics’’ (Thuc. 2.40.2) The dedication to the state was expected to be paramount, and in that, it means the governance for the collective good rather than by any personal gain or to personal advantage, something which would appear to tie in closely with the description Euripides put into Theseus’ mouth cited above, ‘‘for the people, having the power of the vote, become sovereign in the government’’ (Arist. Ath. Pol. 9.1) something which applied to the courts as well as to the governance of the city, and the elections and ostracisms. These all, via the desire to participate, the expectation of participation, the task of phrōnesis and a dedication to the best for the city, were in the hands of the demos, enshrined in law and custom.

Why, then, were critics so blunt, under the right of freedom to speak and express opinion, in their attacks on the democracy? Why were limitations required? The fickle nature of thew collective decision has been touched on with regard to Mytilene and Socrates – also the collective execution of six generals in 406BC, despite the right to individual trial enshrined in the Athenian citizen rights. The democracy was a ship which, without a successful and capable helmsman at the tiller (as Pericles proved to be until his death of the Pestilence. In both peace and war, he was the guiding, dominant hand at that tiller from c. 460 until his death in 429, serving as strategies for the last 15 years of his life. (Thuc. II.65.9 goes so far as to state: ‘‘though still in name a democracy, (Athens) was in fact ruled by her greatest citizen.’ – undoubtedly hyperbole, but nevertheless, showing the exceptional amount of political power that was wielded by one man in the democracy over such a long period of time.) It was after his death that the problems arose. As stated above, the experience that was required for the demos to be able to make resigned and balanced decisions rested on the collective wisdom gained over a long period. Pericles’ dominance of Athenian politics lasted nearly four decades; when he died, ‘there was the youth of Athens’ democracy. The common people didn’t have the experience or self-confidence that came only after decades and decades of exercising power.

After Perikles’ death, no second helmsman arose to replace him. His successors, to quote Thucydides again, ‘‘were more on an equality with one another, and, each one struggling to be first himself, they were ready to sacrifice the whole conduct of affairs to the whims of the people’’ (2.65.10)’ (Strauss in A Companion to Ancient Greek Government; Wiley (2013), 32)

The demagoguery which followed, led by the likes of Kleon, whilst not as pernicious as has often been stated, was in many ways incompetent, losing the Peloponnesian War to oligarchic Sparta, bankrupting the great empire that Athens had dominated and opening the way for the practical action against the democracy by the elites – elites who, while in no way supporters of what they perceived as the governance of the ‘great unwashed’, had remained silent and relatively content while empire brought success and great wealth. While their coup of the ‘Thirty’ lasted little more than a year, the democracy which returned in 403 and continued until 322 was a reformed and rather better balanced democracy compared with what had come before.

How did the control work, then, to return to the original question?

‘Democratic ideology mediated between the reality of social inequality and the goal of political equality, and thereby arbitrated class tensions…It provided a role for elite leadership within a political system based on frequent, public expressions of the collective will. But it also required elite leaders to remain closely attuned to popular concerns and prevented the formation of a cohesive ruling elite within the citizen body. In sum, it preserved the essential condition of “not being under another” for the members of the citizen body.’ (Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 2002, 34).


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