Democracy Has Never Been an Idyll

Article excerpt

Athens, as we all know, is the birthplace of western civilisation. From Athens come art, science, sculpture, rhetoric and philosophy. But most of all from Athens we derive democracy and the traditions of free assembly and speech--the character traits that give the west its sense of difference and superiority.

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I have just returned from Athens. And I can report that the iconic monuments of the cradle of democracy, like everything else in the city, are being overwhelmed by pollution and sheer ugliness. Channel 4 is about to air a two-part series on the city that suggests that ancient Greece was just as ugly. For centuries we have been duped by an image of Athens which is mostly fiction.

When Americans were debating the constitutional revolution that would be their new republic, they invoked the heroes of Athenian democracy. But Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, had never actually read any of the works of Plato he so airily cited. When he caught up on his reading he was totally appalled. The new nation, however, continues to construct its public buildings in homage to the ideal of Athens, and seeks to impose its vision of the Athenian inheritance of democracy on other people, even at the point of a gun.

Presented by the historian Bettany Hughes, Athens: the Truth About Democracy argues that the Athenian model was rooted in military adventurism and the economic exploitation of slave labour. This democracy was not inclusive: it veiled women in public and excluded them from public life. Deeply rooted in superstition, it labelled all objectors "idiotes". In short order this newfangled democracy destroyed itself through endemic warfare, enthusiastically supported by the select voting populace.

In other words, democracy is no idyll; it is what people make of it. It is no good looking at an idealised model. …