American Democracy through Ancient Greek Eyes

Article excerpt

Its capital city and seat of government is dominated by classical style and pose, but would 'the land of the free' be congenial territory to democracy's ancient progenitors today? Batty Strauss ponders the contrasts and the surprising similarities.

Two thousand five hundred years after the founding of democracy in Athens, the United States of America is a larger, wealthier, and more powerful democracy than any Athenian could have imagined. But would an Athenian indeed consider America to be a democracy? If he could be restored to life and brought to Washington DC, would an Athenian visitor feel at home, even among the marble columns and the neo-classical facades? Would he judge the American government to embody 'the power of the people', as did Athens' demokratia (a compound of demos, 'people', and kratos, 'power')?

America a democracy? It is not merely the vast difference in size of territory and population between Athens and America that might make an ancient democrat reject the idea. At a size of about 1000 square miles, the American state of Rhode Island is no larger than Attica (as the territory of ancient Athens was called), but no Athenian would be any more the willing to consider Rhode Island a democracy. Nor would either the equality of women or the abolition of slavery or the ethnic and racial diversity of America be the crux of the problem for an Athenian. In early nineteenth-century America women could neither vote nor hold office, African slavery was widespread, and most free citizens traced their ancestry from within the British Isles. Americans nonetheless considered their country a democracy, as did such European observers as Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visit to the States in 1831-32 furnished the material for his classic analysis, De la democratie en Amerique (Democracy in America). An Athenian, however, might well have been unconvinced.

For him, the chief stumbling block would have been the American notion of representative democracy, which he would have considered an oxymoron, if not an impossibility. In Athens the people ruled not through representatives but directly. Their power was embodied in a popular assembly, a legislative and deliberative body open to all adult male citizens, as well as in jury courts, magistracies, and a Council that served as a sort of executive committee. Each of these institutions was large, thereby offering every one of Athens' adult male citizens (a number that fluctuated between c.25,000 and 50,000 in the two centuries of Athens' democratic regime) a chance to play at least a small part in self-government. Athenian ideology, moreover, emphasised participation and alternation in office. Take Athenian juries. Never composed of fewer than 201 men, they offered plenty of opportunity for participation to the pool of 6,000 jurors chosen at random each year. Seven hundred magistrates served annual terms in Attica (an additional number, varying in different eras, served abroad); most were chosen by lottery, thereby equalising opportunity between rich and poor. The 500 members of the Council, who also served annual terms, were selected by a combination of election and lottery.

Athenian insistence on direct democracy was not merely a constitutional detail. Direct popular participation in the government, rather, was democracy. The alternative, government by an elite, was considered to be not democracy but oligarchy, literally, 'rule by the few'. No matter how free the people were otherwise, Athenians did not consider them to be fully free unless they could govern themselves. Nor were the people deemed to enjoy full equality unless all adult male citizens had an equal opportunity to govern. Without such an opportunity, the Athenians believed, the government would be run not only by an elite but in the interests of an elite. Since the elite would generally be wealthier than ordinary people, the economic dimension was a key constituent of democracy. …