American Democracy through Ancient Greek Eyes

By Strauss, Barry | History Today, April 1994 | Go to article overview

American Democracy through Ancient Greek Eyes


Strauss, Barry, History Today


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

American Democracy through Ancient Greek Eyes
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.