Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993

Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993

Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993

Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993

Synopsis

The form of democracy first introduced 2,500 years ago by Kleisthenes--introduced, some scholars say, for his own personal gain--is quite different from what we call democracy today. And yet what was essentially a casual, practical solution to local Greek political difficulties has come to stand virtually unchallenged as the ground for modern political authority, and the questions which the Greeks first raised about the meaning of democratic rule still loom over our political and economic life. In Democracy, noted author John Dunn and twelve expert contributors trace the extraordinary political career of democracy from its appearance in ancient Greece to its recent resurrection in Eastern Europe. The contributors range far and wide, from ancient Greece to the French Revolution to modern India, to illuminate this enduring form of government. They describe how demokratia (literally, "people power") first developed in Athens, and how it promoted a belief in the radical revisability of traditional assumptions which carried over into scientific breakthroughs of Aristotle, Euclid, and others. They examine the independent Italian city-republics and show how Britain's Leveller movement, which lasted four short years during England's Civil War, introduced the radically innovative idea of political equality. They also discuss how the American revolution brought common people into the affairs of government, not simply as voters but as actual rulers, giving work-a-day people a cultural and social significance they never had before in history; and how democracy has been seen since the Age of Revolutions, surveying political debate from Rosa Luxemburg to Walter Lippman. Finally, several essays take a look at democracy today--how it has failed women, for instance, and what the return of democracy will mean for Eastern Europe. As the recent collapse of socialism demonstrates, the idea of democracy still holds a powerful attraction for us. In tracing its history across two millennia, this book illuminates the source of that power and explains why it has triumphed so decisively in the modern world.

Excerpt

This is a book about the history and significance of an old but vigorous idea: that in human political communities it ought to be ordinary people (the adult citizens) and not extra-ordinary people who rule. This is not a very plausible description of how things are in the world in which we live. But it has become the reigning conception today across that world of how they ought to be. The idea itself is devastatingly obvious, but also tantalizingly strange and implausible. In this book we try to grasp both of these aspects, and to judge what the relation between the two really means for human beings today and in the future. We tell the story of its invention, suppression, propagation, and reinterpretation, showing how it has changed human societies at intervals throughout its history, and how the realities of these societies have in turn repeatedly changed it.

Two thousand five hundred years ago the small Greek city-state of Athens made a series of adjustments to its domestic political arrangements. The reforms of Kleisthenes were a severely local response to protracted local difficulties, not an attempt to implement a coherently thought-out general conception of the political and social good for human beings (or even just for Greeks). No contemporary of Kleisthenes could possibly have imagined that his reforms might pioneer a form of regime that would come to serve as a virtually unchallenged standard for political legitimacy for all the peoples of the world.

Democracy is a very simple idea: simple in its appeal and power, and simple, too, in its severe and ineliminable limitations. What we hope to do in this book is to describe and explain its extraordinary political career. To do so, we try first to convey what those initial democratic institutions of the Greek polis really were: how they came to be invented, how they worked, and how and why they changed over time. We explore how the Greeks came to understand their strengths and defects, and how these same strengths and defects, in turn, helped to shape the dynamism and insight of Greek thinking in many other fields--logic, ethics, psychology, political theory, epistemology, biology. We try, too, to assess why it should have proved politically so easy to crush this . . .

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