Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

With a Bit More Democracy We Might Hang Mr Howard

Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought


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Cleisthenes may have invented democracy in Athens in 508 BC but not all Athenians were in favour of it. Here Plato in his Republic (c 375 BC) describes what happens when democracy gets out of hand:

‘Teachers are afraid of their pupils and curry favour with them, while pupils despise their teachers. Older members of the community adapt themselves to the younger ones, ooze frivolity and charm, and model their behaviour on that of the young, because they don’t want to be thought disagreeable tyrants … You’d never believe how much freedom animals have in this community compared with others … horses and donkeys learn to strut about with absolute freedom, bumping into anyone on the road who does not get out of the way.’

It is this voice that is the subject of Jennifer Roberts’s important book. Beginning with a full account of the principles, practice and development of Athenian radical democracy from its invention to its dissolution at the hands of the Macedonian general Antipater in 322 BC, she sets out to trace the course of the reception of its ideology down the ages. It makes a fascinating, if depressing, story: only comparatively recently has democracy come to be anything other than a rather dirty word.

Athenian democracy was driven by its empire, which was maritime. Since it was the poor who rowed the ships and made Athens strong and prosperous, power gradually devolved away from the traditional land-based aristocrats and into their hands. The democracy was direct and radical (unlike our ‘representative’ democracy, which Aristotle would have called an elective oligarchy). Three features stand out. Firstly, demokratia means ‘people-power’: the power to make all decisions about every matter of state rested in the hands of the citizens (defined as males over eighteen with Athenian parents), who met in the Assembly every nine days. Secondly, demokratia means ‘people-power’: virtually all the officials who carried out the orders of the Assembly were ordinary citizens over thirty appointed to serve for one year (and never again) by a combination of election and lottery (‘And the next Athenian out of the hat will be Minister for Ag and Fish…’). Thirdly, power cannot be divorced from accountability: the performance of every official was audited by the Assembly at the end of his year of office, and mismanagement was ruthlessly punished with fines, loss of rights, exile or death. In strong contrast to all this stood Athens’ bitter rival Sparta, whose tightly disciplined, inward-looking, heavily militarised, land-based (and so army-based) oligarchy looked much more attractive to the traditionalist and the totalitarian.

Plato, as we have seen, was hostile to the democracy and much preferred Sparta. With his Orwellian plans for ideal republics, he would. Thucydides and Xenophon were averse too. Aristotle (fourth century BC), calling democracy the tyranny of the poor over the rich, voiced equally strong reservations, with a neat new twist to the argument. The landed classes, he said, were far too busy and enjoyed themselves far too much to want to play politics. But such people were more to be trusted with power than lowerclass oiks who yearned for it.

For all their brilliant cultural achievements, Greeks were in other respects seen as an undisciplined rabble by the Romans (who conquered them in the second century BC), and Athens’ democratic Assemblies in particular were regarded as centres of unruliness compared with the ordered, dignified (though not overly democratic) Roman versions. Such a reaction is hardly surprising from oligarchic, aristocratic republicans. But the key figure here is Plutarch (AD 46–120), whose Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans was to become the standard text for intellectuals from the Renaissance onwards. Indeed, in eighteenth-century America he was outsold only by the Bible. His deeply Roman admiration of republican virtue and enlightened autocracy, and heavy suspicion of democracy, coloured most readings of Athenian history from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and established the general tenor of the debate: democracy = mob rule = indiscipline, fickleness and injustice = disaster. As a description of the actual performance of the Athenian democracy, this is beta-double-minus stuff. But it was sweet music to the autocracies and oligarchies of Europe. Volatile Florence could boast it was a second Athens, although Renaissance Italians preferred the stable, mixed constitution of ‘Spartan’(!) Venice.

But in the eighteenth century a new voice began to be heard, particularly among radicals in England who wished to increase the accountability and moral tone of a government torn apart by the conflicts between Whigs and Tories. The London Journal, for example, turned to Periclean Athens as the model for its attacks on Sir Robert Walpole: as Pericles had corrupted Athens, so Walpole was corrupting England. All the more need, therefore, for that suspicion of politicians so characteristic of Athenian democracy – and a free press with which to harry them.

The French and American revolutions, however, did not do much to advance democracy’s cause. It was the Roman and Spartan models that were most often upheld for emulation (Rousseau, for example, was a card-carrying Spartan), and the very fact of revolution strengthened the argument in Britain and elsewhere for keeping well clear of such radical experimentation. Even so, one voice was raised on Athens’ behalf – that of the Frenchman (though German in origin) Cornelius De Pauw. In his two-volume Researches, De Pauw argued that Athenian ‘volatility’ in lawmaking was a virtue, not a vice: it was evidence of a people in search of fairness. In this more liberal view he was joined by Voltaire. In America, meanwhile, Tom Paine could claim that ‘what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’ (1792), but even he acknowledged that a representative form of democracy was more suitable than Athens’ direct version. The Founding Fathers, for all their fine words about Athens, were in fact generally hostile to it. John Adams, for example, held democracy to be the most turbulent and unstable of all constitutions. The result was that not one Greek institution was incorporated into the Constitution of 1787. The Romans, of course, fared considerably better.

Nevertheless, the tide was turning, and the publication in 1755 of Winckelmann’s great Reflections on the Imitation of the Greeks in Painting and Sculpture, which heralded the birth of German Hellenism, ultimately changed the whole axis of the debate by arguing that there was an indissoluble connection between the great aesthetic achievements of Athenian culture (which none disputed) and the development of radical democracy. The justification and glory of Athenian democracy was that it made all the rest possible. Herder and Schiller joined in the fun (Schiller arguing that Sparta’s lack of an aesthetic and spiritual side was sufficient condemnation), though Hegel sounded a warning note that the gulf between the modern and ancient worlds could never be bridged and wholly new ideals needed to be formulated. But the result of all this was that by the nineteenth century democracy was increasingly being seen in a positive light, and even Americans were happy to allow themselves to be called democrats. Aesthetics had won an argument that simple politics could not.

In the twentieth century, Athenian radical democracy, for all its weaknesses, has generally been seen, if not as An Unconditionally Good Thing, at least as An Unconditionally Jolly Interesting Thing. But the modem age’s active contribution to the debate has not been very distinguished. Since the Athenians did not give votes to women, slaves and foreigners (or whales or rain forests), Marxist and feminist theorists have ritually howled ‘oppression’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘abuse’, but they do that anyway and can be safely ignored. One may as well blame Athens for not inventing a cure for Aids. Athenian slavery has come in for attack, but the argument that democracy is integrally connected with it because it could not have survived without it is true only in the sense that British democracy could not survive without ballot-box manufacturers. Athenian imperialism, too, has been held to have vitiated the democratic experiment. But set against all this conscience-stricken huffing and puffing is the simple fact that Athens got there in principle 2,500 years ago, and we are only just beginning to catch up (women in Britain did not get the vote on the same terms as men till 1930). As government increasingly continues to go its own sweet way, ruthlessly feathering its own nest while paying not the slightest attention to people’s interests or wishes, it is not surprising that the Athenian model should come to seem so appealing. After all, in fifth-century Athens, which of the current Cabinet would not already be kicking their heels in prison, exile or at the end of a rope?

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