Bo Li, The Classical Greek Democracy and Its Illiberalism

Bo Li, The Classical Greek Democracy and Its Illiberalism



According to Professor Robert Dahl, one of the most prominent democratic theorists of our time, modern democracy has four historical sources: the direct democracy in ancient Greece, the republicanism of Roman and Italian city-states in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the theory and practice of representative government, and the idea of political equality. This essay is an effort to introduce some basic ideas and institutions of the first democracy in human history, namely the ancient Greek democracy. In this process, I also hope to offer a critique of the classical model of democracy.

Throughout the written history of human society, democracy has been a very rare occurrence, and most previous commentators have also been critical of the theory and practice of democracy. Indeed, not until the second half of the 20th century was there any consensus on the appeals of democratic ideas and institutions. One exception to the general paucity of democracy in human history is the classical Greek democracy.

In the 5th century BC, a great political transformation occurred in the city-states of Greece. This transformation was a democratic transformation, which according to Professor Dahl was as important as “the invention of the wheel or the discovery of the New World.” At that time, Greece was not a single country, but was composed of a number of independent city-states, or “polis.” Among them, Athens was described as having the most innovative and sophisticated democracy.

What are the political ideals and aims of the classical Athenian democracy? In his famous book The Politics (written between 335 and 323 BC), Aristotle points out that one basic principle of the classical democratic constitution is liberty. To Aristotle, liberty means two things: (1) “ruling and being ruled in turn” and (2) “living as one chooses.” As such, liberty and equality are “inextricably linked.” In fact, the first element of liberty, “ruling and being ruled in turn,” is based on a fundamental conception of equality, which Aristotle labels as “numerical equality” (as opposed to “equality based on merit”). “Numerical equality” means an equal share of the practice of ruling for all, regardless of individual ability, merit or wealth. “Thus understood, equality is the practical basis of liberty. It is also the moral basis of liberty.” (David Held)

However, there is a potential conflict between the first and second element of the Aristotelean liberty. A strict adherence to the doctrine of political equality could endanger individual’s liberty to “live as one chooses.” Classical democrats believe that there must be limits to individual choices in order that one’s exercise of free will would not interfere unjustly with other people’s freedom. So long as each citizen has the opportunity of “ruling and being ruled in turn,” the risks associated with equality can be minimized and both elements of liberty can be realized. “On Aristotle’s account, then, classical democracy entails liberty and liberty entails strict political equality — a matter which caused him to express grave reservations about democracy.” (Held) We will discuss more about the danager of extreme equality below.

The Athenian democrats also showed a remarkable appreciation on the value of justice, rule of law, and due process. “The Athenian did not imagine himself to be wholly unconstrained, but he drew the sharpest distinction between the restraint which is merely subjection to another man’s arbitrary will and that which recognizes in the law a rule which has a right to be respected and hence is in this sense self-imposed.” (Sabine) “If the law is properly created within the framework of the common life, it legitimately commands obedience.” (Held)

In contrast to later liberal positions, “Athenian democracy was marked by a general commitment to the principle of civic virtue: dedication to the republican city-state and the subordination of private life to public affairs and the common good.” There was no liberal distinction between state and society, between specialized officials and citizens, or between “the people” and government. “In this community the citizen had rights and obligations; but these rights were not attributes of private individuals and these obligations were not enforced by a state dedicated to the maintenance of a framework to protect the private ends of individuals. Rather, …, they were ‘public’ rights and duties.” (Held). Unlike the modern liberal separation between public sphere and private life, Athenians thought that the most desirable life was the life in a “polis,” where each citizen as a political animal found ultimate fulfillment through political participation and public debate. “The principle of government was the principle of a form of life: direct participation.” (Held) The governors were to be the governed. The process of direct and active self-government was the ultimate affirmation of Athenian citizenship.

The Athenian political ideals — equality among citizens, liberty, and respect for the law and justice — have had great influence in the Western political thought, “although there are some central ideas, for instance, the modern liberal notion that human beings are ‘individuals’ with ‘rights,’ that notably cannot be directly traced to Athens.” (Held)

With the above political ideals in mind, it is time to examine the institutional aspects of the classical democracy. According to Professor David Held, the Athenian democracy had the following institutional features. First, Assembly of citizens had sovereign power, that is, supreme authority, to engage in legislative and judicial functions. The citizentry as a whole formed the Assembly, which consists of each and every citizen of Athens. The Assembly met more than 40 times a year, and it had a quorum of 6,000 citizens. The Athenian concept of “citizenship” entailed taking a share in legislative and judicial functions, participating directly in the affairs of the state. That is why the classical Greek democracy is called “direct democracy.”

The ideal mode of decision-making within the Assembly was through consensus. Only when issues became intractable was formal voting used. “Voting was both a way of making explicit differences of judgment and a procedural mechanism to legitimate a solution to pressing matters. The Greeks probably invented the use of formal voting procedures to legitimate decisions in the face of conflicting positions.” (Held)

The following quote from Professor Held gives a more detailed description of how the Athenian democracy works: “The Assembly was too large a body to prepare its own agenda, to draft legislation and to be a focal point for the reception of new political initiatives and proposals. A Council of 500 took responsibility for organizing and proposing public decisions; it was aided, in turn, by a more streamlined Committee of 50 (which served for one month) with a president at its head (who could only hold office for one day). While courts were organized on a similar basis to the Assembly, the executive functions of the city were carried out by ‘magistrates,’ although their own power was diffused by ensuring that even these posts were held by a board of ten. Nearly all such ‘officials’ were elected for a period of one year (with service typically restricted to two occasions in a lifetime). Further, in order to avoid the dangers of autocratic politics or clientage associated with direct elections, a variety of methods of election was deployed to preserve the accountability of political administrators and the state system more generally, including the rotation of tasks, sortition or lot and direct election.” (Models of Democracy, second edition, Chapter 1, pp. 21-3)
In Athens, the scope of sovereign power included all common affairs of the city. There were no distinctions of privilege to differentiate ordinary citizens and public officials. With the exception of positions connected to warfare, the same office would not to be held more than twice by the same individual, and all offices had short terms. Athenian public servants received compensations.

In order for the classical Greek democracy to work properly, there were several important conditions. Robert Dahl summarizes the Greek democratic order as requiring six elements. First, “itizens must be sufficiently harmonious in their interests so that they can share, and act upon, a strong sense of a general good that is not in marked contradiction to their personal aims and interests.” Second, citizens must also be homogeneous with respect to those characteristics (such as the amount of wealth and leisure time) for which wide differences might create instability and sharp conflicts regarding public good. Third, “the citizen body must be quite small, ideally even smaller than the forty to fifty thousand of . . . Athens.” Fourth, citizens must be able to assemble and directly decide on issues of legislation and render judicial judgment. “So deeply held was this view that the Greeks found it difficult to conceive of representative government, much less to accept it as a legitimate alternative to direct demoracy.” Fifth, self-government not only entailed meetings in the Assembly, it also meant citizen participation in the administration of the city-state. Most Athens served as a public official at least once during their life time. Sixth, the city-state should remain “fully autonomous.” Leagues, confederacies and alliances shoult not be allowed to preempt the sovereignty of the Assembly within the city-state. (Democracy and Its Critiques, Chapter 1, pp. 18-19.)

There was an additional condition for the Athenian direct democracy to work well: in order for each citizen to participate effectively into the collective decision-making process, he (only male was allowed to vote) must have enough free time to attend the frequently held Assembly meetings, engage in time-consuming debates, and take part in public administration. In Athens, this condition was met by a slave economy that created free time for “citizens” (a subset of free adult Athenian men) and by domestic service (the labor of women) that freed men for public duties. The irony was that direct democracy for a subset of privileged men in Athens was possible precisely because of the undemocratic elements of the larger system: the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women created one necessary condition for active and direct self-government among qualified “citizens.”

One perennial problem of democracy without a constitutional framework is that people’s irrational passions can be stirred by demogogues and despots to create devastating consequences. This problem was sharply reflected in classical Greek democracy. In ancient Athens, there was no institutional or constitutional constraints on people’s irrationality, vanity, emotion, passion, etc. The Assembly of citizens was often controlled by a small number of influential families and at times it displayed various problems associated with unconstrained popular sentiment: irrationality, tyranny of uncontrolled passion and tyranny of majority. One of the most striking examples of democratic tyranny, impulse and injustice was the story of six Athenian Generals who were sentenced to death by the Assembly around 406 BC. Around that time, there was a significant Athenian naval victory which, however, left many Athenian soldiers dead. Eight Generals (two of whom did not return to Greece after the battle) in charge of the expedition were accused of unnecessarily leaving men in sinking boats to drown. Several demogogues stirred public emotion and led the Assembly to violating some basic procedures of a fair trial. In the end, the six Generals were put to death by the Assembly without a formal judicial trial and without a full opportunity to present a defense, although “ot long afterwards the Athenians repented and voted that preliminary plaints be lodged against those who had deceived the People…” (Xenophon) This story “highlights the accountability of officials and citizens to the Assembly” and “popular control of commanding officers” in Athens, but it also illustrates “the vulnerability of the Assembly to the excitement of the moment; the unstable basis of certain popular decisions; and the potential for political instability of a very general kind due to the absence of some system of checks on impulsive behavior…. A number of constitutional checks were built into the structure of Athenian democracy at a later date to safeguard it precisely against hasty irreversible decisions. These changes tried to balance popular sovereignty with a constitutional framework capable of protecting enacted law and procedure, although it is doubtful whether these changes were sufficient for this purpose…” (Held)

Another problem associated with the classical Greek democracy was the danger of strict political equality. Plato, one of Athens’ most famous critics, was dismayed by the notion that each citizen had equal rights of political participation. Most people, according to Plato, have neither the experience nor the knowledge for sound public decision-making. If we let people make all public decisions directly, they will either do a poor job or be misled by sycophants and demogogues. In addition, Plato continued, “olitical leadership [in a democracy] is enfeebled by acquiescence to popular demands and by the basing of political strategy on what can be ‘sold.’ Careful judgments, difficult decisions, uncomfortable options, unpleasant truths will of necessity be generally avoided. Democracy marginalizes the wise.” (Held) Finally, Plato was also worried that the notions of liberty and political equality are “inconsistent with the maintenance of authority, order and stability … (because) social cohesion is threatened, political life becomes more and more fragmented and politics becomes riddled with factional disputes.” As we will see in the next several discussions in this series, most, although not all, of Plato’s worries are resolved by a constitutional and representative democracy.

There are, as Professor Dahl points out, several other problems associated with the classical Greek democracy. The first problem was its exclusivity: both women and slaves were excluded. Even “immigrants” whose families had settled in Athens several generations earlier were also excluded. The second problem, as mentioned above, was that the Greeks did not recognize inalienable rights of individuals. In a democratic polis, “freedom meant the rule of law and participation in the decision-making process, not the possession of inalienable rights…. There were no theoretical limits to the power of the state, no activity, no sphere of human behavior, in which the state could not legitimately intervene provided the decision was properly taken for any reason that was held to be valid by the Assembly.” (Finley) Lastly, as mentioned above, Greek democracy was inherently limited to small-scale systems. Various problems notwithstanding, however, the classical Greek democracy and its critics remain a legacy from which our present and future generations can learn a great deal.

Bo Li

1. David Held, Models of Democracy, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 1996
2. Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critiques, Yale University Press, 1989
3. Aristotle, The Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 1984
4. Plato, The Republic, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974


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