Democracy in crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

Demagogues thrive if moderate politicians flatter citizens into an unrealistic sense of their own greatness.
Pericles' Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)
Pericles' Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)
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I recently typed the words ‘Democracy Crisis’ into Amazon Search, and an avalanche of new and forthcoming titles tumbled onto my screen: Democracy in Crisis, The Crisis of Democracy, Democracy in Crisis?, Constitutional Democracy in Crisis. And that’s on top of books already on my desk-side shelf: How Democracies End, How Democracies Die, The People Vs Democracy, Against Democracy.

So the publishing industry is in accord: Democracy – both its guiding ideals and particular instantiations – is either in crisis or on its deathbed. Polls everywhere show a massive loss of public trust in democracy as a form of government. The authors of all these recent books and of long articles in major news outlets ask almost daily: what can be done? Can democracy be saved?

I’m going to suggest something counterintuitive: that some of the best lessons in thinking about problems facing contemporary democracies come from writers who lived almost 2,500 years ago, in late 5th and early 4th century (BCE) Athens. This might seem unlikely, given the very different structures and scale of ancient and modern democracies. Their democracy was tiny by our reckoning, with approximately 40,000 male citizens in a population of some 140,000. Participation was direct, with any citizen having the right to speak in the Assembly (ekklesia). Democracies today are vast, run mainly by representatives and bureaucrats who have few contacts with voters. And there are even bigger differences in the globalising economic, international, and technological conditions in which our democracies operate. Within the past decade or so, developments in internet technology and social media have revolutionised means of political communication, making it seem harder than ever to apply ancient analyses or remedies to the pathologies of modern democracy.

My argument is not that we should turn to ancient Athens for detailed empirical models of democracy, let alone for straightforward prescriptions about the best institutional designs for us. The main question that Athenian writers – playwrights, philosophers, historians – posed to their own fellow citizens when their city fell into crisis and civil war was: How did we get here? This is a historical and philosophical question, not a directly practical one. But it must be the basis for any useful practical ideas about how to make democracies stronger.

Whether we turn to philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, whose main readers were a highly educated few, or playwrights who wrote comedies and tragedies for the wider public, one of their key points is this: to answer the question ‘How did we get into this or that political mess’, ordinary citizens need to do some deep self-examination when democracies fall into crisis – not take the easy road of blaming particular leaders or their partisan enemies. Democracy is self-government, which means that each citizen is co-responsible in some small way for its general health, even if they strongly disagree with some of the state’s decisions.

All these things may seem to make a lot more sense in a small-scale, direct democracy like theirs than in mega-democracies like ours. It’s true that it is easier to imagine what the somewhat pious-sounding phrase ‘citizen responsibility’, or the slightly less pious ‘active citizenship’, might mean in practice when you think of citizens in the thousands in one city rather than tens or hundreds of millions spread over several time zones. We’ve seen a dramatic shrinking of most ‘ordinary individuals’ power to influence decisions, coupled rather scarily with the increased power of very few extraordinary individuals and corporations – sometimes for the general good, often not at all.

But one of the most important lessons that Greek writers teach us, over and over, is that to be fully human means to think about whatever conditions we find ourselves in, for better or worse – and to try to act, to affect our situation in some way, however miniscule. It may or may not be true that the gods or our past or our animal nature make our efforts pointless. What later came to be called ‘free will’ may well be just self-deception. But as long as we can’t be 100% sure, it seems to be part of our humanity to keep trying to make a tiny difference even while entertaining the most fatalistic thoughts.

So what can nearly powerless citizens do? For one thing, they can look in a self-critical way at their history – not just their country’s writ large, but also at their own personal decisions (or indecisions) that may have contributed to their democracy’s present travails. For another, citizens can take a long hard look at the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that drove their decisions. These are partly what moderns call ideologies – official or collective-shared worldviews – and partly personal dispositions and prejudices. Ancient Greek plays, Plato’s philosophical dialogues, and other works of the time confront citizens with the awkward question: are your political ideals and motives really as high-minded – or as realistic – as you like to think they are?

No writer, old or recent, shows how to do democratic self-examination better than the Athenian historian Thucydides. He played an active part in his city’s political and military struggles, and took a personal battering in the process – the Athenians exiled him for his role in losing a key battle against the Spartans and their allies in the Peloponnesian War. He started composing a history of that war, he tells us, from its beginnings, already thinking it would turn into a far greater conflagration than most Athenians expected. An early biographer says he paid people on both sides – Athenian and Spartan – for information so he could check for bias. He calls his work ‘a possession for all times’ – and indeed long after his death, whenever civil conflicts erupted on a grand scale, in the Roman Republic or during the English Civil War, deep thinkers turned to Thucydides to help them understand what was happening to their countries. For if he wrote in the first instance for Athenians and other Greeks in his own times, he also knew that certain causes of democratic sickness are common to all times and places, because human psychology, human patterns of cooperation and conflict are always similar – whatever new technologies we devise or institutions we set up to manage our refractory human-animal selves.

In the Preface to his 1629 English translation (the first) of Thucydides’ histories, Thomas Hobbes wrote that the Athenian did not lay down ‘open conveyances or precepts’ but instead ‘so clearly set before men’s eyes the ways and events of good and evil counsels, that the narration itself doth secretly instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.’ Thucydides shows brilliantly, without direct lectures or partisan polemic, that both the causes of sickness in democracies and their symptoms, are often recognised only after things have already gone very bad indeed. Most people can see after the fact what went wrong, but at the time corruption tends to happen through very small steps that seem harmless enough: laws are tweaked and twisted just a bit, politicians are allowed to get away with medium-sized crimes, and soon the public get used to all this. Questionable practices become normalised: just ‘real politics’ as usual.

Thucydides’ forte is showing how this almost invisible normalising of corruption happens in a medium that is so ubiquitous in human lives, and so inherently complex, that we find it hard to notice all the small ways in which it can lead us astray, though most of us know that it can. That medium is speech, or language. All politics relies on speech, but democracy more widely and intensely than aristocracies or monarchies. You not only have formal councils and consultations like kings, or the narrow assemblies of patricians; you also have very frequent assemblies where citizens high and low debate the most important questions, and the marketplace (agora) or its cyber-equivalents where citizens argue and speechify. Thucydides’ history dramatizes the dangers that come from democracies’ dependence on the slippery, hard-to-control powers of speech.

Long, ingenious speeches drive his war story, showing us the arguments that persuaded Athenians and other Greeks to launch and prolong what proved a hellishly costly war. Readers can track how speakers introduce subtle, almost imperceptible shifts in the meaning of words until, before you’ve noticed, they mean something totally different, making constructive communication impossible. At first all Greeks understand something similar by the word ‘justice’, dike – something like ‘what’s fair to all, from a general perspective.’ But as war drags on, ‘justice’ acquires different meanings for Athenians: ‘what seems fair to us’ and eventually, as things get worse, ‘the advantage of the strongest’. These shifts fracture any sense of koine or common good, privatising language so that it starts to fail as an instrument for healing divisions. And when language fails, civil wars of words polarise whole cities, harden warring factions, and eventually turn into physical violence, as Thucydides says happened inside many Greek cities:

The accepted value of words was changed arbitrarily. Reckless audacity was counted as brave loyalty to party. Prudent deliberation was called cowardice; reasonable moderation weakness. Frantic impulsiveness was praised as manly. The hot-headed man was always trusted, his opponent suspected…Transparency was considered ‘ignorant goodness’, fraud and deceit the height of intelligence.

Thucydides 3.81-2

It is a commonplace now that internet and group-targeted media intensify democratic ‘language wars’ in various ways – not least by fostering ‘bubbles’ where like-minded people can escape exposure to other points of view. The technologies may be different, but as Thucydides says about the ‘language wars’ of his own times: ‘Many terrible things happened (in his times) that shall be seen again as long as human nature is the same.’ The basic psycho-political dynamics that corrode civil speech and are much the same then and now, and Thucydides helps us understand how they work.

We hear a lot today about the need to ‘educate’ citizens to be better at seeing through misleading rhetoric and posturing leaders. Reading Thucydides is a great exercise in how to be a sceptical auditor of political spin, particularly the kind that leads unwary citizens to make deadly decisions. This may have been one of his chief aims in writing. But he clearly implies that the education citizens need doesn’t just involve studying clever tricks of rhetoric and patterns of democratic decay. The ignorance that most weakens democracies cannot be corrected through training in logic or political science, or by studying the past as if it were a foreign country. Democratic education needs to stimulate critical self-examination on the part of citizens themselves. People, that is, need to take a long hard look at their own democracy-threatening attitudes and dispositions – some of which they’ll be most reluctant to admit.

Thucydides is a devastating debunker of all sorts of myths, and his history quietly explodes one of democracy’s pet illusions: the illusion that its citizens are natural egalitarians.

It seems obvious to us that in Athenian democracy citizen equality was parasitic on massive inequalities – notably slaves and women who were excluded and held up the fort while men went off to war. But Thucydides’ point holds even when all adults have the vote. For the root cause of the corruptions just described, he says, was a very widespread human desire to feel superior to others – at least the desire for kratos (power over someone) or, more pathologically, for overweening greatness (megalos).

People who hunger for some sort of superiority are easy targets for demagogues who promise to make the weak powerful and the powerful more so. In his comedy Knights, the comic playwright Aristophanes, Thucydides’ contemporary, stages a contest among a motley crew of demagogues (whose names resemble those of Athenian politicians) for citizens’ affections. One of them says to the character Mr Demos, who represents citizens-at-large: ‘You know I’d do anything to please you: I’ve tortured people and played the dirtiest games to fill your purse!’ Another produces an oracle predicting that Mr Athenian Demos will soon rule the world, and conjures an alluring image of him judging court cases, while reclining on his throne and nibbling canapés, in the Persian capital Ecbatana. At the end of the play the demagogue contest’s winner transforms Mr Demos into a beauteous young man, taking him back to the golden days when Athenians were on a high after the Persian War.

Back in the real world, Thucydides shows how easy it was for one man to rouse Athenians of all classes to war-fervour by promising them easy victory over their enemies, thereby expanding their empire to a height of greatness not seen by any other Greek polis. Pericles, the brilliant, aristocratic orator who dominated the demos as if he were its monarch – as Thucydides notes – moves Athenians to war by playing up the enemy’s weaknesses and over-praising Athens’ powers. A few years into the war, after many terrible losses, Pericles delivers a Funeral Oration where he praises Athens even more effusively, claiming that the city is a ‘school for the whole world’ and that Athenians respect laws and love freedom more than other people – treating these attitudes as marks of superiority that justify that city’s imperial policies. Thucydides paints Pericles as a dazzling yet moderate-sounding orator – at first. Compared with the rabble-rousing popular leaders who came after him, the aristocratic Pericles seems elegant rather than vulgar. His speech contains no overt abuse of enemies. Yet he conjures for Athenians an idealised image of their own, vast superiority in everything, and insinuates that this greatness somehow entitles them to dominate other Greeks and guarantees ultimate victory in war.

Without saying so directly, Thucydides’ portrait makes an important point about how speech corrupts democracies though one not all his readers have grasped: raving, divisive demagoguery is seldom the root source of that corruption. Demagogues often thrive only after more moderate politicians have initiated the insidious process of flattering citizens into an unrealistic sense of their own greatness, thus goading them to pursue imperial or military or economic dominance beyond their actual capacities. Yet neither Thucydides nor Aristophanes portrays citizens as the innocent victims of cunning leaders. Demagoguery is a two-way street. Leaders try to beat their competition by playing on citizens’ sensitivities and longings, but it is a citizen’s business to be aware of those vulnerable sensitivities and longings and to keep them from being played on.

On the surface, Aristophanes’ Knights might seem simply to blame the demagogues for democracy’s troubles. Their fights are so entertaining that it’s easy to be distracted from the underlying problem: why does Mr Demos get swept up in all this farce? For most of the play he’s offstage or dead silent – much as in Thucydides’ histories we hear almost nothing from ordinary Athenians deliberating the war in this supposedly robust democracy. Mr Demos looks like a brainless dupe of the demagogues. But when the chorus of ‘elite’ Knights accuse him of being easily flattered and deceived, Mr Demos turns on them and says: You’re the brainless ones if you think I’m stupid. There’s a method in my foolishness: I like my daily bread, so I pick a leader, raise him up to do what I want and fatten him, then swat him down when he gets too full. I’m the one in control, not my leaders.

The deeper truth, then, is that Demos and demagogues ‘play’ each other. Citizens want leaders who promise to keep them fed, put down their would-be superiors, do the grunt-work of self-government for them, while the demagogues gratify their thirst for inglorious glory on democracy’s stage. The sneering Knights don’t help either by mocking Mr Demos’ stupidity. They might be right – Aristophanes certainly thought so – to call Athens’ real-life demagogues ‘filthy disgusting shout-downers, who’ve thrown our city into a sea of troubles, deafening our Athens with your bellowing’. But their posture of moral and patriotic superiority irritates, as does their claim that their great services to Athens warrant their pseudo-aristocratic long hair and taste for luxuries. Between the laughs, Aristophanes’ comedies are also dead-serious wake-up calls to his fellow Athenians on both sides of the popular-elite divide, goading them to see that they – all of them – might be a bigger part of the problem of democratic crisis and the miseries of war than most want to recognise.

In Thucydides’ history, readers track the fast-spiralling consequences of self-ignorance and arrogance through the three speeches he gives to Pericles, all delivered in the first two years of the Peloponnesian war. Having urged Athenians to throw themselves into war with a view to expanding their empire – though not in too obvious or aggressive a manner, Pericles warned at the outset – things go pear-shaped for the great leader. His policies had fostered insanitary conditions in the city, a plague strikes hard, and people blamed him for the many thousands of Athenian deaths. In the last speech Thucydides gives him, desperate to shore up his popularity, Pericles frankly admits an uncomfortable truth, one that his rhetoric had so far concealed from the demos’ egalitarian eyes. At the start of the war Athenians didn’t want to admit that their alliance of Greek cities had become, a de facto, hated empire; they preferred to think of themselves as mere ‘hegemons’ who lead a coalition of the willing for everyone’s equal benefit. Athenians were proud egalitarians, at least in dealing with free men. Pericles affirmed this self-image and eulogised his freedom-loving compatriots in his Funeral Oration. Very shortly afterwards, however, he sings a different tune. For all their supposed love of equality and freedom, he now says, Athenians hold their empire over other Greeks ‘like a tyranny’. Now that this dirty secret is out in the open, he tells Athenians to throw off their scruples and fight their enemies ‘with a spirit of contempt’.

So they do. And in the end they lose because, as Thucydides shows, people usually do who ‘contemptuously assume’ that they deserve to win because of their superior power or wisdom; for in their self-assurance they are ‘caught off guard’, he says, and so ‘perish in greater numbers’. They underestimate the intelligence and ferocity of opponents, who fight all the harder when treated with contempt. This basic tenet of Thucydides’ so-called ‘realist’ political psychology is one that we egalitarian moderns tend to forget. One of the core lessons of his histories is a warning to citizen-readers in all times and places, a warning against the illusion that democracies and democratically minded people are immune to the self-destructive temptations of overambitious megalos or greatness, whether at home or abroad, towards foreigners or fellow-citizens. The basic rationale for democracy is that by giving every citizen an equal share in government, it is supposed to rule out the permanent dominion of any individual or party or social stratum, thus avoiding constant, deadly battles for supremacy. But a healthy democratic self-image – one that can help citizens think realistically about the choices that leaders put before them – needs less self-flattery and more honesty about our own capacities for the kinds of arrogance, self-deception, and self-serving speech that corrode democratic life.

This essay was first published in Past and Present: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2020

Erica Benner

Erica Benner is a writer and scholar who works on moral and political thought. Her latest book, Be Like the Fox, is a biography of Machiavelli.

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