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Athens, Birthplace of Democracy

Steven Hill: While democracy can be noisy and messy, and can sometimes result in confusion and inefficiency, if implemented fairly with the right institutions the human experience shows that it is capable of fostering remarkable things.

One of the places I had been most excited to visit in Athens is the Agora, the 2,500-year-old birthplace of democracy. Located at the base of the Acropolis and just across the rail tracks from the tavernas and cafes of the Monastiraki district, the ancient Agora site today is only a few sparse acres and hemmed in by a modern city. But its importance looms large in the western canon.


A few of the Agora’s ancient buildings have been reconstructed, but most of the site is still in ruins, with stubs of columns, old walls, and headless busts poking out from the earth that has swallowed them. You have to use your imagination a bit to visualize it. I came to this ancient place to see if these old stones and walls would talk to me. These shards hold a secret I wished to unlock, a pulsing in their mortar and fragments that I can feel when I touch my palms to their gritty gray surface. “Agora” means “assembly place,” and this spot was a crucial intersection for a throbbing polis that began over two thousand years before the first settlers reached what would become the United States. Physically the Agora was a large public square flanked on several sides by major civic buildings, inside of which merchants sold their goods and services from shops and stalls amid the colonnades. It was a beehive of commercial activity, with everything from fruit and livestock to perfume, hardware, money-changing, and even slaves trading hands.

But the Agora also was where Athenians gathered for the exchange of ideas as well as goods. Among the hive of stalls, a ferment of debate over philosophy, ethics, democracy, and politics unfolded on a daily basis. Philosophers, statesmen, orators and dramatists, little known outside Athens at the time but who were to become giants of the western canon, traded ideas and policies at the Agora. Pericles, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, Alcibiades, Aristides and Themistocles were regulars. Socrates was a constant presence there. “He was always on public view,” wrote the historian Xenophon, “for early in the morning he used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.”

This hotbed of intellectual and commercial bustle was fed by a particular innovation in human organization that had appeared on the scene just a few years before. After several million years of human anatomical evolution, and a few tens of thousands of years of social evolution, at this moment in history something ground-breaking appeared, a revolutionary game changer: democracy. Around 508 BC the nobleman Kleisthenes organized Athens into 10 tribes. Each of the tribes were empowered to choose by lot fifty of its citizens who together comprised a 500 member Boule (Senate). The Boule prepared legislative bills to be voted on directly by an Assembly of All Citizens (Ekklesia of the Demos). Some 30,000 adult males of Athenian birth were eligible to vote out of a total population of around 250,000 men, women, and children, free and unfree. Of those 30,000, perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the Assembly of All Citizens, of which there were at least forty a year in Aristotle’s day. Those at the Assembly did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, they voted directly on legislation and executive bills.

I stood before the sparse skeleton of one building, which once stood in a row of administration buildings on one side of the main square. This building was the meeting place of the 500 member Boule. Next door is the remains of one of the more significant public buildings of the Agora, known as the Tholos. Originally an enclosed circular structure with six interior columns, today all that is visible is the circumference of the foundation. But it was the headquarters of the 50 citizens who served as administrators for 35 days, after which they were replaced by citizens from another tribe. By the end of the year’s rotations, representatives from all 10 tribes had a turn in the administration. No petty partisans or special interests trying to prevent the other side from governing, or trying to claw their way into power by hook or by crook -- no, in ancient Athens they took turns. Perhaps Kleisthenes , who is considered the father of Athenian democracy, understood something essential about how to avoid the balkanization and polarization that plagues U.S. democracy. Rotation of power ensures compliance with the golden rule, “Do unto others…”, because you know that those over whom you are lording today will soon lord over you.

Not far from these buildings stood a pedestal decorated with bronze statues of the mythical heroes of each of the 10 tribes, and a relic of it is in situ today. On the sides of this pedestal hung wooden boards with announcements for the citizens of Athens, including legal decrees coming up for a vote, forthcoming lawsuits, lists of citizens conscripted into the army, civic or honorary distinctions and the like -- their version of a central kiosk or internet message board.

At the time, Athenian democracy was cutting edge stuff, but all was not rosy from a modern perspective. Women were totally excluded, this was a men’s club; foreigners, especially unfree slave foreigners, were excluded as well. The citizen body was a closed political elite with a small electorate, similar to America at its founding in 1789 when only white men of property could vote and many people, including many of the founders, owned slaves who were counted as 3/5 of a free person. And of course, Athenian democracy showed its limitations when it condemned Socrates to death in 399 BC just because he asked too many blunt questions to those in power. The site of the jail where the pesky inquisitor (“the gadfly,” as Plato described him) was imprisoned and suffered his sentence -- death by hemlock poison -- also is located here, occupying an out of the way corner from the central square of the Agora.

The Ebb and Flow of the Democratic Tide
Standing there in the middle of what is left of the Agora, scanning the column nubs and half statues that look like rows of broken teeth, I was visited by the ghosts of the past. Down the tunnel of time I thought I could hear the distant cacophony of traders and merchants hawking their wares, and see the ghosts of Pericles’ entourage pushing through the crowds, and spy Socrates off to one side with a knot of impressionable young males gathered round (one of them looking like Plato). I felt momentarily dizzy, lost in a contemplation of democracy’s centuries-long sojourn. Beyond Athens, Europe’s ancient cradle is scattered with nascencies and power spots that mark the ebb and flow of the democratic tide that eventually led to American shores.

I have visited many of these democracy birthplaces during my own travels, my personal pilgrimage to the temples of democracy and representative government, and they always inspire and move me. Instead of a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s, Santiago de Compostela, or Mecca, these are the stations of the cross for a different kind of religion: the worship of a free people who cherish equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the ancestral sanctuaries that led, eventually, to the American experiment launched in 1789 and which, by the early 1830s, was so buzzing with pluralism that the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville described it as a “tumult” of democracy.

But I digress. There must have been something in the Mediterranean air around 500 BC, because contemporaneously with Kleisthenes’ new code, ancient Rome took its first halting steps toward democracy. It began with the overthrow of a monarch also around 508 BC, followed by the launch of the structures that became the Roman Republic. While the Roman Republic and its representative democracy was dominated by wealthy families and eventually collapsed into dictatorship, for a time it was more representative than any of our modern-day republics. That’s because it granted an explicit “representation quota” to its poorest citizens.

In the early Republic’s Centuriate Assembly (where all male citizens of military age were enrolled in one of five voting groups based on economic class), the poorest classes were able to have their say. While the voting was weighted in such a way that the wealthier elements could always outvote the poorest, at least the poor were at the political table. In the middle Roman Republic, the poorer classes exclusively elected ten high-level leaders, called the tribunes of the plebeians, who could use their office to take up the causes of the poor. So even in the oligarchic Roman Republic, class was distinctly recognized and formally incorporated into the voting practices and institutions, yet today the idea of such affirmative action along class lines is ridiculed. Instead, poor people pretty much have opted out of politics in the United States, since there are no class quotas, no tribunes like the Gracchi brothers to speak for them, and little hope that a viable political party might arise that can represent their interests (the poor in Europe, however, vote in higher numbers due to different electoral rules creating multiparty democracy that provides more choices to voters).

Rome’s republic ebbed and flowed, reacting to the times, until it was subverted during a series of civil wars and finally collapsed into an empire when Caesar crossed the Rubicon at the head of his army. But it lasted in one form or another for 482 years. Considering that the American republic has been around for less than half that time, Rome provides a cautionary tale that democracy cannot be taken for granted, it must be renewed and re-nourished by every generation.

The Legacy of Luther and Cromwell: Political Democracy
Continuing on from Rome with my democratic pilgrimage, one of my favorite treks was to a place located twenty miles outside of London. There lies a large, verdant green pasture that goes by the name of Runnymede. The River Thames winds through it, just a silver sliver this far from its mouth, but history rolls down the river from here to London and beyond. Runnymede is a hallowed place and name, it also is one of the birthplaces of modern democracy.

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Here, in the year 1215, somewhere in this water meadow -- the exact spot is unknown -- King John put his seal to what is known as the Magna Carta, an agreement that required the king to accept that his will could be bound by laws and to respect certain legal procedures. The Magna Carta is considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, having influenced many common law documents since that time, such as the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and many European constitutions.

As I walked around the field at Runnymede, avoiding the cow pies and mud while lost in a reverie regarding democracy’s earthy roots, I saw its trajectory as if it were written across the sky: Athens in the fifth century B.C., the Roman Republic until the time of Christ, then, the trail goes cold for a long period until Runnymede. After that it slowly gains steam until it emerges in an unlikely place: Wittenberg in eastern Germany in 1517. That’s when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church’s door, protesting papal abuses and championing the radical notion that an individual needs no priestly intermediary between himself and God.

Within months Luther’s petition had spread like wildfire, sparking the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church hierarchy, one of the first controversies fanned by mass publication via the recently invented printing press. While Luther’s name and deed loom large historically, few have recognized how his defiance of religious authority, as well as his championing of individual conscience and spiritual enfranchisement, advanced the pre-attitudes necessary for the rise of the democratic spirit. His religion was informed by a philosophy of equality, one that Alexis de Tocqueville later described as one that “proclaimed that all men are alike able to find the road to heaven.”

A few decades later, in Geneva, Switzerland, the austere John Calvin and sanctimonious others advanced Luther’s break from papal supremacy, setting the stage for the puritanical Oliver Cromwell’s rupture from political authority a hundred years later. The Englishman Cromwell not only beheaded a king in 1649 and dramatically advanced the notion of a sovereign’s accountability to the people, but he also further advanced notions of individual conscience as self-determination, attitudinal milestones on the pathway to democracy.

That men like Cromwell, Calvin, and Luther -- who shared much with those known today as fundamentalist Christians -- acted as forefathers of Jefferson, Madison, Locke, Montesquieu, and others in the pantheon of liberal democracy’s champions, comes as a bit of an irony. Europe’s centuries-long coalescing of the democratic spirit never was a straightforward path but rather one filled with hypocrisy, violence, and setbacks (Cromwell, for example, was a devout anti-papist who massacred thousands of Catholics at Drogheda and Wexford).

Throughout Europe’s bloody history and the push-pull of revolution and counterrevolution, the forces of progress too often transmogrified into ones of empire, suppression, and violent authority. The 17th through the mid-20th centuries saw a long meandering trail of democratic startups and remissions in Europe, until the inexorable march gains significant force with the establishment of the American experiment in 1789.

Finally, following World War II, with the continent in rubble, western Europe at long last managed to conquer most of its political demons: democracy gained firm footing in most of the western part of the continent, triumphing over centuries of monarchs, dictators, fascism, religious fanaticism, and the most barbaric of internecine wars. By the 1970s, the democratic spirit had spread to Greece, Spain and Portugal, and following the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, it spread in rapid progression to the former communist dictatorships of east and central Europe.

Democracy’s Future
While democracy can be noisy and messy, and can sometimes result in confusion and inefficiency, if implemented fairly with the right institutions the human experience shows that it is capable of fostering remarkable things. Democracy confers the advantage of popular legitimacy to a government, and is the best match for the animal spirits of capitalism since it allows the “genius of millions” to flower even as it harnesses that economic potential for the good of all. It’s not always perfect, of course; it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” And the details of specific institutions and practices are important, since in a true democracy the political system must rule over the economic, not the other way around.

In the current era, some see China’s “consultative dictatorship” as a new political model that is challenging the primacy of western-style democracy, but I think they are quite wrong. Over time China will also become more of a representative democracy, even China’s current leadership of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao have made statements to that effect. China already holds more local elections than any other country in the world, though many of those elections don’t live up to Western standards of fairness and progress at the national level remains slow.

Chinese democracy undoubtedly will be a unique Sino version; one innovative proposal by a Chinese academic calls for a tricameral legislature, with members of the third house selected by Confucian standards of meritocracy. It's intriguing to contemplate China evolving into some sort of innovative democratic experiment, since even China’s highest leaders recognize that it’s no coincidence that most democracies have resulted in higher standards of living and a more broadly shared prosperity. Winston Churchill perhaps said it best when he groused, in characteristic fashion, “Democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the others that have been tried.”

Better than China or any previous authoritarian government, a newly democratic Europe has been able to harness capitalism’s extraordinary ability to create wealth in such a way as to better support families and workers, and to foster a more broadly shared prosperity, ecological sustainability and a new type of quiet global leadership based on regional “peace and prosperity” partnerships. The European democracies, despite all their faults, have accomplished this more than even the American democracy (which badly needs to update its 18th century political institutions). These are truly outstanding achievements, historic even, and as I stand here under a bright blue Athens sky, gazing at the shards of what once was, I can’t help but marvel that it all began here, at the Agora, 2500 years ago.

steven hill

Steven Hill
New America Foundation

Republished with permission from the Washington Monthly.