I really enjoyed this book, and I want to thank Paul Woodruff for making this academic research accessible. I think we need a lot more of this right now. We are in a time period of radical change, when much of what we accepted as “truth” is shifting out from under our feet. During times of great change, it’s wise to relearn the basics. Who are we? What are we all about? And, where do we want to go?
Woodruff opens his introduction with, “Democracy is a beautiful idea – government by and for the people. Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise out highest capacities while it protects us from our worst tendencies. In democracy as it ought to be, all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.
Like many beautiful ideas, however, democracy travels through our minds shadowed by its doubles – bad ideas that are close enough to easily mistaken for the real thing. Democracy has many doubles, but the most seductive is majority rule, and this is not democracy. It is merely government by and for the majority.”
So Woodruff goes back to the first democracy – the ancient Athenians. He traces the development of the first democracy and describes its principles. Voting, majority rule, and elected representatives are generally accepted ideas in American democracy, but they were not part of the first democracy.
“These three doubles are not democracy. Voting is not, by itself, democratic. Majority rule is positively undemocratic. And, elected representation makes for serious problems in democracy. I have begun to say what democracy is not. Can I give a positive account?
Democracy is government by and for the people. That is hardly a definition, but it will do for a start. As a next step, I shall propose that a government is a democracy insofar as it tries to express the seven ideas of this book: freedom from tyranny, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education.”
The tools of the first democracy are unique to the time, culture and size of Athens:
Legal system: No professional judges or prosecutors. Any citizen could bring charges against another, and any citizen could serve on panels of judges that correspond to both our judges and juries.
Governing body: The Assembly consisted of the first 6,000 men to arrive at the Pnyx (a hillside not far from the Acropolis)
Checks on majority rule: The powers of the assembly were limited by law.
Lottery: The lottery, chosen equally fro the ten tribes, was used for juries, for Council of the 500, and for the legislative panel.
Elections: Some important positions were filled by election, especially those that required expert knowledge in military or financial affairs.
Accountability: On leaving office, a magistrate would have his record examined in a process called euthunai (setting things straight)
Woodruff describes the progression of ideas that preceded the Athenian democracy. Then he devotes a chapter to each of principles of the first democracy:
Freedom from Tyranny: “Tyrant (tyrannos) was not always a fearful word, and freedom (eleutheria) was not always associated with democracy. The two shifts in ideas were gradual and simultaneous. By the time democracy was mature, Athenians at least knew what they meant by tyranny – a kind of rule to be avoided at all costs. And, in contract to that, they knew what they meant by freedom. These two ideas we have inherited. And they are priceless.” Woodruff writes. “No one sleeps well in tyranny,” he continues. “Because the tyrant knows no law, he is a terror to his people. And, he lives in terror of his people, because he has taught them to be lawless. The fear he instills in others is close cousin to the fear he must live with himself, for the violence by which he rules could easily be turned against him.” He warns that democracy itself can be come tyrannical, the tyranny of the majority, “…democracy could be come a tyranny of hoi polloi, literally, of the many.” In Athens this became to mean the poor who banded together, acting as tyrants, supporting the interests of the poor over the rich. This led to a two party system, as the rich banded together to form the party of the few (hoi oligoi), the oligarchs. “If the people’s party went too far towards tyranny, then the oligarchs plotted civil war. If the oligarchs succeeded in gaining power, then, the people’s party would withdraw to plot their own violent return.” The Athenians recognized this oscillation and came to agreements to limit the rise of tyranny.
Harmony: “Without harmony there is no democracy.” Woodson comments. “What would government FOR the people mean if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together? Without harmony the government rules in the interests of one group at the expense of another. If harmony fails, many people have no reason to take part in government; others conclude that they must achieve their goals outside of democratic politics altogether; or, violence, or even the threat of terror.”
The Rule of Law (Nomos): “When law is the ruler, no one is above the law. This seems like an idea that everyone would welcome, but in truth if has had many enemies, and still does. Individuals are always looking for ways to put themselves or their government above the law. Big business seeks endless protections against the law, world leaders scoff at international law, and ordinary citizens see nothing wrong with obstructing justice.”
Natural Equality: “James Madison did not believe in the equality of the rich and poor, and so he and other founders of the United States Constitution made sure that the rich would have greater power than the poor. Voters would have to show that they enjoyed a certain level of wealth. Not so in democratic Athens. Penniless citizens – and there were many of these – insisted that they should be free to take part in their government. They went to battle for this. And they won.”
Citizen Wisdom: “In First Democracy, ordinary people were asked to use their wisdom to pass judgment on their leaders.” Woodruff concludes, “…the heart of democracy is the idea that ordinary people have the wisdom to govern themselves.”
Reasoning Without Knowledge: “Reasoning without knowledge is essential in government,” he writes. “Doing it well requires open debate. Doing it poorly is the fault of leaders who silence opposition, conceal the basis of their reasoning, or pretend to an authority that does not belong to them.”
Education (Paideia): “Paideia is the lifeblood of democracy,” he writes. “…paideia should give a citizen the wisdom to judge what he is told by people who do claim to be experts. So we should call it super-expert-education.”
Woodruff concludes the book with an afterword entitled Are Americans Ready for Domocracy? wherein he takes each of the principles and asks questions about the present state of democracy in America. He ends the book with, “Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect exemplar of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Most important, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of a government of the people, by the people and for the people?”
First Democracy: the Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Paul Woodruff, Oxford University Press, 2005