Andrew Lambdin-Abraham (kd5mdk) wrote,
Andrew Lambdin-Abraham

First Democracy

First off, I'd like to start by noting that Paul Woodruff was the Director of the Plan II Honors program when I was in it at UT, and he always impressed me with his insight and erudition. No matter the topic, whether it was sports or love or student life or whatever, he always could come up with both the most astonishing insights into how people truely felt and what they needed, and a way to associate this with Classical Greece. If there was ever a living model for a Classical education gone right, I would have to say Paul Woodruff is it. Also, I was very impressed by the first two books of his I read: On Justice, Power and Human Nature a series of excepts from Thucydides "History of the Peloponesian War" addressing moral quandries in that work, and Reverence: Renewing a forgotten virtue which is about the concept of reverence and its importance in human culture.

Back when I was leaving UT, I knew Woodruff had recently published a new book First Democracy, about Democracy in Athens. However, I didn't get around to picking up a copy until a few days ago, and I didn't read it until today, when I sat down with some free time at the local library and went through it. I was favorably impressed with the ideas and concepts contained in this book, and hope that many of you give it a read, and consider the lessons and suggestions it has to offer in our own society.

Woodruff approaches this book as an unapologetic fan of both Classical Athens and Democracy. He recognizes the flaws and sins of the society, in terms of slavery, imperialism, and so forth, but always presents these as times or cases when Athens went away from Democracy, rather than flaws in the institution itself. He also does not consider Republics, or what we have now, as very close to what Democracy means, both by design (in the US Constitution and so forth) and as a result of practice.

Woodruff starts by listing 3 "doubles" for democracy, things which as mistaken for it, but aren't. His examples:
Voting, Majority Rule, and Elected Representatives. To him, the tremendous flaws in these ideas, when mistaken for democracy, are heavily responsible for many of its percieved drawbacks.

To Woodruff, Democracy is based on 7 key concepts.

1) Freedom from Tyranny
2) Harmony
3) The Rule of Law (Nomos)
4) Natural Equality
5) Citizen Wisdom
6) Reasoning without Knowledge
7) Education (Paideia)

Each of these concepts are critical to the perfection of democracy. Without any of them, it falters, and often flaws shown in "Democracies" come from imperfections or absence of these elements. One of the important elements in the book is that Athenian Democracy was not a rigid thing, but a work in progress, which changed its methods as flaws were demonstrated, constantly improving to better suit the needs of the people.

I shall now consider each of these points in slightly more detail.

1) Freedom from Tyranny - Tyrants are a class which have changed in understanding. Now seen as ruthless despots, oppressing the people, in Ancient Greece they were somewhat more ambivilently viewed. In specific, Tyrants were dictators who ruled outside the law, and depending on how they ruled, were usually viewed better or worse. However, it is clear that Athenian Democracy abhored tyrants, although Athens had some from time to time, and always struggled to regain democracy.
The particular flaws with tyrants are threefold. First, by ruling outside the law, they had no check on their powers, and so could conduct terrible oppressions on people if they desired, and indeed, such actions seem to be the lot of tyrants in the long run. Secondly, by their very existance outside the law, they teach the people to disrespect the law and consider it less important than it properly is. Finally, because their power is based on fear, tyrants must maintain that fear, and live in constant fear that some other person is going to overthrow them and become tyrant in their place.

2) Harmony is a critical concept in Democracy, or any social order. Each group (in Athens, the aristocrats versus the middle classes versus the poor) must treat the other groups with respect, and not exploit them, or they will become bitterly opposed, and lead to civil strife and war. As such, radical measures are generally bad things, as those who suffer from them will invariably attempt to exact their revenge, either through political struggle, or allying with external enemies, as was common in Ancient Greece.

3) The rule of law is also an important element, because it fixes what the Democracy can and cannot do. One of the most egregious failures of Athenian Democracy, the execution of the generals after Arginusae, was a direct violation of the laws on Athens. The generals were accused of effectively impiety, in leading the fleet after an enemy force and failing to recover sailors from damaged ships or the dead after the battle. The accused were charged in a mass trial, rather than individually, as they should have been, and when a charge of "illegal action" was raised in the Assembly against this (which would have put off action until the motion had been considered by a court and a ruling made on its legality), the person who raised it was threatened with death. He then withdrew the motion. If the law had been followed, the fate of the generals probably would have been different, Woodruff believes.

4) Natural Equality is the concept that all people are fundamentally equal when it comes to the law and government. It should be noted that the Greeks were far more conscious of how arbitrary slavery was than we are, when it is now mixed with racial issues which were absent from their time. Slavery was generally accepted as a purely economic measure, and there was clear evidence that people understood slaves weren't fundamentally different from their masters. Aristotle may have argued some people were only fit for serving others, but it wasn't a widely held view, when everyone knew the next defeat could have led them to be slaves.

5) Citizen Wisdom is the concept that the people are capable, as a body, of understanding issues put before them and making informed decisions. Rather than leaving political decisions to experts, the average person is considered qualified to address political topics. One theme in the book is how differently Athenians selected their leaders than we do today. There was a general distinction drawn between specialized technical knowledge (techne) and general wisdom. Therefore, while elections were held of offices which had specialized skills required, such as generals and the administrators of the treasury, positions like magistrate were selected by a lottery, which was entirely impartial, as were the other governing bodies. Juries were selected by lottery, and were extremely large (Socrates' trial had 501 jurors) so that bribing the jurors would be completely impractical. The general concept was that in political matters, any citizen should have the necessary sense to manage the affairs, although the lottery pool was sometimes subject to examinations or otherwise had their qualifications assessed.

6) Reasoning without Knowledge is the counterpart of Citizen Wisdom: That wise decisions could be reached by debates attended by the common citizen, and that specialized subject knowledge is not necessary. For example, a general can give advice on the liklihood of military outcomes when going to war, but has no advantage over anyone else in judging whether it is appropriate to do so. The metaphor of the "ship of state" is considered. On a ship in a storm, the technical judgement of a sailor is critical; whether to loose the sails, or raise more sail, or drop anchor. Moreover, the presumption is that if their is another saior on board, they will agree, and even if they disagreed, that following the advice of only one is critical to survival. However, there is also the presumption that the sailor is literally in the same ship as the passengers, and has as much invested in their survival as they do. However, in politics, it is too common that the experts have their own interests in play, that effectively a captain has their own private "lifeboat". Thus, technical experts are untrustworthy when it comes to political matters.
Another accusation against democracy is that the populace can be led astray by pretty phrases, rather than the truth. However, it is just as easy for one side to put up a clever speaker as the other, and there is no especial advantage to lies over truth when it comes to speaches, when listened to by wise people.

7) Education - The Greek word Woodruff uses here, and which came up in ancient debates, is paideia. It means roughly "general education", and means not the knowledge to compete with an expert in their field, but rather the ability to judge between experts when they present their case before him. It makes a man a better citizen, which was expressed as "have more arete. Arete is "excellence" or "virtue". This is, of course, distinct from the technical knowledge people obtain to make their living. It has nothing to do with farming or navigation or any of the other technical skills a person might learn. There were some livings to be made from it, either as a speachwriter, or dramatist, or rhetoric teacher. However, those were relatively few. Paideia had a sort of continuum, where poorer people had their children learn only the basics, while the richer sent their children to school earlier and kept them there longer. The four general arts in a basic education were reading, poetry, music and physical education. In addition, the whole populace was considered the teachers of paideia, who by their example and instruction showed younger people what was right and what was wrong. Socrates is noted for arguing against this view, and saying that no one could teach it, as the success rate is so low (look at the % of people who turn out to have relatively low morals, compared to those who fail to learn the trade they're taught). Woodruff presents Protagoras' refutation of this, which he sums up by saying that Socrates is asking for the equivilent of a teacher of Spoken Greek in Athens, when in fact everyone learns it as a child by listening to everyone around them.
There is also a strong description of the importance of dramatic performance in spreading democratic ideals. The audiences were strong adherents to democracy, and the playwrights, competing for prizes, would put heavily pro-democratic messages in their plays as a result, which would then be seen and internalized by the audiences.

Following the examination of these concepts, Woodruff closes with an afterword, "Are Americans Ready for Democracy", to which his answer is "No". He see some promising events on the local level, but the majority of the US governmental structure is tradition bound and has not changed to reflect improvements in Democratic methods introduced in the past two centuries, such as proportional representation. He does feel Canada is ready, although as he was writing in 2004 I am not sure if the trends he saw promising are still moving as he likes.

Mine really is an inadequate treatment of the book, and subject, and I strongly encourage everyone to read it if they have the chance. It's only 232 pages, much easier than many things I recommend. I shan't single out people by name, but there are a number of people on my friendslist I think it would be extremely stimulating to.

To summarize the parts of the book I found strongest and weakest is relatively easy. The strongest part is clearly the expression of what Athenian Democracy was, and the cultural values critical to making it work. Woodruff does an excellent job of finding the places where Democracy there went wrong, how it happened, and the changes that were implemented to fix that. This is not a direct history book, and the treatment of historical events as events is sometimes lighter than it could be, and I think the non-democratic systems are given less weight than they sometimes deserve. For example, the tyranny of Pisistratus had to be somewhat successful, as he not only took power, but lost it once and gained it back, as well as transmitted it to his sons. The part that is not so much weak as left to the reader, is how to take the concepts and theories and apply them to modern life, at its far greater scale of millions of citizens and thousands of miles, and with the centuries of entrenched custom. The book does not go into this very much, but it is certainly the topic you are left thinking on when you finish it.

Final conclusion: Strongly recommended, and I would be very pleased for everyone interested to give it a try and report what you thought of it.

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