Hermione Luck / Chief Columnist
The Greek Critique
“Long Live Democracy … April Fools“
Born and raised in Homer, Alaska, a good friend went on to spend most of his life in Greece and has become a student of ancient Greek culture. We asked him to compare modern American Democracy with ancient Greek Democracy.
Always good to hear from you.
I’m responding to your last letter where you asked if I would write a piece for your blog comparing the painfully bifurcated American version of Democracy to the visionary and ancient Greek adventure in the same arena.
To begin with, the democratic city-state conceived in 500 B.C. by Cleisthenes and a bunch of his homeboys, is interesting in that Greek Democracy lasted only two hundred years until approximately 325 B.C.
That’s right, the vaulted and cherished Greek Democracy now studied in awarded universities and born again wet on the lips of liberal children everywhere, lasted only two hundred years … more or less the current lifespan of Democracy in America.
What initially strikes me are the parallels in the unravelling of both efforts, although to be clear, I wouldn’t say that American Democracy is irreparably unravelling. May I simply suggest I’m a little more worried now than maybe I was five years ago, when fake news had not yet become a religion.
On the other hand, one glaring difference between the two is clear – early Greeks believed that functional government demanded the imperative to come to agreement short-term just to get things done. The debate long-term then continued regarding the collective and common good.
As far as American Democracy is concerned, let’s face it, long term or short term, the picture is so fractured even a pandemic couldn’t bring the American political landscape together. I’m sensing Ukraine seems to be different though, don’t you think? America seems to have a little more purpose these days. Once again Russia to the rescue, as freedom-loving Americans nestle into a common comfort zone of aligning against a bad player.
The interesting thing about the ancient Greek responsibility as a citizen was that even though participation (through debate) was obligatory, as time went on and a century or so passed, it got to a point where there was too much debate and too many clowns in the arena. Does this sound familiar to Americans?
So many Europeans have come to consider American political drama as a sad but true clown show culminating in a fumbling bad prince attempt by Donald Trump to create a monarchy.
And as in all monarchies real or feigned, the sycophants soon followed. Think Marjorie Taylor Green, Madison Cawthorn, Paul Gosar, and their merry little band of alt-right all night minstrels appearing on your national stage.
And so, as history suggests, these same clown in the arena rights were particularly dominant during the decline of Athens, which led to “the period of the demagogues”. Here is a good quote from the era.
“The popular Ekklesia (assembly) had evolved into a boisterous mob giving birth to a rise of demagoguery that captured long-festering Athenian political and social conflicts: the aristocrats vs the working-class; the privileged vs the less advantaged; legacy reputable families networked together vs The People.”
The two-tiered lower rung of Greek life, “The People”, were composed of the “chrestoi” (the useful, well-born citizens) and the “phauloi” (the simple people, lacking in politically influential friends). This latter Greek term gave rise to the expression ‘hoi polloi’, meaning plebs, riff raff, the chattering class. The would-be oligarchic elites thought the influence of the hoi polloi to be a result of “too much democracy”.
By the time Plato and Aristotle arrived on the scene (420-320BC), Athens was in major decline. Although this decline primarily stemmed from wars, mismanaged economy, and poor governance (politics), Aristotle was able to single out a primary failure of the political system as well – there were far too many voices of poor quality/poor education influencing decisions.
Therefore, Aristotle was in favor of muting what today would be called the Low Information Voter. In other words, experts aka the elites, and well-informed participatory citizens should be the only ones listened to or consulted.
(As a side note, the Greek word ‘ostracism’ was coined by the elite during Greek Democracy’s golden years, aimed directly at the hoi polloi. So like Mean Girls, it’s probably safe to say that “cancel culture” is nothing new on this planet.)
With all of that in mind, most likely, Aristotle would have approved of current Republican moves to limit the voting base. In fact, Aristotle suggested that perhaps some voters should be compensated with extra votes if they were deemed experts.
Hermione, I have to admit that sometimes I have dreams at night that Aristotle and Plato might have been scary far-right Republicans if they lived among us today … think the Koch brothers on steroids.
The similarities shared by these two democracies are interesting to people like me, but the most important comparison for your readers is to compare them in scale. The Greeks came to believe that a functional democracy could only thrive with a citizenry of a certain size which turned out to be surprisingly small and relatively homogeneous.
Most of the great ancient Greek thinkers eventually concluded that democracy in any form is first and foremost precarious, and can easily be over-weighted, both at the top and at the bottom.
They also noted that virtuous civic practices which brought the populace together are much easier to manage in smaller more traditional societies that have natural organic alignments of blood, language, religion, culture, and customs … which brings us to a currently politically charged word, ‘tribalism’. I so enjoy the ironies and oxymorons of politics.
So, that’s it, I’m done I promise … now that I read this whole thing over, I apologize for being so epic. I trust you’ll spruce this up for your blog, change some words, and hopefully reduce it in size.
On the lighter side, you also asked how we are doing these days. Things are mostly the same in Athens – everyone has a place to live and a welcoming community to be a part of. So many have rambunctious informed opinions lubed by long dinners and longer drinks. COVID restrictions have recently been relaxed which means instead of getting booted out of the taverna at midnight, dinner gatherings can now continue unabated usually until 2am or later.
Not that anyone is persuaded or anything important is resolved during these exchanges, but at least the convivial spirit thrives and the soul is nourished. I love it here.
Homer the Gaucho
(my taverna name)