Athenian Democracy: the City and its Gods

We live with diminished expectations for our withered democracy. Visitors like de Tocqueville in the 1830s marveled at how well-informed Americans were and how energetic their discussions. Waves of immigrants arrived believing in the promise of a nation “of, by and for the people.” Democracy has been worshipped as a god, as if the concatenation of myriad views and desires would somehow produce truth and goodness. However, from the beginning, the Founders inscribed their misgivings into our Constitution and into state and local laws. If democracy requires a robust faith in the people’s trustworthiness, we have lacked that trust and now experience a robust skepticism. Without the imposing authority of the gods, the city belongs to the pride of its rulers and their quest for power and prominence. The city, even rational and democratic Athens, flies out of control and to its destruction.

Several signs of this healthy distrust are obvious in our history. In 1787 many were excluded from participation – women, enslaved people, transients, those lacking sufficient property – race, class and gender figured prominently in defining the limits of “the people.” One could argue that members of these groups lacked experience and a sufficient stake in outcomes to allow for reliable judgments concerning government. People only passing through or owning no property might make decisions without suffering the consequences. Women and enslaved people had limited experience directing their own lives let alone the fortunes of others.

Political philosophers have always suspected the competence of “the people.” The great many were thought either to be limited to a slavish condition and needing others to lead them, or incapable of the higher considerations of government and limited by nature solely to pursuing animal pleasures. The solution was to look for a wise and high-minded individual, a monarch or prince, to take command. When Moses went off to confer with God, the people erected a Golden Calf. In Plato’s Republic the demos embrace novelty and disorderly delights at the cost of sanity and justice. Machiavelli’s people are fickle and foolish and easily misled.

Even for those welcomed to participate in government, the Founders imposed limitations. The House of Representatives (the “people’s house”) was not a gathering of the people but of representatives. The Founders decided to limit representation; each Congressman to represent no more than 30,000 people. The pamphlet wars between Federalists and Anti-Federalists reflect this battle. The Federalists, the more “republican” side of the debate, distrusted the “people’s house” and pushed for a Senate made up of men of trusted worth, who could withstand the unstable passions of the great many. Although the Federalists established a separation of powers to diffuse governmental power across separate offices, even this appeared insufficient. Anti-Federalists demanded a Bill of Rights to defend the great many not just from the national state but from their intolerance towards one another.

Ideal Democracy is challenged on several fronts: the competence of the people; their participation; representation; administration; mutual tolerance and respect; defining the population … among others. At this late date the people’s will has become an artifact of advertising, polling, and media disguise as non-ideological. Finance, insurance, real estate, banking, the military industries, power companies, information enterprises, entertainment, and so on call the tune. The scale of these interests is expanding and is now global. A well-known financier referred recently to the great many as those “little people,” invoking the imagery of Swift’s Gulliver Travels, in a grotesque but not unjustified reference to an impotent citizenry.

Ancient Athens of the 5th century BCE provides our best example of an attempt at thorough-going democracy. While a city-state of no more than 200,000 residents at its height can hardly provide a model for modern nation-states, several notions may be instructive. Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” offers several challenging lessons on the glories and dangers when the city, in the name of the people, stands in for the gods.

Cleisthenes, and the Formal Structure of Athenian Democracy
The glory of Athens, in architecture and theater, in sculpture and philosophy, continues to amaze us. In one brief century, Athens rose from an agricultural town to dominate the Hellenic world. Pericles argued, and convincingly, that Athenian greatness resulted from its commitment to democracy, forging a self-confident community and unleashing the genius of its people. His “Funeral Oration” analyzes the advantages of democracy and defines its special qualities Yet Athens collapsed quickly after its brilliant century, the victim of plague and war, but also of a blight that lay at the heart of its experiment.

Athenian democracy begins with the rule of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. He rescued Athens from Spartan efforts to establish a compromised aristocracy to rule the city. The Athenian people rose in violent protest. After this popular revolution, Cleisthenes took command. He reconfigured the original four clans into ten tribes, thus weakening the aristocratic elite. Residents of the town and its surroundings were identified as belonging to one of 139 “demes” (local neighborhoods). These were organized into 30 organizations, ten each in three categories (“trittys”) – open plain, coastal, or hill regions. The newly devised ten tribes each contained one “tritty” from each of the three categories. Without kinship, regional, or occupational commitments, each tribe was to be devoted instead to Athens as a whole.

The earlier reforms of Pisistratus in mid-6th century had assisted this plan. Pisistratus invested resources in developing the economic activity of farmers and artisans. This earlier effort had enriched Athens and developed a class of independent and self-confident producers. Once roused to their productive capabilities and experiencing economic independence, they were unlikely to go peacefully back into compliance with the interests of an aristocracy.

Cleisthenes’ plan for Athenian democracy was bold:
Population – citizenship was limited to adult males with familial ties to Athens. Estimates suggest 30,000 citizens (3,000 per tribe).
Participation – the Assembly would decide all public matters. All citizens were invited to participate and vote at its regular meetings. The meeting-place could accommodate 6,000 people, and citizens were seated on a first-come basis
Planning – the Council of 500, made up of 50 members from each of the ten tribes, would determine the agenda of issues for the Assembly to consider;
Political Competence – no Council member could serve more than two annual terms during his lifetime, thus assuring widespread familiarity with the workings of government. The Council appointed administrators to conduct ongoing affairs, such as public building and trade agreements, and selected officials to lead during a crisis, such as military defense of the city. The Council assessed the effectiveness of officials they appointed. Leadership within the Council of 500 rotated to each group of 50 during the ten periods it was in session each year;
Privilege – ancient prerogatives were to be disregarded; in its place, sharing the opportunity to rule and succeeding by merit became the primary considerations.

Cleisthenes, it appears, believed that history could be set aside to construct the world anew and on a rational/practical basis. The evils of our nature could be corrected by broad social awareness and subjecting all matters to wide debate. The versatility and extensive experience of the great many could outstrip the brilliance of any single individual or small group. The combined wisdom of the people would control the ambition for personal power. Indeed, Athens adopted a rule of ostracism, voting annually to determine whether any citizen needed to be exiled to protect the community. The need of the great many to find a hero to direct the people’s force would be absorbed in the business of governing and by the growing confidence of the people in themselves and one another.

Athens survived the Persian threat and the virtual destruction of the city in 490 BCE, and won a great victory in the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE). Emerging from decades of war, Athens took the lead of the Delian League, a confederation of Hellenic cities. However, the glory of Athens lay ahead (450-427 BCE) under the leadership of Pericles. And Pericles, as his contemporary Thucydides remarks, effectively bent democracy to his will and placed its talents and energies under his command. Athens became, as seems inevitable, a deformed democracy under the practical command of a single brilliant and cunning individual.

Pericles, the Funeral Oration

Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a inquiry into the causes and events of the long struggle that pitted Athens against Sparta and its allies. [1] Pericles spoke at the conclusion of the war’s first year, at a moment promising Athens’ success. The funeral commemorating the war dead was a formal event. Pericles defines the character of Athenian democracy, identifying features we might overlook. He glosses over the strains that had already introduced one-man domination. Some of Pericles’ claims belie events Thucydides reports (especially the comment that conquered peoples gleefully accepted Athenian rule). Several features Pericles celebrates in his account of Athens’ glory for its destruction.

Pericles asserts that his speech cannot succeed. Some, he notes, will find his remarks praising the valor of fallen heroes inadequate; while others will envy the dead for receiving his ringing praise. Athenians hold conflicting attitudes and make independent judgments, even about a funeral oration. His rhetorical maneuver demonstrates Pericles’ cunning, praising his listeners for independent judgments while artfully directing their response.

Pericles makes a startling claim. While Pericles honors the founders of two generations ago for loving liberty, he praises their progeny for preserving their inheritance and purchasing “this our present dominion.” The previous generation expanded the city and increased its wealth. Even so, “we ourselves … have enlarged and so furnished the city with everything, both for peace and war, as it is now all-sufficient in itself.” Those who stand before him, Pericles asserts, exceed their forebears. This is a stunning claim. We are accustomed to “Golden Age” humility by which the present at best merely reflects the superior valor of ancestors. Founders are always portrayed as wise in their simplicity and dedicated to the best ideals. For Pericles, however, the present moment is the age for mythic deeds and heroes stand before him. None have been as inventive and energetic as his contemporaries, tasked with expanding Athens and reshaping the world in its image. Pericles fears no god’s reproof for these boasts.

Pericles explains how democratic institutions insure their victories. He reminds his listeners that Athenians think things through. Athens is great not because Athenians are inherently superior but because they have devised a superior form of social organization. The city derives its democracy, Pericles proclaims, from no previous model; Athens created itself. Democracy’s equality encourages and employs the strengths of all its citizens. Even so, Pericles distinguishes between legal equality in private concerns and a meritocracy in public matters. While poverty is no bar to public service, Athens is no communistic utopia. In place of mere rotation of officials, citizens are selected to serve the state because of merit. Citizens enjoy equal rights in private matters – in individual property concerns, for example; and citizens respect individuality and tolerate eccentricities among neighbors. “We do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes.”

Athens’ new aristocracy of talent and character is not based on wealth or family. The Council of 500 changed is membership annually. Perhaps as many as 45% of citizens would have served in the Council, and since the term limit was restrictive, leadership could never consolidate around a single person or small group. While this provision insured maximum participation, it could never use especially talented individuals effectively. By diminishing the powers of the Council of 500 and turning to executive appointments, Pericles devised a more concerted leadership over a city that was growing in size and complexity. Pericles transformed Athenian democracy into something more apparent than real. Cleisthenes’ plan could not accommodate what Athens had become, a city growing rapidly in size, wealth, and power, with new social strata, and with increasingly complex foreign relations. However, without the authority of the gods, nothing remained to restrain visions of further glory.

This new elite with special talents benefits the city. Their service allows the city to make best use of their talents and curtails individuals success in accumulating power, wealth or renown. Leadership is open to people from families without wealth or prominence. Athens has no contempt for poverty but only for poor people who make no effort to improve their circumstances. In other city-states, citizens who involve themselves with public affairs, without a special claim to do so, are thought of as meddling in matters that do not concern them. In Athens, however, “we regard him who takes no part in public duties not as unambitious but as useless.” In Pericles’ democracy, service to the state becomes the sole measure of worth.

Athens, Pericles insists, is also devoted to pleasure. While busying itself with matters of state, the democratic city also supports a delightful life for its citizens; “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy.” Athens offers annual games and religious celebrations to drive away sadness. The port of Athens abounds with the produce of the entire world. Having acquired a substantial empire, Athenians enjoy unrivalled wealth. Athenians, Pericles notes, delight in the splendor of their private homes and public buildings. Wealth and grandeur testify to democracy’s enterprising energies and cement the power of the state.

Famous for strict militarism, Sparta has been cast too easily as the fascist enemy of freedom-loving Athens. To be fair, Sparta had its own version of equality (one more inclusive of women). Sparta had kings, but men served the state in regimented and painfully equal ways. In Sparta a small group of citizens dominated a much larger work force of enslaved people (called “helots”). Helot labor, largely agricultural, served the city’s needs, but presented a constant threat of rebellion. To survive, Sparta trained its citizens harshly in the arts of warfare. Spartan men lived in barracks and in constant military training. They ate rough food and avoided pleasures to harden themselves for military exploits. Life’s amenities were sacrificed to the state. Mothers raised their sons to return from battle with their shields or upon them.

In contrast, a democratic culture, Pericles claims, arms itself for conquest and defense without militarizing its society. While Sparta focused on war preparation and all but abandoned the sort arts of a civilized society, Athens takes a casual approach. Athens chooses not to close its city to foreign visitors. A closed city loses the advantages of commerce and creates a climate of secrecy and fear. According to Pericles, there are no secrets to Athenian superiority in warfare, no tricks a spy might discover. Herodotus made a similar claim: free people fighting for what belongs to them are superior to enslaved warriors terrorized by the cruelty of their generals. While this could not be fairly said of Spartans, their militarized regime, Pericles claims boastfully, makes them inferior in battle despite the hard training. Strengthened by their devotion to their city, Athenian forces win battles even in the enemy’s homeland.

A democratic society, Pericles claims, cultivates the whole man rather than devoting all energy to warfare. The Athenian has time for reflection and thoughtfulness — and especially for discussion. Athens delays action until a plan has achieved settled agreement. Athens does not fear that thinking leads to weakness. Its philosophy consults action in the world and not in the clouds. Athenians love beautiful things; grand private houses and public buildings ease the mind and enlarge the spirit with admiration. In Athens, even craftsmen join the discussion and are thought poor citizens if they do not. Athenians after full discussion feel confident in going forth to achieve their objectives; “… in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point.”

At the heart of Pericles’ immodest claims lies the assertion that Athenian democracy has remade human nature. In the Homeric age, a hero leaps into danger, never counting the costs. Warriors are too manly for doubts and discussion; thinking undermines resolve. In the heroic world, the business of state belongs exclusively to aristocrats freed from a life of labor to devote themselves wholly to war-craft. Specialization, not versatility, insures power. However, Pericles boasts, “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.” In that Homeric world private goals, and not the shared strength of the community, fuel heroic action. In addition, Athens has proved that giving gifts creates loyal friends since ongoing praise for generosity cements friendships. Human nature is not made up of low grasping instincts. Pericles invites his audience to believe that the city has accomplished a new creation, the new man of Athens. Empire – Roman, British, and American — breeds such impiety.

For Pericles, Athens is the teacher for all Greek city-states. The Athenian represents a “new man” – think of the 19th century character Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. The Athenian is versatile – a warrior, a thinker, and a craftsman; a person of civil manners but fierce in battle – “his person disposed to most diversity of actions, and yet all with grace and decency.” The proof of these claims is Athens’ achievements and conquests – a pragmatic claim familiar to our no-nonsense culture. Athens conquers its neighbors, and the conquered welcome their conquerors. Subject cities join a larger empire and benefit from being associated with Athens. It is no dishonor to be beaten by worthy men; Athens represents the new way of things, a claim invented long before our own delusions and imperial arrogance.

The epic of Athens, Pericles claims, is one of deeds, not words. Future ages will know the grandeur of Athens through the long ages of her empire and the city’s splendor – “we shall be admired for a power … which requires no Homer to praise it … For by our courage we have opened for us all seas and lands and set up eternal monuments everywhere both of the evil we have done to our enemies and the good we have done to our friends.” Despite these broad claims, in five years Athenian grandeur will be dragged in the mud as they fling the remains of family members un-honored upon dismal plague carts trolling the city collecting the dead.

Pericles depicts the war dead as exemplifying the excellence of Athens. Their valor honors the city; and their deaths benefit the state for which fellow citizens have so much to be thankful. The democratic city has room for private enjoyments, but reality is served by public acts, and the full judgment of the worth of a man depends upon his service to the state, which is coterminous with the community. As the trial of Socrates will demonstrate twenty-five years on, the tyranny of the great many can be as totalitarian as that of any despot.

Pericles addresses citizens who are fighting in Athens’ wars, and his account of war’s horror is not scrubbed clean. To die well, warriors embrace fear and welcome death, even as events bring them to their moment of catastrophe — “putting the uncertainty of success to the test of their hope … relying upon themselves in the action, and therein choosing rather to fight and die than to shrink and be saved, they fled from shame, and committed their bodies to the battle; and so in a moment whilst fortune inclines neither way, relinquished their lives not in fear but in hopes of victory.” Pericles artfully urges his listeners to imagine that poised moment between panic and heroic action — “on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.” Their reward is not heaven or the praise of the gods but the honor accorded them by the city.

Those who perished died loving the city and not for wealth or monuments, or to be memorialized in public speeches. The city’s blessings were purchased with the lives of the fallen; their valor makes the rest love their city more – “… you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.” Athens’ victories advance human development, says Pericles. Those who die in battle need no tears; remorse is for those who had led tender lives and lacked fortitude. The city marks the height of human accomplishment; to die for this, Pericles exhorts his countrymen, earns the highest honor.

Pericles’ remarks defining the tasks of mourners shock us; they reveal even more the totalitarian undercurrent to this democracy. Mothers should realize that their dead sons are now beyond the reach of life’s shocks. Parents who are young enough should produce more children, to replace the fallen and to serve the city. The true test for citizenship is sending sons to battle: “For it is not likely that they should equally give good counsel to the state that have not children to be equally exposed to danger in it.” Children of the dead should take comfort in their fathers’ honor: while praise of the living breeds envy and resentment, honors ennobling the dead excite no jealousy. State rewards for valor insure that Athens will be the home of virtuous men. The city’s needs take precedence over personal grief.

Pericles describes a utopian aspiration; the self-sacrifice he urges requires rhetorical embroidery because it is neither immediate nor fully embraced; those whom Athens conquers curse their subjugation more than Athenian imperialism prefers to imagine; and Pericles himself constitutes a monarchical force at the epicenter of Athenian politics. The qualities Pericles praises – a well-schooled citizenry, merit ascendant over class and family, broad tolerance, a love for the good life, open discussion, versatility and pragmatic judgment, respect for service to the community, and the harmonizing of public and private concerns – are all features to which democracy aspires. Less clear is their cost in the totalitarian setting Pericles requires. When the city is god, no force can reach beyond it and no person can be free of it.

Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War refuses to editorialize on the fall of Athens. Instead, he describes reckless arrogance. The “Funeral Oration” should stand as a warning to our own imperial over-reaching. Athens is not the democracy it imagines; that democracy died with the neutering of the Council of 500 and the rise of new elites interested in admiring themselves in the mirror of the city’s grandeur. Athens treated its neighbors crudely and sometimes brutally – notably at Melos where the Athenians slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children when the city refused to surrender (asked why this massacre, the Athenians responded because they had the power to do it). The destruction of Athens is often attributed to the effects of a terrible plague that depleted the city and killed Pericles, but Thucydides tells the story instead of a city-state corrupted by visions of its own perfection and blind to the old forces of pride and cruelty masked by the gleaming surfaces of wealth and power. In ostracizing God’s truth, Athens guaranteed its destruction.

[1] All references are to the translation by Richard Crawley, published and revised in 1874.


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