The World Owes the Ancient Greeks for Democracy

February 2, 2018

NEW YORK – Among the major contributions the ancient Greeks have made to Western civilization is democracy or “self-rule” as it is described in a lecture series mentioned in an article on The Federalist website, “What Our World Owes to the Ancient Greeks: Self-Rule and a Focus on the Common Good.”

The third lecture in the series by Professor Paul Rahe discusses the “Greek miracle” of democracy or “self-rule” as opposed to what was, at that time, the most common type of government, monarchy, usually a king supported by a group of bureaucrats.

The Greek city-states that emerged began to develop “a species of self-government” as reported on the Federalist, adding that “their governments began to consist of councils that met to determine the agenda for a larger decision-making assembly, and replacing kings with magistrates who served for limited terms.”

Prof. Rahe noted, as the Federalist reported, that the development of self-government “coincided with the development of the hoplite phalanx, a military form that armed ‘ordinary people’ and required them to work in unison for victory. Hoplites were citizen soldiers with that era’s equivalent of day jobs — what we might today call a militia. Arming the common man and making him equal to his peers in battle, as well as honoring his choice to risk his life for his city, created political expectations of self-rule.”

“Political communities depend on people being willing to lay down their bodies for the common good,” Prof. Rahe said, as quoted on the Federalist.

Courage was therefore valued by the ancient Greeks as the “first virtue” which allows the practice of all the other virtues, and politics was seen as a vital part of society. Prof. Rahe cites the renowned Athenian orator Pericles, as quoted on the Federalist, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.”

Even early on in the history of the United States, politics was seen as a valuable subject of study. One of the founding fathers, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail, as reported in the Federalist article, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry, Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, Natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”

French diplomat, political scientist, and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, best known for his works Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) analyzed the improved living standards and social conditions of individuals, as well as their relationship to the market and state in Western societies. Considered an early work of sociology and political science, Democracy in America was published after Tocqueville’s travels in the United States and also noted the concern of Americans, at the time, for public affairs, especially for their local community.

Prof. Rahe noted the ancient Greeks’ “connection between politics and war,” as reported on the Federalist, adding that “words, reflection, and rumination lead to glorious deeds, and those deeds take place on the battlefield, in the hoplite phalanx,” and the “centerpiece of politics” was speech.

“Speech is, of course, the main alternative to war,” as reported on the Federalist, “We talk things out so we don’t fight. The Greeks considered man’s rational and verbal capacities to be a mark of their descent from the gods, as contrasted with animals, which neither speak nor reason.”

This “assumes we can rise to the occasion and make better decisions deliberating together,” Prof. Rahe said, “…You listen to other people because you take for granted that they are also interested in the common good. To rise to the common good requires the virtue whereby we overcome our diversity of interests.”

Talking things out was essential to the development of democracy and it worked for the ancient Greeks because it was on a city level where people interacted with one another in person on a daily basis. In the United States, that may not be possible on a national level which is why the founders based many elements of the budding nation on the Greek model but could not in the end establish it as a true democracy.

In a Q&A session that followed the lecture, as noted on the Federalist, Prof. Rahe said, “Communities where everyone knows everyone are more favorable to talk, to conversation, to rational speech, to assembling and making decisions by consensus.” As the Federalist reported, the founders of the U.S. borrowed a great deal from the ancient Greeks and tried to improve on the system, while putting into practice the idea of self rule, no king required, as Prof. Rahe pointed out, “Greeks make no distinction between the government and themselves. The government is us.”

The phrase, of course, calls to mind, and turns on its head, the famous quote attributed to the absolute monarch Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, who allegedly said, “L’etat, c’est moi” or “I am the State.”


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