So the much-anticipated midterm election came and went, leaving all Americans, regardless of party affiliation or political orientation, finally united on at least one point: that the Congress, now a bicameral house formally divided against itself, will accomplish nothing at all for the foreseeable future...unless its members can find it in their hearts to compromise with their opponents and to craft legislation so little extreme and so overtly and appealingly reasonable that people on both sides of the aisle will fear angering their constituencies by not supporting it. How likely is that to happen? Not too! Still, that thought—that in the absence of flexibility, tractability, and generosity on the part of all, nothing at all will be accomplished and no one will have a record (other than of obstructionism) to run on in future elections—has a sort of silver lining in the thought that whatever legislation is passed by the new Congress will have to be of the rational variety that Americans of all political and philosophical sorts can support. So there’s at least that!As my readers all surely know by now, my training—my academic training, I mean, as opposed to my spiritual training in rabbinical school—is in ancient history and the history of ancient religion. And I’ve been reading just lately some interesting analyses of the mother of all democracies, the one set in place to govern the city-state of Athens, and the specific way our American democratic system does and doesn’t preserve its ancient features and norms. Obviously, a long road stretches out between them and us! Even so, however, there are at least some features of Athenian democracy that are definitely worth revisiting.
Some of the specifics will be unexpected to most. Ancient Athens was governed by a council of 500 called the boulé whose members were chosen—not by an informed electorate casting ballots for the candidate of their choice—but by lots so that fifty men chosen at random to represent each of the ten tribes of ancient Athenians were put in place and handed the reins of government. Each served for one year, but no one could serve more than once a decade nor could any citizen serve more than twice ever. The boulé had its own hierarchy, however: its in-house leadership—called the prytany—consisted of fifty men, also chosen by the casting of lots, who served for one single month and were then replaced. The idea was simple—and not entirely unappealing: by choosing both the people’s leaders and those leaders’ leaders at random, it was certain that the power of governance would specifically not rest neither with power-hungry people eager to rule over or to dominate others nor with anyone motivated by the possibility of personal gain through service to the nation. The leaders of Athens were thus disinterested parties, people with no specific yearning to be in charge yet whom fate somehow arbitrarily put into positions of leadership nonetheless. Yes, it was surely true that the inevitable blockhead would occasionally end up chosen to serve, but such a person would be vastly outnumbered by more thoughtful, more reasonable individuals. (The boulé did have five hundred members, after all.) The system has an antique feel to it, the specific point of keeping power out of the hands of people who lust after it and firmly in the hands of people who would be happier doing something else entirely, not so much!The situation that prevailed in ancient Athens appeals in other ways as well. The boulé, for example, lacked the power to make any final decisions on its own. To do that, all citizens were invited to participate in a forum called the ekklesia that met every ten days for the specific purpose of ratifying any of the boulé’s decisions before they became law. (This body met on the Acropolis as well, in an area called the Pnyx.) All citizens were automatically members of the ekklesia and were welcome to speak up and participate in pre-vote debate and discussion. So the power was thus fully vested in the people—the boulé could pass all the bills it wanted but none of them could become law until the people signed on.
Etymologically, the “demo” in “democracy,” from the Greek demos, references the full citizenry, the people of the nation who self-governed not by electing people to govern them, but by governing the governors and by requiring that the decisions of the boulé be ratified by the public. Is this sounding at all appealing to you? The more I think of it, the more remarkable it sounds to me…and, yes, in some ways intensely appealing. Would this work in a nation of 328 million citizens like our own? Not without some serious adjustment—but the notion that the very last people to whom power should ever be granted are those specific individuals who yearn the most intensely for it, that idea has some serious merit in my mind!
And then there was the concept of “ostracism,” which I think we should definitely consider bringing back. The English word means exclusion from a group, usually because of some perceived scurrilous misbehavior. But the word goes back to Athens, where it denoted something far more specific: the right of the citizenry, the demos, one single time in the course of a year to vote to expel from the city for a period of ten years anyone perceived as having become too powerful—and thus who merely by being present in the city weakened the democratic principle of power being vested fully in the hands of the people. It didn’t happen every year, but once the decision was taken—and if more than six thousand citizens voted to ostracize by writing the name of the individual they wished to see gone on a piece of broken pottery called an ostrakon—then the “ostracized” individual was forced to leave the city and not permitted to return for at least a decade. There was no possibility of appeal. Ostracized individuals were then given ten days to organize their affairs and then to leave and not to return for ten years. There was a certain risky arbitrariness to the whole process—there was no obligation for any citizen to state why he was voting to ostracize whomever it was he was voting to exile and there was no judge or jury—but also something exhilarating about a procedure designed to place the power in the hands of the people to exile anyone at all (including civic leaders, generals, the wealthy, and the city-state’s most influential citizens) for fear that that specific individual was exerting a malign influence on the right of the people to self-govern. And there was at least one profound safeguard against abuse in the fact that the ostracized individual had to be voted off the island by six thousand citizens. Even so, the procedure eventually died out. (The last known ostracism was towards the end of the fifth century BCE.) But it is also thrilling to imagine a democratic city-state in which anyone who yearns for power must temper such yearning with the knowledge that being perceived to be acting other than in the best interests of the people could conceivably lead to being sent away regardless of the immensity of one’s fortune or the breadth of one’s influence.
There were darker sides to Athenian democracy as well. Citizenship was limited to males over the age of eighteen; women were completed excluded both from membership in the boulé and from participation in the ekklesia. Nor did all citizens choose to participate fully in their fully participatory democracy. Indeed, most citizens failed to show up most of the time. To increase attendance, in fact, a decision was made around 400 BCE to pay citizens who showed up for their time, thus making it more reasonable for members of the working class to take the time off to attend. But the fact remains that, just as in our American republic, the power was in the hands of those who chose to exercise their civic right to participate and not in the hands of those who chose to express themselves merely by complaining about the status quo. Is that a flaw in the system? I suppose it would depend on whether you ask the voters or the complainers!
This isn’t ancient Greece. But what we can learn from considering the political heritage bequeathed to us by the Athenians is that democracy is not manna from heaven offered to some few worthy nations and not to others, but an ongoing political theory that needs constantly to be revised and reconsidered as it morphs forward through history. There is no end to the books I could recommend to readers interested in learning more, but I can suggest two titles that I myself have enjoyed and that would be very reasonable places to start reading: A.H.M. Jones’ book, Athenian Democracy, first published back in 1986 by Johns Hopkins University Press and read by myself years ago, and also a newer book, Democracy in Classical Athens by Christopher Carey, published in 2000 by Bristol Classical Press in the U.K.