Athenian democracy

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Constitution of the Athenians, 4th century BC

Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century BC in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica. Athenian democracy is the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens.

Quotes[edit]

  • Greek democracy was not, in fact, Greek democracy; it was Athenian, or Corinthian, or whatever. Although the city-state mentality may seem quaintly parochial today, the same issue is still with us.
  • Despite the extraordinary influence of classical Greece on the development of democracy, modern democratic ideas and institutions have also been shaped by many other factors, of which three are particularly important: a republican tradition, the development of representative governments, and certain conclusions that tend to follow from a belief in political equality.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 2 : Toward the Second Transformation: Republicanism, Representation. And the Logic of Equality
  • There is such a thing as fighting the battle of democracy in the front rank too long. It is ever the Aristides experience over again. Everybody remembers Aristides— the sturdy citizen of the Athenian democracy, who was one of the generals at Marathon, one of the victorious captains at Salamis, the conqueror at Plataea, who put through with a punch a very much needed programme of civic reform in Athens, and helped organize the Delian League with the purpose of making Greece a real nation at the time when she was able to be one. He pushed the Athenian democracy to the point of diminishing returns; the people had an attack of fatigue, escorted Aristides to the city gate, and bowed him into the ostracism of silence. That has been the way with democracies. They get over their blue funk after a while. Everbody in Greece is for Aristides now. But he is dead. And it is too late. It is yet a question whether the American democracy has learned its lesson from history so that it knows how to value its Aristides citizens, little and big.
    • Frederick M. Davenport, "The Use and Abuse of Direct Democracy—The State of Oregon," (July 21, 1915) The Outlook: With Illustrations (1915) p. 680
  • The Athenian practice had been, even before Plato’s birth, precisely the opposite: the people, the demos, should rule. All important. political decisions—such as war and peace—were made by the assembly of all full citizens. This is now called “direct democracy”; but we must never forget that the citizens formed a minority of the inhabitants—even of the natives. From the point of view here adopted, the important thing is that, in practice, the Athenian democrats regarded their democracy as the alternative to tyranny—to arbitrary rule: in fact, they knew well that a popular leader might be invested with tyrannical powers by a popular vote.
    So they knew that a popular vote may be wrongheaded, even in the most important matters. (The institution of ostracism recognised this: the ostracised person was banned as a matter of precaution only; he was neither tried nor regarded as guilty.)The Athenians were right: decisions arrived at democratically, and even the powers conveyed upon a government by a democratic vote, may be wrong. It is hard, if not impossible, to construct a constitution that safeguards against mistakes. This is one of the strongest reasons for founding the idea of democracy upon the practical principle of avoiding tyranny rather than upon a divine, or a morally legitimate, right of the people to rule.
  • The contrast between the Persian state—and by the same token the late Imperial Roman, Bismarckian, or modern European state—and the Greek polis is far from the only theme that dominates this story. A familiar contrast is between Athenian and Roman notions of freedom and citizenship. The Athenians practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Introduction: Thinking about Politics
  • Although the Romans disavowed Athenian democracy, there are many “Roman” arguments for involving the citizenry in political life as deeply as possible. Machiavelli had no taste for Athenian democracy, but preferred citizen armies to mercenary troops, and like Roman writers before him and innumerable writers after him thought that, given the right arrangements, the uncorrupted ordinary people could check the tendency of the rich to subvert republican institutions. That was a commonplace of antiaristocratic republican thinking in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe; it is a standing theme of American populism.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Introduction: Thinking about Politics
  • The key to Athenian democracy was the Assembly, or ecclesia. It was in modern terms legislature, judiciary, and executive, and there was no appeal against its decisions except to a later meeting of itself, or a court that was part of itself. Although its potential membership was 40,000, it operated through many smaller bodies, through courts of 500 members, and in particular through the 500 members of the governing council, or boule, whose members formed the Athenian administration for a year, and the prytany, the 30-strong body whose members formed the managing committee of the boule for a month at a time.
    • Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), Ch. 1 : Why Herodotus?
  • To the extent that they drew on classical governments for inspiration or illustration, the Founders much preferred republican Rome (or even timocratic Sparta) to Athenian democracy. They used the terms republic and democratic republic, or sometimes representative democracy, to describe early American state governments and the new national system.
    • Loren J. Samons II, What's Wrong with Democracy? (2004) University of California Press

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External links[edit]

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