The Political Arts: Democracy by Paul Cartledge

The subject of democracy is very much a live topic of debate. Many—most—of us Anglophones live in various kinds of democracies (and have varied opinions on how well those democracies work in practice). Many of us are familiar with arguments over the prevalence of fantasy’s monarchies, and science fiction’s frequent authoritarian dystopias, or hierarchical empires: democracy is up for artistic debate, as well as being a matter of interest in our daily lives.

Democracy: A Life is a timely and interesting look at the historical roots of a phenomenon many of us take for granted.

I enjoy the arguments of distinguished scholars, and when it comes to the history of ancient Greece, Paul Cartledge is a very distinguished scholar. (Fellow of Clare College Cambridge, Gold Medal of the Order of Honour awarded by the Greek President, intimidating track record of many well-respected books.) Democracy: A Life is his magisterial study of the sources for the political systems the ancient Greeks called demokratia, their emergence and their lifespans, and—in somewhat less magisterial but nonetheless solidly-argued fashion—their relationships to other European political systems involving an element of populism, up to modern representative democracy.

Cartledge makes the claim, backed up with stringent argument, that the Greeks—and of the Greeks, primarily the Athenians—were the first, and possibly the only, people to independently invent direct democracy. The problem with this is that in modern discourse, the word democracy carries a peculiar moral weight: democracy is, eo ipso, good; oligarchy is bad, autocracy is worse. Democracy stands for human rights and respect for the citizen body, transparency and accountability and all those other things that fill government manifestos. Ideally it respects the rule of law, and stands in contrast to barbarism and savagery and the worst impulses of human nature.

This semantic conflation of democracy with a varied array of the ideals of civilisation presents us with a small problem, as modern readers. It inclines us to infer from Democracy: A Life that Cartledge is making a claim for the moral primacy of the ancient Greeks as the progenitors of democracy, and thus the moral primacy of the European and American systems of governance that drew on classical models in their inception. A nuanced reading of this volume, however, makes it plain that Cartledge is not making any such assertion: instead, he takes the demokratia of the ancient Greeks on its own terms, presenting a clear view of its operations, its self-conceptions, and what its detractors thought of it down across the years. (Insofar, at least, as can be derived from the evidence.)

Cartledge divides Democracy: A Life into five separate sections, or “Acts.” Apart from Act I, these are arranged around a discussion of different stages of demokratia in the classical world, or its reception in the classical and post-classical world after the eclipse of the Greeks by the powers of Rome, and later, Byzantium.

Act I is the shortest of the separate acts. It takes as its theme the sources for any discussion of democracy, and ancient and modern uses of the term, and comprises only two chapters. It highlights the very contested nature of the word demokratia itself, and the fact that very few of the ancient sources that explicitly use that word are actually writing from a point of view favourably disposed to it. (Arguably only one: the historian Herodotos.) It discusses, too, the historiography—that is, the writing of the history, or histories—of ancient democracy and also the historiography of the emergence of the polis—the Greek city as a political actor, whence we derive the word politics itself—in the ancient Greek world.

Act II is the longest. It has eight chapters to call its own, and is by any standard a meaty and substantial piece of history-writing. Here, Cartledge traces the emergence of demokratia—or tendencies that would later grow into demokratia—from the late seventh century BCE down to the end of the fifth century BCE. Its focus is on Athens, naturally enough, as the Athenians have left us the largest body of evidence concerning the operations of demokratia. Cartledge, however, avoids one of the pitfalls common to historians of ancient Greece writing for a wider audience, and does not conflate Athenian practice with Greek practice more widely: he maintains throughout a careful awareness of Athenian specificity. One chapter of Act II looks, furthermore, at whether one can talk about ancient Greek theories of democracy; another discusses the trial of Sokrates and the less famous—or infamous—trials of Demos and Ctesiphon at Athens.

Act III is less lengthy, but no less substantial. Its three chapters discuss democracies outside Athens in the Greek world of the fourth century BCE as well as the context of, and the other political systems at play in, the Greek world of this time; Athenian democracy of the fourth century BCE, a period for which actually the greatest amount of contemporary information survives; and the decline of demokratia in the Greek world in the age of Alexander the Great.

Act IV and V are two more brief acts. Act IV takes us through the fate of demokratia in the Greek world after Alexander the Great—the Hellenistic world, so-called—as well as the relationship of both ancient Greek and modern ideas of the relationship of democracy with the Roman political system; the end of democracy as such under the Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor; and how democracy is viewed through the medieval period down to the Renaissance. Act V follows on from this to discuss the revival and reinvention of democracy between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries CE, while Cartledge’s “Epilogue” discusses the context and challenges of democracy in the present day.

The closer Cartledge draws to the present day, the less substantial his argument—the less magisterial and confidence his voice—begins to sound. He makes good points, but they are less well grounded in the historical and evidentiary context than any of his arguments about the ancient world. And his epilogue concludes on a pessimistic, indeed practically apocalyptic, assessment of the future of “western liberal-democratic” ideals. (From my point of view, he has a rosy view of how the principle of “freedom of religion” ever operated in practice, for example.)

Despite these issues, I don’t think you’ll find a better detailed modern overview of democracy in the ancient Greek world. I suspect, in fact, that there may not be a better introduction to the topic at all.

Democracy: A Life is available from Oxford University Press.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.

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