An interview with Paul Cartledge, author of Democracy: A Life

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Paul.

Can we start with your motivation for writing this book?  Was it your knowledge of the ancient world and Greece’s political systems, or concerns about the modern world?

A combination. I think I’m a kind of ‘natural’ democrat in the sense of being (an) anti-elitist egalitarian, but it wasn’t until I was a student first at the University of California and then Oxford that I got a chance to show my true democratic colours, e.g. by picketing All Souls College in 1969 bearing a placard inviting the Fellows to democratise themselves (I’ve blogged about this on the Oxford Today alumni website). It was at the same time that I started to learn about the world’s first democracy, Athens, in a ‘scientific’, scholarly sort of way – through studying at New College with Geoffrey de Ste. Croix e.g. the reforms attributed to Cleisthenes (was he a genuinely disinterested proto-democratic reformer, or was he just in it for what he and his aristocratic family could get out of the new system? Discuss) and Aristophanes’s comic satires of crooked democratic populists and gullible democratic masses. I ‘got the vote’ in 1968 – the voting age was then 21. But I spent half the ‘seventies teaching at Trinity College Dublin where I was disfranchised between my ages of 26 and 31. My book is based directly on four years of 24-lecture courses given to final-year Cambridge undergraduates reading for both the Classical and the History triposes. It thus represents the mature fruit of three to four more decades of reflection and analysis combined with practical democratic participation. It appeared in March/April 2016 in the middle of the extended campaign leading up to the June 23 Brexit referendum and in the same year as the Trump USA presidential election: as I regularly tell audiences of all ages and kinds from age 14/15 upwards, 2016 was the most extraordinary year for Democracy in my entire adult life so far. And ‘extraordinary’ not necessarily in a good way. I wish – sadly – that more of my fellow-citizens were more aware of and led lives more informed by proper awareness of democracy’s historical roots; political philosophers have interpreted the world, in their various ways, but the point is – somehow – to change it. For the better.

Do you see the book as primarily history or primarily political science – or perhaps as a hybrid? What can we learn from the historical study of democracy?

Again, both – except I would not call it political ‘science’, since I see that as a modern 19/20th-century invention and to some extent a spurious claim to exactitude where exactitude is not possible or applicable or even desirable, since politics always includes a very strong dose of more or less subjective ethics and value judgment. Whereas political theory or analysis are both ancient Greek modes, most brilliantly exemplified for me by Aristotle ‘the master of those who know’ (Dante).

One of the three main aims of my book (the other two were to explain the origins of demokratia, at Athens, see above, and then to explain the distribution and development of demokratia within the ancient Greek world between the fifth century BCE and the 6th century CE) was to trace the changes in the ideals/practices of democracy in the very long run from Antiquity to Modernity. Aristotle taught us that demokratia in its original significations was not one single, uniform thing – there were, he analysed, four sub-species of the genus, depending on degrees of empowerment of the masses of ordinary non-elite citizens (and while he identified democracy with active and participatory citizenship, so far from seeing Athens as having a ‘mixed constitution’ he believed that it enjoyed or rather suffered from (Aristotle was not himself a democrat) what he called the ‘last’, that is the most extreme form of demokratia verging on mob-ocracy).

As for the ‘lessons’ to be learned from the historical study of democracy, Hegel once said that what we learn from History is that we don’t learn from History. As a comparativist historian by profession, what I’d hope we could all learn is that democracy is not one single thing, ever, that there are and have been many different types and degrees of ‘democracy’, that times and circumstances change, and that the political art is to understand and apply what is most reasonably possible for the most common good of all or at any rate most.

There are two things that can be held against Athenian democracy and perhaps other Greek political systems: slavery and the low status of women. Would you like to comment? How serious are these, and could either of them have been avoided, given the cultural, economic and social circumstances of the times?

Probably lots of other things can be held against ancient Greek democracy/democracies too! But we mustn’t be too self-congratulatory here: universal adult suffrage is only a late 19th/early 20th century phenomenon in supposedly developed Western democracies. Slavery is a more complicated issue than gender here because the Greeks themselves, the Athenians not least, proclaimed ‘freedom’ to be one of their two core democratic values (the other being equality), so clearly their notion of freedom was quite sharply divisible. Could either the depreciation/degradation of women or the practice of slavery have been avoided, given the cultural, economic and social circumstances of the times? The former was a matter more of society and culture than of economics, slavery was a matter of all three. A certain ‘feminism’ has been detected in a (comic) play of Aristophanes and in Plato’s Republic (he envisaged elite female as well as male ‘Guardians’) but sadly Aristotle’s supposedly scientific and in fact classically sexist view that women were by their unalterable nature inferior to men in terms of rationality was probably far closer to the average ancient Greek norm. It’s been debated whether ancient Greek democracy was in any senses ‘based on’ slavery – i.e. whether without slavery it either would not have existed at all or would have functioned somehow differently – and that too is complicated. For me, it was not a mere accident that within the boundary of the Athenian democratic polis it was exclusively foreign, slave labour that was exploited to produce the silver that went to pay for the navy on which Athens based its external power, and to pay citizens to perform certain key democratic functions such as attend the assembly or act as judge-jurors in the People’s law courts. But almost as important was the psychological boost that the consciousness of not being a slave gave to especially the humblest, poorest Athenian citizens who were by definition legally free and freeborn.

Pericles was a democrat, but he used his preeminent political position as ‘first man’ in Athens to sustain a great imperial system. Are democracy and empire compatible, or – in other words – did Athens’s imperial policies tarnish her democracy? And what about other Greek cities? Was democracy or some other form, e.g. oligarchy, the prevailing state system? How do other democracies compare with Athens in the freedoms they provided and in their effectiveness as governing systems?

Since the late 1950s empire and imperialism have become ‘dirty words’. Earlier versions of say British imperialism offered a gentler, more positive reading satirically known as ‘the white man’s burden’. Our word empire comes not from Greek but from Latin – imperium was the strongest form of power available to the then known world’s greatest yet empire. The Greeks had a very feeble word that we translate inadequately as ’empire’- arkhe means literally just rule, not any specific kind or degree. Thucydides’s Cleon accused the Athenian people of being incapable of running an empire, but the Athenian ’empire’ was a pretty feeble thing compared to the Roman – or the British. That does not mean that it might not perpetrate atrocities – it did. And unlike the Roman Empire it offered no such olive branch to imperial subjects as elevation to the protections and privileges of Athenian citizenship. But against the atrocities (which were equalled or exceeded by those committed by its enemies) can be set the encouragement and support Athens through its empire afforded to democrats and democracy in other Greek cities within its purview. Democracy and Greek-style empire were not just compatible but synergetic.

As to other Greek cities, modern research has established that at any one time there were about 1000 separate political entities comprising ancient ‘Hellas’. Aristotle in the Politics reports that in his day, the 330s and 320 BCE, most of Hellas was ruled either by some form of democracy or by some form of oligarchy. There was no such thing as ‘ancient Greek democracy’. The quarter century 375-350 BCE seems to have been the ‘golden age’ or high water mark of democracy in ancient Greece, in terms of its extension, but probably fewer than half of the cities had any form of democracy even then. We know specifically that a city was a democracy, or we know some detail about the democracy of any city, in well under 100 instances. Athens is far and away the best-known ancient Greek democracy – indeed it had at least 3 forms of it, successively, over a period of nearly two centuries. We are not therefore in a position to give any sort of quantitative, let alone qualitative, answer to the question of how (to what extent, in what ways) free, or how effective, other democracies were in comparison to Athens’s. Argos, for example, had democracy over long stretches – but Argos also suffered one of the worst forms of democrat-led stasis (see on stasis below) on record (the ‘clubbing’ of 1500 oligarchs to death in 370 BCE).

You describe Socrates as a ‘voluntary martyr’ and you seem to justify the democratic Athenian court in finding him guilty of impiety and of corrupting the youth. Yet many people, J S Mill and others, see this as a black mark for Athenian democracy. Are they wholly wrong?

JS Mill was an exceptionally well-informed student and critic of the Athenian democracy. On the one hand, he (following the rehabilitation of Athenian democracy by the ‘philosophical radical’ historian George Grote) praised the Athenian people for its exceptional forbearance towards the radical anti-democrats always in its midst who were just looking for any opportunity to overthrow it. On the other hand, Mill was also peculiarly averse from what he saw as the tyranny of the majority – which he saw as the underlying motive and spirit of the trial and condemnation of Socrates for (in effect) un-Athenian Activity. But one reason he – and many other enlightened intellectuals – was so exercised by Socrates’ downfall and its manner is that they have seen Socrates as a martyr to freedom of thought. But the majority of Athenians, Pericles included, did not entertain any notion of freedom of thought – or conscience – as an absolute value or good. Equal freedom of political speech was one thing, freedom of action another, but freedom of thought yet another again. For most of the 501 allotted jurymen of 399 BCE Socrates was an anti-democratic subversive and an unconventional religious ‘free thinker’ whose views had unduly compromised the compact between gods and men. See further below.

Intellectuals, hardly surprisingly, often identify with Socrates – and they sometimes see his trial and death as due to anti-intellectual suppression of freedom of thought and conscience. To me this is rather grossly anachronistic. Socrates was I believe tried and condemned – in the wake of a major military defeat by Sparta and a particularly nasty bout of extreme oligarchy led by friends and associates of Socrates – as an anti-democratic traitor whose unconventional religious views threatened to compromise the overarching compact between gods and men, making the vengeful gods angry with the Athenians and keen to punish them. See further above.

‘Sparta’s opposition to the rise of democracy was one of the most potent factors inhibiting its spread in the Aegean Greek world.’ (p 154). How was Sparta able to be so influential in this regard?

The 5th-century BCE Aegean Greek world was ‘bipolar’ – there were two ‘great powers’, Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies. As early as 506 Sparta had led its alliance in an attack on Athens in order to stamp out this terrifying new instance of political equality and freedom – which then went by the name of isonomia (equality under the laws) and not yet as demokratia (People power). Sparta had its own, undemocratic notion of citizen equality but very little idea of civic political freedom – Sparta was a deeply conservative, top-down, hierarchical military society which artificially preserved a form of kingship as well as aristocracy. To Sparta democracy was anathema and wherever the Spartans could they stamped it out in favour of more or less extreme oligarchy. In 480-79 briefly Sparta and Athens collaborated – faced by the common external Persian threat. By land the Spartan alliance was the greatest Greek military power, as the Athenian alliance was the greatest naval power. Very soon after their crucially joint defeat of the Persians, however, they fell out, and on several later occasions Sparta again intervened or threatened to intervene in Athenian internal affairs on the side of anti-democracy, most potently in 404. Only rarely was Sparta compelled to tolerate any form of democracy within an allied city. Several times it intervened to strike one down.

Control of the courts equals control of the politeia. Do we have anything to learn from the Athenian legal and juridical system?

In a sense we have learned already, both positively and negatively: positively, by adopting trial by a jury of one’s peers selected randomly; and negatively, by developing the critical notion and practice of the separation of the powers of government between legislative, executive and judicature, each one of those three branches serving as a check and balance to each of the other two. But in neither case did we learn directly from the ancient Greeks who did not recognise the latter (if the demos rules, it rules in all spheres) and preferred mass juries of hundreds rather a mere 12. This was partly to preempt bribery, partly to have as representative a sample of citizens serving on any particular jury (selected by lot).

How can one avoid civil strife – stasis – in a democratic system?

Stasis was a peculiar – both odd and ethnocentric – ancient Greek term of art for what the more linguistically precise Romans called civil discord leading at its limit to outright civil war. Stasis, cognate with dikhostasia, was literally, etymologically, a process of standing, a taking of a stand, and – where such action necessarily involved opposition, the taking of a stand against – denoted major political confrontation on some collective basis. One of Aristotle’s most brilliant perceptions – though he was not himself writing as a citizen but lived in Athens as a metic or resident foreigner – was to see that at bottom the root source and cause of the irreconcilable distinction and opposition between democrats and oligarchs was ‘poverty and wealth’. Democracy was the rule of the poor, oligarchy the rule of the rich, and whereas democrats wanted to get rich(er) or at least no poorer, oligarchs wished to stay rich. Each side struggled overtly and covertly – that’s stasis – against the other along those lines of division. Aristotle devoted two whole books of his 8-book Politics to trying to explain and to offering remedies or preventatives of stasis, so prevalent was it. Except, interestingly, in Athens, where there were two admittedly critical outbursts but the norm was more or less peaceful democratic process. Aristotle’s own sovereign remedy/preventative was to equalise property ownership as far as possible or/and so to increase the numbers of the middling rich/middling poor citizens as to enable them to serve as a balancing force keeping the peace between the politically motivated clearly rich and clearly poor. I agree that wealth and class are – still – the principal drivers of political affiliation today, though our systems add on a complicating factor unknown to the ancients – political parties.

How is it that, given the generally anti-democratic nature of much Greek political thought, we have come to see democracy as the most favoured political system? How are theories of democracy in all their guises relevant to life today? Nowadays democracy is associated with Western notions of governance, the imposition of which can lead to conflict. What are your views on this?

The key to this paradox is to remember that for ancient Greek oligarchs/intellectuals ancient (direct) democracy was the rule of the poor (ignorant, stupid, fickle, ignoble) citizens over ‘the better sort’. The making of the modern world of democracy from the mid-17th century on (the English Revolution, the first use of ‘democracy’ positively by Harrington in his Oceana, 1657) has required an entirely new rethink of what people-power – not of course generally called ‘democracy’ until very much later – means or might mean. There was actually very little ancient Greek democratic theory anyway – so there was no baggage to get rid of. What had to be done was to devise a non-direct form of self-government by representatives in the name of/on behalf of ‘the people’; only once the masses had been well and truly tamed and co-opted, could the word ‘democracy’ – now meaning anything but direct rule of and by and for the poor masses – be reintroduced so that ‘we are all democrats now’.

‘Western’ paradoxically includes post-Douglas MacArthur Japan, but broadly speaking democratic regimes are indeed Western in some accurate sense, and if I have correctly understood this question, it is in the non-Western Middle East and in Africa that the forced imposition (or attempted imposition) of Western-style democracy euphemised as ‘regime change’ has led to at best political instability, at worst political catastrophe. Witness Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Western-style democracy is for me a tender plant and one that in my own country has taken over 300 years to grow and cultivate. It cannot simply be imposed on others. In Greek antiquity too, democracy was not only or merely a set of political institutions but also a culture, a way of life. Citizens have to be educated, schooled in democracy: well therefore did Pericles (according to Thucydides) call the Athenian democracy a school (or process of education) for Hellas.

And finally, why is it so important to distinguish between democracy in ancient Greece and the rise of similar political systems elsewhere in the world?

By ‘ancient Greece’ here I would understand the ancient Hellenic world between about 500 and 325 BCE. Ancient Greece was very much more than just ‘Athens’. All ancient democracies differed from all modern (that is post-American and French Revolutions) in one cardinal respect: theirs were direct (crudely, government by mass meeting), ours are indirect, representative and parliamentary. The holding of a referendum – one voter, one vote – is a modern instance of direct democracy – incompatible (unless carefully managed, and well prepared for educationally) with our normal/standard electoral form. The potential, even likely result of trying to mix the two is often – chaos. As witness the near-meltdown of UK parliamentary democracy post-June 23 2016. A second reason for distinguishing between democracy in ancient Greece and today is that their democracy did not recognise the principle of the separation of the powers of government, adumbrated in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688/9 in Britain but only developed into a coherent system over many more years, indeed centuries. Furore over the UK High Court judgment on whether or not Parliament alone could trigger Article 50 post the Brexit referendum is a classic instance of the general ignorance of this cardinal point of difference. So too is ideological construal of the weasel phrase ‘the will of the people’: in actual fact there is no unitary ‘people’ to have a single ‘will’.









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