World Cultures General Glossary
Democracy

General Glossary
Aristocracy
   Democracy, like so many other human institutions, is a difficult concept to define accurately. In human political structures, "democracy" takes on many forms, many of which seem unrelated to the concept itself. For instance, the Soviet Union consistently maintained that it was a democracy; were they lying? Probably not. The issue is only answerable if you examine the Soviet concept of a democracy. Is the United States a democracy? Probably not. In the strictest sense of the word, American representative government comes closer to what the Greeks would call an aristocracy ("rule by the best") rather than a democracy ("rule by the people").


Ancient Greece
The Archaic Period

General Glossary
Monarchy

Greek Glossary
Polis
   Democracy can be dated with astonishing precision. Its origins lie in ancient Greece towards the end of the Archaic period. The most profoundly influential social invention of the ancient Greeks was the polis, or "city-state." The polis was essentially an urban center which ruled over the surrounding countryside. Because of its small size, the polis allowed for surprisingly dynamic political experimentation. As the poleis were established, the Greeks turned to a political model everyone else followed, the monarchy. They soon tired of their kings, and began to create almost an infinite variety of government structures along several distinct lines: oligarchy (rule by the few), timocracy (rule by the wealthy), aristocracy (rule by the best), tyranny (rule by a tyrant), and, finally, democracy (rule by the demos , or "people."


Ancient Greece
Athens
   The Greek democracies did not spring up overnight, but slowly evolved in response to crises. The city-state which produced the first, most complete form of democracy was Athens; the democracy, however, was only slowly instituted as a check on the power of the oligarchs. In order to curb the abuses of the oligarchs and the wealthy, power began to slowly accrue to an Assembly, which was made up of all the free-born, male citizens of Athens. In time, the only government in Athens was the assembly. This period, called the Age of Athens, lasted very briefly; it was also the first democratic state in human history.


   When I say "rule by the people," I really mean rule by the people; the Greek democracies were not representative governments, they were governments run by the free, male citizens of the city-state. All major government decisions and legislation were made by the Assembly; the closest we've come to such a system is "initiative and referendum," in which legislation is popularly petitioned and then voted on directly by the electorate. The Greek democratic states ran their entire government on such a system.

   All the members of a city-state were not involved in the government: slaves, foreigners, and women were all disbarred from the democracy. So, in reality, the democratic city-states more closely resembled oligarchies for a minority ruled the state—it was a very large minority, to be sure, but still a minority.


Greek Reader
Plato, Democracy and the Democratic Man
   While we say in our history books that the democracies of the Greek city-states were great accomplishments, they, nevertheless, had numerous problems. All the major Greek philosophers thought democracy was the worst form of government. Plato, in his critique of democracy in The Republic , claims that it allows people to follow all their passions and drives without order or control; Aristotle claimed that the competing interests in a democracy makes for chaos rather than purposive and deliberated action. Democracy did not seem to work very democratically at all, in fact. In Athens, the democratic Assembly was usually dominated by a single powerful, charismatic individual; this individual often dominated the Assembly because of his presence or oratorical skill rather than his individual worth. As a result, the democratic governments could make some surprisingly foolish decisions, such as the Athenian decision to attack Sicily without any cause or provocation. This ill-considered war destroyed much of the Athenian fleet and eventually led to the defeat of Athens by Sparta. The position of these charismatic leaders, however, was always very precarious. The democratic Assemblies could change character overnight; they would often eagerly follow a particular leader, and then exile that leader often for no reason (this is Aristotle's central objection to a democracy).


Ancient Greece
Thucydides
   It's vitally important to understand that the major philosophers of Greece, and some important historians, such as Thucydides, disapproved of democracy. For the next major democracy was American democracy, and the founders of that democracy were avid readers of Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek historians, and essentially agreed with them about the nature of democracy. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the best form of government is "rule by the best," or aristocracy. This word did not mean for them "rule by the ruling class," as it did in early modern and modern Europe; they really believed that only the smartest, most temperate, most mature, most reflective, most educated, and the bravest should be in charge of government—that is, only the best (the Greek word for "best" is aristos ). American government is a fusion of democracy and aristocracy (in Plato's and Aristotle's sense of the word); as a representative democracy, the principle of government is that the people elect (democracy) the individuals that they feel are the best and most qualified to represent them in government (aristocracy). Look closely at American electoral politics and you will see that all politicians shift between these two poles in their political rhetoric. Sometimes being too "democratic" can be either a positive or negative characteristic; sometimes being to "aristocratic" will be presented as a positive or negative characteristic.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97