A Critical Analysis of Athenian Democracy

 During the Golden Age, 480 B.C. to 431 B.C.










Written by

Michael McConville









April 20, 2004

Dr. C. Robbins

Honors Ancient History










                It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

                                                                                                                                               -Sir Winston Churchill

            Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” But the original meaning can be found in the original Greek word dêmokratia, a compound of two Grecian concepts. The first is that of demos, or “the people;” the second is kratos, or “power.” Literally taken, democracy is “the people’s power,” and its influence is seen in many modern-day political systems. In one form, it has become the representative democracy (republican) government of the United States, where, theoretically, the needs of the people are met by elected officials who act as a voting proxy for their constituents. In its purest form, it is the members of a city, county, province, parish, state, territory, or country voting directly on laws and referenda.
            But it is the Athenians of ancient Greece who first implemented democracy into government. From its beginnings with Solon and Cleisthenes, through the entanglement in the Persian War, and its heyday with Pericles in the mid-5th century B.C., democracy grew as an important means of governing the people. Although democracy provided Athens with a relatively stable government, it still had many problems that even today have not been solved.
            The roots of the Athenian democratic system were found in the reforms instituted by the leader Solon after his election to the executive position of archon in 594 B.C. According to R.K. Sinclair, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Sydney and author of Democracy and Participation in Athens, Solon’s main mission as leader was to “restore stability to his native city [Athens] when it was threatened by bitter civil strife” (1). To achieve this goal, Solon established “objective property qualifications for the different classes of Athens’ citizens,” according to David Stockton, Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford (6). However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his classic work Politics, sums up Solon most succinctly: “[Solon] put an end to the exclusiveness of the oligarchy, emancipated the people, established the ancient Athenian democracy, and harmonized the different elements of the state” (2.12). For example, it is believed that Solon established the Council of Four Hundred as a way for the Athenian population to influence the establishment of laws in the polis by allowing the Athenian people to put forth proposals to be heard in the general assembly. This innovation of political participation is attested to by the Greek biographer Plutarch in his work Lives (108), but no mention of the Council is found in Aristotle’s Politics (Stockton 28). Three decades after Solon left office, the Greek tyrant Pisistratus rose to power with the backing of the Athenian oligarchy. As testament to Solon’s reforms, Pisistratus left Solonic reforms largely intact, as is stated by Greek historian Herodotus in his History (I).
            However, the main catalyst for the introduction of democracy into Athenian politics was the statesman Cleisthenes, who came to power in 510 B.C. Known as the “Father of Democracy,” Cleisthenes quickly abolished the old system of tribes and redistricted Athens into ten sections, known as demes. This action “undercut the hold which the nobles had earlier exercised over the political machinery of the state” (Stockton 24), allowing “those whose citizenship was questioned by the narrow oligarchs” to back Cleisthenes, as Dr. J.M. Moore of Radley College states in his commentary on Aristotle's The Constitution of Athens (237). In addition, Cleisthenes transformed the boule, advisory councils of ancient Athens, into the Council of Five Hundred, which included 50 legislators from each deme. Each member was chosen by lot in their home deme, and elections were open to all citizens who met the eligibility requirements. These eligibility requirements included a minimum age of thirty years, for the most part a member of the higher economic classes, and a vast amount of free time that could be devoted to the boule (Sinclair 66). This action was taken to give the general citizenship of Athens, collectively known as the Ekklesia or Assembly, greater control over legislation that was presented to the Council for vote. Since the Council was no longer a completely aristocratic institution but a “random and representative cross-section” of the Ekklesia, the laws passed would be better suited for the general assembly, not just the nobles (Stockton 29).
            By no means was the democratic system of Cleisthenes a flawless one, however. For example, participation in the Boule required vast amounts of time (Sinclair 66). As such, those members whose livelihoods were dependent upon the amount of labor they did were at a serious disadvantage. These men, who were typically described as “poor” or “without sufficient resources,” could not fully utilize or implement their newly established ability to vote on legislation. A wide expanse of the citizen population could conceivably have been shut out of the decision-making process. Also, since some of the demes were primarily in the poorer areas of Athens, the pool of possible applicants to the Council was smaller, and plausibly, less indicative of the true intentions of the deme, as the late Dr. A.H.M. Jones of the University of Cambridge states in his book Athenian Democracy (106).
            The same arguments are true regarding participation and attendance in both the Boule and the Assembly. There was a vocal minority who proposed laws and gave policy speeches but, for the most part, “ordinary” members rarely spoke or proposed any type of legislation at all (Jones 108). Most importantly, those who lived closest to Athens proper, who tended to be richer and more powerful, were able to attend meetings. Those who lived away from the metro Athens area had a much harder time traveling to and from the city, and because most were farmers or laborers of different trades, had little free time to attend none but the most important meetings (Sinclair 66).
            As it entered the Golden Age during the mid-5th century B.C., Athens was endowed with its most respected leader: Pericles. Under Pericles, Athens prospered like never before. For example, Pericles used Athenian influence in the Delian League to increase both Athens’s economic and naval prowess. Originally intended to help protect the approximately 200 city-states that made up the confederation from Persian invasion, the member states of the League found their own sovereignty subjugated under the immense power of the Athenian polis. For the most part, this meant the other allies were reduced to paying “tribute” to the Athenians, as opposed to supplying manpower and weapons. In fact, the Athenians moved the treasury of the League from the temple of Apollo on Delos to the temple of Athena in Athens in 454 B.C. (Sinclair 7).
            Pericles also instituted payment to the citizens for work done for the government (Sinclair 37). Pericles understood the importance of the average Athenian citizen in the democratic structure. As such, he instituted policies that helped the ordinary citizen but were unpopular with the aristocrats of Athens, such as the use of Delian resources to build the Parthenon (Sinclair 37). Plutarch states that Pericles “was never seen to walk in any street but that which led to the market-place and council-hall,” two places where he could associate with the common Athenian (187)
            Even with all these advantages to democracy, and the leaders that helped to increase its sphere of influence, Athenian democracy had pitfalls inherent in the governing styles of each leader. Most damning, perhaps, is the exclusion of vast amounts of the Athenian population from receiving voting privileges. In Evaluating Democracy, Dr. Joe Allman of the University of Oregon estimates that of the 400,000 or so people living in Athens during the 5th century, only one-tenth of the population had any sort of voting right (Allman and Anderson 7). The remaining 360,000 residents were compromised of women, underage males, slaves, and freemen of foreign birth. As a means of comparison, the three hundred million residents of the United States would have an eligible voting population of just thirty million. As well, since an even smaller number of eligible citizens actually participated, the amount of politically active citizens was far from a true sample of the Athenian population.
            It was these shortcomings that produced numerous critics to democracy during and after the Golden Age. The Greek historian Thucydides levels the most obvious criticism at the Athenian democratic system: lack of capable leadership could doom the democratic system. His tirade against the populist Cleon in The History of the Peloponnesian War shows a “slight” contempt for the choices of the general populous: “Cleon…the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with the commons” (III). This is not to say Thucydides was totally hostile to democracy. Thucydides was an “admirer of Pericles, even perhaps in some respects an insufficiently critical admirer” of the politician (Stockton 167).
            It is ironic that Athenian democracy itself helped to produce possibly its most ardent opponent, Plato. Born into an aristocratic and politically active family, Plato held aspirations of political office, but became jaded with the political atmosphere overtaking Athens in the early 4th century BC. The most important protégé of the philosopher Socrates, Plato used the dialectical debating format he had learned from his mentor (as well as his opposition to democracy) to help him produce antiquity’s most virulent assault on democratic forms of government, The Republic.
         In his book Democracy: Ancient & Modern, Jesus College Fellow M.I. Finley explains one of the reasons that Plato was so much against democracy. “For Plato,” he states, “the condemnation of Socrates symbolized the evil of any open or free society, not just a democratic one” (Finley 96). This manner of thinking led Plato to conceive his ideal governing system, that of the “philosopher-kings.” The first mention of his new government is found in his Letter VII: “I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers” (VII). As such, Plato ends up “describing a utopia, an ideal society,” according to Sean Sayers, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury and author of Plato’s Republic: An Introduction (4).
            There are three main criticisms of democracy discussed in The Republic. The first criticism claims that it is foolish to believe that a common man has the ability to rule effectively. In the realm of Athenian democracy, the “everyman” conceivably has the ability to comment on an issue, vote on it, and then possibly be elected to an executive position, regardless of his economic or educational background. Plato believed that “most people…are incapable of leading an autonomous life; they are better off if they are paternalistically governed” (Sayers 27). Plato himself states in The Republic that “the desires of the less reputable majority are controlled by the desires and wisdom of he the superior minority” (II).
            As opposed to the feudal governmental systems of the Medieval ages, which were strictly hereditary in nature, Plato intends his governing paradigm to be a “meritocracy” (Sayers 28). As such, the Platonian system puts its footing in the realm of ability and not in the ways of aristocracy that were prevalent in Athens during the Golden Age. However, Plato did believe that persons had innate dispositions to do certain trades: “we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things” (Plato II).
            The second criticism that Plato discusses is the complete absence of women in the public sector. Plato’s proposal regarding women was incredibly revolutionary at the time: “women should be given exactly the same upbringing and education as men, and that they should have equal access to all positions in society based on merit” (Sayers 83). He insists that woman can do as much as most men can: “there is no special faculty of administration in a state which a woman has because she is a woman, or which a man has by virtue of his sex, but the gifts of nature are alike diffused in both; all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also” (Plato V).
            The third criticism by Plato is the possible devolution of democracy into anarchy. Plato posits five types of governments. His chosen form, known as the Ideal, had not yet been implemented during history. This is a government based on Reason (Sayers 136). The step down from the Ideal is timarchy, or “the government of honor” (Plato VIII). Plato refers to timarchy as the offspring of aristocracy, his “government of the best” (Plato VIII). Under the supervision of Honor, the timarchial government is considered by Plato to be akin to the Spartans, where the “spirit is the dominant part of the self” (Sayers 137). The participants in this government are strong-willed, yet do not have the confidence in their abilities to govern themselves.
            When timarchy has run its course, a new form of government takes it place. Oligarchy, the “government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it,” bases itself on the necessary needs of the population (Plato VIII). As opposed to the Reason and Spirit that helped rule the people before, the societal appetites of the people begin to take over. The division between the rich and the poor weakens governing power by separating the society. As Plato stated early in Book Eight of The Republic, “all political changes originate in divisions of the actual governing power; a government which is united, however small, cannot be moved.”
            As oligarchical rule continues to decline, Plato states that the next level of government is that of democracy, the government that “comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power” (Plato VIII). In this sense, the population gives in to its unnecessary societal appetites, such as “pursuit of any and every passing appetite and whim” (Sayers 138). This is truly an anarchic society, so much so that it is unclear whether Plato wants this caricature to represent Athenian democracy or not.
            The final level of government is that of an anarchic society ruled by an absolute tyrant, where the population is lawless and without control. The tyrant’s deepest and darkest desires—the “incestuous and murderous” emotions—come to the surface (Sayers 138). As the ultimate condemnation of democracy, Plato states that “tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty” (VIII).
            It has been over 2400 years since the Golden Age of Athens ended, but the innovations that arose during that time still affect the lives of people today. The Greeks of antiquity gave the world much, and history shows that democracy has adapted well to modernity. Democracy serves as the basis for many governments around the world, including that of the United States. To many, it is the strongest form of government now existing. But as has been shown, democracy does have problems that are inherent in its design and implementation. In the end, it is up to the leaders of democracy (and the voters who elect them) to make the most prudent decisions concerning its use. After all, it is “the people’s power.”

Works Cited

Allman, Joe, and Anderson, Walt. Evaluating Democracy. Pacific Palisades: Goodyear, 1974.
Aristotle. Politics. 9 Mar. 2004. <http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.2.two.html>.
Finley, M.I. Democracy: Ancient & Modern. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1973.
Herodotus. History of Herodotus. 9 Mar. 2004. <http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.html>
Jones, A.H.M. Athenian Democracy. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1957.
Moore, J.M. Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Plato. Letter VII. 18 April 2004. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/seventh_letter.html>
----------. The Republic. 18 April 2004. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html>
Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Trans. John Dryden. New York: Modern Library.
Sayers, Sean. Plato’s Republic: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999.
Sinclair, R.K. Democracy and Participation in Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Stockton, David. Classical Athenian Democracy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.