Democracy’s Beginning by Thomas Mitchell review: when democracy first ruled
The author traces democracy’s fragile beginnings in ancient Athens – and explodes a few myths of what it was really like
Democracy’s Beginning: The Athenian Story
Thomas N. Mitchell
Yale University Press
These are tumultuous times for democracy. Syriza’s meteoric rise and partial fall was joined by one of the most statistically skewed elections in British history; a surprise victory for the Liberal Party in Canada, where new prime minister has promised to revamp election rules; and Portugal, where the president’s comments to the effect that he would not allow a coalition of left-of-centre parties to take power generated a storm of controversy last autumn. These will be followed this year by hotly contested elections in Ireland and the US.
Austerity and growing economic inequality have ensured that all of these elections turn not just on who gets to hold power, but on the very nature of our societies. And, oddly, despite all of these pivotal elections, the idea that democracy is far from prospering prevails.
As Thomas Mitchell, former provost of Trinity College Dublin, writes in his new book: “[R]epresentative democracy in its modern guise seems to be gliding inexorably towards oligarchy.” He references some of the familiar woes, such as money in politics and a media fast spiralling to the nether reaches of infotainment. But Democracy’s Beginning, as the name implies, is predominantly about history – to be precise, about our long-ago democratic roots.
Alien and fascinating
It is common knowledge that democracy was invented in ancient Athens, but Mitchell explodes the myths of what that democracy was like. In Athens, all citizens had an equal say in public affairs (known as isegoria), staffed enormous citizen juries, were chosen for office by lottery, and were paid to participate in politics. In describing this way of life, Mitchell paints a picture of a society both alien and fascinating, underscoring the vibrancy of this long-lost civilization with a collection of maps and photos in the centre of the book.
His close scholarship shines in documenting the transition of Athens from financially and morally bankrupt oligarchy to emancipated democracy 2,500 years ago. It was not an easy or linear process, and the book tracks the many clashes of ideas and personalities with a commendable attention to detail that beautifully captures the essence of ancient Greek culture and politics.
From Solon’s economic balancing act, through the political reorganisation of Cleisthenes, the assassination of Ephialtes and, finally, Pericles, one of the most respected but sober leaders of the early democracy, Democracy’s Beginning explores this innovative and fearless experiment in “people power”.
Mitchell also attempts to quantify the success of this original democracy. He praises the Athenians for their ability to realise political equality between citizens and to cut down on corruption, but also points out that these freshly minted democrats remained deeply embedded in many of the less savoury aspects of ancient Greek culture, which he believes were their ultimate undoing.
While the democratic Athenians were notoriously lenient with their slaves, they never seriously considered abolishing slavery as an institution. Their views on women remained equally benighted, with the female half of the population excluded from any say in politics.
So, despite the wide equality it provided for male citizens, Athens never really tapped the full emancipatory power of democracy.
This seeming paradox was joined by another apparent contradiction: the ancient Athenians’ strong libertarian streak, protecting private property and keeping taxes low. While this would no doubt attract praise from some quarters today, it may have meant that democracy did not do enough to curb the power of disaffected oligarchs and bring them into the democratic fold.
Obsessed by war
Mitchell, however, sees Athens’ greatest Achilles’ heel in its obsession with the glorious pursuit of war. Most societies at the time were inherently expansionist, but victory on the battlefield was an elusive goal. Had the Athenians focused more on consolidating power instead of trying to conquer anything that moved, they might have been better prepared to resist what proved to be their ultimate undoing: the rise of Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great.
Their preoccupation with battle may have cost the ancients dearly, and the titanic struggles that raged between speakers in the political arena certainly take on an added piquancy knowing that life and death so often hinged on the outcome. If nothing else, the unending strife between Athens and its neighbours provides an exciting backdrop to what is unquestionably a history book, but one with deep political overtones.
The author makes clear that he sees democracy as a vibrant, living process that needs to be adjusted to the times we live in, and he holds up the Athenian experience as a powerful inspiration. After all, full democracy in Athens lasted for 140 years – far longer than representative democracy has been in place in most countries today, including Ireland – and it did deliver political equality.
Mitchell does not offer much in the way of concrete advice in applying Athenian methods to modern societies. However, he does make a very compelling case for viewing democracy as a holistic system and remembering that, when it comes to politics, there is no silver bullet.
Democracy was not an easy way of life in ancient Greece. In an age fraught with violence, democracy and its proponents were frequently the targets. Mitchell explores two times of immense strain for the Athenian democracy: the Oligarchy of the Four Hundred and the later Thirty Tyrants. These were rough times for Athenian democrats, times when democracy seemed all but extinguished. But the democrats battled back (often literally) from the fringes.
The Athenians had their faults, to be sure, but they were a tenacious lot possessed of an admirable confidence in their own abilities to deal with any difficulties that arose in their government.
Thomas Mitchell is not wrong to point out that we could do with some of this today.
Roslyn Fuller is a research fellow at the Insyte Group at Waterford Institute of Technology and the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (Zed Books 2015)