Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Is “democracy” democratic?

with 2 comments

Plato, from The Republic, as quoted in a prior post:

And then democracy 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; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

From Wikipedia (here):

In politics, sortition (also known as allotment or the drawing of lots) is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision-makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates.

In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the primary method for appointing officials, and its use was widely regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.

The Athenian reasoning for lottery in democracy was that it more accurately acknowledged the equality of men. An election, on the other hand, was by nature oligarchic or aristocratic because it consciously selected someone “better” from the population of free and equal men. Not to mention that the kind of people who seek to sell themselves for election are probably bad representatives of the population. So, by casting lots, the Athenians actualized their beliefs in equality.

Understandably, people (including Plato) have frowned upon this form of government—as formulated by the Athenians—for the vast majority of history.

Here’s the problem: Absent an understanding of the tradition of democracy, people explain and justify modern phenomena by making comparisons between modern “democracy,” of which elections are a keystone, and Athenian democracy, which would unequivocally shun the idea.

In the original sense of democracy, then, our idea of democracy is not really democratic at all. Most would still posit, of course, that this is not a bad thing, as democracy in Plato’s sense appeared to be—in actuality—a government borne out by a mindless sort of class warfare.

I would like to suggest that this understanding of democracy’s pedigree may dampen, in some contexts, the supposed intellectual impact of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. People didn’t really change. Democracy changed.

Written by M. James

September 29, 2012 at 8:27 am

2 Responses

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  1. If I understand, through the revolutions we were going to bring about true equality and (Athenian) democracy. A prize the Greeks never won. Instead, we ended up redefining democracy. And because of that redefinition we think the Enlightenment accomplished some change in man when it only changed a word.

    It reminds me of Leo Strauss’s charge that we used to pursue virtue, but, finding it difficult, we’ve made material prosperity the substance of virtue.

    Insightful and important.

    Luc Issa

    September 29, 2012 at 11:35 am

  2. A very apt comparison. Strauss would probably say that the idealists—whether pursuing the virtuous state or the democratic state—satisfy themselves and others with this kind of deception all the time. By redefining virtue, we become virtuous; and by redefining democracy, we become democratic.

    M. James

    September 30, 2012 at 7:08 am

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