The two major powers in ancient Greece can teach us many lessons about ourselves and our government. Athens shows us the values and dangers of democracy. It shows us something about human tendency and, if we look closely, gives us insight into why our government is structured the way it is.
Ancient Athens is considered the creator of democracy. In Athens the individual was valued. All men could vote (let’s table the issue of women’s and servants’ suffrage for now). They would each cast their votes with a stone in a pile or jar. These would be counted and the majority would win the issue. This individuality, this freedom, gave rise to much intellectual progress in Athens: the birth of theater and recorded, secular history, of formalized science and philosophy. The freedom and independence Athenians enjoyed was unparalleled.
This level of power in the hands of the citizens only works, though, if the citizens remain educated. The citizens are the legislators. The citizens are the rulers. The citizens must decide what is best for themselves and for Athens. They must decide what is right and what is good. If they remain invested, virtuous, and wise, the city will prosper. If they don’t, they risk succumbing to sloth, to ignorance, to persuasion, to manipulation. Ancient Athens is the origin of the term “sophist” which we see in words like “sophistry,” “sophistication,” and “sophomore.” Sophists sound good, they seem to have wisdom, they seem to know what is best and so instill confidence in people. They were trained in rhetoric which many abused to twist the minds of the simple for personal and political gain. This is why Athens has an interesting history with tyrants: “This guy seems like he’d do a great job and it’d be so much simpler to let him make all of the decisions. Imagine how much more time we’d have without the endless debates and voting.” They should not have been surprised to watch their liberty slip away.
But democracy itself in Athens also had its own issues. You only need to look at the Ionian Revolt to see that. Aristagoras came from Ionia, the Greek city-states in modern day Turkey, and asked the Spartan king for support in fighting the Persians. The Spartan king deliberated for a long while and eventually decided it was a unwise for the Spartans to join. Aristagoras then went to Athens and spoke publicly to the people. His speech was full of power, of passion, of Greek pride. Their emotions were stirred, their passions were set ablaze and they decided with no deliberation to aid him. There was nothing to check them. There was no process of deliberation, no checks and balances. They were able to act immediately, in the heat of the moment and under the spell of Aristagoras’ charisma. This decision nearly brought complete destruction to all of the Greeks at the hands of the Persians (familiar with the story of the “300” Spartans?).
So pure democracy in Athens tended away from reason and education and toward passion. This is more than an Athenian problem, though. It is a human problem. Athenian democracy was fertile soil for this to happen but the same human problem persists even in our society. How can we solve this? Is it possible to maintain high-quality education in what it is to be human, to be a citizen, and what it is to be these together and in so doing insure our democracy doesn’t crumble? The founding fathers of America attempted to solve this by making America a democratic republic, a blend of democracy (rule of the people) and aristocracy (rule of the best). The people elect the aristocrats. Did their solution work? Perhaps we are still in the trial phase.