Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama

Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama

by Bruce S. Thornton
Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama

Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama

by Bruce S. Thornton


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By democracy we usually mean a government comprising popular rule, individual human rights and freedom, and a free-market economy. Yet the flaws in traditional Athenian democracy can instruct us on the weaknesses of that first element of modern democracies shared with Athens: rule by all citizens equally. In Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents, Bruce Thornton discusses those criticisms first aired by ancient critics of Athenian democracy, then traces the historical process by which the Republic of the founders has evolved into something similar to ancient democracy, and finally argues for the relevance of those critiques to contemporary U.S. policy. He asserts that many of the problems we face today are the consequences of the increasing democratization of our government and that the flaws of democracy are unlikely to be corrected. He argues that these dangers and discontents do not have to end in soft despotism—that American democracy’s aptitude and strength can be recovered by restoring the limited government of the founders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817917944
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Series: Hoover Institution Press Publication (Hardcover) , #653
Pages: 205
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bruce S. Thornton is a professor of classics and humanities at California State University–Fresno and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. He lives in Fresno, California.

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Democracy's Dangers & Discontents

The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama

By Bruce S. Thornton

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1798-2


The Monitory Failures of Athenian Democracy
The town I come from is controlled
By one man, not a mob. And there is no one
To puff it up with words, for private gain,
Swaying it this way, that way. Such a man
First flatters it with wealth of favors; then
He does it harm, but covers up his blunders
By blaming other men, and goes scot-free.
The people is no right judge of arguments;
Then how can it give right guidance to a city?
A poor man, working hard, could not attend
To public matters, even if ignorance
Were not his birthright. When a wretch, a nothing,
Obtains respect and power from the people
By talk, his betters sicken at the sight.
— Euripides, The Suppliant Women

— Euripides, The Suppliant Women

Around the eighth century BC the Greeks invented the idea of constitutional government. Rather than rule by force that elites monopolized, the governments of the ancient polis or city-state dispersed the power to rule throughout the whole community of free citizen males, who collectively governed not by coercion and force controlled by men and imposed on subjects, but by laws, institutions, offices, public deliberation, and political protocols determining the scope and limits of a power now belonging to the citizenry. This citizen community was the ultimate arbiter of the state's actions, and recognized no earthly power or authority above popular sovereignty. The autonomy of the citizens in turn made them free. The Athenian orator Lysias around 400 idealized these innovative elements of constitutional government in a funeral oration. The founders of democracy, Lysias says, believed "the liberty of all to be the strongest bond of agreement; by sharing with each other the hopes born of their perils they had freedom of soul in their civic life, and used law for honoring the good and punishing the evil. For they deemed that it was the way of wild beasts to be held subject to one another by force, but the duty of men to delimit justice by law, to convince by reason, and to serve these two in act by submitting to the sovereignty of law and the instruction of reason."

Not every free male, of course, could be a citizen. In the some thousand city-states of ancient Greece, citizenship could be limited to the few or expanded to the many. Some city-states were ruled by oligarchies of various stripes, with citizenship frequently defined by property qualifications or by birth. Others broadened the base of citizenship, and these were called "democracy," rule by the "many" or more accurately the demos, "masses." By the mid-fifth century in Athens, the "many" comprised about one-sixth of the whole population, the thirty to forty thousand adult males, whether rich or poor, noble or commoner, proven to be born of a free Athenian mother and father. This was what Aristotle called "extreme democracy," in which birth to Athenian parents was the only requirement for citizenship, and the more numerous poor dominate. As Aristotle writes, "Where the poor rule, that is a democracy." This empowerment of the poor was an "astonishing novelty," as historian Moses Finley observed, unprecedented for that time.

More important, these citizens, whatever their class or birth, did not just have the right to vote, but they directly managed the state, being eligible with some few exceptions to serve in every public office and board that ran the city, and personally to participate in all political and judicial institutions and public deliberations that determined policy and held politicians accountable. As Pericles says of Athens in his Funeral Oration delivered at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431, "Advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition." Such a government was literally rule "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

The main organs of Athenian direct rule were the Assembly, the Council of 500, the law courts, and the numerous offices and boards responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the city and for executing both domestic and foreign policy. The Assembly was the gathering of several thousand citizens that met about forty times a year. There each citizen in attendance had the right to speak, make motions, and vote on all the policies of the state whether major or minor, domestic or foreign. The agenda for the Assembly meeting was prepared by the Council, five hundred citizens, fifty men from each of the ten Athenian "tribes" chosen by lot to serve for the whole year. For one of the ten months in the Athenian calendar each tribal contingent, the "prytany," prepared the motions or open questions to be put before the Assembly. The law courts also were in the control of ordinary citizens, rather than professional judges or prosecutors. Each year six thousand citizens were enrolled by lot in the jury pool, which provided the several hundred randomly chosen jurymen to hear a particular case, determine which laws applied, and vote on guilt or innocence. These cases resulted from indictments brought by citizens, and included, with a few exceptions, not just criminal and civil complaints but political charges as well. Finally, nearly seven hundred magistrates, the majority chosen by lot and most serving a one-year term, managed the daily running of the state in matters including war, diplomacy, finance, public works and buildings, religious festivals, and theatrical presentations. At the end of their terms, they would be subjected to an "accounting" that could lead to indictment and trial, with punishments including fines or loss of citizen rights. By the early fourth century, Athenian citizens were paid to attend the Assembly, serve as a juror, and fill some offices.

Even from this brief sketch we can see how different Athenian democracy was from our own republican government, in which elected representatives debate and set policy that is implemented and managed by federal, state, and local government agencies. In addition, in Athens there was no notion of "inalienable rights" all people possessed, as rights were given by the state only to citizens, and political rights could be taken away for certain dishonorable behaviors. Yet it is the fundamental assumptions behind democratic direct rule, as well as the mechanics of governing, that critics found wrong-headed and dangerous in ways still relevant for the United States of today.

Who Is Qualified to Rule?

The notion that any man born to an Athenian mother and father was qualified to run the state was hotly disputed in antiquity. Aristocrats or eupatridai, those "born of good fathers," found such a notion sheer folly. To them, only noblemen belonging to ancient families that traced their ancestry to the gods possessed what the fifth-century celebrator of aristocratic athletic prowess, Pindar, called the "splendor running in the blood," a capacity for excellence, virtue, and wisdom that made them natural rulers: "The wise man knows many things in his blood," Pindar sings, "the vulgar are taught."

Given the lack of innate wisdom among the demos, critics argued, political power in their hands could lead only to violence and disorder, particularly class warfare against the rich. A particularly gruesome example took place in the city of Miletus, a wealthy state on the coast of modern-day Turkey. There the poor seized power after a civil war and burned to death wealthy families. After the rich returned to power, they returned the favor and trampled to death with oxen many of the poor. The excesses that had occurred in Megara, a city-state near Corinth, influenced the antidemocratic verses of the sixth-century poet Theognis. Plutarch described the violence of popular rule that occurred in Megara after a tyrant had been overthrown some years before Theognis was born, particularly attacks against the rich and their property. Mobs of the poor entered the homes of the rich and demanded entertainment and banquets, and if denied "they would treat all the household with violence and insult." The poor finally passed a decree allowing them to get back the interest they had paid on their debts. Aristotle writes of Megara that the "demagogues drove out many of the notables in order that they might be able to confiscate their property." For the aristocrat Theognis, such vicious behavior was to be expected from people "who formerly knew neither judgments or laws but clothed themselves in goatskins and wore them til they were rags and pastured themselves outside the city like deer."

These prejudices against the poor masses — that they were incapable of political wisdom and virtue and perforce had base characters, and so if given power would use it to attack the well off and redistribute their property — persist throughout the antidemocratic tradition. The lack of wisdom and virtue could reflect low birth, as Pindar and Theognis suggest. But sometimes poverty itself accounts for the lack of intellectual and moral development that makes the poor unfit to rule. The earliest critic of Athenian democracy is an anonymous author conventionally called the Old Oligarch, who wrote his brief work in the second half of the fifth century. The Old Oligarch does assume the moral and intellectual superiority of the aristocracy, but then writes, "Among the common people are the greatest ignorance, ill-discipline, and depravity. For poverty tends to lead them into base behaviour, as do lack of education and lack of learning because of lack of money." The Old Oligarch does not address the question whether or not the poor could be elevated from their inferiority by education or affluence. But he consistently characterizes the ruling democratic masses in negative terms such as "bad men," "poor men," "the worse men," the "mob," and the "worst elements."

Since the masses are badly educated and poor, they have to earn their living by manual labor, the daily drudgery that also promotes a lack of character and self-control. Aristotle denigrates "extreme democracy" because the citizen masses have to work, a necessity that makes their lives "inferior" to those of farmers or herdsmen, for "there is no room for excellence in any of their employments, whether they be artisans or traders or labourers." Thus "the best form of state will not admit them [artisans] to citizenship," for "no man can practice excellence who is living the life of a mechanic or labourer." Implicit in these remarks, apart from obvious elitist prejudice, is the notion that governing requires knowledge and virtue, both of which are difficult to acquire when one's time is spent in physical labor rather than in developing the mind.

Such characterizations of the non-noble masses quickly became a cliché in the antidemocratic tradition. Herodotus in his Histories (c. 430) imagines a debate among the Persian king Darius and two courtiers concerning the best form of government. Megabyzus, the champion of oligarchy, scorns the "mob" as "ineffective," and says there is "nothing more stupid or more given to brutality" than the common people. The masses are "unruly," for "knowledge and the masses are incompatible. How could anyone know what is right without either having been taught or having innate awareness of it?" As such, the "general populace" is like "a river swollen with winter rains: they rush blindly forward and sweep things before them." The ignorance of the volatile masses is likewise a constant theme in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War (c. 390). In his description of his historical method, Thucydides contrasts his own painstaking effort to verify facts, with the habits of the common people, whose usual practice "is to receive [the traditions of their own country] all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatsoever," and who take little pains in investigating the truth, "accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." He explicitly links the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition of 415 — in which the Athenians lost over six thousand soldiers and two hundred ships, making it exhibit number one in the traditional indictment of Athenian democracy and its excesses — to the fact that the Athenian masses were "ignorant of its size and of the number of its inhabitants, Hellenic and barbarian, and of the fact that they were undertaking a war not much inferior to that against the Peloponnesians." And like Megabyzus, Thucydides comments frequently on the fickleness of the masses, swaying this way and that and changing their minds with the whim of the moment, "according to the way of the multitude," "as the multitude is wont to do," or "as is the way of a democracy," as Thucydides puts it.

These critics posit a nexus between the lack of knowledge and virtue, particularly self-control over the passions and appetites, and the failures of democracy. This link is a major theme of Plato's Apology, a reconstruction of Socrates's defense speech at his trial in 399 for atheism and corrupting the young. At least in Plato's version, Socrates used his right to address his accusers not to get himself acquitted, but to highlight how foolish and unjust were the assumptions that any Athenian citizen had enough knowledge, virtue, and understanding to justly bring an indictment against a fellow citizen; and that several hundred randomly selected jurors could then deliberate on and decide the truth of a capital charge. According to his follower Xenophon, Socrates in contrast believed that the citizen masses comprised "dunces and weaklings," the "fullers or the cobblers or the builders or the smiths or the farmers or the merchants or the traffickers in the market-place who think of nothing but buying cheap and selling dear." Concerned with their selfish interests and private gain, how could they possibly have developed the disinterested knowledge or the virtue necessary to sit in judgment on questions such as what makes a good and virtuous citizen, what is the purpose of a political community, or what actions were in the long-term interest of the state?

Rather than such knowledge, Socrates argues, most people possess mere opinion, hearsay picked up from their parents or teachers or the theater, the received wisdom that they never question or examine but unthinkingly repeat as truth. And if they base political decisions and actions on this presumed truth, they are more likely to harm the state and citizens than to benefit them. Socrates makes this point by using an analogy from crafts and other specialized skills. During his defense, he recalls a conversation with an Athenian who had spent a fortune on educating his two sons. If his sons were colts or calves, Socrates had asked him, it would be easy to find someone to "make them excellent in the kind of excellence proper to them; and he would be a horse-trainer or a husbandman; but now, since they are two human beings, whom have you in mind to get as a overseer? Who had knowledge of that kind of excellence, that of a man and a citizen?"

The implication, which he draws out later during his cross-examination of one of his accusers, is that "he who is able to make them [horses] better is some one person, or very few, the horse-trainers, where most people, if they have to do with and use horses, injure them," a truth that holds for people as well. Neither Socrates's accusers nor the jurymen sitting in judgment have reliable knowledge of what improves the young, and so are disqualified from indicting Socrates for corrupting them, or deciding his guilt or innocence. But they arrogantly believe they do have such knowledge because they happen to have more mundane skills. Socrates earlier had discovered the origins of this mistaken confidence during his critical "examination" of his fellow citizens about virtue and the good, the knowledge necessary for justly managing the state. Each of Socrates's interlocutors did have a particular skill, but "because of practicing his art well, each one thought he was very wise in the other more important matters, and this folly of theirs obscured that wisdom." Having this ignorance publicly pointed out to them created the enmity and prejudice that has led to Socrates's indictment and ultimately his conviction and death — illustrating his point that the people make judgments based on irrational emotions like resentment or envy rather than knowledge of justice and virtue.


Excerpted from Democracy's Dangers & Discontents by Bruce S. Thornton. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Victor Davis Hanson ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: The Triumph of Democracy and the Antidemocratic Tradition 1

1 The Monitory Failures of Athenian Democracy 9

2 The Antidemocratic Tradition and the American Founding 55

3 Democracy and Leviathan 105

Conclusion: Restoring Limited Government 163

Bibliography 171

About the Author 177

About the Hoover Institution's Working Group on the Role of Military History in Contemporary Conflict 179

Index 181

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