Democracy the Institution of Democracy essay

  • Length: 10 pages
  • Subject: Government
  • Type: essay
  • Paper: #84194194

Excerpt from essay :

" That aspect of military or naval service brought every soldier / sailor into a similar consciousness of service, no matter what socioeconomic class he had come from in the Athenian society of that era.

However, Raaflaub is quick to point out (142) that universal military service notwithstanding, there was a pecking order on board Greek warships; the hoplites (heavily armed infantry soldiers) certainly had a higher level of respect and responsibility than the oarsmen and archers. The hoplites and horsemen were seen as "much more noble and important and take far more seriously" than citizens who were trained to shoot the bow and row the boats (Raaflaub 142). And a telling fact when reviewing the level of respect that hoplites received vs. The level of respect awarded oarsmen and archers is in the list of those who were killed in action.

Thucydides, an Athenian aristocrat who was exiled and later chronicled war efforts and statistics, offers "precise figures" when it comes to the death of hoplites in battle (Raaflaub 141); but Thucydides was "...vague about those members of the lower classes" who were killed, Raaflaub continues. And so, democracy in action vis-a-vis participation in the defense of the Athenian nation did not mean equality in all instances; but those inconsistencies should not smear in any way the fairness that democratic principles offered in the late fifth and fourth-century Athens.

On the subject of fairness in respect and pay for Athenians in the Greek navy, Frank J. Frost presents narrative by "The Old Oligarch" - a conservative historian who resented some aspects of Greek democracy - in a satirical presentation called "The Constitution of the Athenians." The Old Oligarch reaches and finds plenty of exaggeration and hyperbole when he writes, "...it is only just that the poorer classes...of Athens should be better off than the men of birth and wealth" (Frost 11). This concept is just because "...the steersman, the boatswain, the lieutenant, the look-out-man at the prow...these are the people who supply the city with power far rather than her heavy infantry and men of birth and quality" (Frost 11).

Continuing his satire - and making points in the process by turning things upside down as it were - the Old Oligarch states that the "greatest amount of ignorance, disorderliness, rascality" can be found in the "ranks of the People" which makes democracy better and stronger than by placing democracy into the "ranks of the better class" with its "smallest amount of intemperance and injustice" (Frost 12). All of this makes sense because what was happening politically in Athenian democratic society in this era was as follows (in the Old Oligarch's words): "...The better [wealthy, educated] people are punished with infamy, robbed of their money, driven from their homes, and put to death, while the baser sort [poor, peasants] are promoted to honour" (Frost, 14). These passages are included here to provide a well-rounded view - that there was plenty of criticism of the way democracy played out in Athenian society in this era.

Meanwhile Stanford University political science professor Josiah Ober writes that in the late fifth and early fourth-century (BC) Athenian society "demokratia" was defined as "the political power of the ordinary people." And notwithstanding earlier narrative in this paper reflecting democratic values in ancient Greece, readers and researchers should not assume that in the Athenian society all was mellow and democratic and accepting of the status quo. Ober asserts, "...Critics of the status quo existed at every level of Athenian society" (Ober 150). In every village and neighborhood in Athenian society there were bright men and women "who could be counted on to interrogate, humorously or angrily, various aspects of the current order of things" (Ober 150).

Ober explains on page 159 that the political order in this era was "grounded in democratic knowledge" which was based on public communication, not on any "objective, metaphysical or 'natural' view of social reality" (Ober 159). Indeed Athenian political culture was "specifically based on collective opinion" as opposed to "objectively verifiable, scientific truths" (Ober 159). And because this "collective opinion" that shaped politics in Athenian culture was built "from the bottom up," as such it embraced "local knowledges" Ober continues (159). Those local knowledges included specific practices of any village, any subculture or family life issues, and as a result, "there was a constant give and take between center and periphery, between local understandings, local critics, and the generalized" democratic ideology (Ober 159-160).

One can clearly see that this system of democratic politics, by being constructed from the bottom up, was on the face of it very healthy because it included input from the extremely humble peasant as well as the more noble and wealthy citizens of Athens. Further, the Athenian democracy was "flexible, dialectical, and revisable" (Ober, 160); and in order to keep the flow of thought and debate moving throughout the society, there were frequent meetings of elected representatives and "people's courts" during which "contrasting, critical views" were heard in public. These exchanges allowed the democratic ideology to "evolve" over a sustained period of time; and hence, no "political revolution" was necessary, Ober continues on page 160.

While ordinary people and elected members of the Assembly went about the business of democracy's daily interactions and intersections of ideas and values, Plato took the discussion about politics to a "more exalted plane" (Ober 168). By recording what Socrates lectured about - including Socrates' expounding on esoteric arguments promoting a "utopian, authoritarian political order ruled by a class of philosophers who had 'left the cave'" - Plato was able to articulate an approach to a "formal distinction between more opinion (doxa) and actual knowledge (episteme)" (Ober 168).

Plato was no doubt talking and writing above the heads of many uneducated peons and peasants when he put forward - in the Republic - that while the Athenian democracy claimed to be a "legitimate way of knowing about society" and a "just system for making decisions" those beliefs were false. Those claims were not true because they could not be proved or tested, Plato asserted, by reference to an "external, metaphysical Truth" (Ober 168). Plato, known as a critic in the genre of Socrates - who questioned and challenged all "truths" over and over - insisted that a "political regime based on mass opinion" was very likely to be "sloppy in its judgments" and "capricious in its behavior" (Ober 168). And moreover, Plato believed such a democracy was "wrongly constructed by definition" because justice and politics should be build on the "foundation of Truth" and not based on "practice" of a given social structure. It may sound like splitting hairs in 2009 to review Plato's concerns and criticisms, but those ideas and writings by Plato and others in his era should be included in any critique and review of democracy.

Aristotle's points were wrapped around the idea of human nature, Ober writes on page 169; Aristotle granted that indeed democracy had achieved a "relatively high level of instrumental success" when it came to reducing "class tension" and recognizing "the validity of mass wisdom" when important decisions are required of the society (Ober 169). But Aristotle's obsession with naturalism led him to believe that simple workers could not "achieve true political ar te" (ar te meant "virtue" or being the best that one possibly can be) (Ober 169). What ordinary citizens will need in order to be on an intellectual level with "leisured aristocrats," Aristotle believed, is a "formal and normative education" based on "practical reasoning" rather than "democratic knowledge" (Ober 169).

Evolution of Democracy: Tocqueville

The noted writer and Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the U.S. To study democracy in 1831 described European aristocracy - which preceded attempts at democracy - as "...constituted by a ranked order of command, loyalty, and responsibility that embedded the individual as one small link in a large societal chain" (Janara 2004 p. 773). And that societal chain extended "...from serfs to servants to nobles to God," Janara writes, paraphrasing Tocqueville (Janara 777). Moreover, fealty and chivalry, along with "elaborate rules of manner and professional and legal class distinctions" established one's place in a "seemingly eternal order of mutuality" that embraced a sense of "security, determinacy, and certainty," Janara continues, adding that at

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