Seven Superior Ideas of Athenian Democracy

For more than 150 years, historians have understood that Athenian democracy was a success. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica wrote a brief summary about the Athenian people and their government. It began with a recitation of the criticisms that some scholars have leveled at the Athenians—demagogues sometimes misled them, they were often intolerant, they put Socrates to death because of his teachings, women did not have political rights, and they kept slaves. There were definitely things to criticize in ancient Athens. But the Britannica article closed with these remarks:

But to say all this [to list the criticisms] is only to say that the city could not entirely shake off the traditions of its past. Its achievement was the more remarkable for that. Seldom since has civilized humanity equaled democratic Athens, and until the last the city was satisfactorily governed by law and by popular [democratic] decision. It owed its fall less to any flaw than to the overwhelming force that was mounted against it.[i]

When I have informally praised Athenian democracy to others over the years, the most common, often angry, reactions are that the Athenians kept slaves and they treated women as second-class citizens. Both charges are true, but they were also true about us in 1776, and for decades after. In fact, we still treat the seven hated groups as second class citizens, and we are headed toward debt-slavery. So, I say to those who are so quick to angrily denounce the ancient Athenians—please aim your anger at the unfairness that is constantly at work in modern America and help to transform our nation into a real democracy.

Melissa Lane is a professor of politics at Princeton. In her recently published book: The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter, she had this to say about Athenian democracy:

Greek democracy was something new under the sun—but not in the sense that a role for the common people in government, even in the form of an assembly, was not unknown in Greece or in the wider world up to the 5th century BCE; forms of assembly and consultation are widely attested in Greek history and in surrounding societies with which they interacted. What was new in 5th century Athens was that ordinary people, including the poorest of citizens, came to control (and not merely be consulted by) the powers of government. They did so by deciding policy in the assembly; by judging disputes among citizens in the courts; and scrutinizing (in the assembly, council and courts) the doings of officials, many of whom themselves were selected by lottery or election among a wide swathe of the public. Putting these functions together, the ‘people’—the demos—exercised a plenipotentiary ‘power’ (kratos), which explains the new coinage of the word demokratia, appearing first in relation to Athens, and then being claimed as a name for dozens of polities dotted across the Mediterranean and the Greek mainland that adopted similar regimes.[ii]

Democracy originated in ancient Athens, and it worked.

Donald Kagan, a professor of history at Yale University, published an excellent book about the golden age of Athenian democracy: Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. In it he discusses the history of Athens and how some historians and politicians have viewed Athenian democracy over the millennia. He even mentions the disparagement of Athenian democracy as expressed by Hamilton and Madison in their Federalist essays. He noted that Madison “echoed” Plato’s dislike of democracy. Kagan then asserted that Plato, Madison, and Hamilton were wrong in their belief that the poor would take advantage of the rich. He said:

The facts about Periclean Athens, as we have seen, were very different. Plato’s assault on its character is a travesty. The Athenian people did not permit their leaders to usurp power. They were not slow to remove and punish even the most powerful men in their democracy, as Pericles learned to his sorrow, and they withstood external as well as internal threats to their democracy. Through the horrors of almost three decades of the Peloponnesian War, military defeat, foreign occupation, and an oligarchic coup d’état, the people of Athens showed that combination of commitment and restraint that is necessary for the survival of popular [democratic] government and life in a decent society.

This restraint is all the more remarkable when we consider how simple it would have been for the Athenian majority to plunder the rich and take revenge upon their enemies. Plainly they had embraced the democratic vision, and their experience had proven its validity.[iii]

Kagan had this to say about those who disparage democracy:

Ancient and modern critics of democracy have shared a basic attitude. Both have distrusted the ordinary person and overridden his autonomy in search of a higher goal: a utopian idea of justice. For Plato, that meant government by a small group of philosophers who would rule in the light of a divine, unchanging knowledge.[iv]

Kagan named Plato, Mao, Lenin, Marx, and Castro as examples of those who thought that nations should be ruled by a small, elite group. I think it is fair to include Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and some of the other Framers. After all, Madison’s “scheme of representation” is the basis upon which the myth of American democracy is built, and it, according to him, consists of a government that is ruled by a small group of representatives elected by those eligible to vote. At the time Madison designed our system those eligible to vote made up a minority of our population. Therefore, from the beginning, our government was designed to be controlled by a small group who would rule without regard to the wishes of the majority. In ancient Athens, democracy was government by the many. In America we have government by a wealthy few. We have a plutocracy.

Paul Woodruff, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote First Democracy, The Challenge of An Ancient Idea. He reviewed the key aspects of Athenian democracy, and in the afterword he asked, “Are Americans Ready for Democracy?” He defined the word “ready” as “having a culture that can respond to the demands that democracy makes.” He said:

To be ready for democracy, a nation must be willing to invite everyone to join in the government, it must respect the rule of law strongly enough to keep a majority from tyrannizing over a minority, it must be mature enough to accept changes that come from the people, and it must be willing to pay the price of paideia—of education for thoughtful citizenship.[v]

His full answer to this important question was lengthy, thoughtful, and enlightening. He provided a sharp focus on how we can move forward—if we want to. In another place he talked about the Framers, especially James Madison, and how they misunderstood Athenian democracy. He said:

They feared a system that gave power to poor people, and they hoped that the representative system they proposed would put power into the hands of those best equipped to use it.[vi]

He closed his book by answering the question, “Do the ancient Greeks have anything to teach us?” Part of his answer was this:

Yes. They had the right ideas, and we must take those ideas seriously if we are to stop the slide away from democracy. Also, some of the ways they put their ideas into practice are superior to our own. In particular, we need to appreciate the way they used representative bodies, chosen like juries, to bring citizen wisdom to bear on hard decisions.[vii]

Obviously, I could not agree more. We will take their ideas seriously. In the rest of this book I will show how we can apply the superior ideas of the ancient Greeks to our new system of government.

Paul Cartledge,[viii] a noted scholar on democracy, has just published a new book: Democracy, A Life. In it, he reviews the history of democracy and he focuses some attention on our system. He made this general observation:

There is no direct institutional legacy of Athenian or any other ancient direct democracy to any modern form of democracy.[ix]

He said that Thomas Jefferson was a “learned classicist,” who was the “chief author of the Declaration of Independence.” But, he added that Jefferson, “like almost all the Founding Fathers, had little time for ancient Greek-style direct democracy.”[x]

In the early part of his book, he told us that he would refer to the democracies of the ancient Greeks, particularly that of Athens, as “direct democracy.” This was necessary because we moderns deeply believe that our democracy, our representative democracy, is just plain “democracy.” We moderns have long described Athenian democracy as “direct democracy” in order to separate it from our American democracy, which we believe is the only democracy that can work in modern times. But Cartledge clearly says that our government is not a democracy. And he said this about some of the Framers:[xi]

Among the leading ideologues of the American Revolution were the three authors of the Federalist Papers: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Madison’s Federalist 10, following on Hamilton’s no. 9, delivered a broadside against what he was pleased to deride as “faction.” Adopting an almost early Byzantine notion of ancient Greek direct democracy as “riot” and mob rule by the ignorant and fickle over their betters, and employing a classically Roman rhetorical trope, Madison opined that even “had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The practical inference for him, so far as the future of American governance was considered, was that “the people in their collective capacity,” must be rigorously excluded from any active or direct share in it. Popular sovereignty might have lip service paid to it, as a theoretical abstraction, but it should go no further than that toward practical realization.

Cartledge is right. The Framers were afraid of democracy and they took the opportunity to libel the democracy of ancient Athens in the Federalist essays. He opens his Epilogue with this observation:[xii]

I conclude this exploratory foray into the life of democracy with a brief consideration of the prospects for real-world democracy, in whatever sense. I do so from the viewpoint of the relevance of ancient democracy and democratic politics to modern, and on the disabused, get-real understanding that “politics is the business of how we decide as a society what our priorities are and then set about to achieve them.” There are many unanswered, possibly unanswerable questions here, but it is also such a vital topic for our age. We live under this system, democracy, even though paradoxically those who founded it in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were adamant that it was not a democracy in any ancient sense and were just as adamant that—happily—it kept the masses from exercising direct influence on it, and indeed that was precisely why it should be preferred. This paradox is or should be a serious problem for us moderns.

The idea, and the reality, of democracy was created by the people of ancient Athens. So, if our government is not a democracy, then what is it? Or, to put the question another way:

So how did a term like “democracy,” which originally meant “people power,” come to be equated with passive acquiescence in a corporate-funded campaign system that funnels wealth upwards and relegates the vast majority of citizens to the role of yes-men, or, as Aristotle would have said, a condition little better than slavery?

The preceding quote is from the beginning of Chapter 7, “How Did Things Get to Be this Way? The Roman Republican System and the Founding Fathers of America,” in Roslyn Fuller’s excellent new book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose.

In this chapter Fuller shows how the Framers had no intention of implementing a real democracy. They had no intention of ever giving power to the people. Instead they favored the model of ancient Rome. Under her chapter sub-heading “Roman Politics: déjà vu,” Fuller says:

Unlike Athenian Democracy, the Roman political system is easy to understand, precisely because it mirrors our own so closely.

In a real democracy the people decide among themselves what they want their government to do, and then they order their representatives to do it. The people exercise transformative and administrative power. But in a republic, in our republic, the people delegate their transformative and administrative power to their representatives and their representatives use it as they please, with little or no regard for the wishes of the people, and with little or no regard for the harm they do.

The Athenians had to deal with the same issues that we do. They needed to make laws, enforce them, and change them. They had to take care of public utilities, defend the nation, manage food supplies, oversee markets, mint money, try criminals, settle civil disputes, enforce contracts, manage foreign affairs, deal with religion, educate their children, impose and collect taxes, and all the rest.

Another modern-day historian, Moses Finley (1912-1986), observed that ancient historians evaluated the leaders of Athenian democracy in terms of whether they served the common good or their own selfish interests. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? He said that these ancient historians agreed that there were three “propositions” that existed in the ancient nation:

The first is that men are unequal, both in their moral worth and capability and in their social and economic status. The second is that any community tends to divide into factions, the most fundamental of which are the rich and well-born on one side, the poor on the other, each with its own qualities, potentialities, and interests. The third proposition is that the well-ordered and well-run state is one which overrides faction and serves as an instrument for the good life.[xiii]

Finley also said that, to the Athenians, “Faction is the greatest evil and the most common danger.” He said that the ancient writers used the Greek word “stasis” to describe such groups. He wrote (emphasis added):

I believe, that there must be deep significance in the fact that a word which has the original sense of “station” or “position,” and which, in abstract logic, could have an equally neutral sense when used in a political context, in practice does nothing of the kind, but immediately takes on the nastiest overtones. A political position, a partisan position-that is the inescapable implication-is a bad thing, leading to sedition, civil war, and the disruption of the social fabric. And this same tendency is repeated throughout the language.[xiv]

So, two different groups of human beings, the Framers and the Athenians, separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, with different cultures, histories, and languages, with different natural resources and topographies, with different technologies, with different economies, and embedded in two vastly different ages of history, but with identical varieties of human nature, were trying to do the same thing—they were trying to establish a faction-free government. The leaders of these two groups, in their capacity as system analysts, defined the problem of faction in almost identical terms, and they both regarded it as the greatest danger their nations could face.

I agree with Finley—there is a “deep significance” in the ancients’ identification of faction as a key problem that must be solved. And there is another “deep significance” in the solutions that have been tried. The Athenians tried a genuine democracy and we have tried a Madisonian Republic. Their solution worked for the common good, and ours does not. Finley summarized the principles followed by the Athenians as they developed and managed their democracy. These principles are directly applicable to our present predicament. In order to more easily comment on his points I have isolated and slightly paraphrased them below:

  • A political position, a partisan position is a bad thing, leading to sedition, civil war, and the disruption of the social fabric—no argument here. Factions and partisanship lead to very bad things. During the administration of John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, which was a mistake, but nevertheless was clear evidence of the bitter, partisan, factious rancor of the time. And our Civil War was directly due to the faction of white supremacy that controlled the tyranno-South.
  • Men are unequal, both in their moral worth and capability and in their social and economic status—no argument here. But many Americans seem to be unable to reconcile this idea with “all men are created equal.” Madison definitely thought that such inequality among men required that there be similar inequality in their political rights. I will deal with this confusion later.
  • Any community tends to divide into factions, the most fundamental of which are the rich and well-born on one side, the poor on the other, each with its own qualities, potentialities, and interests—the only thing I can add is that these unique “qualities, potentialities, and interests,” when fairly heard and considered, can make us stronger. Not every idea that may emerge from these groups will be factious. High intelligence, good ideas, moral conduct, fairness, and hard work are found in all parts of our society. However, Madison believed that such excellent attributes were rarely found in the lower classes, if found there at all.
  • The well-ordered and well-run state is one which overrides faction and serves as an instrument for the good life—overriding faction is exactly what the Framers said they wanted to do. We need to find a way for all Americans to define “the good life.” And then we need to build it.
  • The state must stand outside class or other factional interests—how can anyone honestly disagree with this? Even the Framers agreed with this point, but they designed their system to assume that factions come from the lower classes, or from a “mob” as in the case of ancient Athens. Our government still operates on this bias against the seven hated groups.
  • The aims and objectives of the state are moral, timeless, and universal, and they can be achieved-more correctly, approached or approximated-only by education, moral conduct (especially on the part of those in authority), morally correct legislation, and the choice of the right governors—there is no argument here, morality, especially the common good, is a stranger to those who hold authority in our Madisonian Republic. But for us today, the next step is to modify our current system so that all of these tools (education, morality, legislation, and governance) can be effectively used for the common good.
  • The existence of classes and interests as an empirical fact is, of course, not denied. But political goals cannot be linked to these classes and interests, and the good of the state can be advanced only by ignoring (if not suppressing) private interests—the Framers surely understood these ideas, but they just couldn’t help themselves. They just had to protect the wealthy class, and there is our problem. By trying to protect the wealthy from the poor, the Framers irrationally created an opening that tyranni have used to seize control of our government.

The Athenians organized their government to deal with all of the elements above: factions, equality, inequality, class interests, personal interests, education, legislation, leadership, justice, security, morality, human nature, and the common good. This process evolved over many years, and ultimately far surpassed ours at controlling the adverse effects of factions. There is a reason for the success of Athenian democracy. Actually, there are seven of them:

  1. Power Management—the Athenians understood that there are two kinds of government power: administrative and transformative. They understood that administrative power can be delegated but transformative power cannot, except in very limited, tightly-controlled cases. Unfortunately, we foolishly mismanage our power. We delegate too much—to too few people—for far too long a time. And we delegate our power through the corrupt system of parties and partisan elections.
  2. Government of, by, and for the people—the Athenian government was of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our government is of the people, by the plutocrats, and for the plutocrats.
  3. Liturgies and Public Works—the Athenians had ways to persuade the wealthy to willingly spend their wealth for the common good. We don’t even ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes.
  4. The Oath of the Ephebes—the Athenians taught their youth that they had a duty to act on behalf of the common good—we should do the same. And we should give them a way to do it.
  5. Evolution by Cogitation—the Athenians formalized this process for managing the evolution of civilization. It relies on the sustained, cooperative, rational acts of humankind. It depends especially on the most important of our intellectual gifts: the power to make something out of nothing but an idea. We will think our way forward. We will use our intellects together. We will ponder important matters with purpose and objectivity. Unfortunately, many powerful factions within our GREEB institutions have largely ignored this form of evolution. They reject knowledge, science, rationality, inclusion, and progress in favor of ideology, prejudice, willful ignorance, exclusion, and irrationality as the tools of governance. And, unfortunately, they have enough power to do great harm to our civilization—they could even destroy it.
  6. The Silver Mines of Laurium—the Athenians knew how to manage their money supply.  We don’t know how to manage ours—but, if we apply our intellects in rational ways, we will quickly learn.
  7. Investing in the People—the Athenians thought it was so important for the people to participate in their democracy that they compensated the poor for the income lost when they attended the Assembly. Without this payment they would have been unable to participate.


[i]Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropedia, Government, Forms of, Vol. 20, p. 190


[ii] Melissa Lane, The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter, p95, Location 1175, Kindle Edition.


[iii] Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy pp. 269-270


[iv] Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy p. 272


[v] Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, The Challenge Of An Ancient Idea, p. 211


[vi] Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, The Challenge Of An Ancient Idea, p. 234


[vii] Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, The Challenge Of An Ancient Idea, p. 230


[viii] Paul Cartledge is the inaugural A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Clare College. He is also Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professor in the History and Theory of Democracy at New York University. He has written and edited over 20 books, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. He is an honorary citizen of modern Sparta and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor awarded by the President of Greece.


[ix] Paul Cartledge. Democracy, A Life: Kindle location 5280


[x] Paul Cartledge. Democracy, A Life: Kindle location 5079


[xi] Paul Cartledge. Democracy, A Life: Kindle location 5090


[xii] Paul Cartledge. Democracy, A Life: Kindle location 5258


[xiii] M. I. Finley. Democracy Ancient and Modern: Revised Edition (p. 43). Kindle Edition.


[xiv] M. I. Finley. Democracy Ancient and Modern: Revised Edition (p. 44). Kindle Edition.


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