What did democracy really mean in Athens?
Hey, congratulations! You've
just won the lottery, only the prize isn't cash or a luxury cruise. It's a
position in your country's national legislature. And you aren't the only lucky
winner. All of your fellow lawmakers were chosen in the same way. This might
strike you as a strange way to run a government, let alone a democracy.
Elections are the
epitome of democracy, right? Well, the ancient Athenians who coined the word
had another view. In fact, elections only played a small role in Athenian
democracy, with most offices filled by random lottery from a pool of citizen
volunteers. Unlike the representative democracies common today, where voters
elect leaders to make laws and decisions on their behalf, 5th Century BC Athens
was a direct democracy that encouraged wide participation through the principle
of ho boulomenos, or anyone who wishes. This meant that any of its
approximately 30,000 eligible citizens could attend the ecclesia, a general assembly meeting several times a month.
In principle, any of the
6,000 or so who showed up at each session had the right to address their fellow
citizens, propose a law, or bring a public lawsuit. Of course, a crowd of 6,000
people trying to speak at the same time would not have made for effective
government. So, the Athenian system also relied on a 500 member governing
council called the Boule, to set the agenda and evaluate proposals, in addition
to hundreds of jurors and magistrates to handle legal matters. Rather than
being elected or appointed, the people in these positions were chosen by lot. This
process of randomised selection is known as sortition. The only positions
filled by elections were those recognized as requiring expertise, such as
generals. But these were considered aristocratic, meaning rule by the best, as
opposed to democracies, rule by the many.
How did this system come
to be? Well, democracy arose in Athens after long periods of social and
political tension marked by conflict among nobles. Powers once restricted to
elites, such as speaking in the assembly and having their votes counted, were
expanded to ordinary citizens. And the ability of ordinary citizens to perform
these tasks adequately became a central feature of the democratic ideology of
Athens. Rather than a privilege, civic participation was the duty of all
citizens, with sortition and strict term limits preventing governing classes or
political parties from forming. By 21st century standards, Athenian
rule by the many excluded an awful lot of people. Women, slaves and foreigners
were denied full citizenship, and when we filter out those too young to serve, the
pool of eligible Athenians drops to only 10-20% of the overall population.
philosophers, including Plato, disparaged this form of democracy as being anarchic
and run by fools. But today the word has such positive associations that
vastly different regimes claim to embody it. At the same time, some share
Plato's scepticism about the wisdom of crowds. Many modern democracies
reconcile this conflict by having citizens elect those they consider qualified to
legislate on their behalf. But this poses its own problems, including the
influence of wealth and the emergence of professional politicians with
different interests than their constituents.
Could reviving election by lottery
lead to more effective government through a more diverse and representative
group of legislatures? Or does modern political office, like Athenian military
command, require specialized knowledge and skills? You probably shouldn't
hold your breath to win a spot in your country's government. But depending on
where you live, you may still be selected to participate in a jury, a citizens'
assembly or a deliberative poll, all examples of how the democratic principle
behind sortition still survives today.
Source: TED-Ed. By Melissa Schwartzberg