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Week of 4 February 2005· Vol. VIII, No. 18

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Athenian democracy an imperfect system that led to mob rule, says classics prof

By Brian Fitzgerald

Loren Samons Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Loren Samons Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The word democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, a combination of demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning power.

Democracy: power of the people. It’s the ideal form of government, isn’t it? Loren J. Samons says no — not the way it was practiced by Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Athenian democracy was remarkably direct, rather than being representative, he says, and America’s founding fathers regarded this form of government as “unstable and dangerous.”

Most Americans generally believe that we live in a democracy, but the United States government was designed instead as a representative republic, in part “to shield elected leaders from the sometimes volatile public will,” writes Samons, a CAS associate classics professor and associate dean, in his recently published book What’s Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship ( University of California Press, 2004).

Samons says that over the course of the past 200 years, Americans have increasingly — and erroneously — applied the words democracy and democratic to our form of government, “in which a people express their sovereign power through elected representatives, under a Constitution that ensures individual rights.”

So, many citizens were in for a rude awakening during the protracted period following the 2000 presidential election, when candidate George W. Bush won the number of Electoral College votes necessary for victory, but had a minority of the popular vote. People were astonished to realize that we don’t live in a “true” democracy. There were calls for election reforms and the abolishment of the Electoral College.

But the Electoral College is still in place, and that’s the way the creators of the American regime intended it. They didn’t trust the masses. They certainly didn’t want to emulate the voting system in ancient Athens, where a citizen assembly made policy decisions. “There were 30,000 to 40,000 citizens eligible to vote,” Samons says, “but no more than about 6,000 would meet in an assembly. Measures were put before them, and they voted by literally holding up their hands.” As for public officials, a council of 500 was chosen by lot to serve administrative purposes and put measures before the assembly, but final decisions rested with the assemblymen themselves. “Policy questions such as, ‘Should we go to war with Sparta?’ were put before the people — that’s how decisions were made,” he says.

In 431 B.C. the Athenian general Pericles persuaded the assembly to provoke war with Sparta, leading to Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

“The great irony to me is that in the last 15 to 20 years, some modern historians of ancient history have begun to look to Athens as a model for the theory and practice of modern politics,” says Samons. “A lot of their works paint an overly optimistic picture of Athenian democracy. To me, if we’re going to use Athens to study America, the first question we ought to ask is, ‘Did Athens succeed?’ One thing we know about Athenian democracy is that it didn’t last. During the nearly two centuries of Athenian democracy Athens suffered oligarchical revolutions twice.”

Samons points out the Athenians also waged rash imperialistic wars. “They lost virtually every war they fought against major Greek powers,” he says. “They were pretty good at bullying little Greek states, and they were successful against the Persians, but not against Sparta or Syracuse. Before we begin to look to Athens to better understand — or even alter — our own government, we should look at how well Athens succeeded.” Indeed, at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 B.C., the Athenian empire was not only humbled, but also overthrown. He notes that Athens foolishly refused to make peace early in the war, even when offered favorable terms by Sparta.

Samons says there is much to admire about Athens: its literature, art, architecture, and philosophers; but its experiments with democracy led to many mistakes and failures. After all, an Athenian jury of 500 citizens even voted to execute the great philosopher Socrates.

Despite the publicity the Electoral College received in 2000, Samons says, many Americans still believe that our country is a democracy and look to Athenian democracy as something we should strive for.

“I think we talk about our regime now as if it’s a democracy,” he says. “You hear politicians, for example, trying to align themselves with ‘what the American people want.’ This inspires a view that this is the best thing for the country — majority rule. After the 2000 election, I heard more than one politician talk about ‘the will of the majority’ instead of discussing why the Electoral College exists, and what the reasons are for a distance between the immediate will of the people and political action in the American system.”

Samons, who has written or edited three other books on ancient Athens, including one on Athenian democracy, says that he wrote What’s Wrong with Democracy “to get people to recognize and accept nondemocratic aspects of our regime.” He also wants readers to realize that we shouldn’t rely on our political system to improve society. “Many Americans tend to think that there is a political solution to every social problem,” he says. “This reflects a misplaced faith in the political process — a faith sometimes spawned by the modern idealization of democracy.”

America’s founders weren’t as foolhardy, according to Samons. “They clearly recognized the dangers of having a mass of citizens make policy decisions on the spot,” he says. “They were familiar with classical Athens, and the ancients proved that majority rule can devolve into mob rule.”


4 February 2005
Boston University
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