Western Civilisation

Australia’s Ancient Democratic Roots

Written by
16 November 2022
Plato and Aristotle are the two central figures in The School of Athens (detail of fresco in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City) painted from 1509–1511 by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.

In 2022, Australia ran an exemplary democratic election in Federal politics. It removed a conservative Coalition government and replaced it with an ALP government. That this was accomplished peacefully, legally, without censorship, police interference, or any kind of physical confrontation should be celebrated. The fact the defeated government immediately and gracefully ceded office, that the new government stepped in and immediately took crucial foreign policy steps that were stabilising and reassuring, is far too easy for us to take for granted. By global and historical standards what we did, in terms of democratic process, was remarkable.

Yet there are indications that a good many young people in Australia and other Western democracies in the early 21st century have a declining appreciation of the virtues of democracy, compared with various kinds of authoritarian systems. A recent Lowy Institute poll found nearly a third of Australians aged 18-29 did not agree with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

This is something that should, as a matter of high priority, be addressed in our schools and universities—and in the public square. Foundational to this ought to be a common understanding of how rare, inventive, and liberating democratic politics has been in history, as well as its vulnerabilities and past failures. That common understanding cannot be gleaned from any civilisation outside the West, since only in the European world, specifically in the classical Greco-Roman world, were democratic and republican institutions developed in theory and practice—not in Africa, not in the Middle East, not in Asia, and not in the pre-Columbian Americas.

Democratic government by representative assemblies, according to constitutional rules, with elected officials, well-designed voting procedures, and freedom of speech for purposes of public deliberation, originated in Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC—and not elsewhere. Its history was checkered and by no means were all Greek states democratic. However, our modern republican and democratic constitutions have their roots in those of classical Greece—and Rome. We do well, therefore, to understand those roots: how the ancient republics worked and what went wrong, since the downfall of the classical democratic republics gave democracy a bad name for almost two millennia. The modern world has had another attempt at it, but the very things that undermined it in antiquity are threatening to do so again in our own time. The study of classical politics, therefore, could hardly be timelier.

Only in the European world were democratic institutions developed in theory and practice.

A basic historical outline shows what the theory is about. That history centres on Athenian democracy, leaving aside the histories of other Greek city-states, especially oligarchic states such as Sparta. Plato’s Republic (and his Laws) and Aristotle’s Politics are the main theoretical works. Plato was not a democrat. He believed in elite rule. His arguments are worth pondering because there are still those who aspire to oligarchic rule and there is widespread suspicion of economic and other elites in the democratic states. Aristotle favoured democratic politics, but was far more empirical and practical than Plato. In preparing to write his book, he (and his research team at his school in Athens) looked at the constitutions of 158 different states around the Mediterranean world.

Aristotle argued that the most effective and stable form of government was one with a mixture of democratic and oligarchic features. He argued that each of the ideal typical forms of constitution—tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy—had inbuilt weaknesses that predisposed it to dysfunction and crisis. Of the three, he seems to have believed that democracy was the best, but there remained a need for various kinds of elite guidance. The objective of studying Aristotle’s Politics should not, of course, be to merely learn his teaching and insist on its correctness—any more than this ought to be the case with Plato. Rather, it offers an excellent preparation for the analytical and critical study of modern history, social theory, and political ideology.

When Kevin Rudd gave his maiden speech in Federal parliament in November 1998, he began by asserting that “politics is about power”. It was a superficial and, in an important sense, pernicious statement. Politics, rather, is about the constraints on the exercise of power. This is particularly the case in a democratic state, or any state with a constitution worth the paper it is written on. In a totalitarian state—such as the China of Xi Jinping—there are no politics in this sense, because the constitution is not worth the paper it is written on. The arbitrary power of the Communist Party overrides it without let or hindrance.

Kevin Rudd delivering his misguided “politics is
about power” maiden speech on 11 November 1998.
Photo: Screenshot of YouTube video

How, then, did democracy arise in Athens? Here’s the schema. Monarchy and aristocracy preceded democracy. Inequalities and injustices mounted. In Athens, at the start of the sixth century BC (the 590s), a widely respected man called Solon was appointed to engineer reforms that would moderate growing social conflict. He redistributed landed property and abolished debt slavery. He made the liberty of individuals inalienable. Solon’s reforms worked, but neither the rich nor the poor were altogether happy with him for doing what he did. So, he left and went travelling for a decade. What he had introduced was not democratic government, or the implementation of ideal laws, which he called eunomia. It was isonomia, the equality of citizens under the law. This was the beginning of mass participation in politics. There continued, very much, to be those vying for monarchy or tyranny, aristocratic privilege, and oligarchic government. But aristocratic political entrepreneurs, after Solon, began to see possibilities in cultivating the support of the masses. Peisistratus was one of them. Between 561 and 528 BC, he drew upon the support of the common citizenry to seize tyrannical power, then use it in the interests of the common people. This broke new ground and opened the way for institutionalised democratic government.

There was a crisis, in between, after Peisistratus died and was succeeded by his son Hippias, culminating in the rise of Cleisthenes from 510 BC, which, just as it happens, was the year when the kings were overthrown in Rome and replaced by a republic. Cleisthenes, vying with his political rival Isagoras, undertook far-reaching political reforms that broke up the old tribal federations in Attica (the Athenian hinterland) and created a citizenry for the first time, organised in what he called demes. One might say demes gave rise to the memes of democratic politics.

But, as Kurt Raaflaub pointed out, in his study The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (University of Chicago Press, 2004), it was the Persian Wars (499 to 479) that drove home the difference between freedom and tyranny and prompted the Athenians, in particular, to define the liberties and laws of democratic politics over the rule of monarchs or tyrants such as the Persian Great King and his satraps. Not least among these were the rights to freedom of speech and participation in public deliberative assemblies. Even so, in the decades following the defeat of the Persians—the struggle against whom did not end with the victories of Salamis (480) and Plataea (479)—the entrenchment and even definition of democracy was a matter of strenuous political work in Athens. Cimon, the predominant Athenian statesman of the 470s and 460s, was of the aristocratic party. He was committed chiefly to building up the Delian League (an alliance of Greek states against Persia) and maintaining friendship with Sparta.

The defeat of Athens ought to be the subject of our studies.

Nevertheless, during those decades, Ephialtes and Aristides reformed Athenian politics by replacing the oligarchic Areopagus with the democratic Council of Five Hundred as the predominant ‘parliament’ of Athens. These reforms were opposed by Cimon, for which he was, finally, ostracized. Ostracism—exile at the will of the people—was itself something introduced by Cleisthenes and was a measure to enable the demos to exile an individual popularly deemed to be objectionable or a threat to democratic rule.

The term ‘ostracism’ comes from ‘ostraka’—the pottery shards used as voting tokens. Each year, in January or February (according to the modern calendar) Athenians had the option of voting to ostracise one person. They would scratch the name of the person in question on pottery shards, and deposit them in urns. Public officials counted the ostraka and sorted the names into separate piles. You had to have 6,000 votes cast against you to be ostracised. That was a high bar. There were only 12 recorded ostracisms in the fifth century BC, but Cimon was one of them. Once he was out of the way, his political rival, Pericles, became the leading statesman of Athens and remained so until his death, early in the Peloponnesian War. He presided over the peak years of Athens as a democratic polity and extolled its open society and political ideals in a famous speech, recorded by Thucydides and, it is said, actually written by Aspasia of Miletus, the famous mistress of Pericles.

To a contemporary mind, not least in Australia, where we have had so many changes of prime minister since 2007—seven individuals holding that office within 15 years (Rudd holding it twice)—the fact that Pericles could preside over Athens for 32 years (461-429 BC) seems strikingly at odds with the idea that Athens was a democracy. Thucydides declared him “the first citizen of Athens”. Pericles was a rare leader: popular, imaginative, personally friendly with the great cultural figures of his time (including the sculptor Phidias, the dramatist Sophocles, and the philosopher Anaxagoras). He conceived and financed the building of the Parthenon. He turned the Delian League into an Athenian Empire. He did not shrink from war with Sparta over the future of Greece. But he died of the plague two years into that war and it saw the defeat of Athens, under less gifted leaders.

In one of the most celebrated passages of his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides reproduced and immortalised the funeral oration delivered by Pericles at the end of the first year of the war. Pericles declared to his fellow citizens:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy.

He went on, in eloquent words that have echoed down the ages, to describe the liberality of the Athenian political order, the open society that it made possible, the law-governed way of life it afforded its citizens, the way in which public deliberation was regarded as “an indispensable preliminary to any wise action”. “In short,” he proudly asserted, “I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas.” In many ways, his vision has remained that of modern democracies. Yet Thucydides showed that, after the death of Pericles, Athens faltered and went down to defeat.

Aristotle was concerned with workable realities rather than abstract ideals.

That defeat, quite as much as the virtues and wonders of ascendant Athens, ought to be the subject of our studies. It was certainly the background to the debates, in the fourth century BC, about the very nature of politics and sound government. The war ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 BC. The democracy condemned Socrates to death five years later. Plato (427-347 BC), born shortly after the death of Pericles, grew up during the war and was a disciple of Socrates in the years before the condemnation of his master by the democratic state.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) spent years at Plato’s Academy, years at the court of King Philip II of Macedonia, as the tutor of his son Alexander, and years living in Athens when, though self-governing, it was subject to the rule of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire. Only if we appreciate the biographies of Plato and Aristotle can we see in judicious perspective what shaped their political thinking and how far they rose above the turmoil of their times to think more deeply about fundamental matters of principle.

Plato’s influence on Western thought has been immense. The English-born philosopher Alfred North Whitehead went so far as to remark, a century or so ago, that “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. His most famous treatise, his Republic, was completed around 375 BC. It is a remarkable piece of work, best understood in the light of his 13 surviving letters and, not least, with reference to his attempts to guide the tyrants of Syracuse into becoming philosopher kings—attempts which failed.

Famously, Plato argued that the only way to create a just and stable society was to have it run by an elite caste who knew the truth, while others performed their subordinate roles in society dutifully, having received an appropriate education under the guidance of the rulers. In his late treatise Laws, he spelled out how such a society would be overseen by what he called the Nocturnal Council. Looking back, it is all too easy to see that imaginary body as the model for the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals or its Holy Office, or of the Marxist-Leninist vanguards of the 20th century. The theocratic Shia state in Iran, in fact, still looks to Plato’s thinking as a guide to its mode of government.

In his two-volume work The Open Society and Its Enemies (1944), the philosopher Karl Popper argued that Plato had been the pioneer of totalitarian thought. That is a fruitful discussion to have, even now, given the re-emergence of authoritarian governments in the 21st century. But one could never accuse Aristotle of being a pioneer of totalitarian thought or politics. In the contrast between the two, so early in the history of Western political thought, there is an education to be had. Aristotle had been a student at Plato’s Academy and his Politics includes an explicit critique of Plato’s Republic, on various grounds, and of his Laws. But above all, Aristotle was concerned with workable realities, rather than merely abstract ideals. He discusses the different kinds of constitution, even the different kinds of democratic constitution, the subtleties in some well-designed constitutions, the role of deliberation in different constitutions and the judicial function. For anyone attempting to get their minds around what politics is actually about—as distinct from Kevin Rudd’s crass maiden speech statement—there is no better place to start.

The eighth and final book of Aristotle’s Politics concerns education. He argues that education is a public good, that it should be funded and organised in the common interest, that it should include reading, writing, athletics, music, and drawing, and should be directed at ensuring the capacity of the individual to lead a good and balanced life, not a merely instrumental one. Just as he advocated a mixed and balanced constitution for the common good, he advocated a mixed and balanced education for each and all.

Notoriously, Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, openly defended slavery as an institution. This has, at times, been wielded against his work as a whole or even against the classical Greeks as such. Yet slavery was universal in the ancient world and deep into modern times. Moreover, Aristotle allowed that there were those, even in his own time, who denounced slavery as a violation of natural law. We can use the empirical and rational methods of Aristotle himself in disagreeing with him, thereby refuting a belief of his and demonstrating the merits of his approach to sound thinking, at the same time.

This essay is adapted from a chapter about ancient Greece in How Australia Is Made: A History of Western Civilisation for Australians, a project of the Centre for the Australian Way of Life. More information at australia.ipa.org.au

Paul Monk is the author of 11 books, including The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (2009), Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018), and The Three Graces: Companionship, Discretion, Passion—a book of 300 poems with original artwork by Ingrida Rocis (2022).

This article from the Spring 2022 edition of the IPA Review is written by author and history scholar Paul Monk.

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