History Today July 2005 pp. 62-63
Tom Palaima is professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Full Book Title First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea 2005
Author Paul Woodruff
Publisher Oxford University Press
Pagination 284 + xvi pp.
Price 14.99
ISBN 0195177185
Reviewer Tom Palaima

Recommended further reading:

JACT (Joint Association of Classical Teachers), The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture (Cambridge 1984).
P.J. Rhodes, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology (London 2003).
J.M. Moore, Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy (Berkeley 1975).

Reinhold Niebuhr claimed that "[m]an's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." Neibuhr's pronouncement is better than most. It acknowledges that the kinds of governments we call democracies, throughout history, come into being when forms of government that operate to the advantage of smaller power groups (kings, dictators, juntas, aristocracies, oligarchies) become intolerably unjust. It is arguably nave in positing that democratic governments arise in the interests of justice. Paul Woodruff's meditation on ancient and modern democracy shares Niebuhr's naivete.

Good thing, too. Many American classicists of a liberal persuasion are dumbfounded at the way prominent American classical historians like Donald Kagan and Victor Davis Hanson have used their scholarly authority, on the fifth-century Athenian historian Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) and on warfare and the Greek polis respectively, in support of neoconservative political doctrine and the unilateral might-makes-right-irrelevant foreign policy of the Bush administration. They ignore the clear lesson of Thucydides' history and the way Athens misused its unsurpassed military strength, cultural prestige and democratic energies in the mid to late fifth century. A democratic superpower acting myopically in what it thinks is its own self-interests, while asserting its pro-democratic benevolence-what Athenian imperialist statesman Pericles called 'spreading kharis'-will ultimately do irremediable harm to itself and other states at least in equal measure. Whether Hanson and Kagan are nakedly cynical, blinded by neocon doctrine, or giddy to be in the orbit of real power, is hard to tell.

Woodruff's humanistic philosophical take on ancient Athenian political history and modern American democracy restores some common sense. In fact, Woodruff sees common sense as a central feature of democracy, one that has to be nurtured, respected, and protected. In First Democracy, Woodruff lays out the Athenian politeia taken in the broad sense of the cultural attitudes and principles that made the Athenian experiment as successful as it was.

Woodruff is a first-rate student and translator of Greek philosophy, tragedy and history, and has long been interested in the Greek enlightenment of the fifth century. His last book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2002) also argued that a better understanding of ancient Greek and Chinese culture could benefit us.

In First Democracy he takes us beyond his own clear explanation of the mechanisms and practices of Athenian democracy, how and why they evolved and how they worked. He fixes our attention on the mind set and beliefs that supported for over two centuries what he clearly views as a noble experiment.

Woodruff believes that all democracies are experiments in the process of becoming. They are successful insofar as their citizens, of whatever political persuasion, believe in and work to sustain seven principles: freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant), harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge and education (in the Greek sense of paideia). Woodruff argues that each of these principles was easier to follow in sixth- through fourth- century Athens than in the twenty-first century United States. Nonetheless, there are good reasons for democracy to fail under any conditions in any period.

Human nature is the main culprit. It leads citizens of democracy, individually or in groups, to distrust, to pervert or to subvert what Woodruff calls the 'two explosive ideas' vital to the health and growth of democracy: "that we all know enough to govern our public life together, and that no one knows enough to take decisions away from us and do a better job of deciding, reliably and over the long haul."

Woodruff admits he is a scholar with a bias. He admits that Athenian democracy was imperfect. But he also believes that it generally worked for Athens, especially-and this is crucial to making his argument credible-during the fourth century. Most critics of ancient democracy concentrate on the defeat of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War without noting that democracy had an 80-year run afterwards. Three generations of Athenians enjoyed its benefits.

Woodruff further argues that the failures of Athenian democracy should not be viewed as failures of the underlying ideas. He believes that philosophers and historians who attack democracy for being unstable, erratic, undisciplined, unlawful and tantamount to the "tyranny of a mob of unqualified people" are dead wrong.

This is a tricky gambit that should fascinate, puzzle, and frustrate other readers as much as it did me. The Athenian system was notable for the degree to which individual citizens had a say in government. Common citizens were chosen by lot to serve annually in the council of 500 (boulé). One can calculate that in a normal generation, every citizen had something like a one-in-four chance of serving for a year in the Athenian equivalent of the American congress.

Important legislative or foreign policy issues were eventually debated in the citizen assembly, open to all citizens, but held in an area, the Pnyx, that could accommodate ca. 6,000 of the adult male population of around 40,000 citizens. The assembly made wrong choices, some disastrous. It voted to annihilate the neutral island-state of Melos in 416 B.C.E. and later to launch a risky expedition against the island of Sicily with the conservative statesman Nicias in charge. Woodruff traces these terrible errors of democratic judgment to failures to trust in the open exchange of ideas within the assembly (Nicias and Sicily) and to involve all factions in the community in decision-making (Melos).

In Woodruff's view, democracy could have made the right decisions in these cases if the citizens of Athens and the negotiators dealing with the oligarchic leaders in power in Melos had confidently insisted on open and honest deliberations and then reached decisions calmly and with a view to the common good, rather than following factional self-interest. This comes dangerously close to 'but if only' pleading.

The sad fact is that again and again in human history, oligarchic or tyrannical groups will distrust and manipulate the people in a democracy. And all parties will look primarily to their own advantage.

First Democracy closes with an afterword that entertains the question: "Are Americans Ready for Democracy?" Although Woodruff does not say so, I think the Athenians would recognize the kind of democracy the Bush administration thinks we are ready for. They would call it oligarchic tyranny. At the end of the fifth century it did them no good.

Back to the Editorials page