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Greek and Democracy

Posted on March 13, 2018 — 6 Minutes Read

Dēmokratía (Democracy i.e. rule by the people) first emerged in the polis (city-state) of Athens in the Ancient Greece, and has been endorsed, notwithstanding the rise and fall of various political ideals in the time between, as the system of governance par excellence in the modern era. Crucial to democracy is universal suffrage, which ensures everyone an equal say in the manner in which a state and its people is governed. It is of perplexity to note that, however, the right to vote, along with the right to hold public office and own property, were, in the city-state of Athens, excluded from women and children, as well as from the Athenian residents of other origins, such as the Egyptians, Persians, and other minorities, who were collectively referred as the métoikos (metics), and from those who did not possess literacy in Greek, or those who did not follow the classical Greek custom which embeds the values shared by the community, who were referred to as the barbaros (barbarians), despite they amounted to more than 70 percent of the population.

Critics will be drawn to the evident discrimination against people of other gender, race and cultural background. One however must note that such legal and political rights were excluded from the Athenian residents of other Greek city-state origins as well, and that métoikos, that is an Athenian resident of other origin, might, after generations of residence and services in the city-state, be granted citizenship with full legal and political status, while an age-old citizen of Athens, on the other hand, might be atimos (disenfranchised or disqualified) as a citizen for committing crimes, breaching public duty or failing to pay a debt to the city-state. In view of this, perhaps one dimension to further understand the evident discrimination, that had a root beyond doubt in a misguided view of people of other gender, race and cultural background, is that the Athenians were as much concerned about the integrity and honour of the democratic process and outcome, and therefore decided to exclude such rights, that were of tremendous influence to the city-state as a whole, to which every citizen and resident of Athenian, whose wellbeing was immensely tied, from those who were unable to demonstrate competency in fulfilling the responsibility imparted with such legal and political rights, and in rendering an informed and reasoned political decision.

The city-state of Athens in Ancient Greece was at a time where language and custom remained a notable barrier to understanding and deliberating politics and current affair. Informedness about the motivation, the execution, as well as the potential consequences, intended or otherwise of a motion was beyond grasp for those who did not posses a level of literacy in the language of the state, or for those who did not follow the common custom which embeds the community values. This, at a time without sophisticated measure for determining literary in the common language and custom, nor sufficient technology to facilitate exchange between different languages with full awareness of the cultural and historical world embedded in the words, resulted in a blunt exclusion of certain legal and political rights from those who did not speak Greek, and those who did not follow the Greek custom. The time of the city-state of Athens was also an era of work specialisation and role mastery. It relied on the enslaved to sustain the necessities of life for all, and on the women in organising household affair, with only a selected few of the Athenian having the time and resources to be informed and to deliberate in politics. Notwithstanding that the reason for such specialisation of work and division of responsibility was perhaps a result of discrimination and prejudice, such an arrangement of economic activity provided however a ground, despite on a misguided root, for limiting the right to vote as well as other crucial legal and political rights to those selected Athenian with the time and resources to engage in current affair.

The time now is nothing like the past, nor was the time past anything like some critics would like to charge. Modern systems of governance emphasised on ensuring everyone an equal say in the manner in which a state, and most importantly its people, are governed. The modern world, as a result, embraced universal suffrage, with a representational structure of one form or another, inspired by the Roman Republic, instead of the direct democracy as in ancient Athens, to account for the growing population today, and the diverse interests and agendas of the people. It is true that while on the one hand, competency in language and common custom is no longer a significant barrier to rendering an informed and reasoned political decision, nor is gender, race or cultural background of any obstacle given an increasingly diverse world, most people of the modern time are, on the other hand, in an economic organisation of division of labour and a capitalist ideal of material attainment, demoted of the motivation or rid of the capacity to render an informed and reasoned political decision, that measures to the immense power and responsibility imparted in the right to vote, as well as other legal and political rights, that are now universal.

Long forgotten since the time of the city-state of Athens is the safeguard, however imperfect, it had in place, to ensure that the resulting political governance was a process and an outcome of a democracy of informedness and reason. A safeguard, that was in place when democracy was first developed around the 5th century BC, in the Greek city-state of Athens, and has since then been misinterpreted and forgotten. A safeguard that perhaps needs a reconstruction and a reintroduction to protect the informed and reasoned few, from the tyranny of the uninformed and unreasoned mass in modern democracy. Recklessness and abuse are charged of those who exercise immense power without being held accountable, and tyranny of those who, by cruelty and force, oppress the few. It is difficult to see how those who cast an uninformed and an unreasoned vote, without realising the imparted power and responsibility, and the resulting influences and consequences, are of any difference.