In 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States of America, former President Barack Obama spoke at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, as part of a state visit to Athens.[i] Obama highlighted the great contributions of Greek culture, particularly through theatre, to our understanding of the world, and our understanding of ancient history. Most notably, however, Obama spoke about the importance of Athenian democracy, echoing through the ages to today, claiming the flame lit in Athens was nurtured by the Enlightenment, and then fanned by the founders of the United States of America.
There is a slight flaw in Obama’s speech here. Like with many politicians, Ancient Athens and Greece more broadly is idolised by Obama, placed on a pedestal, without truly examining what Athenian democracy was, or what we in the modern world have, and can, learn from it. This is the purpose of this blog – to consider what similarities there are between modern and ancient democracies, and what solutions, or warnings, we in the modern world can take from studying ancient democracy.
The first thing we must consider is why politicians appear to simply look at ancient Athenian democracy nostalgically. After all, this appears to be a widespread outlook; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson claims his hero to be Pericles,[ii] and the generalised idolisation of ‘freedom’ in the United States of America being linked back to Athens, with no true explanation of what this really means, are just two examples. Despite Obama’s claims that American founders ‘fanned the flames’ of democracy, this democracy was much more focused on ancient Rome, so why the individual focus on Athens?[iii]
One reason for the nostalgic look to democracy by politicians, and the one I believe to be the most likely, is that realistically democracy in the modern world has not existed for that long – in some places it still does not. This surface-value outlook on Athenian democracy therefore provides a traditional basis for modern democracy, as although inaccurate, politicians can act as though it is part of human nature for all to be in favour of democracy. It was less than 100 years ago that all adult women were able to vote in Great Britain,[iv] so a full democracy which is closer to including all people, was only really established relatively recently. Following the takeover by Rome, and particularly through the writings of Polybius heavily criticising Athenian democracy,[v] democracy by ancient Greek standards was pushed aside and looked down on for centuries, and if any Greek political system was looked to, it was Spartan.[vi] Only around the French revolution of 1789 did individuals begin to look to Ancient Athenian democracy once more.
The fact therefore that there was such a long period of time where democracy was not even considered can imply that politicians are looking to ancient democracy to find an ancestral basis for this political system, as Obama claims in his speech, that democracy is an inevitable part of human nature. This, however, is simply not true. While there may be an innate desire in many to have power over their own lives, as seen throughout history, many wish to also have great power over the lives of others. Politicians do not look to the specifics of Athenian democracy, or the lessons we can learn from it, but rather to its existence as a reason to support the continuation of modern democracy. Whilst this is not necessarily negative in itself, a more useful course of action would be to also consider the lessons and warnings we can take from Athenian democracy, and thus this blog will exist as a new way of interrogating modern problems which have, in part, been faced before.
In an interview with 60 Minutes in 2020 about his new book A Promised Land, Obama claims that we have now experienced a presidency which has disregarded expectations for a president which have previously been observed by both republicans and democrats, but that most importantly we have experienced ‘what some people have called ‘truth decay’. Something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump, the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter’.[vii] The unimportance of fact was certainly something which was present in ancient Athens, as much more crucial was the power of rhetoric and persuasion.[viii] At the trial of Socrates, something some believe to have been a miscarriage of justice,[ix] Socrates was said to have addressed the power of rhetoric. As recorded in Plato’s Apology: ‘I don’t know whether you have been persuaded by my accusers. As for me, they spoke so cleverly that I have almost forgotten who I am. And yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they said… Now, as I say, they have said little or nothing true; but you shall hear from me nothing but the truth’.[x] There is a particular poignance here in the claim that Socrates has almost forgotten who he is through their persuasion; it does not matter, according to Socrates, whether they are using fact or not, but simply that the method of speaking has still done the job in persuading.[xi] What is especially interesting as well, is the last sentence of this extract. I am sure Socrates’ accusers would also claim that they have said nothing but truth, and so how trustworthy is this claim?
This trial could, and will in future blog posts, be examined further, as one of the flaws of ancient democracy, but immediately we see a connection to the modern world through this trial. Socrates’ claim that individuals have been persuaded by lies, and that he alone will speak the truth, to me echoes the claims of some politicians, particularly those like Donald Trump, who simply claim anything negative said by others is ‘fake news’.[xii] We must take warnings from these, to hold onto the truth where possible, as otherwise we simply look to the most persuasive individual, and considering the importance of the power of rhetoric to many dictators throughout history, this is a dangerous position to be in. In his interview with 60 Minutes, Barack Obama comments that he titled his book The Promised Land because despite the potential hardships and disappointments, a more perfect union of The United States of America could, at some point, be achieved.[xiii] The decay of truth must be addressed before any improvement can be possible, this decay could be a part of a spiral leading to the downfall of democracy, as will be examined around ancient Athenian democracy in future blog posts. Through this blog I will argue that it is crucial we look to Athenian democracy to take lessons and warnings from it, to ensure we do not lose democracy itself.
General information about this blog
Hello! I’m Katharine, and I am a Masters Student at the University of Warwick. You can find out more about me on the ‘About’ page! I created this blog to consider the similarities between Ancient Athenian Democracy and modern politics, and the lessons we can learn from it. I undertook this research through the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme in the Summer of 2021, following my final year at Undergraduate level.
Please feel free to comment on my blog posts, I would love to know your thoughts! Comments will be moderated, and I will attempt to reply to and engage with comments in a blog in around every fifth / sixth blog post. My posts will be released around every six weeks, so sign up to our email list to be notified whenever a new post is released!
[i] Obama (2016) Speech at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation accessible through YouTube.
[ii] Mount (2013) The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson xlii.
[iii] James Madison’s Papers, for example, heavily criticised Athenian Democracy, and argued that it was unstable.
[iv] Rubio-Marín (2014) ‘The Achievement of Female Suffrage in Europe: on Women’s Citizenship’ in International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 12. While women were not included in suffrage in Athens, we cannot compare directly, due to different societal norms.
[v] Polybius Histories 6.
[vi] Polybius Histories 6., Madison (1787) The Federalist Papers., Schwartzberg (2004) ‘Ancient Democracy and Legal Change’ in The American Political Science Review, Volume 98., Saxonhouse (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26.
[vii] Obama (2020) Interview with 60 minutes.
[viii] We must consider what actually constitutes ‘fact’, both now, and in antiquity. Today we have access to fact-checking software, and we can attempt to use this to hold politicians to account through this, but this was not the same in Ancient Greece. From reading ancient speeches, however, it is clear that individuals in the assembly would not just list facts to attempt to persuade other citizens, but rather, the language used shows clearly that rhetoric and persuasion itself were much more important.
[ix] Cartledge (2016) 118 Democracy, a Life., Dunne (2005) 43 Democracy, A History.
[x] Plato Apology 17a-b.
[xi] Cartledge (2016) 129 Democracy, a Life.
[xii] Trump, several occasions, one example in 2017 ‘Donald Trump accuses NBC of ‘fake news’, as accessible through Guardian News on YouTube.
[xiii] Obama (2020) Interview with 60 minutes.