Inside a Culture of Blame

This blog post will bring the focus back to the modern world, considering the issues modern politics may face around fact, and why we must begin to take responsibility for what we vote for.

One of the most important aspects of democratic politics is accountability, where an individual is held responsible for their actions and as a result feel the after-effects of the negative results of their decisions. It is particularly important with representative democracies, as for example in the UK, if individuals feel as though the Member of Parliament for their constituency does not truly represent them or their area, then they are able to either vote them out at the next election, or through a vote of no confidence. Now this may seem incomparable with Athenian Democracy, which is famous for being a ‘direct democracy’, but we may be comparing like with like more than we think.

Pnyx Albumen Print, depicting the carved speaker’s staircase. This image was taken between 1865 and 1895, and belongs to Cornell University Library.

Whilst Athenian democracy was what we in the modern world would define as a direct democracy, this is not truly accurate. Direct democracy means that the electorate decides on policy without representatives, so the decisions are made by the citizens directly.[i] Technically, therefore, every individual was able to vote and play a clear and direct part in what was being voted for. This has two initial problems regarding the ancient world. Firstly, while Athenian democracy was what we would see as a direct democracy, Morgens Hansen calculated the potential seating capacity of the Pnyx,[ii] which could only hold at most 6000 people, around a third or fourth of the potential participants (male Athenian citizens).[iii] Saxonhouse points out that, while Athenian democracy relies on the participation of the citizen body, it has never seen a full meeting of all citizens.[iv] Athenian democracy was therefore in a sense representative; the 6000 citizens who get involved on any given day represented all Athenian citizens through their voting.[v] This is a vital consideration for us when attempting to use Athenian democracy to solve modern political issues, as highlighted by Bouricius, as some political theorists dismiss Athenian democracy due to scale issues, believing that there can be no practical lessons when the number of those involved is so different.[vi]

The second issue with seemingly direct democracy in Athens is accountability. When considering a direct democracy, accountability could be slightly more complex, as people cannot just be voted out of power, as is the case in a representative democracy. As mentioned in previous blog posts, and mirrored in the modern world, a problem with Athenian democracy was the lack of importance around fact, and a heavier weighting on the power of persuasion.  An issue here, is that when individuals were persuaded to vote in a certain manner, the individual who persuaded them was turned on if things went wrong, with no consideration that for that course of action to be taken it had to be voted on by Athenian citizens. The community would therefore jump to turn on one or two people for a tragedy, rather than taking any responsibility for the power of their individual vote. There are countless examples of this phenomenon throughout Athenian democracy, one being the Trial of the Generals following the Battle of Arginusae in 406BC, where a storm prevented the rescuing of the survivors of the battle, leading to the death of a great number of people, and a group of six of the eight generals commanding the fleet were tried and executed as a group essentially due to public uproar, something which was not legal in Athenian society at the time.[vii] Later, the public turned on those who were the instigators of the executions, and while these individuals escaped, one returned several years later, and died of starvation due to the hatred other citizens had for him.[viii] Public opinion was, as it still at times seems to be today, contrary, and simply following the strongest voice at the time. Instead of taking some responsibility for what individuals have voted for, they would merely turn on the leaders.

Flags at the People’s Vote march, London 2019, requesting a second referendum on Brexit – photo by Andrew Gray.

This is not something which is alien to the modern world. If we consider Britain’s exit from the European Union, we can see individuals clearly being turned on by others as soon as negative consequences are revealed. David Cameron, for example, made the decision to hold the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016, and as soon as the vote had taken place, Cameron left office, allowing others to feel the aftereffects of such a monumental decision. Following over half a decade of the public being told that leaving the European Union would be straightforward and lead to a much better standard of life, suddenly we see the lack of stock in various businesses, be it the lack of beer in Wetherspoons, chicken in Nando’s, or problems with fuel.[ix] Some may argue that there is a variety of reasons for this stock depletion, yet some companies have even displayed signage claiming the lack of stock to be the result of Brexit.

The Irish Border – during a trip to Northern Ireland in 2016 Boris Johnson claimed that Brexit would leave the border arrangements ‘absolutely unchanged’, one of many clear lies in the Brexit process. This image depicts part of the border pre-Brexit, marked only by a speed sign, as the Republic of Ireland use kilometres per hour on signage. Photo © Oliver Dixon (cc-by-sa/2.0), taken 2007.

Now individuals seem to turn more on those like the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his former aide Dominic Cummings, to highlight the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of their campaigns, perhaps without truly considering what they were voting for in the first place. While their lies and half-truths must be highlighted, and these individuals should be held to account for these, individuals must interrogate their own voting history and hold themselves to account. Both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns for the 2016 referendum were filled with lies, as has been highlighted by various fact-checking agencies,[x] but no one really seems to care. For many, the facts themselves seem irrelevant; people only want to hear the opinions which reiterate their own stance, and once things go wrong the lack of fact involved if anything helps them – it is easier to turn on something which you have believed in solely on the basis of persuasion and opinion, rather than something factual which you have critically analysed. While lies from those within politics must be highlighted, we must also consider the role we play ourselves, through who and what we vote for.

Whilst absolutely vital that we hold those in office accountable for their actions, we must also hold ourselves responsible. One of the key purposes of representative democracy, I believe, is to have individuals who understand the current political issues more clearly, who can dedicate more time to understand them than an individual with another job. If we allow fact to no longer matter, we run the risk of encountering an issue where we have a constant turnaround of individuals in power who get to that position by lying. The power of rhetoric is one of the most dangerous aspects of a democracy, and if we allow persuasion to continue to have the power it has today, we may find that the negative consequences continue to spiral. We must hold ourselves accountable, and push ourselves to dig deeper, and look for facts where we can – not simply soundbites which back up our own beliefs.

[i] What defines ‘the citizens’ can greatly vary; in Ancient Athens, citizens with the franchise were defined by being adult male individuals who had completed military training, and were born of Athenian citizens, although the exact requirements vary depending on the time.

[ii] The Pnyx was the official meeting place of the democratic assembly from around 507BC onwards.

[iii] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

There are disagreements amongst scholars over the number of male Athenian citizens, and of course there was never one precise number, with different laws and social change impacting the number of citizens at a time. At some points, the number may have even been as high as 60,000, but this would have fallen dramatically during the Peloponnesian War.

[iv] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

Arlene Saxonhouse is a professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. It is particularly interesting to consider opinions from Classical Scholars and other academic communities, especially when considering political theory.

[v] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

[vi] Bouricius, T. (2013) ‘Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day’ in Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 9: Issue 1, Article 11.

[vii] To learn more about the Battle of Arginusae and the Trial of the Generals look to Xenophon’s Hellenica, Debra Hamel’s (2015) The Battle of Arginusae, Victory at Sea and Its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War. For a more satirical approach, look to Aristophanes’ Frogs.

[viii] Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.7.35.

[ix] Espiner, T. (September 2021) ‘Wetherspoons runs low on some beer amid driver shortage’, BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58395401.

[x] Quinn, B. (May 2019) ‘Boris Johnson lied during EU referendum campaign, court told’ The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/23/boris-johnson-lied-during-eu-referendum-campaign-court-told.

A Butterfly Effect?

This blog post will consider Barack Obama’s comments regarding a truth decay, or a crisis of fact, where the truth does not matter anymore, particularly regarding the Trial of Socrates. This post will focus on this case study and consider how it may apply to the modern world, and the warnings this case study brings with it.

A Butterfly Effect is a theory where small changes can lead to unpredictable variations in a system.[i] It is commonly described through a butterfly, flapping its wings, and elsewhere in the world causing a typhoon.[ii] The crisis of fact which we in the modern world are experiencing, according to former US President Barack Obama, could have knock-on effects lasting for centuries, something which could be seen in the Ancient World by the Trial of Socrates.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Trial of Socrates is seen by some to be a miscarriage of justice.[iii] In 399 BC the philosopher faced trial on two charges: impiety against the pantheon of Athens and corrupting the youth of the city.[iv] This blog post will focus on the latter charge. Socrates’ supposed corrupting of youth appears to stem from his questioning of his students regarding political systems. Socrates did appear to maintain some anti-democratic views; according to Xenophon,[v] Socrates believed that the opinion of the majority does not lead to correct policy, but that correct policy instead stems only from the opinions of a few, selected based on competence and knowledge.[vi] Socrates also seemingly openly criticised respected leaders of Athenian democracy, and praised Sparta and Crete, both of which being undemocratic city-states.[vii]

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia by Nicolas-André Monsiau, circa 1800. Socrates supposedly did not limit his discussions, and interacted with individuals from a variety of classes and genders. The Aspasia this painting is said to depict is Aspasia of Miletus, the famous metic (foreign resident of Athens) and mistress of Pericles.

But why did this lead to Socrates’ death, and what relevance does this truly have for us today? Shortly before the Trial of Socrates was the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchy ruling Athens under Sparta in 404-403 BC,[viii] where many opposed to the new government fled Athens.[ix] Before this, in 411 BC, was the coup of the Four Hundred, another oligarchic system which existed for only a short amount of time but did for this time succeed in overthrowing the democratic government of Athens. Once democracy was restored in 411BC, individuals supportive of this were fearful of the system being overthrown once again, and thus came about the Oath of Demophantos. This was a sacred oath which had to be sworn by all male Athenian citizens, and included the claim: “I shall kill by word and by deed and by vote and by my own hand, if I can, anyone who overthrows the democracy at Athens”.[x] By questioning his students on the positives and negatives of different political systems, and by his various associations with the Thirty Tyrants, Socrates was, in the eyes of some, questioning the power of democracy, and thus was sentenced to death. The Oath of Demophantos, problematic in itself, illustrates to the modern reader the power which was given to citizens to prevent the downfall of democracy. If another political system gave individuals such power to murder within the law, would this system millennia later be placed on the pedestal that individuals in the modern world appear to raise Athenian Democracy to?

During his trial, friends and students encouraged Socrates to escape Athens, but Socrates refused, staying, and drinking the hemlock.[xi] But why? There are several interpretations of this amongst scholars. Stone argues that Socrates wished to be sentenced to death in order to provide backing for his distaste of Athenian democracy,[xii] as is somewhat supported by Waterfield who considers Socrates’ death to be motivated by a higher purpose, healing some of the problems of the city through his pseudo-voluntary death.[xiii] If this is the case, Socrates is in a sense attempting to become a martyr of oligarchic rule, highlighting the flaws of Athenian democracy, a system which will not allow individuals to fully question and consider whether this way of political life is optimal for all citizens beneath it.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787), supposedly depicting Socrates being visited by friends during his last night in prison.

Democracy in Athens had already begun to fracture before the Trial of Socrates, as can be seen from the coup of 411 BC and the Rule of the Thirty Tyrants, but the Trial of Socrates seems to me to have, at least in part, had a lasting impact on the legacy of Athenian Democracy. After the invasion of Rome, we in the modern world do not see the revival of Athenian Democracy until the French and American Revolutions, and even then, these democratic values appear much more invested in Roman ‘democracy’ than in Athenian, with Athenian democracy only truly idolised once more in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. We must therefore consider, was this long break for democracy due in part to the issues highlighted by Socrates, where an individual cannot question their political systems? Surely the ability to question your political system is, in itself, democratic, and it is undemocratic to say individuals cannot question the system of government they exist under?

Socrates drinking the Hemlock, from MacGregor’s The Story of Greece and Rome, originally published in 1914.

Truthfully, the downfall of Athenian democracy was through many different causes coming together, however if we in the modern world wish to maintain our democracies for what we see them as today, it is crucial to consider these causes and attempt to apply solutions to them in the modern world. Whether Socrates was the sole butterfly flapping its wings causing the typhoon of the crashing down of Athenian Democracy is unlikely, but it is certainly an interesting consideration, as throughout Socrates’ trial there is, as recorded by Plato, an interesting discussion around truth, where both sides claim to be using facts and factual analysis and yet each maintain that the other is lying.[xiv] This brings us back to the comments by Barack Obama around the crisis of fact that we face today. When speaking in court under oath, it is a crime to lie, but should we take this a step further and take this across to politics, and attempt to have some kind of constant fact-checking, or legal consequences for lying while in government? Or would this be far too difficult to measure and maintain? Yet perhaps more importantly, do some people in the modern world care if they are being lied to, or would individuals rather just hear whatever supports their point of view and not have anyone challenge these ideas with facts? This is something which will be explored in my next blog post.

The power of persuasion regardless of the truth was, I believe, a factor in the deterioration of Athenian democracy, as individuals would often vote in favour of whoever persuaded them more, and then turn on that individual alone when things went wrong, taking no responsibility for their own contribution through voting. The trial of Socrates may have been an argument against the reestablishment of democracy throughout the following centuries, yet we cannot allow issues within individual democracies to prevent individuals from having the power to vote for their futures for further millennia.

It is vital that we, in the modern world, look at the lack of truth and true accountability in politics today, and consider what can be changed, before persuasion is truly all that matters anymore once again.

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] Lorenz, E. (Originally presented 1972, published here 2000) ‘The Butterfly Effect’ in The Chaos Avant-garde: Memories of the Early Days of Chaos Theory.

[ii] Dooley, K. (2009) ‘The Butterfly Effect of the “Butterfly Effect”’ in Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 3.

[iii] Cartledge, P. (2016) 118 Democracy, a Life., Dunne (2005) 43 Democracy, A History.

[iv] Plato, Apology, 18 b-d.

[v] Xenophon was a friend and student of Socrates, as well as a military leader. He recorded several Socratic dialogues.

[vi] Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.2.9, Plato, Critico, 47c-d.

[vii] Morrison, J. (1955) ‘Socrates and Antiphon’ in The Classical Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, p.11., Vlastos, G. (1983) ‘The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy’ in Political Theory, Vol. 11, No. 4.

[viii] Whitehead, D. (1982/1983) ‘Sparta and the Thirty Tyrants’ in Ancient Society vol 13/14.

[ix] Waterfield, R. (2009) Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, 183.

[x] Oath of Demophantos, original lost but copy preserved through Andokides’ On the Mysteries.

[xi] Colaiaco, J. (2001) Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial, p.25.

[xii] Stone, I. (1988) The Trial of Socrates

[xiii] Waterfield, R. (2009) Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, 204.

[xiv] Cartledge, P. (2016) 129 Democracy, a Life., Plato Apology 17a-b.

The Crisis of Fact

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.

Barack Obama speaking at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, 2016.

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.

Bust of Pericles, Athenian statesman in the 5th Century BC, and Boris Johnson’s supposed hero.

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?

President Donald Trump talks to press, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, before signing the S-422 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorisation Act in the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

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.