Americans have an unwavering faith in democracy and are ever eager to import it to nations around the world. But how democratic is our own "democracy"? If you can vote, if the majority rules, if you have elected representativesdoes this automatically mean that you have a democracy? In this eye-opening look at an ideal that we all take for granted, classical scholar Paul Woodruff offers some surprising answers to these questions.
Drawing on classical literature, philosophy, and historywith many intriguing passages from Sophocles, Aesop, and Plato, among othersWoodruff immerses us in the world of ancient Athens to uncover how the democratic impulse first came to life. The heart of the book isolates seven conditions that are the sine qua non of democracy: freedom from tyranny (including the tyranny of majority rule), harmony (the blending of different views), the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education. He concludes that a true democracy must be willing to invite everyone to join in government. It must respect the rule of law so strongly that even the government is not above the law. True democracy must be mature enough to accept changes that come from the people. And it must be willing to pay the price of education for thoughtful citizenship. Ancient Athens didn't always live up to these ideals. Nor does modern America.
If we learn anything from the story of Athens, Woodruff concludes, it should be thisnever lose sight of the ideals of democracy. This compact, eloquent book illuminates these ideals and lights the way as we struggle to keep democracy alive at home and around the world.
A treatise on the roots of democracy, mixed with a few prescriptions for what the author believes to be ailing US politics today. Woodruff (Philosophy/Univ. of Texas, Austin; Reverence, 2001) catalogues the crucial factors that allowed Athens to develop a thriving democracy from around 500 to 300 BC. Most of those factors involve the state treating equally everyone designated as a citizen, while each citizen, whether rich or poor, tended to be educated and culturally homogenous enough to agree on decisions about how he wanted the state to behave. Much of this nuts-and-bolts history offers a fascinating lesson in civics. Legislation and important decisions in Athens were made by the first 6,000 men who showed up on a hill where the assembly traditionally met, but the topics discussed there first had to be vetted by a ruling council that was democratic because its members were determined by lottery. The system usually curbed mob rule, but sometimes the majority acted as a tyrant, forcing through such poor decisions as the failed invasion of Syracuse in Sicily. The system also checked, but was constantly dogged by, class warfare. Aristocrats often plotted to end a government that gave poor citizens as many rights as they had. The author subtly compares Athens to the United States, the implication being that current officials regularly undermine American democracy. Like the US, Athens was an influential state that sometimes had to act tyrannically to protect its far-flung interests abroad. Unlike the US, however, Athenian citizens had more of a hand in making day-to-day political decisions, rather than ceding decision-making to elected officials who received a majority of votes every fewyears. Some of these critical comparisons are too subtle; readers occasionally may wish Woodruff would simply spit out his charges. He's more explicit at the book's conclusion, laying out reforms he feels would bring the US in line with the ancients' democracy. An enlightening reminder of lofty-and, alas, elusive-ideals.