New Website of Interest

Martin Wilding Davies, formerly of the Newid Party (which advocated rule by sortition in Wales) has a new website that may be of interest.

19 Responses

  1. Martin, you make the claim at
    that “Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians”. This is complete and utter nonsense — just read any of the books, Hansen, Finley or whoever you choose. The difference between ancient and modern practice is a) the absence of political parties and b) final decisions (yes or no) were taken by either the whole people or an allotted sample. Almost all the legislative proposals and advocacy came from a tiny number of elite politicians. In the fifth century these were quasi-elected (rhetores kai strategoi) — Pericles was, in effect, elected dictator of Athens for 30 years or so. In the fourth century the rhetores and the strategoi separated, leaving the power of initiation and advocacy in the hands of the demagogues.

    By all means promote your system of klerotocracy, but don’t pretend it bears any meaningful relation to Athenian political practice. It’s an unproven and speculative experiment, and would appear to be a Trojan Horse to smuggle in your own agenda for monetary reform:

    The latter is a good example of how an allotted assembly with full powers could easily be hijacked by people with their own axe to grind. By all means start a political party with a monetary reform agenda but keep it separate from structural proposals for constitutional reform.


  2. As we discussed many times before, Keith, you present a very distorted picture of the Athenian system. You ignore completely the crucial agenda setting, proposal making, and advocacy roles of the allotted Boule (among other distortions).

    By all means promote your system of policy-veto-by-jury, but don’t pretend it bears any meaningful relation to the Athenian political practice.


  3. ‘Fraid not Yoram, the Boule was just the assembly secretariat. This is the case whoever you read (Hansen, Finley etc) but is emphasised most in Headlam, who is clear that most proposals were initiated by a tiny number of elite, semi-professional politicians. Although many of them were submitted under the name of an obscure council member, the real originator was an elite politician. Headlam also states that the boule was NOT a deliberative body, it served the administrative function of preparing the agenda for the council and the reason it was selected by sortition was in order to protect the sovereign assembly.

    The definitive work on the boule is Peter Rhodes’ monograph. I’m trying to get hold of a copy (it’s very expensive). Has anyone else read it? Everything that I read on the boule confounds your wishful thinking that it was a randomly-selected deliberative council along the lines that you (and Martin) are proposing. I’ve run this past two senior professors of Greek history and they have confirmed my understanding. It’s a shame that we don’t have some historians participating in this forum, as we do need to put this issue to rest.


  4. ‘Fraid that as usual you are making assertions with great confidence but without factual basis.

    It seems that you believe that Headlam (who alone among those you refer to actually held – over 100 years ago – the position you attribute to him) understood the Athenian system better than Aristotle.

    (Of course non-Boule-initiated proposals were predominantly made by an elite. That is exactly why it is a bad idea to have proposals made in a mass-political process.)


  5. 1. Hansen argues, reasonably, that for an accurate account of Athenian politics you should go to the contemporary documents and historians, not the philosophers.

    2. All assembly proposals came via its secretariat (the council); the ultimate source of most of them was a tiny number of elite politicians. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that policy proposals emerged as a result of deliberation in the council and they were always presented to the assembly in the name of a single person, never the council as a whole.

    None of this suggests that Martin and yourself should not propose a modern allotted deliberative chamber but that’s no excuse for making entirely misleading historical claims.


  6. 1. Going to contemporary documents is great, but you have not done so. Suggesting that Headlam is a better source for how the Athenian system worked than Aristotle (who generated contemporary documents) is “complete and utter nonsense”.

    2. Can you provide any evidence that proposals “were always presented to the assembly in the name of a single person, never the council as a whole”? That would be interesting.

    None of this suggests that you should not propose a system that relies on an allotted body only for accepting or rejecting elite proposals based on (mis)information controlled by the elite but that’s no excuse for making entirely misleading historical claims.


  7. I’m not a historian, so I rely on the likes of Hansen and Headlam, who base their work on contemporary documents — mostly forensic speeches and the like — as opposed to the sort of “documents” produced by philosophers, whose concerns are primarily normative rather than historical. On the role of the boule:

    “The council was not, as we are apt to think, a dignified deliberative body, where men met together quietly in order to discuss and prepare schemes for the public welfare, which should afterwards be laid before the Assembly and receive its sanction. Had the council to initiate and decide upon POLICY [his emphasis], the leading rhetores [politicians] must have been members of it. . . It was not a deliberative, but an executive body; it was concerned not with policy, but with business.” (Headlam, p.57)

    To clarify the relationship between the council and the assembly, some half of the assembly’s decrees were proposed directly in the assembly and the other half via the council (Hansen, p.140). Of the latter a good number were on the initiative of the council (as opposed to the rhetores) but these were decrees of an administrative or housekeeping nature — permission to repair buildings, votes of thanks etc — “matters which required a vote of the Assembly, but which would as a rule be passed without opposition, and often without discussion” (Headlam, p.63).* I don’t know whether these minor administrative decrees were in the name of the council or an individual person but motions introduced by (non-member) citizens to the boule would then “be proposed by a councillor in his own name” (Hansen, 253). This practice has led to the erroneous view that the council, rather than the rhetores was the source of substantive decree proposals; in fact the council was more like a school board or an administrative committee than the House of Commons [in the 1890s] (Headlam, p68).

    None of this is remotely controversial to ancient Greek historians.

    * The ancient equivalent of orders in council, that are not debated by parliament.


  8. Your Hansen quotes are neither here nor there. So, as expected, your only basis for your grand claim is a single book written in the 19th century by someone promoting a very specific view of the Boule and of sortition.

    (BTW, the paragraph you quote from Headlam is typical to his method. He assumes that policy must originate with the elite, so, according to him, any group that is not dominated by elite members cannot generate policy. Headlam therefore proves nothing except for his own preconception.)


  9. Keith and Yoram,

    Greek historians agree that the Boule (Council of 500) set the agenda for the Assembly, as well as making countless administrative (executive decisions). Keith considers it significant that proposals were initiated by an individual. This is just as in modern elective legislatures, where proposals star as a “motion” by ONE person, so this does not really tell us much about the deliberative process they used in shaping the final version of the proposal. I would venture a guess about the role of elites in that system: It varied over time, with periods when a handful or “politicians” made most proposals, and other times where this function was widely distributed. One snapshot cannot capture the functioning of the Boule over two centuries of work.


  10. Hi Terry,

    I agree – it is quite likely that Athens experienced fluctuations over time in the division of power between the democratic elements – the Boule and other allotted magistracies – and the elites – working through the mass political institution of the Assembly.

    What is unlikely – in view of the evidence and in particular in view of the way Aristotle deals with the lot and its role in democracy – is that the Boule was considered a body whose role is mechanical and has no political discretion (and thus power). This view reflects modern elitist ideology, not Athenian sensibilities or Athenian practice.

    BTW, I would not bother rehashing this issue if it wasn’t for Keith dismissing rather aggressively (“complete and utter nonsense”) the point of view he dislikes (employing his usual tactic of making confident assertions which, when challenged, he is unable to provide any convincing evidence for).


  11. Keith, presumably you’ve got hot under the collar about Tom Atlee’s blog post? Best you shake Hansen and Headlam at him rather than at me or at Yoram. There’s an attribution to Tom in the first line.

    I’m sure you recall what was inscribed in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, according to Pausanias? You should dwell on it.


  12. Terry/Yoram, it depends what you mean by “sets the agenda”, as this could either be an administrative or a deliberative function. Headlam, Hansen, Finley, Manin and Urbinati all claim that the council was little more than the assembly secretariat. Apart from some general remarks by Aristotle* on the nature of sortition, what contrary evidence do you have (“venturing a guess” doesn’t count) that the council was a deliberative body that generated policy proposals for the assembly? I don’t include here minor housekeeping decrees that were usually nodded through the assembly, frequently without even bothering to call a vote. Anachronism is the principal enemy of good history — just because a congregation of elected** officials looks like a deliberative parliament we assume that it acted like one.

    Yoram, where is the evidence for your claim that Headlam’s historical work was distorted by his elitist assumptions? You clearly know more about his provenance than I do, as there is nothing in the book to indicate that. Is there a biographical study that I have missed, or is this a general claim about late-Victorian intellectuals?

    Martin, blogs on political party websites are generally moderated, so I assumed Tom’s wildly misleading post met with your approval. And you cannot deny that Ordinary People is combining a structural constitutional proposal together with a substantive (and eccentric) project of monetary reform. The danger of this conflation is that you will achieve neither of your aims.

    * Hansen claims that our widespread misunderstanding of Athenian democracy is primarily on account of Plato and Aristotle.

    ** in Headlam’s sense of election by lot


  13. Keith,

    You ask for evidence that the randomly selected council was more than administrative/executive …

    Classics scholar Josiah Ober in a paper in 2007 (“What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy.” version 1.0. Stanford. online, accessed 05/21/2012. ) notes evidence from a decree in neighboring democratic city of Eritria, that a council selected by lot was the key institution in Greek democracy, and may even have been more central to the Greeks’ concept of democracy than the People’s Assembly . He writes:

    “…a popular deliberative council chosen from the entire citizen body. The Greek recognition of the centrality of a popular council for democracy is underlined by a recently discovered inscription from Eretria. In ca. 340 B.C. the Eretrian democracy promulgated a decree offering rewards to a potential tyrant killer, that is, to anyone who took direct and violent action against those who sought to overthrow the existing democratic government. In a revealing passage, the decree orders all citizens to fight without waiting to receive orders if anyone tries to establish “some constitution other than a Council and a prutaneia (a subset of the Council) appointed by lot from all Eretrians.” (Knoepfler 2001, 2002; translation Teegarden 2007).

    While this doesn’t prove the ATHENIAN Council was viewed this way…nor does it prove it was deliberative, it does suggest the randomly selected council was KEY to the very concept of Greek democracy.


  14. Absolutely agree regarding the centrality of an allotted council — that passage is cited frequently and it’s just as relevant to Athens as any other democratic polis. The distinction is between an allotted council and the older form of council that was composed of a hereditary aristocracy. In Athens this was the Council of the Areopagos and it was progressively sidelined by the boule as Athens became more democratic. The controversial issue remains as to what the primary function of the boule was, and my understanding is that it was to ensure the primacy of the assembly. I’m not aware of any evidence for the alternative view — i.e. that the agenda for the assembly emerged as a result of the internal deliberations of the boule. My understanding is that this was only the case for minor administrative decrees, as opposed to proposals to change the law (unless one of the leading politicians happened to be a member). Peter Rhodes’ monograph on the boule is the one that we need to refer to in order to resolve this issue, but I don’t have a copy.


  15. > The controversial issue remains as to what the primary function of the boule was, and my understanding is that it was to ensure the primacy of the assembly.

    Actually, the Boule (together with the other allotted magistrates) ran the city, as anyone who reads sections 44 to 54 of Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution knows. Of course, the idea that all this administration could happen without deliberation (as Headlam and you would us believe) is incredible. You might as well claim that the primary function of the UK cabinet is to ensure the primacy of the parliament.

    As for the specific matter of deliberations regarding legislative proposals, Aristotle puts it this way (section 45):

    It [the Council] takes, however, preliminary cognizance of all matters brought before the Assembly, and the Assembly cannot vote on any question unless it has first been considered by the Council and placed on the programme by the Prytanes; since a person who carries a motion in the Assembly is liable to an action for illegal proposal on these grounds.

    I know of course that for real scholars like you such “general comments by Aristotle” are nothing of importance compared with Rhodes’s mysterious monograph, but a mere activist like me is too simple to ignore the primary sources.


  16. Two quick points. First, I really don’t know any scholar who takes Aristotle as the last word on the constitution of Athens. Indeed, everyone seems to agree he’s misleading on some point or other, so we really shouldn’t take him as settling the matter. Second, perhaps what this discussion really needs is a more careful sorting out of just what “deliberative” or “administrative” functions look like, and what makes them different. Without that, it’s impossible to evaluate the claim that an AC could handle more than “administrative” functions. There’s been a little of this on the blog, but I think it’s worthy of further attention.


  17. By all means. I think a discussion of what functions are more suitable or less suitable for an allotted body is more interesting than contemplating the fine details of the Athenian system.

    As for the authority of Aristotle: like any other source he may be wrong or misleading. However, given that Keith has adduced no primary sources (or indeed any secondary sources, other than Headlam) to support his claims, I think Aristotle is more than enough for now.


  18. No one is seeking to dispute that:

    1. The council prepared the agenda for the assembly. I believe this accounted for around 1/2 of assembly decrees, the balance being proposed directly by inidividuals in the assembly.

    2. The council was responsible for the day-to-day running of the city.

    What is at issue is:

    1. Whether or not proposals to change the law (as opposed to administrative decrees) arose from the internal deliberations of the council. All the evidence would point to a negative answer. I’m not an historian so I rely on the reports of Hansen and others, who base their conclusions on contemporary evidence (forensic speeches etc) and contemporary historians (Thucydides, Xeonophon, Herodotus etc). Hansen is less disposed to take the word of philosophers like Aristotle, on account of their normative case against democracy. I suppose in this respect he is making a similar argument to Yoram’s judgment on Headlam, although this is based on evidence rather than supposition regarding the elitist views of Victorian intellectuals (Aristotle cannot be accused of hiding his contempt for democracy by pretending to be an historian).

    None of this has any impact on the argument of Terry, Yoram etc that a modern allotted chamber should not deliberate and generate legislative proposals, but references to a similar role for the Athenian boule would appear to be incorrect. I’ve tracked down a copy of Rhodes’ monograph and will see if he agrees with what appears to be the unanimous verdict of classical historians. Needless to say there are other arguments against the role that Terry and Yoram are proposing, but we’ve covered those elsewhere, our concerns here are purely historical.

    2. Parallels between the ancient council and the modern cabinet are entirely anachronistic. I’ve just read the 2001 paper by Judith Tacon on the role of thorubos (uproar and heckling) in the assembly. She concludes that successive historians have distorted Athenian democracy by seeing it through the lens of their own preconceptions. Historians like Mitford saw Athenian democracy as A TYRANNY IN THE HANDS OF THE PEOPLE (his capitalisation), whereas Grote “presented ancient democratic Athens as almost a mirror image of a stable, liberal mid-Victorian polity”. We need to beware of falling into the same trap.


  19. Rhodes’ monograph is a detailed PhD thesis, so I haven’t had time to plough through it all (off on hols this afternoon), but here’s a few snippets:

    “The boule did discuss policy, and the principal politicians did think it worth their while to attend its non-secret sessions. Yet a council of a few hundred men must still have been too large a body for the corporate discussion of policy.” (p.80) “Policies were on the whole the policies of individual men, and their carrying out depended on the continuing popularity of these men and of what they stood for with the boule and the demos” (p.81)

    The chapter on legislation only has five pages on bouleatic decrees, the vast majority being the business of the ecclesia. However there are two full chapters on the “various kinds of decision which could be taken by the boule” and these are the chapters on Administration and Jurisdiction (punishment). The implication of this is that these were the main functions of the boule, rather than making legislative proposals; when the latter is involved this depends on the popularity of individual men.

    “The assembly remained sovereign; it took all the major decisions . . . [the boule] took the lesser, ‘ministerial’ decisions, which could not wait for the next meeting of the assembly, but had to be taken to ensure that the people’s will was carried out … [yet] policy was discussed in the boule, and the boule was prepared in its probouleumata to make recommendations on important and controversial topics as well as on matters of routine.” So Rhodes’ conclusions are more nuanced, but this was mainly “decrees concerning Athens’ relations with other states” as opposed to the laws. (all from p.213)

    The boule was “a standing committee of the ecclesia, which by its advance preparation of business could enable the ecclesia to debate more effectively on the few occasions when it met.” (p.223)

    I’ll read the book carefully when I get back.


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