Book Review: Democracy’s Beginning

Greetings, everyone. Please excuse my long absence, due to – of all things – running in an election. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing ‘Democracy’s Beginning: The Athenian Story’ by Thomas N. Mitchell former Provost of Trinity College, Dublin for the Irish Times:

Alien and fascinating

It is common knowledge that democracy was invented in ancient Athens, but Mitchell explodes the myths of what that democracy was like. In Athens, all citizens had an equal say in public affairs (known as isegoria), staffed enormous citizen juries, were chosen for office by lottery, and were paid to participate in politics. In describing this way of life, Mitchell paints a picture of a society both alien and fascinating, underscoring the vibrancy of this long-lost civilization with a collection of maps and photos in the centre of the book.

His close scholarship shines in documenting the transition of Athens from financially and morally bankrupt oligarchy to emancipated democracy 2,500 years ago. It was not an easy or linear process, and the book tracks the many clashes of ideas and personalities with a commendable attention to detail that beautifully captures the essence of ancient Greek culture and politics.

From Solon’s economic balancing act, through the political reorganisation of Cleisthenes, the assassination of Ephialtes and, finally, Pericles, one of the most respected but sober leaders of the early democracy, Democracy’s Beginning explores this innovative and fearless experiment in “people power”.

Full review here. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Athenian democracy. It is extremely comprehensive and highly readable.

6 Responses

  1. Roslyn,

    Your author speaks of Athenians obsessed with war. The principal wars they were obsessed with were wars of defense with Persia and then Sparta. They fought for their survival and not much more.

    Arthur D. Robbins


  2. Arthur:> They fought for their survival and not much more.

    Really? I’ve always had the impression the Athenian culture was highly bellicose (and not just from Mitchell’s book, which I read a few months ago in proof). In fact the very development of democracy, and the extension of the franchise, was closely correlated with changes in military technology — from the hoplite phalanx to the navy. I appreciate that this doesn’t fit very well with your own psychiatric approach to political history in which wars are initiated by sociopathic oligarchs and dictators against the will of “the people”.


  3. Keith,

    This is a weak, sniveling, sarcastic response: uncalled for, unappreciated. Your vindictiveness would be more effective you backed it up with a few facts.



  4. Arthur,

    There was nothing intentionally sarcastic about my response — the perspective you take in your book draws heavily on your own psychiatric profession. However neither you nor I are experts in classical history, so we should be a little more respectful of those who are. It’s some time since I read Mitchell’s book, but I think my reflections on the correlation between the democratic franchise and military technology was drawn from it.


  5. Arthur, don’t bother with Keith. I’m not sure what his intellectual problems or his agenda are (I won’t waste time investigating or analyzing them). But, as much as he loves to argue, he certainly is (a) shockingly ignorant of many matters he addresses, (b) incapable of seeing to the essence of things, and (c) no democrat. ‘Nuf said.


  6. Ted,

    >incapable of seeing to the essence of things

    What I’m opposed to is the reduction of the complexity of political life to an ideology (in John Burnheim’s sense of the word), whether that be a post-Marxist or psychoanalytic one. It’s no coincidence that these two great 20th century ideologies have merged in the work of a number of influential (and largely incomprehensible) writers. John is also right to argue that the search for the “essence of things” is a fruitless metaphysical pursuit — the modern equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail. I’m certainly not a democrat in the fundamentalist sense that you privilege and am happy to admit my ignorance on a wide variety of matters. But then so was Socrates.


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