Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.