Reginald Walter Macan: early sortition advocate

The February 1892 issue of The Classical Review (vol. 6, No. 1/2) has a review by Reginald Walter Macan of James Wycliffe Headlam’s Election by Lot at Athens which was published the year before.

Macan talks approvingly of Headlam’s analysis of the rationale behind the use of sortition in Athens:

The Lot was used in the Athenian democracy for two main purposes, as Mr. Headlam explains clearly enough: to constitute bodies, that represented the sovran people, or were committees, commissions of the same (p. 161); to secure rotation of office (p. 94) — both these purposes being subordinate to the supreme end, the sovranty of the whole people.

However, in regards to the representation function, Macan is radically reinterpreting Headlam. The “representation” discussed in page 161 of Headlam’s book is that of carrying out technical, apolitical functions which require no judgement and which any Athenian would have performed in the same way.

The inspectors, then, were appointed by the people to act as stewards or bailiffs. The people was the owner of a large business establishment; the inspectors had to do the work of superintendence over the workmen which the owner had not time to do himself. They were a committee of the Assembly, or council, who were appointed by lot because they represented the whole people. The whole of the demos could not go together to the dockyards to see that the new ships which had been ordered were properly built, so they deputed a few of their number to do so, and as a matter of course, as in all such committees, made the appointment by lot.

The duties of the επıμεληται των νεωριων were indeed such as could be perfectly well performed by any intelligent citizen [Headlam, p. 160-161].

So there is no representation of the diversity of opinion among citizens (because no such diversity exists with regard to the technical tasks that the allotted are responsible for). Such representation function would have required an arbitrary, rather than random, selection – anyone would have done. Indeed, Headlam’s explanation of sortition is not about representation but all about participation. He is arguing that the entire Athenian citizen body was an aristocracy that had the leisure to allocate significant parts of their time and energy to running the city:

[In Athens] not only did the people collectively rule the state, but also these same men individually had, each in his turn, a share in the experience and responsibility of office. The centralised bureaucracy of the modern democratic state is far distant from what the Greeks called democracy. There if a man was a full citizen, he had not merely from time to time to give a silent and irresponsible vote in the Assembly or the law courts; he had to experience the honours and dangers of office. This could only be because the Athenian democracy was an aristocracy. It had all the characteristics of an aristocracy. It made the assumption that each citizen had the time and ability to undertake public duties. It was there held true that no man could be a good citizen whose life was fully occupied in earning the bare necessities of life. The Athenians had in fact that respect for leisure which is so characteristic of an aristocracy. Hard work was with them a disqualification. Men did not believe in the dignity of labour. The existence of the democracy depended on slavery. Slavery is now impossible. Our modern democracies are no more aristocratic. If they ever become so, it will be when the use of machinery is so far developed and society reorganised in such a way that the greater part of the population will be able, as the wealthy classes now do, to devote a portion of their ample leisure, not only to the discussion of political questions but also to the management of public business [Headlam, p. 180-181].

The implication of this argument is that Athenian citizen body functioned much like the British elite of his own time. Headlam is thus fulfilling the traditional role of the intellectual by offering an argument for concentrated power.

Macan seems to refer to a very different concept of representation, and he certainly draws very different conclusions.

There was, even in ancient Athens, another safeguard for democracy not second to the Lot, and generally associated with it by ancient politicians, though Mr. Headlam has not mentioned it, viz. payment for public service. The logic of democracy has led to the revival or extension in modern societies of this latter institution: if the Lot has not yet reappeared it may perhaps be due to the comparatively rudimentary stage which modern democracies have not yet transcended.

It is no wonder then that Macan makes the following comments:

[T]his little volume contains some observations which might suggest to present-day democrats devices for realising the democratic ideal, and might clarify the end and object of all such devices. Is it even so certain as Mr. Headlam seems to assume that the actual institution of appointment by Lot may not be revived by some democracy of the future?

Macan’s position then, unlike Headlam’s, is critical and democratic. He is arguing that it is the fact that the allotted are paid for their service, rather than fact that they are drawn from an elite, that allows them to do their job and that the use of sortition could very well be the hallmark of an advanced democratic society.

It therefore seems that it is fair to say that with this review Macan establishes himself as an early modern advocate of sortition. Preceding H. L. Mencken by over 35 years, Macan is, as far as I am aware, the earliest such advocate and the only one of the 19th century.

5 Responses

  1. I was enthralled by Headlam’s book, for its depiction of random selection of jurors, legislators, etc. I was equally amazed at his wealth of quotations in Latin, Greek (of course), Hebrew, French, German, Italian ALL UNTRANSLATED!

    Were the Victorian academics that well educated?


  2. Yes, it was his doctoral thesis at King’s College, Cambridge, where most students would have understood some Latin, Greek and Hebrew. I think French was still the international language of diplomacy, Italian is close enough to Latin, and Britain was ruled by Germans. We’re all ignoramuses!


  3. There is a BBC game show where they ask guests what they would do if they were king for a day. According to Headlam, the Athenians came close to actually doing that, at least for some, by rotating the ceremonial head of state among sortitioned civil servants.

    “The principle of rotation is even more strikingly illustrated if we look at the internal arrangements of the council. As the council was to the Assembly so were the xxxxx to the council. The council was a committee of the assembly, to which each member was appointed in rotation ; its duty was to clear the ground for the action of the assembly by disposing of and arranging all the details. The Prytanies were a committee of the council on which each member served in turn: it was a permanent sub-committee in almost permanent session; but the members of it continually changed, and thus by means of it the council was able to transact a mass of business without unduly taxing the energies of any individual member. And if we pass from the Prytanies to the xxxxx we find the same system of rotation carried even further. For one day of the year, if not every councillor, at least the great majority of them were in turn formal presidents of the whole state. In turn each presided in the meetings of the council, and (if there happened to be one on that day) of the assembly ; he took the chief place in any public dinner in the Prytaneum; he took the first place in any public procession; he had the key of the state treasury. Could equality, could democracy go further?” (Election by Lot at Athens, By James Wycliffe Headlam, pp. 51-52)


  4. “Could equality, could democracy go further?”

    That is a very superficial way of seeing things. A society could easily have a formal head of state rotating every day and still be oligarchical through-and-through.

    Headlam seems to have been a pretty good classical scholar but his political analysis is quite poor.

    In fact, Headlam’s oligarchical political worldview seemed to weigh so heavily on his mind that it actually hampered his judgement as a scholar. In the discussion of the probouleumatic role of the Boule, for example, Headlam manages to invent, without a shred of evidence, a custom where the Boule functions as the personal secretary of the members of the elite, taking dictation for phrasings of law proposals to be made in the Assembly:

    If an orator wished to propose a motion, he had first to move that the council introduce a probouleuma on the subject; they had to consider the matter of the proposal he wished to make, and then embody it in a motion in such a way as seemed to them most convenient; in this way provision was made for a consideration of the form of a Psephism before the motion itself came before the Assembly. As a rule the orator would doubtless be consulted by the council, and if he were a man of position we may imagine they would propose the probouleuma in the very words which he suggested [pp. 59-60].


  5. Yoram:> Headlam manages to invent, without a shred of evidence, a custom where the Boule functions

    Unfortunately the absence of evidence enables theorists (and activists) of various stripes to impose their own perspective — including anachronistic wishful thinking regarding the council as a deliberative forum. Headlam’s view certainly accords with most historians’ view of council as an administrative magistracy. Findlay certainly agrees that few proposals came from hoi polloi; note however that Headlam doesn’t claim that all proposals came from elite orators, and the need to embody proposals in a way that “seemed [to the council] most convenient” was a genuine constraint on the control of the agenda by aristocratic factions.


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