The expandable meaning of “democracy”

Traditionally, the word “democracy” has been used in Western political philosophy as a pejorative term. This use has been dominant for about 2,800 years – since the time of the Old Oligarch and Plato up to and including the time of the American and French revolutionaries. Those latter groups have adhered to this pejorative sense of the word “democracy” and have strenuously insisted that the systems they are constructing are “republican” rather than “democratic”.

The dominant pejorative meaning has been replaced by the by-now familiar celebratory meaning during the 19th century under the pressures of electoralism. As Francis Dupuis-Deri recounts the story of the word “democracy”, it was Andrew Jackson, who was the first U.S. presidential candidate who described himself as a “simple democrat”. This was, Dupuis-Deri writes, his winning campaign tactic in 1828, after having lost his bid in 1824 in which he still ran, like the other candidates in that race, under the banner of “republican” (Dupuis-Deri, Democratie, Histoire politique d’un mot, p. 320). Dupuis-Deri claims that the U.S. politicians of the 19th century were very conscious and deliberate about their adoption of the term “democracy” as a powerful marketing term. He cites the 1844 campaign booklet “Democracy” by Calvin Colton which opens with the following anecdote:

A Member of the House of Representatives, in Congress, a friend of Mr. Van Buren, met a Whig Senator, in a steamboat, in the early part of the Presidential campaign of 1840, when the former said to the latter, “Your Log Cabin and Hard Cider is a no go. We shall beat you.” “How so?” asked the Senator. “Mr. Van Buren,” answered the Member, “relies upon the words DemocracyDemocrat–and Democratic. We all rely upon them, as a party. While we wear this name, you can not beat us, but we shall beat you.” [Even though, in fact, Van Buren was more democratic candidate, t]he Member of the House was right, and the very reason he gave prevailed on the other side.–Mr. Van Buren was beaten.

An interesting parallel of the application of the word “democracy” to systems whose democratic credentials are far from solid is described by Angelos Chaniotis in his article “Illusions of Democracy in the Hellenistic World” (Athens Dialogues. 2010. Democracy and Politeia. Period Two). Chaniotis writes:

By the Hellenistic period the word demokratia, for a long time hated by the proponents of oligarchy and aristocracy, was widely acceptable. But it was also used to describe constitutions with clearly oligarchic or aristocratic features. A treaty between Rhodes and the Cretan city of Hierapytna (c. 201 BCE) contains for instance the following clause:

If anyone attacks the city or territory of the Rhodians or subverts their laws, revenues, or their established democracy (damokratian), the Hierapytnians shall assist the Rhodians with all possible strength. … If anyone deprives the Hierapytnians of their lawful revenues from the sea, or subverts the established democracy of the Hierapytnians, and the Hierapytnians ask for auxiliary force, the Rhodians shall send two triremes to the Hierapytnians.

Neither Hierapytna nor any other Cretan city had a democratic constitution.

In the mid-second century BCE, the greatest Hellenistic historian, Polybius, in his famous description of the Achaean League, characterized its constitution as a democracy:

Nowhere will you find a better constitution and more genuine ideal of equality, freedom of speech, and in a word a true democracy than among the Achaeans.

And yet, in the Achaean League a small minority of wealthy landowners, who formed the league’s cavalry, monopolized political power.

Although the word demokratia should not always be taken literally, as these passages show, it is true that in the Hellenistic period it had acquired a positive, albeit expandable, meaning. This is quite comparable with the expandable meanings of “democracy” in the modern world: no other artificially created word has had so great a dissemination (before the introduction of the Internet) as the word “democracy”—a term created some time in the fifth century BCE to describe the new Athenian institutions. But probably also no other political term has been subject to so many controversies, manipulations, inappropriate usages, and modifications. […] The “People’s Democracies” have little to do with the “parliamentary democracies,” but the word democracy is used in both cases. If we take a close look at Polybius’ statement (above), we notice that the historian qualifies democracy: the praise of “true democracy” (demokratias alethines) presupposes the existence of “false democracies.” The reference to the genuine ideal of democracy in the Achaean League is an implicit criticism on pretentiousness as regards the ideal of democracy elsewhere. This suggests that a very vague concept of demokratia was idealized, and at the same time the concrete institutional meaning of demokratia varied from city to city and from time to time. In the late third or early second century BCE, Magnesia on the Maeander arbitrated in one of the numerous Cretan wars, requesting one of the leading powers, Gortyn, to let the Cretans live in democracy. When the Magnesians referred to demokratia in this context, they did not apply a technical term; they did not recommend a specific constitutional form or reform. They were using a catchphrase that admitted multiple interpretations.

Chaniotis discusses two situations in which supposedly democratic cities were in fact dominated by non-democratic forces. The first was when the city was under the power of an external monarch. The second case was when it was dominated by an internal elite. As Chaniotis recognizes, it is this second case that is more interesting:

The concentration of power in a circle of a few families, whose claim on it was based on wealth, blood, or both, is more relevant for the history of democracy than royal interventions. Prosopographical studies—that is the study of individuals and their families—in cities from which we have substantial data (e.g. Athens, Rhodes, and Kos) show that certain individuals occupied offices repeatedly; political life was increasingly the prerogative of wealthy individuals, who undertook liturgies (obligatory contribution by wealthy people to state expenses for specific tasks), proposed decrees in the assembly, occupied offices, won the favor of the people with benefactions, took initiatives, bought priesthoods, and made sure that their descendants inherited not only their wealth but also their political influence.

In principle, inherited wealth also implies inherited status. But an elevated status in itself does not necessarily mean that the scions of elite families automatically inherit their parents’ or ancestors’ political role. This does not happen automatically, and it does not happen in all societies. It needs to be encouraged and facilitated. Precisely this was the case in Hellenistic cities. The inheritance of political position was directly encouraged by the members of the elite, and indirectly implemented through the honors offered to benefactors by their grateful cities and through the exemplum of fathers and forefathers.

Chaniotis cites the case of Eurykleides and his brother Mikion – 3rd century BC Athenian leaders. A partially preserved honorary decree for Eurykleides describes his many political and military services to the city.

Interestingly, the honorary decree for Eurykleides also reveals how he introduced his son to political life. After having served as treasurer of military funds for a year and unable to occupy this office for a second time, “he performed this office through his son”. He thus involved his son in his political activities. He applied this method for a second time with regard to the liturgy of agonothesia, that is the financial responsibility for the organization of a contest: “he provided again his son for this charge”.

Chaniotis claims that “[t]here was only a very small step from inherited status, inherited wealth, inherited leadership, and inherited gratitude to the institutionalization of a class of privileged citizens”. He quotes a text honoring a political leader in the 1st century BC and comments:

What is also interesting in this text is the fact that two fundamentally different concepts are confused: arkhe, the office which an individual occupied on the basis of election; and leitourgia, the financial responsibility for a public task (e.g. contests, festivals, the gymnasium, etc.), which was undertaken exclusively by wealthy citizens, and only on the basis of their property. By stating that Hermogenes “was elected as a stephanephoros and fulfilled this liturgy” (my emphasis), the author of this text reveals that by that time the office of the stephanephoros could be understood as a liturgy exactly because it was exclusively occupied by wealthy citizens. This text shows the transition from the actual but not institutionalized rule of the wealthy citizens to the institutionalized monopolization of power by a hereditary elite of wealthy families. This new political regime characterizes the following period—the imperial period. Despite this transition, even in the imperial period, which I cannot treat here, nominally the people remained sovereign—in fact the citizens were occasionally in a position to express dissatisfaction.

The parallels between the situations he describes and modern day “Western democracies” is far from lost on Chaniotis, who devotes much attention to drawing explicit parallels between ancient customs and modern ones, illustrated by visual comparisons.

3 Responses

  1. *** Chaniotis’ article may be a learned one, but has a basic flaw.
    *** All ancient definitions of democracy by democrats (Herodotus, Euripides’Theseus, Iamblichus) include lot. Aristotle’s description of democracy includes allotted courts, which may oversee and judge magistrates and may cancel decrees as illegal and laws as contrary to basic interests and values. The citizen is kyrios as ekklesiastês (member of the assembly) and as dikastês (member of a court).
    *** It is therefore strange that Chaniotis gives a definition of democracy typically modern (p 3) and, writing about supposed Hellenistic democracies, does not consider neither the use of lot nor the role of courts …. The article includes the words “lot” and “court” only one time, and about Classical Athens (p 4).
    *** There were global and socio-economic factors in the oligarchizing trend of Hellenistic “democracies”. But an institutional point is to be considered: elected magistracies without supervision by allotted bodies, are especially prone to oligarchic drift – as the elected “representatives” of so-called “modern democracies”. The oligarchizing trend must have been accompanied by a vanishing of the control by allotted bodies and Chaniotis does not consider this point, does not give us any information.
    *** Here there is not only antiquarian interest. Some contemporary people dream about an “Internet democracy”, with referenda deciding basic choices “which will be enforced” by the State – an undemocratic State of elected representatives and civil services apparatus, both without controlling allotted bodies and therefore prey of the lobbies. Such a system will be a modern version of “illusory democracy”.

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  2. Hi Andre,

    Yes, the following paragraph is quite confused in what it implies (but does not outright assert) regarding 4th c. Athens, both in terms of how magistrates, and in particular the council, were selected, and in terms of what elements of the system were essentially democratic.

    Admittedly, the democratic institutions in the Hellenistic period are more comparable to those of the moderate Athenian democracy of Demosthenes’ times than to the radical Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE. Still, in this period the foundation of the people’s sovereignty, the popular assembly ( ekklēsia ), regularly met in hundreds of city-states to elect annual magistrates, to approve of all proposals of the council and the magistrates, to honor local and foreign benefactors, to grant citizenship to foreigners, to confirm treaties, and to exercise control over the magistrates. Foreign envoys appeared in front of the assembly to present their case. Statesmen had to use persuasion strategies in order to get the people on their side. Inscriptions containing the decrees ( psēphismata ) approved by the assembly occasionally record the number of votes in favor of and against the proposal. Citizens had the right to address the council and request that it should draft a decree. Proposals of the council ( probouleumata ) could be amended after considering the discussions in the assembly. In this respect, moderate democracy is the most widespread constitutional form in the Hellenistic period.


  3. Yes, Chaniotis speaks much about the Assembly, and about politicians speaking to the Assembly – with comparison with modern politicians speaking to electors. And he neglects lot and courts. It is very strange when speaking of ancient dêmokratia.

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