Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

When tradition focused on Greece, the model was Sparta rather than Athens.33 The leaders of the French Revolution praised the laws of Lykourgos and several schemes of public education – proposed during the Terror – were inspired by Sparta: children were to be taken away from their parents and subjected to a system of public education which was the same for all children.

When, occasionally, the model was ancient Athens, the praise goes, almost invariably, to the moderate, mixed Solonian democracy.

For us today Athenian freedom is associated not with Solon, but with Perikles and his funeral speech as reported by Thucydides. But in the 18th century, when occasionally Perikles was mentioned, he was held up as a bugbear to warn champions of
popular rule against the excesses of democracy.

The ideological shift in which Athens came to be seen as the ideological ancestor of the modern system occurred later:

In the course of the 19th century most people came to take a positive view of democracy both as an ideology and as a political system. The first really important political mass movement launched under the banner of democracy – that is representative democracy – was Andrew Jackson’s democratic party set up in 1828 and centered in the south and west of the United States. And on the other side of the Atlantic, it was Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique more than any other work that led to a general acceptance of the idea of democracy, now seen as representative democracy. Similarly, the focus of interest shifted from Sparta to Athens and from Solon to Perikles. And finally, during World War One, the British and the French expressed their admiration for the classical Athenian democracy, whereas the Germans with equal pride tended to identify themselves with the Spartan alliance of land powers that fought against the naval confederacy led by Periklean Athens or with Macedon under Philip, who fought against the Athenian democracy, led by the lawyer Demosthenes.

Hansen makes a further interesting distinction between Demosthenes who was identified, he says, with freedom from foreign domination, and Pericles, who was identified with democracy. Thus interest in Demosthenes has much longer roots than interest in Pericles, which only started in the 19th century.

Similarly, Hansen claims that none of the institutional features that can be considered as parallel in the ancient and modern system are not in fact the result of an unbroken tradition. For example:

The modem judicial review of laws is remarkably similar to the Athenian graphe paranomon and graphe nomon me epitedeion theinai, two types of public action by which the popular courts were empowered to hear and overrule any decree ipsephismd) passed by the ekklesia and any law (nomos) passed by the nomothetai if (a majority of) the jurors found that the decree or law in question was unconstitutional (i.e. in conflict with any of the laws included in the revised law code and/or with the principles on which the democratic constitution was based). But, to the best of my knowledge, in spite of the similarity there is no evidence that the Athenian institution served as a model for the American judicial review by the Supreme Court.

It is quite remarkable that despite emphasizing the discontinuity between the two systems, Hansen keeps referring to the modern system as democratic, and does not note that in this system political power is concentrated in the hand of an elite – through the mechanism of elections – and thus would be naturally seen by the ancient Greeks as an oligarchy, as indeed it was meant to be by its designers who, again, as Hansen notes, were inspired by Rome and Sparta. Yes – modern ideology was democratized during the 19th century. But since this change was not accompanied by an institutional change, it is not clear how the modern system could be democratic.

In the second part of the book, Hansen describes how recently, in the last 50 years or so (but only 30 years at the time he wrote the book), Athens is used as an inspiration for proposals for reforms of the modern system, ostensibly aimed of democratization of this system, involving the application of sortition.

Those who really find inspiration by studying the Athenian political institutions are less interested in the face-to-face assembly democracy for which they have contemporary institutions to study, such as the New England town meeting or the Swiss Landsgemeinde. They focus instead on the other aspects, particularly selection by lot for which the only modem parallel is the completely different modem jury.

Specifically Hansen mentions John Burnheim’s “demarchy”, Robert Dahl’s “minipopulus” and Fishkin’s “deliberative polls”. He also discusses somewhat at length a proposal by Marcus Schmidt, a Danish university teacher, which includes a very large allotted chamber convened electronically ratifying proposals by an elected parliament, and referenda for cases where the parliament and the electronic chamber are at odds.

3 Responses

  1. More recently, Hansen describes modern western states as mixed constitutions, rather than democracies: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/imp/hpt/2010/00000031/00000003/art00007


  2. “Solonian democracy”

    Solon’s system was called “timocracy”. Demes were still a century away.


  3. About the beginning of the “representative democracy” idea

    *** The idea that the “representative democracy” is a late graft of “representative” upon “democracy” may be true (with minor exceptions) in the Anglosphere. It is not true for the Francosphere. Actually Hansen himself quotes (p 60) the explicit wording “démocratie représentative” in the constitution of the Helvetic Republic -“sister republic” of the French Republic; in 1798, post-Jacobin times. And he mentions (p 7) Robespierre. Theorizing about the Republic, he identified it with Democracy, a democracy with delegates. In his famous speech of 17 Pluviôse Year II – February 5, 1794, he defined democracy this way: “Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are their work, do all that they can do well by themselves, and by delegates all that they cannot do themselves.” And the people could not do much … Robespierre, maybe remembering Rousseau, avoided for the “delegates” the word “representative”, but the other Montagnards used it.
    *** Hansen says (p 60) that “in the early 19th century the idea of representative democracy lapsed into oblivion” between the First French Republic and Tocqueville 1835-1840. But to support this quantitative statement he does not quote any quantitative historical study, and I am not convinced, at least for the Francosphere.
    *** The main debate in Europe in the beginning of 19th century was about extending suffrage to all adult males. Only a representative system with such general suffrage could be described as “representative democracy”. Those who supported the extension could use the sympathetic classical tradition about Rome and Sparta, which were often seen as democracies because no citizen was excluded from political life (actually they were “mixed republics”, with strong oligarchical bias, not democracies, sure). Those who opposed the extension could use the unsympathetic classical tradition about the Athenian system. Thus the Athenian reference was more used in the hostile side.
    *** There is at least one exception – mentioned by Hansen (p 32) : the French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins, who in the “Vieux Cordelier”, quoted Athens as a positive model of democracy. What he lauded specially about Athens was its utmost freedom of speech; this was aimed against Robespierre crushing any dissent in the Jacobin movement, and led quickly to the execution of Desmoulins.
    *** A true dêmokratia could not be implemented in the big Nation-States of 19th century Europe. Buth North America of this time could more easily be imagined converted to a loose confederacy of very small States, which could be established as “direct democracies”. The Athenian model of “direct democracy” thus could be seen dangerous in the beginning of the USA.

    Liked by 1 person

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