Athenian democracy

How to make the rich love tax

Now that Philip Hammond is promising yet more tax hikes, he might consider how Athens managed it. During the whole period of their direct democracy (which ended in 323 BC), the decision-making assembly was dominated by the poor. Their empire made Athens a wealthy place, and the poor ensured that wealth came their way, not that of the rich, in forms such as payment for jury service, rowing the triremes (which kept the empire together) and much more. Meanwhile, tax was paid only by the rich. The 300 top richest every year paid property taxes to, for example, construct and maintain Athens’ triremes and fund state festivals for public enjoyment. Neither

Enemies of the people

Hardly a week goes by without someone applauding Thomas Carlyle’s objection to democracy: ‘I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.’ In other words, infinitely wise politicians should tell the unenlightened mob what to think, not vice versa. Such feelings have been common ever since the Athenians invented direct democracy in 508 BC, which lasted till 323 BC and handed to citizens in the assembly (the dêmos) the power to decide all Athenian policy. One anonymous writer described the dêmos as ‘ignorant, ill-disciplined and immoral’, ascribing it to their ‘poverty and lack of education’. The philosopher Plato thought a state could be well governed only by Platonic philosophers. The historian Thucydides

Socrates on expertise

The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, raises his growth forecasts and suddenly everyone believes the ‘expert’. So is it wrong to say that people ‘have had enough of experts’? Yes, totally wrong. Expertise exists: the question is, with what scope? Socrates dissected the problem. In debates in Athens’ democratic Assembly, he pointed out, topics such as building or ship construction were taken to be the business of builders and shipwrights, and anyone who, though no expert, attempted to give advice in those areas was jeered off the platform. But when the debate moved on to deliberation about a course of action, then ‘any builder, smith, cobbler, merchant or

From Socrates to Osborne

Ex-chancellor George Osborne is planning a book to be titled The Age of Unreason. He says that ‘it will be my attempt to understand why populist nationalism is on the rise in our western democracies’. An Athenian would have been most surprised by that title’s implications. If the ancient Greeks are famous for anything, it is for the invention of western ‘philosophy’. By that is usually meant the attempt to explain the world in humanly intelligible terms, i.e. by the exclusive use of reason and evidence, without calling in aid the supernatural. This sort of thinking, begun by eastern Greeks in the 7th century BC, reached something of an apogee

Aristophanes on Trump

As self-important comics fantasise about unseating Donald Trump with their wit, they should remember the great Aristophanes. In 424 BC, he presented a comedy about the controversial politician Cleon. He was (apparently) the son of a tanner (ugh!), and was seen by contemporaries, including the historian Thucydides, as a ‘brutal’, ‘insolent’ but ‘very persuasive’ braggart — and all too successful. The play opens with two slaves driven out of their house after a beating by their new master Paphlagon (Cleon); he has risen to power by fawning on and flattering the gullible and senile Demos (‘the people’) and telling outrageous lies about his political rivals. So far, so Trump. In

The Greek Donald Trump

Why does the Republican party loathe Donald Trump? Because Trump is the ultimate loose cannon, beholden to no one. And even worse, he is popular. What trumpery! Ancient Athenians would have loved him. With no known political or military experience behind him, Cleon surged into the gap left by the death of Pericles in 429 BC, when Athens was locked in a difficult war against Sparta. The son of a rich tanner — certainly not ‘one of us’ — he presented himself as the warmongering, go-get-’em alternative to the cautious Pericles. Full of extravagant promises (including state handouts), he increased the tribute from Athens’ imperial possessions and worked up a

Safe space in ancient Athens

Brilliant Oxford undergraduates argue that it is right to prevent us saying things they object to, because speech they do not like is the equivalent of actions they do not like. They had better not read classics, then. There is no safe space there. Greeks made a clear distinction between logos (‘account, reckoning, explanation, story, reason, debate, speech’, cf. ‘logic’ and all those ‘-ologies’) and ergon (‘work, deed, action’). For a Greek, to reject logos was to reject the expression of thought; and so to close down any possibility of people giving an account or reason for why they were thinking and acting as they did; and therefore to prevent any

Cleisthenes and the EU

One feels that Sir Stuart Rose, leader of the EU referendum ‘In’ campaign, should really try a little harder. First he says that ‘the stats prove’ that being ‘in’ the EU is better than being ‘out’. Presumably the ‘out’ stats date from before 1973. Then he says that we do not know what the future will hold ‘out’ of the EU. So he knows about the future ‘in’ the EU, does he? So did Greece — once. The ancients generally felt it to be better to stick with the devil you knew. Nevertheless, Athenian history provides many telling examples of radical decision-making that transformed Athenian life. By stabilising the Greek

Pericles vs Corbyn

Whatever else one can say about Jeremy Corbyn, one thing is clear: he is a leader who does not believe in leadership. But he is (he believes) a democrat, and thinks democracy means acceding to the views of those who voted him into the leadership. He should try the 5th-century bc Greek historian Thucydides to see what it really entails. Thucydides’ hero was his contemporary Pericles, a man who so controlled the Assembly — Athens’ sovereign decision-making body (all Athenian citizens over 18) — that Thucydides described Athens at the time as ‘in theory a democracy, but in fact rule by the foremost individual’. This is an exaggeration. Pericles in

Hesiod on Grexit anxiety

Why do Greeks want to keep the euro, or remain in the European Union? The combative, creative, competitive, mercantile classical Greeks throve on independence. The farmer-poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) makes the point about competition by calling it Eris, ‘strife’, which he characterises as painful but also helpful. On the one hand, he said, it creates conflict and discord; on the other, ‘It gets the shiftless working. For when someone whose work does not come up to scratch sees someone else, a rich man, busy himself ploughing and planting and managing his household well, then there is competition between neighbours in the race to riches. This Eris is good for

Coalitions of the willing

Whatever the result of the election, it has become clearer by the day that our ‘democracy’ is run by politicians not in the interests of the dêmos but of themselves. If the polls have been right, the most egregious example is even now unfolding before our eyes: the attempts to stitch up a coalition, which will have no manifesto and, since no one has voted for it, will take power without any electoral legitimacy whatsoever. Ancient Athenians would have been appalled. As far as Athenians were concerned, they ran the political show through their Assembly of all Athenian-born males over 18. It made all the decisions, and there was no

When Rome’s 99 per cent stood up

In the UK the richest 1 per cent — 300,000 — of the working population control 23 per cent of the nation’s total wealth. Austerity and cuts loom. Oxfam says there are 13 million ‘relatively’ poor in the country. But the poor seem rather relaxed about it. The ancients, however, knew the poor could not be ignored. In the Athenian radical democracy, the poor were in fact the bosses, having total control of Athens’ courts and sovereign assembly. They could have voted themselves pensions for life had they so wished, or stripped the rich of everything they owned. They did not. Instead the rich were taxed in times of war and made

Today’s TV debates are pointless – here’s the real thing

Ancients would have been astonished that parties never debate against each other in open, public forum except on the telly before general elections — and even then they do their best to resist. The reason is that politicians understand ‘debate’ only in terms of internal parliamentary procedures where the outcomes are entirely predictable. The result is usually one long exercise in freedom of screech. Look at PMQs. In democratic Athens, the subjects for debate were determined by a people’s Council of 500. These were appointed by lot, 50 from each of the ten tribes, from among the male citizens of Athens over 30. They served for one year, never more than

Ched Evans: law vs people power

‘This was the rule for men that Zeus established: whereas fish, beasts and birds eat each other, since there is no law among them, to men he gave law, which is by far the best thing’ (the Greek farmer-poet Hesiod, 7th century bc). Given the hostile reaction to the convicted rapist Ched Evans’s desire to return to his job as a footballer after serving his sentence, one wonders whether the fish, beasts and birds might not be on to something. The 4th century bc statesman and orator Demosthenes pursued Hesiod’s line of thought when he said, ‘If laws are abolished and each individual is given powers to do what he

The lesson of Athens: to make people care about politics, give them real power

Voters explain their apathy about politics on the grounds that the politicians do not understand them. No surprise there, an ancient Greek would say, since the electorate does not actually do politics. It simply elects politicians who do, thereby cutting out the voters almost entirely. But the contrast with 5th and 4th century bc Athens does not simply consist in the fact that all decisions, both political and legal, were made by the Athenian citizen body meeting every week in Assembly. As Pericles’ Funeral Speech (430 bc) famously demonstrates, what is so striking about Athens is that the nature of the world’s first (and last) genuine democracy and the importance

Forget Ukip – what we need is some ostracisms

For all Nigel Farage’s appealing bluster, he is never going to be in a position to get us out of Europe or, indeed, achieve anything at all. He is, in other words, pointless. The sole consequence of his emergence on to the political scene will be that the next election stands a good chance of producing an Italian-style hodge-podge: no winners at all. Ancient Greeks would have demanded an ostracism. An ostracism was a way of getting rid of a political troublemaker in order to clear the decision-making air for the democratic Assembly of Athenian citizens. It was not a legal process, with prosecution and defence and verdict; nor was

Sorry, Rory Stewart, but you don’t understand the Greeks

In last week’s Spectator, Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith, was reported to be proposing that we should create in Britain ‘1,000 little city states, and give power right down to all the bright, energetic people everywhere who just feel superfluous’. What did they teach him at Eton? The ancient Greek city-state (polis, source of our ‘politics’, etc.) was certainly ‘little’. There were at any one time about 1,000 of them dotted round the Mediterranean, most consisting of a city plus its surrounding countryside; and because of the nature of the terrain and the limited resources it could command, the average polis was c. 5,000 strong. The explanation of Athens’ power

Ancient and modern: Modern Egypt vs ancient Athens

Whatever problems Greeks and Romans faced, a politicised priesthood was not one of them. They might have made three observations on Egypt’s current plight. First, though Roman emperors were autocrats, the plebs regularly expressed their displeasure at them, sometimes in street riots, over matters like food shortages. But they did so fully expecting the emperor to respond. Only very rarely did he fail to do so. He was not that stupid: for all his power, he knew he had to keep the plebs onside. This basic insight seems to have escaped the fanatic ex-president Morsi. Second, the most important consequence of the Athenian invention of democracy was to generate a