Ancient Greece is known as the birthplace of democracy. Their ideas and practice does not correspond exactly to the various different forms of democracies that we are familiar with in the contemporary moment. Their political and intellectual achievements, however, were clearly instrumental in shaping the foundations. What did democracy mean to the ancient Greeks, and how did it get started in that part of the world, and not any other? The Egyptians and the Persians were ruling far more civilized and wealthier civilizations, but their empires did not give birth to ideals of democracy. Even in the Greek isles, mountainous areas and areas lacking communications did not develop democracy, an interesting historical fact that might shed some light on the turmoil of our own nation.
The Greeks distinguished themselves from the “barbarous”, or people who said “bar-bar” when they talked. According to classic scholar H.D.F Kitto, the barbarians were not denigrated, and the word did not have the contemptuous connotations that it does today. Indeed, the Greeks admired the moral code of the Persians and the wisdom of the Egyptians, and appropriated many ideas for these civilized neighbours. The difference between the Greeks and the barbarians was simple: the Greeks considered themselves free men. “The barbarians are slaves, we Hellenes are free men,” Demosthenes says. Unlike the ancient Hebrews, whose identity were formed along racial and religious lines, the Greeks perceived themselves as a group distinguished by an ideal - freedom.
“Eleutheria” - the word that stood for freedom, meant much more than that. Homer says: “Zeus takes away from a man half of his manhood if the day of enslavement lays hold of him.” Slavery and despotism were perceived to maim the soul. The ancient Greek was ruled by a known law which respected justice. He was a “member” of a political system which incorporated all adult men (women were still excluded) into a public assembly.
“Arbitrary government offended the Greek in his very soul”, writes Kitto. The ancient Greeks had monarchies and rulers ruling the state, but his polity respected his rights. State affairs were public affairs, not the private concern of a despot. The wealthier and more civilized countries of the East had palace-government and the rule of a King who was absolute: governing by his own private will, and responsible to neither the gods nor to law. The subject of such a master was seen to be a slave by the ancient Greeks. The Oriental custom of obeisance struck the Greek as not “eleutheron”, and as an affront to human dignity.
The second aspect of ancient Greek democracies was the polis. The polis, which was the administrative and cultural centre of the community, was like the capital of contemporary nation-states, except on a noticeably reduced scale (5000-20,000 citizens was the norm). But unlike modern nation-states, the people of ancient Greek often got their citizenship status via their polis, rather than through the larger region in which it was based.
This made the people of Attica, where the polis of Athens was based, into Atheneans, not Attics. This model, if reapplied, would make all Americans into citizens of New York, not the other way around. Ironically, this aspect of ancient Greek societies still arguably operates in Nepal - the oft-repeated complaint of rural Nepalis that Kathmandu dominates the political and economic landscape, and that people are often forced to be de-facto citizens of Kathmandu, rather than of Nepal. “Kathmandu is Nepal, but Nepal is not Kathmandu” is a piece of wisdom that seemed to have escaped the notice of most of our administrative and governing bodies, and which remains an underlying grievance of the current bloody war.
The Greeks thought of the polis as a space which trained citizens into thoughtful, productive individuals with highly developed moral, spiritual and political faculties. The mature polis, to Aeschylus, was a means by which the law was satisfied without producing chaos. Public justice superceded private vengeance.
The process of educating citizens was done through drama, both tragic and comic, an art form that the Greeks perfected. The dramas, staged in public, were open to everybody, including foreigners. Literature, in all its forms (except the novel) was practised and perfected. Epic poetry, history and drama, philosophy, metaphysics, economics, mathematics, the natural sciences - all these forms of art and knowledge became the vehicles through which a citizen’s moral, intellectual, aesthetic and social life was enriched at all levels in a way no other society had done before. By consciously striving to make the life of the community more excellent than it was before, the Greeks created a way of life that has had a lasting impact on uncountable generations. We continue to experience and be enriched by their ideas today.
The word “democracy” gets thrown around carelessly to describe all shapes and forms of political processes. Lets stop for a moment to create a checklist - free citizens, a public assembly, a state and rulers accountable to its laws, as well as a vibrant and thriving arts and cultural life - that made up the foundation of democracy. Perhaps next time we ask ourselves why democracy doesn’t seem to be working, we can go back to the checklist and see if we got all of it.