I posted originally some years ago–you will see the dated references–and repost it now in conjunction with our Government class discussions this week.
The original post is follows . . .
Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president. Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.
Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.
Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History. Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability. Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more. But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.
It seems a reasonable conclusion its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures. Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind. Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration. Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis. Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.* Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos. At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law. One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy. “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”
But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.
With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law. Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability. Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people. The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,
In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.
Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law. He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.
Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot. But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century. Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.** Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^
Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree). Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist. Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life? Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.
I say, yes, it is . . . possible.
*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure. It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.
**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one. But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.
^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy. This argument should not be pushed too far. A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay. This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society. The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.