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THE BIRTH OF DEMOCRACY

In animal societies the leader is chosen by instinct and tradition, and perhaps a little bumping of heads. He is the alpha male, the male of the tribe or herd who has clearly demonstrated his superiority over all others. His alphaness is clearly evidenced physically through his demeanor and very often through a physical change in his body. But among humans only other humans can determine who should lead. With little or no instinctive guide to determine which member of the tribe or city-state should lead, men are forced to choose from among themselves. It is of no small importance who shall lead since the happiness and prosperity of all depends on his or her ability, not on their physical characteristics. If the world is rational, and every man has the potentiality of understanding it, then every person is equally capable of determining who should rule. This is not true in a culture that does not recognize the inherent rationality of the world. That one person through birth or circumstances and regardless of ability is destined to rule is essentially irrational. Thus democracy makes sense only in a rational world. And, in a rational world, as the Eleatics were quick to point out, what is true is only what can be discovered by reason. The rule of law. But laws that were developed through reasoning can only emerge in a culture that assumes the rationality of the world.

As modern members of our western tradition we owe a debt to the ancient inhabitants of the Eastern Aegean for our view of science as a study of the natural world. We owe them a debt too, along with their contemporaries in southern Italy, for some very important aspects of our unique approach to religion. But for our western view of politics, for the rule of law, the dignity of man, and democracy, we owe these debts to Athens. The Athenians prided themselves on being one of the oldest cities in Greece. Miletus probably began as a colony of Athens. Because it is located in one of the more mountainous areas of Greece, It received less of the periodic large-scale immigrations from the north that the rest of the country suffered after the fall of the Mycenaean's. Herodotus claimed that Attica, that part of the peninsula where Athens is found, was spared much of this because the land was too inhospitable. Still, they did receive some. While this resulted in more stability than more lucrative areas enjoyed, there was still enough immigration to make the traditional rule by hereditary land owners chafe early.

It was the tyrant Draco, in the seventh century who first substituted the rule of law for the rule of men. His laws, however, were so inhibiting that even today we call over restrictive laws draconian. In the sixth century Solon instituted the first democracy. However, citizenship in Solon's democracy depended primarily on economic power. Thus, what he did was transfer a great deal of power out of the hands of the major families that had ruled Athens in the past into the hands of the business people of Athens. This power was controlled by political parties formed through economic ties. As a result, this formation proved to be unstable. The competing parties evolved into regional groups with incompatible aims. As a result following the death of Solon the democracy was torn apart by inter-party struggles. A powerful nobleman named Peisistratus usurped power and formed his own dictatorship. His strength quelled the fighting among the political parties and his economic reforms included the redistribution of land. This ended most of the internal disputes. Without realizing it, he began the transition of Athens into the successful Democracy that was to come.

Cleisthenes, with the help of Sparta and a group of deposed aristocrats, overthrew the sons of Peisistratus. By eliminating kinship classifications that had still kept the old families in power, he began the final steps that would eventually lead back to the democracy begun by Solon. He accomplished this by dividing the city into 10 tribes composed of varying numbers of demes. Thus, every single member of these demes was not only able to participate in Athenian democracy, he was required to participate. Keep in mind that while this might be a fairly accurate description of what actually occurred in Athens, neither Pesistratus nor Cleisthenes considered themselves democrats, nor did they envision anything even remotely similar to the democracy that was to come. Those developments were both unintended and unexpected.

When we refer to the golden age of Athens, we are referring to the fifth century and to the rule of Athens most famous statesmen, Pericles. Athens's economic success during this period probably had as much to with the development of a silver mine in Attica as it had to do with the success of Periclean Democracy. But for our purposes we are particularly interested in military success because of all of the city-states of Greece, Athens was certainly not the one that we would expect would become the military leader of the Hellenes.

Yet it was, and it is not possible to understand the impact that the success of the democracy had on philosophy without first understanding the impact that the democracy had on subsequent events in Greece. It is also necessary to understand the difference between the Athenian Democracy, and the politics of its arch enemy, and neighbor, Sparta. While the Athenians reveled in their freedom, Spartan youths were bred entirely to be warriors. Spartan boys were taken from their families while still children and trained in military arts. As a fighting force they were second to none. In their own land they were a minority and this too kept them living on the edge. They was a constant antagonism between them and the people, most of whom had been on the land for generations before the Spartans came. As a result it seems strange that it was Athens who became the most powerful of the Greek states through military success. This was primarily due to two battles where the vastly superior Persian armies were soundly defeated.

The first was at the plain of Marathon. The Persian king Darius landed on Marathon with about a hundred thousand heavily armed soldiers. Athens requested help from Sparta but none was forthcoming. The Spartans were holding a religious holiday. Militiades, the Athenian general, met the Persians with more like twenty thousand Greek, mostly Athenian, troops (The actual numbers seem to be much in doubt). But their pride in being members of a democracy was not. In his play "The Persians", Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon, had Darius' Queen ask, " Who commands them? Who is the shepherd of their host?" The chorus answered, "They are slaves to none, nor are they subject." Militiades strategy was ingenious. First he cut trees and laid them down to hold back the Persian Cavalry. Second, Since he was aware that the Persians placed their best soldiers at the center of the phalanx, he then made his center the weakest. Finally, he surprised the Persians by attacking at a dead run. The result was that as his center gave way the outside soldiers surrounded the Persians and cut them down. The Persian armies turned and fled. According to Herodotus, the dead included 192 Athenians and 6400 Persians. Darius then immediately turned his attention to Athens but Militiades, expecting this, dashed back with his army and destroyed the Persians again.

Some ten years later Darius' successor Xerxes returned to Greece with hundreds of thousands of troops and a thousand ships. He sent his Navy around to Attack Athens while he landed his strong Army north, near the pass at Thermopylae, the back door to Athens. Aside from the pass the mountainous terrain between there and Athens was nearly impassable. At the pass, the road narrowed to but fifty feet wide. Here the Spartan General Leonidas waited with seven thousand Greek troops including his own 300 man royal guard. A sudden storm at sea sank hundreds of Persian ships. When it was over Xerxes attacked the pass. Leonidas' troops would not yield. On the third day a Greek traitor led Xerxes to another route through the mountains. Leonidas found out and took most of the army to meet them, leaving his own Spartan guard and a few others to hold the pass. The Persians had their day, and not a single Greek survived.

Meanwhile the Naval battle was raging under the command of Themistocles the Athenian. Athens was evacuated and it seemed that the superior Persian forces would get the better of these also. However, Themistocles feigned a retreat and drew the Persians into the narrow strait at Salamis timed just as the tide returned. In the resulting ground swell the heavy Persian ships could not navigate. The more maneuverable Athenian ships moved in for the kill. "The dead lay thick on the reefs and beeches," said Herodotus. The resulting slaughter left the Persians fleeing. When Xerxes Army finally made it across the mountains what they met was a demoralized rout. Xerxes tried once more at Plataea and once again was wiped out.

The result of these battles was that Athens became the most powerful city in the Greek sphere. Pericles then organized the "Delian League" to unite the Greek city-states against the common enemy, Persia. However, in time this degraded into an authoritative Athenian empire and led to the thirty year Peloponnesian war and the final victory of Sparta over Athens.

These facts are important for our narrative because they set the stage for one of the most important clashes in the history of philosophy. The clash between the individual and society. One underlying assumption in any democratic system is that every citizen is equally capable of legislating for the whole, that every citizen is a born politician. But it is not one very many citizens take seriously.

Democracy may have made Athens successful, but it was the reforms of the dictators Peisistratus and Cleisthenes that made democracy possible.

I. F. Stone was an investigative reporter who became famous during the McCarthy years for his exposes of the anti-democratic actions of the house unamerican activities committee. When he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer he gave up his immensely popular newsletter to pursue his life's ambition, an investigation into the trial and death of Socrates. In The Trial of Socrates, Stone found, as many others have, that Socrates, and his student Plato, could be interpreted as enemies of Democracy, and of human freedom. He saw this exemplified best in the Platonic dialogue Protagoras. Protagoras was a Sophist, one of a number of itinerant teachers who went about Athens teaching for money. They claimed to be teaching the young men of Athens how to become successful. As Stone described them the Sophists were providing a much needed service to the city because they would teach anyone (anyone with money that is) to be politically and economically successful. He saw this as an opportunity for the common man of Athens to gain power formerly held by the landed families. Stone expressed his point vividly.

There is a strong element of class prejudice in the Socratic animosity toward the Sophists. They were teachers who found their market in democratic cities like Athens among a rising middle class of well-to-do craftsmen and traders whose wealth had enabled them to acquire arms. Their participation as hoplites --or heavy-armed infantry-- in the defense of the city had also won them a share in political power. They wanted to be able to challenge the old landed aristocracy by learning the arts of rhetoric and logic so they could speak effectively in the assembly. They wanted to share in the arts and culture of the city. the Sophists were their teachers.

Stone was not the only person to make Socrates an enemy of democracy. Fifty years earlier the philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper also made similar statements. He made Plato the father of totalitarianism. If you ask the obvious question, are these fair analyses of the work of Plato and Socrates? The answer is yes. Politics and Ethics are complex systems of thought and the answers you get to any social or cultural analysis depend to a great extent on the analytic tools you use. There is no question that the attitudes and the ideas put forward by Socrates and Plato did in fact lead to the acceptance of tyrannical systems. But, there is another way to look at the thought of these great Athenians. Looking at them from this point of view will help us to understand how they became so powerful in the development of western culture.