DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

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