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Democracy and Dictatorship in Ancient Greece and Today Essay

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2021

Democracy has a long history, and its definition and perception changed many times. However, the core values have remained unchanged. Even though today democracy is understood differently from what Athenians thought about it, everybody agrees that democracy is about equality among people, liberty, respect for the law, and justice. Athenian democracy has protected the liberties and rights of the wealthy people in the first person, while modern democracy is about the fair treatment of people from all social levels. Recalling the speech of Thucydides, democracy is when the power is in the hands of not a minority but of the whole people when all are equal before the law when political life is free and open, when people are free and tolerant in their lives when citizens are obedient to the one they put in the position of authority when each individual is interested not only in his affairs but also in the affairs of the state. This was the Athenian democracy, and unfortunately, modern democracy is very different from the one practiced by ancient Greeks.

Athenian democracy was marked by the dedication to the republican state and by the subordination of the private life to public affairs and good for all. As Pericles noted, “the virtue of the individual is the same as the virtue of the citizen” (Held, p. 17). For many centuries to follow, democracy has become the rule of the game, and the role of every individual in the democratization process has been forgotten. Pure democracy can be established only when all citizens can and should participate in political life when they do not face the obstacles to involvement in public affairs based on wealth or rank.

Plato defined democracy as the form of society that treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not, and ensures that every individual is free to do as he likes (Held, p. 29). This definition, which is easily understood by modern society, has not always been the rule of the game for many countries. Some nations praised it, while others degraded it. Democratization has been the strong impulse in some states, while at the same time, it has been very weak in others. The long history of democratization gave birth to the five distinct democratic politics: liberal, partial, authoritarianism, direct, and participatory democracy (Potter, p. 3). Britain in the 1980s is identified as a liberal democracy (evidence of accountable government, fair elections, civil-political rights, and plethora of organizations). Iraq in the 1990s is identified as an authoritarian state (no competitive elections, insecure civil rights, and non-existent independent organizations). Mexico in 1975 is characterized as partial democracy (absence of free elections and restrictions on the right to freedom of expression). Thus, throughout history, some of the nations saw democracy as the ideal form of politics, while other nations adopted only some elements of democratic government.

The period of 1760 – 1919 is known as the long nineteenth century and is marked as the era when democracy has been rediscovered. In the early 1760s, not a single state was democratic in the current understanding of it. Within one hundred years, democratic regimes were established in Britain, the United States of American, British colonies, and Western and Northern Europe. The industrial revolution was the driving force of rapid democratization because it transformed the nature of economic power and social stratification in societies of the whole world (Potter, p. 46). Industrialization has led to the emergence of industrial capitalism, industrialized welfare, and mass literacy. Thus, people gained increasing power and political and economic mobility. Ruling authorities felt the pressure for power-sharing and control of the state from previously not active social levels.

19th-century democratization did not occur equally in different parts of the world, and not all states have adopted truly democratic principles. For example, despite the numerous democratic advancements in the United States, women, blacks, Native Americans, and immigrants were excluded from the democratic process. The literacy tests were introduced as part of the voter registration process (Potter, p. 48), and taking into account that the vast majority of the American population was illiterate in the 19th century, very few were granted the right to vote. Britain, in contrast, was more responsive to the needs and rights of the poorer population and it is justifiable referred to as the earliest modern democracy. As the result of the massive protests, suffrage was expanded to working-class representatives, and by 1885, the first equitable distribution of parliamentary constituencies was established.

Even though democratic politics was different in all parts of the 19th-century world, democratization was the result of some form of revolutionary activity. As Barrington Moore described in his book, “some societies achieve a form of democracy through a bourgeois revolution (France and Britain), others experience a reactionary revolution from above (creation of authoritarian dictatorships in Germany and Japan), some societies achieve democracy through peasant revolutions from below (socialism in China and Russia)” (Potter, p. 54). Therefore, 19th-century democratization occurred because people of all social levels were not satisfied with the existing political regimes and fought to improve their political and economic life.

Greek democracy emergence was not the result of the single event as well, nor was it embedded in the Athenian culture. It was the result of the emergence of economically and independent military citizens in the context of small communities, which nurtured the democratic way of life. Communities were small, communication was easy, and news spread quickly, political participation of all members was unavoidable because the impact of social or political changes was immediate. In addition, there were no obstacles posed by large societies to political participation (Held, p. 15). Because of this, the idea was equality and participation were part of early Athenian community culture.

Direct participation was not the principle of government for Athenians; it was the form of life. The government was based on the proper discussions when everybody was guaranteed an equal and unrestricted right to speak in the sovereign assembly. Athenians were much influenced by the writings of classic philosophers. For example, Aristotle wrote that liberty was about ruling and being ruled in turn and about living as one chooses. “Equality is an equal share of the practice of ruling” (Held, p. 20). Thus, equality is the practical basis for liberty. At the same time, Athenian democracy was marked by the principle of exclusivity. Only Athenian men over the age of 20 were eligible for active citizenship, women had no political rights, and their civil rights were much limited.

In summary, the Athenian democracy was based on the principle that citizens should enjoy political equality in order that they are free to rule and be ruled in turn. Key features included direct participation in legislative and judicial activities, multiple methods of candidate selection, no distinction of privilege to differentiate ordinary citizens and public officials, payment for public service, and short terms of office for all. Even though citizenship was restricted to a small group of people, excluding women and foreigners, Athenian democracy has laid the foundation of democratic government prevailing in the world today.

The rebirth of democracy as understood by modern people was celebrated by Machiavelli, who wrote that people are more prudent and stable and have better judgment than a prince (the ruler); that the popular opinion enables to see foresee the good and the evil (Machiavelli, p. 28). Adams expanded the idea of Machiavelli to include the primary definition of democracy: the form of government that communicates ease, comfort, security, and happiness to the greatest number of persons and to the greatest degree (Adams, p. 31). Similar to Athenian, modern democracy is founded on the principles of introducing knowledge among people, inspiring them to become free men with dignity and interest in political life.

John Mill, the English philosopher, living in the 19th century, has stressed the superiority of democracy over other forms of government and noted that it enables individuals to speak up for their own interests and it educates and improves the citizens by providing them with experience of self-rule. Walzer, the modern political philosopher, introduced the concept of private life in liberal societies and noted that it has to be subject to public control. His writings are still debated by democrats, and public opinion is divided on the issue of whether their private life is subject to public control.

Democracy has survived a long history, and even though the life of people has much changed since the time of Athenian democracy, many elements have remained valuable for modern societies. Citizenship is no longer framed based on sex, ethnic origin, or race; liberties are equally granted to all society representatives despite their social level; the main law protects private life and property. Every state has its own democracy adjusted to the country’s history and national culture. Nevertheless, democracy is understood as freedom for all, equality, and protection by law. Democracy is the rule of people by people when every person has the opportunity to govern his own life and decide on governmental issues.

Works Cited

  1. Classical democracy Athens by David Held Potter, David, David Goldblatt, Margaret Kiloh and Paul Lewis. 1997. Democratization
  2. Adams (reading six) from reading pack
  3. Machiavelli (reading five) from reading pack
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