What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg


Hey, congratulations!
You’ve just won the lottery,
only the prize isn’t cash
or a luxury cruise.
It’s a position in your country’s
national legislature.
And you aren’t the only lucky winner.
All of your fellow lawmakers
were chosen in the same way.
This might strike you as a strange
way to run a government,
let alone a democracy.
Elections are the epitome
of democracy, right?
Well, the ancient Athenians
who coined the word had another view.
In fact, elections only played
a small role in Athenian democracy,
with most offices filled by random lottery
from a pool of citizen volunteers.
Unlike the representative
democracies common today,
where voters elect leaders to make laws
and decisions on their behalf,
5th Century BC Athens was
a direct democracy
that encouraged wide participation
through the principle of ho boulomenos,
or anyone who wishes.
This meant that any of its approximately
30,000 eligible citizens
could attend the ecclesia,
a general assembly meeting
several times a month.
In principle, any of the 6,000 or so
who showed up at each session
had the right to address
their fellow citizens,
propose a law,
or bring a public lawsuit.
Of course, a crowd of 6,000 people
trying to speak at the same time
would not have made
for effective government.
So the Athenian system also relied on
a 500 member governing council
called the Boule,
to set the agenda
and evaluate proposals,
in addition to hundreds of jurors
and magistrates to handle legal matters.
Rather than being elected or appointed,
the people in these positions
were chosen by lot.
This process of randomized selection
is know as sortition.
The only positions filled by elections
were those recognized
as requiring expertise,
such as generals.
But these were considered aristocratic,
meaning rule by the best,
as opposed to democracies,
rule by the many.
How did this system come to be?
Well, democracy arose in Athens after long
periods of social and political tension
marked by conflict among nobles.
Powers once restricted to elites,
such as speaking in the assembly
and having their votes counted,
were expanded to ordinary citizens.
And the ability of ordinary citizens
to perform these tasks
adequately became a central feature
of the democratice ideology of Athens.
Rather than a privilege,
civic participation
was the duty of all citizens,
with sortition and strict term limits
preventing governing classes
or political parties from forming.
By 21st century standards,
Athenian rule by the many
excluded an awful lot of people.
Women, slaves and foreigners
were denied full citizenship,
and when we filter out
those too young to serve,
the pool of eligible Athenians drops
to only 10-20% of the overall population.
Some ancient philosophers,
including Plato,
disparaged this form of democracy
as being anarchic and run by fools.
But today the word
has such positive associations,
that vastly different regimes
claim to embody it.
At the same time, some share Plato’s
skepticism about the wisdom of crowds.
Many modern democracies
reconcile this conflict
by having citizens elect
those they consider qualified
to legislate on their behalf.
But this poses its own problems,
including the influence of wealth,
and the emergence
of professional politicians
with different interests
than their constituents.
Could reviving election by lottery
lead to more effective government
through a more diverse and representative
group of legislatures?
Or does modern political office,
like Athenian military command,
require specialized knowledge and skills?
You probably shouldn’t hold your breath
to win a spot
in your country’s government.
But depending on where you live,
you may still be selected
to participate in a jury,
a citizens’ assembly,
or a deliberative poll,
all examples of how the democratic
principle behind sortition
still survives today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *