Weekend Reading: Thoukydides: The Mytilenean Debate (427 B.C.)

When Is Responsible Democratic Governance Possible? The Classical View: Never

Preview of When Is Responsible Democratic Governance Possible The Classical View Never

Democracy Must Be Irresponsible: So Responsible Governance Must Be Undemocratic

When is responsible democratic governance possible? Our classical predecessors would have given a simple answer: never.

Any system of government that would give predominant voice and any substantial decision making power to an unstructured multitude of not even part-time managers and administrations could not consistently produce policies that would fit anyone's vision of the national or even the factional interest. Any system of government that could consistently produce policies in anyone's vision of the national or even the factional interest had to be, at its core, monarchical or aristocratic. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers: Number 9, any attempt to build a democratic polity by replicating the institutions of the ancient or the medieval world would produce a régime that would call forth:

horror and disgust... the distractions with which they were continually agitated... the rapid succession of revolutions... [the] perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy... the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage... inconsistent with the order of society... that species of government [is] indefensible...

The inability of democracy to do the job of governance responsibly dominates the classical rhetorical tradition from its very beginning. We see it in Thoucydides's fifth-century BC The Peloponnesian War: two of the great set pieces of that work are the Mytilene and Syrakusa Debates in the Athenian assembly. In both the fickle assembly of Athens torn this way and that by rival politicians competing for leadership shows massive dysfunction. In the case of the Syrakusa debate it arrives at the worst possible decision: the Sicilian expedition is launched with the worst commander, with inconsistent and uncertain objectives, and with the wrong force structure--so many ships and men that their loss would severely damage the strategic balance, not so many as to make the odds of victory overwhelming. In the case of the Mytilene Debate the Athenian assembly decides one day to massacre every man and enslave every woman and child in the reconquered rebellious city of Mytilene, and the next day reverses itself--with an extra trireme sent off to countermand the previous day's massacre order, and with "wine and barley-cakes... provided... and great promises made" by the ambassadors of Mytilene to the crew of the rescue vessel " if they arrived in time".

I at least hear the voice and conclusions of Thoukydides in some of the words he puts into the mouth of the bad guy in the Mytilene debate--Kleon, advocate for the policy of massacre--admonishing the Athenian assembly for its dysfunction:

The most alarming feature... is [our] constant change of measures... and our seeming ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority.... Gifted fellows... are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws.... [But] the persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests; who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and trust for the truth... the clever strictures which you heard; the easy victims of new-fangled arguments, unwilling to follow received conclusions; slaves to every new paradox, despisers of the commonplace; the first wish of every man being that he could speak himself, the next to rival those who can speak by seeming to be quite up with their ideas by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; asking, if I may so say, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and yet comprehending inadequately those very conditions; very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a city...

However, such imputations of authorial purpose and belief to Thoukydides himself are hazardous: he is a subtle author, saying much, but not saying other things, and leaving much to be inferred by an audience that was much more familiar with his milieu and class and thus with the habitual patterns of thought among aristocratic Hellenes than any of us can possibly be.

But I at least see Thoukydides as judging that Athens was well-ruled when it had a princeps, a charismatic near-monarch with the overwhelming confidence of the assembly listening to ideas, gathering information, and guiding the assembly--flawed humans as these principes Perikles son of Xanthippos of the Alkmaionidai and Alkibiades son of Kleinias of the Skambonidai were. The best achievable democratic city was thus not a city in which the demos ruled.

And Thoukidides was there. And we are not.

Now there is a counter-movement, led by the extremely sharp Josiah Ober, praising the excellence of classical Athenian democracy. His Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens argues that the Athenian assembly was, potentially at least, as innovative as the most free-thinking, as intelligent as the smartest, and as well-informed as the closest to the situation of the male citizens of Athens. In addition, the assembly shared the values of the (citizen male) population. In addition, the assembly mobilized the enthusiastic energy of the (citizen male) Athenians, for their decisions and policies were their own actions rather than them constrained to do the will of some other. How could the Athenian democracy not be the most excellent of régimes. The most informed, most innnovative, most intelligent, and most attuned to what would advance societal well-being--as long as the speakers in and the listeners of the assembly did their job of information aggregation and filtering properly.

But did the Athenian assembly do its job of aggregating and filtering information so that it was, collectively, smarter than the smartest (citizen) man in Athens, better informed than the best-informed (citizen) man in Athen, more innovative than the most free-thinking (citizen) man in Athens, and truly in accord with the values of the (citizen) men of Athens when they were being their best selves?

[Sokrates would have (and did) raise some questions...][]

Thus when Alexander Hamilton addresses the people of the state of New-York in 1788, asking them to give their assent to his plan to build a confederate democratic republic, he argues that the coming of the Age of Enlightenment has made it possible to implement a new, non-dysfunctional kind of democracy:

The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. To this... I shall... add... the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve...


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