The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II democracy began to be viewed in the West as the best possible form of government. However, a history of democratic states shows that freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Democracy is not simply “freedom for all” or “the will of the people”. It is a complex, delicate machine, a system of rules, institutions and checks and balances that can work harmoniously but can also swiftly degenerate and collapse. It appears that pro-democracy public discourse often ignores the difficulties and the inherent fragility of democracy, while anti-democracy discourse all too readily denies its benefits.

History, far from being a discipline detached from reality, can teach us that democracy should never, not a single day, be taken for granted, and that one should not rely on a too simplistic concept of freedom. Many democratic or semi-democratic states, such as ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages, Revolutionary France, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of China, the Russian Federation, only to name a few, failed to keep the promise of freedom for all and ended up in failure. Most of them not only collapsed, but were succeeded by despotic regimes.

The fragility of democracy had already been noted by the ancient Greeks, who by their own experience and observation knew that no form of government is eternal and inherently stable.

In the present article (which will be divided in three different chapters) we shall briefly analyse three cases in which democracy destroyed itself: the ancient Athenian democracy, the Weimar Republic, and the Republic of China. Afterwards we will show why parliamentary democracy, despite limiting citizens’ freedom, has achieved stability by creating a middle way between direct rule by the people and rule by leaders.

The Contradictions of the Athenian Democracy

In his History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) the Greek historian Thucydides narrates that shortly after the beginning of the conflict the Athenian statesman Pericles held a speech to commemorate the fist citizens who had perished in the conflict. The definition of democracy formulated in his funeral eulogy is one of the most impressive testimonies to the unique form of government established by the ancient polis:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace (Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, my emphasis).

Yet despite the many benefits of the democratic form of government the Golden Age of Athens did not last long. During the second year of the war a plague swept through Attica, devastating Athens and killing a third of its population (see Donald Kagan: Perikles as General. In: Periklean Athens and Its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives, ed. Judith M. Barringer and Jeffrey M. Hurwit, 2005, p. 5). Pericles himself became ill and died, leaving Athens without its most charismatic leader.

Thucydides, too, caught the plague. Yet he survived to recount the horrors of the epidemic and its consequences for the future of the city-state (Sarah B. Pomeroy et al.: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, 1999, p. 292).  The chronicle of the Athenian historian highlights some of the inherent tensions and contradictions of ancient democracy.

According to Thucydides, Athens’ democracy began to decline after Pericles’ death. The Athenian population, confronted with two years of deprivation and suffering, abandoned Pericles’ original war plans. New political leaders emerged, who by their rhetorical skills vied with each other to manipulate the moods of the Athenian assembly. These politicians became known as “demagogues”, which literally means “leaders of the people”. The term demagogue began to define “a calculating politician who manipulated the voters for his own ends rather than letting himself be guided by patriotism and principle” (ibid., p. 294).

Thucydides portrays the Athenian masses as moody, emotional and indecisive. One example of this characterisation appears in the following passage, in which the people vented their anger on Pericles .

After the second invasion of the Peloponnesians a change came over the spirit of the Athenians. Their land had now been twice laid waste; and war and pestilence at once pressed heavy upon them. They began to find fault with Pericles, as the author of the war and the cause of all their misfortunes, and became eager to come to terms with Lacedaemon [=Sparta], and actually sent ambassadors thither, who did not however succeed in their mission. Their despair was now complete and all vented itself upon Pericles (Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War, Book II). 

Pericles was first dismissed from office, but later he managed to assuage the people and convince them to continue the war. The complex relationship between the Athenians and their leader is expressed in the following excerpt:

… Pericles tried to cure the Athenians of their anger against him and to divert their thoughts from their immediate afflictions … [T]he public feeling against him did not subside until he had been fined. Not long afterwards, however, according to the way of the multitude, they again elected him general and committed all their affairs to his hands, having now become less sensitive to their private and domestic afflictions, and understanding that he was the best man of all for the public necessities (ibid., my emphasis).

These two passages pose fundamental questions: Does the majority know what is best for the common good? Can the people administer their own affairs wisely? And what is the function of a leader in a democratic society?

Thucydides suggests that the Athenians were, as collective political agents, unreliable and all too often moved by irrational emotions. According to him, Athens had prospered not just because of its freedom, but because of the wisdom of its leader who was able to control the feelings of the masses.

[A]s long as he was at the head of the state during the peace, [Pericles] pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time its greatness was at its height. When the war broke out, here also he seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country … Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude—in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen (ibid., my emphasis).

No sooner had Pericles died, however, than the people reversed his war strategy:

[Pericles] told [the Athenians] to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war, and doing this, promised them a favourable result. What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions and private interests, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies—projects whose success would only conduce to the honour and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war (ibid., my emphasis).

The new generation of political leaders, by contrast, vied for power and schemed against each other, and for the sake of personal gains they tried to please the crowds by telling them what they wanted to hear. In this way, Thucydides argues, Athens’ became involved in internal feuds and the government made a number of tactical mistakes.

With [Pericles’] successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude. This, as might have been expected in a great and sovereign state, produced a host of blunders, and amongst them the Sicilian expedition … Yet after losing most of their fleet besides other forces in Sicily, and with faction already dominant in the city, they could still for three years make head against their original adversaries, joined not only by the Sicilians, but also by their own allies nearly all in revolt, and at last by the [Persian] King’s son, Cyrus, who furnished the funds for the Peloponnesian navy. Nor did they finally succumb till they fell the victims of their own intestine disorders. So superfluously abundant were the resources from which the genius of Pericles foresaw an easy triumph in the war over the unaided forces of the Peloponnesians (ibid., my emphasis).

Thucydides clearly believed that popular participation in state affairs was not in itself a guarantee for good governance. In the eyes of the ancients the experience of Athens and the triumph of oligarchic Sparta cast a doubt on the practicability and universality of democracy.

As a result of Greece’s political development, ancient historians and philosophers began to look at the different forms of government from a relativistic viewpoint. They created the theory of “constitutional cycles”, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each form of government, and trying to understand how and why constitutional change occurred.

In Book IV of the Politics, Aristotle analyses five different forms of democracy. He warns against giving too much power to the multitude and allowing the state to be led by demagogues.

A fifth form of democracy … is that in which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees. This is a state of affairs brought about by the demagogues. For in democracies which are subject to the law the best citizens hold the first place, and there are no demagogues; but where the laws are not supreme, there demagogues spring up. For the people becomes a monarch, and is many in one; and the many have the power in their hands, not as individuals, but collectively

[T]his sort of democracy, which is now a monarch, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held in honor; this sort of democracy being relatively to other democracies what tyranny is to other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic rule over the better citizens. The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the tyrant; and the demagogue is to the one what the flatterer is to the other. Both have great power; the flatterer with the tyrant, the demagogue with democracies of the kind which we are describing.

The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, by referring all things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them. Further, those who have any complaint to bring against the magistrates say, ‘Let the people be judges’; the people are too happy to accept the invitation; and so the authority of every office is undermined. Such a democracy is fairly open to the objection that it is not a constitution at all; for where the laws have no authority, there is no constitution.

Aristotle attacked the idea of unregulated freedom, arguing that without a constitution the concept of freedom in the end damaged the state itself.

[I]n democracies of the more extreme type there has arisen a false idea of freedom which is contradictory to the true interests of the state. For two principles are characteristic of democracy, the government of the majority and freedom. Men think that what is just is equal; and that equality is the supremacy of the popular will; and that freedom means the doing what a man likes. In such democracies every one lives as he pleases, or in the words of Euripides, ‘according to his fancy.’ But this is all wrong; men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation.

Ancient philosophers were very aware of class distinctions, and especially of the most basic one: that between rich and poor. Aristotle believed that excessive wealth inequality led either to the rule of the few rich (oligarchy) or to the rule of the majority of the poor (the ‘extreme’ form of democracy). Therefore he argued that the best political community should be a mixed one, having the most advantageous elements of different constitutions, and that such a state should be founded on a broad middle class:

Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes … Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme.

Polybius, a Greek historian who lived around 200 years after the Peloponnesian War, analysed Rome’s form of government in light of the experience of the Greek poleis.. In his lifetime he witnessed the Roman conquest of Greece and the destruction of Carthage. In his historical works he recorded the rise of Rome as the only Mediterranean superpower. Polybius drew on the traditional theory of the three constitutions and their perverted versions: kingship, aristocracy and democracy, which may decay and become, respectively, despotism, oligarchy and “rule of violence” (Polybius: Histories, Book VI).

Like Aristotle Polybius, too, believed that the best constitution should incorporate the best elements of the three good forms of government.

The three kinds of government that I spoke of above all shared in the control of the Roman state. And such fairness and propriety in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic, or monarchical. This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one’s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy (ibid., my emphasis).

It is a matter of course that we cannot base our judgement of contemporary societies on ancient theories and standards. Since end of the Roman Republic humanity has witnessed the rise and fall of many more states, and it has widened its horizon thanks to globalisation. However, there is one thing that the ancients can teach us. Forms of government are neither eternal nor perfect. Every form of government has its weaknesses and its strengths, and each of them has in it the seeds of its own destruction. If one fails to analyse and understand those phenomena which lead to the perversion of a form of government, one cannot prevent its dissolution. And while individuals may believe to pursue the common, they may in fact inadvertently damage themselves and society without being aware of it.