What Was Wrong with the Ancient Athenian Democracy?

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What was wrong with the ancient Athenian democracy?

One of the most remarkable elements of the modern world of politics is the surprising popularity of democracy. The word and the concept of democracy, which nowadays is mostly seen as a necessary form of government for the 21st century, 26/01/2011-08:35:02

emerged for the first time in Antiquity, in the city-state of Athens in the 5th century BC. After so many years, the word, demokratia, still has the same meaning, the rule of the people. As a form of government, Athenian democracy cannot be identified with the modern democracy, as many important discrepancies appeared between them. Even though, it represented for thinkers a governmental model, and this is why, its fundamental ideas can be found in the practice of the modern political life. In this essay I will try to prove whether the Athenian democracy was, a democratic regime or not, by presenting the Athenian political life. In the first part of my essay I will briefly present the way that democracy was seen by the ancient people. In the second part I will discuss the most important characteristics of the Athenian democracy, highlighting its fundamental elements that are now present in the modern reality. Being aware of the important distinction between these two regimes which are both called democracy, I will concentrate on making comparisons between the political life of the ancient democracy and the modern political reality. This way, I will be able to explain why the first form of democracy can or cannot be seen as a democratic regime. In the end, I will state my conclusion, based on arguments.


For many years, democracy represented an outstanding subject with a great influence on political philosophy. For example, during the 5th and the 6th centuries, those who were supporting democracy, had to confront many critics. One of the first writers who discussed the concept of democracy was Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher. Plato claimed that democracy is dangerous because the political power will be put in people’s hands, and they can be too ignorant to use it for common interests. Being ignorant, they will be easily influenced by the leaders. He actually stated the idea that democracy can lead to civil wars and anarchy. After a period of 26/01/2011-08:35:02

anarchy, citizens will ask for laws and rules and the only person who can end the anarchy will be a tyrant who will only care about the power. These arguments against democracy were supported by many political philosophers. He was convinced that democracy could succeed only if the state is ruled by those with a great knowledge, by philosophers. (Annas, Julia. Plato: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.)

Aristotle, another well known ancient Greek philosopher, saw in democracy a political regime that will certainly lead to tirany. He claimed that equality between people will not bring advantages to the society, because, from his point of view, differences between social classes were essential. Aristotle indentified poverty with democracy, and opulence with aristrocacy. Even though he argued that democracy is far away from being an ideal politic regime, he admited that it was the best of the existing political governmental alternatives. (Rabb, Theodore K., and Ezra N. Suleiman. The Making and Unmaking of Democracy: Lessons from History and World Politics. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.)

Although some of the Athenians attacked democracy as a political regime, most of the people saw it as the only way to achieve freedom, which represented the fundamental ideal. Democracy appeared in Athens after many revolts that 2

overthroned a dynasty of tyrants, and, as every political regime, it had specific characteristics that shaped the political world of that time. It establieshed new principles and concepts, which then represented a democratic reform. The fundamental idea that democracy brought was, of course, the...
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