The Origins of Democracy

Topics: Democracy, Athenian democracy, Classical Athens Pages: 8 (2880 words) Published: October 5, 2005
Ever since there have been leaders, nations have explored the field of civil administration for the most effectual form of government, by which to rule their homeland. Today, most societies in the Western World generally agree that democracy is the best form of government. As a result, their outlook upon the first great democratic system in Western civilization is largely affected by their own predilection. Others, however, can see major flaws in Athenian democracy. These opposing stances are no recent development. The positives and negatives of this form of government have been argued and deliberated ever since it first transpired, nearly 25 centuries ago. Indeed, most of the criticism made of democracy today was already made then, and still has yet to be resolved.

The word democracy comes from two Greek words: the first is a noun, "demos," which means "people," and the second is a verb, "kratein," which means "to rule." Its basic meaning is "government by the people" or "ruled by the ruled." Its derivation refers back to ancient Greece, more precisely, the 5th century city-state of Athens, the author and first practitioner of democracy. As for the 4,000 years before that time, the world lived under forms of government other than democratic. Then, for the next 2,500 years, democracy has existed as a theory and actual system of government, with varying degrees of consistency between theory and practice. But all this began in the middle of the 5th century before Christ in Athens.

In the year 600 B.C., during which time Lycurgus was working to reform the legal system of Spartan government, a political crisis was developing in the Athenian city-state. The farmers and suppliers of Athens were falling behind in their production rates because the population of Athens had grown too quickly. This forced the farmers into bankruptcy as they were forced to trade their land for more food until they ran out of land. Fortunately, when Solon was given control over the Athenians in 594 B.C., he canceled all of the agricultural debts and liberated all the slaves and solved the crisis. He proceeded to pass reforms in the Athenian government that separated Athenians into four classes based not on birth, but rather on their own annual production rate. Only Athenians who were among the three highest classes were allowed to hold public office. Those excluded from Solon's system were those who did not own any productive land, including women and children. However, an interesting facet of Solon's new system was that it allowed men from the lower class or the less-recognized could work their way up through the system until they were able to achieve leadership positions in the government.

Later, in 561 B.C., Pisistratus came and usurped Solon's position and ruled as tyrant, in the best sense of the word. He became the Robin Hood of his day, rewarding the insolvent peasants with land confiscated from wealthier families. He did many great things to help along the development of the society as a whole. He devoted much of his attention to encouraging more trade and industry and constantly thought of new and better ways to promote the growth of the protectorate.

Pisistratus was a catalyst for the growth and development of Athens. The city had expanded both in size and in wealth. Pisistratus developed the self-confidence of the common people. They now had a much higher standard of living, being able to function on their own; they were now more at ease and were able to spend more time doing as they pleased, and they had become a much more erudite people than their ancestors had ever been. Pisistratus sought to relinquish the power he had attained to a more popular base of support and soon established the first political leadership by an average citizen. Indeed, because incomes were escalating in the 6th century and men continued to qualify for office on the basis of wealth, there was a greater number of citizens being included in the operation...
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