General Knowledge

What did democracy really mean in Athens?

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.

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