Response to Athens Dialogues: Democracy and Politeia; Dunn and Maksimović


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Response to Athens Dialogues: Democracy and Politeia; Dunn and Maksimović

I have been asked, in this session on ‘Democracy and Politeia’, to respond to the papers that have been submitted by Professors John Dunn and Ljubomir Maksimović. Whereas Professor Dunn’s paper deals with ‘democracy’ as a legitimate form of government in both the ancient and modern worlds, that of Professor Maksimović treats democracy as a negative concept, which could nevertheless manifest itself in various ways within the autocratic polity of the Byzantine empire. The issues that are raised by these two papers, as well as by others that are offered in this session, have important implications for our understanding of political systems in the modern world. The contribution of Hellenic ideas and practices to this process is undeniable; it is striking that this cultural background was able to devise – and seek to justify – such radically different forms of government (democracy and autocracy) in the course of its history.

In this response, I will focus on three issues in relation to these two papers. Firstly, I would like to examine the problem of definition, especially in relation to the concept of ‘democracy’; secondly, I shall briefly address some historical problems that are raised in these papers; and finally, I shall attempt – as instructed by our organisers – to relate the papers to the issues of modern society.

The first problem that emerges in relation to both of these papers has to do with definition. Both Dunn and Maksimović employ the term ‘democracy’, but it is important to clarify what they mean by it. Other abstract terms, such as ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’, also require precise definition, but I shall focus (for reasons of time) merely on the problem of ‘democracy’.

As Professor Dunn points out in the introductory section of his paper, democracy, understood etymologically, simply means ‘rule by the people or demos’.[1] In fifth-century Athens, ‘the people’ was understood to mean free, Athenian, male citizens. Modern definitions of the demos have of course been expanded to include women, nationalised immigrants, and many other groups who would not have been considered eligible members of the electorate in antiquity. It is also worth noting that democracy, even in its most limited sense as a form of political governance, may take such a variety of forms. The relationship between fifth-century Athenian democracy, in which the assembly voted on individual issues and saw their decisions having immediate effect, and the different forms of democracy, constitutional or otherwise, that are practised in the modern world is complex. The concept of democracy, however, goes much further than such a simple definition of the system as an electoral mechanism. Professor Dunn suggests that democratic governments depend on notions such as ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’. These notions, although remarkably potent, are – as he also points out – difficult to verify; they depend more on the fact that ‘democratic’ political systems are propagated by ‘the people’ than by any intrinsic fairness or equality in their legislation.[2]

Professor Maksimović adds complexity to our understanding of the concept by suggesting that certain phenomena, such as the role of the ‘factions’ in the hippodrome, a respect for human rights that was built into the legal system, the possibility of social advancement, and increasing opportunities for private or corporate enterprise, represent democratic elements within the Byzantine political system.[3] Thus, both papers suggest that, in addition to meaning ‘rule by the people’, the concept of democracy includes a number of values connected with human dignity, the right to express one’s views, and to advance within the social order. All of these values, while certainly associated with democratic governments at various periods in history, should be viewed not as intrinsic aspects of the political system but rather as outcomes which may, under favourable circumstances, occur. This distinction should, I think, be kept in mind when the term ‘democracy’, with all the associations that it conjures up, is employed.

Secondly, I would like simply to make a few points that relate to the historical content of these papers. One of the most important points that Professor Dunn makes, it seems to me, is that democracy, even in the ancient world, was not viewed as intrinsically good, let alone ‘splendid or sacred’.[4] He notes in passing the rather jaundiced view of the ‘Old Oligarch’, who stated (in connection with late fifth- and early fourth-century Athenian democracy) that ‘…the people has no desire to be enslaved in a well governed city, but to be free and to rule.’ [5] Commentators including Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle saw clearly the risks as well as the benefits of democracy. The legacy of the Athenian model thus remained enigmatic, with its justification resting more on the fact that the people ruled than on the results of their legislation. Therefore, it is important to remember that the concept of democracy as the most just form of political governance is a relatively modern one. Throughout the Hellenistic, Roman and medieval periods, historians and philosophers tended not to claim moral precedence for any particular form of government over another; on the contrary, monarchy, or various mixed forms of constitutional government, tended to be favoured.[6] I would also like to make the point that monarchy, or autocracy, in the ancient and medieval worlds were probably less centralised and authoritative than has sometimes been assumed. Here I think that I would go further than Professor Maksimović in suggesting that the late Roman and Byzantine emperors delegated power to provincial governors, city councils, and military leaders much more than the highly rhetorical literary sources may lead us to believe. Thus, the absolute rule of a single monarch or emperor may have been as determined by practical circumstances or ‘history’, as Professor Dunn calls it, as Athenian democracy was.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that we think about the implications of these two papers in relation to the political circumstances of the twenty-first century. Several problems seem to me to present significant challenges. Firstly, we must ask whether the modern nations that maintain democratic systems of government still share a common set of values that will lead their electorates to make enlightened decisions. Whether this is a shared ethical system (as in ancient Athens) or a worldview that is based on Roman law and Christian teachings (as in the Byzantine empire), the electorate need to understand, and be prepared to uphold, some vision of society that embraces more than purely selfish aims. Secondly, it is necessary to respond to Professor Dunn’s suggestion that modern governments’ commitment to ‘market forces’ and the acceptance of unregulated competition between individual or corporate business interests is intrinsically opposed to promoting social, economic, and political equality.[7] What should certainly be questioned in the modern context, perhaps, is the common assumption that democracy is synonomous with capitalism. It is puzzling that the sectors of the population that do not, by and large, benefit from the wealth that is generated by this system continue to vote for it. The concept of ‘democracy’ – with its unilateral claims of legitimacy, fairness, and liberty – surely plays a part here, as do numerous mechanisms, both practical and rhetorical, that are used to persuade people that they may ultimately benefit even from unfair political policies and that they may eventually join the élites that benefit from them. Given that democracy is morally neutral, with its policies being determined by the prevailing opinions of the electorate and by historical circumstances, it is clear that a change in ethical values will have to take place if a more egalitarian and sustainable vision of human society is to be inaugurated.


John Dunn, ‘Political equality: equality of power? Equality in judgment? Equality of exposure? Equality of voice? Distributing a certain equality to equals and unequals alike’, Athens Dialogues E-Journal , p. 2.

Dunn, ‘Political equality’, esp. pp. 18-19.

Ljubomir Maksimović, ‘Democracy in an autocratic system: the case of Byzantium’, Athens Dialogues E-Journal .

Dunn, ‘Political equality’, p. 2.

Dunn, ‘Political equality’, p. 7; (ps-) Xenophon, The Constitution of Athens I.8, trans. G. Bowersock (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).

To focus on the Patristic period, for example, Eusebius of Caesarea famously upholds autocracy, or monarchy, as the ideal form of government for a Christian empire in his Oration on the Tricennalia of Constantine 3.6, writing, ‘And surely monarchy far transcendes every other constitution and form of government: for that demoncratic equality of power, which is its opposite, may rather be described as anarchy and disorder’, trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA, 1995), p. 584; while Gregory of Nazianzus writes, ‘Anarchy is disorderly, and government of the many is seditious and thus anarchical and thus disorderly. Both result in the same thing – indiscipline – and this leads to dissolution, for indiscipline is the practice of dissolution. Monarchy is the opinion honoured by us, yet a monarchy which one person does not determine, for it is possible that one being in dispute with itself comes into a state of many…’, Third Theological Oration Concerning the Son 2, trans. W. G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia, PA, 1980), pp. 131-2.

Dunn, ‘Political equality’, pp. 14-16.