The Significance of the Athenian Model
In revealing the fundamental Limits and
Opportunities of democratic self-governance
University of Essex
GV 100: Introduction to Politics
25th of January, 2012
In many ways Athenian assembly democracy constitutes a genuine as well as extreme model in democratic thought. This has to do on the one hand with its remarkable institutional features and on the other hand with its extensive practices of public participation. In what will follow, we should therefore at first look at the structure and the interrelations of the key organs of the Athenian system as a form of government. Our understanding of the mechanisms of these institutions will serve us as a basis to enquire critically into their actual performance as well as their significance for Athenian democracy as a whole. Investigating the principles behind the institutions such as selection by lot, very short periods of office or reliance on public opinion will then allow us to reflect on their implications for modern discourse on democratic ideas. It is my intention to illustrate how the Athenian system and particularly the broad public deliberation it relied on, exemplifies the necessary criteria which have to be achieved in order to strengthen rather than to undermine democracy. Whereas the Athenian model needs to be limited in some respects, for instance to avoid violations of the rule of law, it has to be furthered in other respects such as the enlightenment of the wide public.
Initiating a discussion on the legacy of the Athenian democracy, one has to acknowledge that a thorough understanding of its inner structure and mechanisms is indispensable in order to enable us to identify its positive as well as negative facets. If we refer most basically to the "demos" (p.32, Evans, 2010) or citizenry of the Athenian democracy, we should be aware that this comprises solely all male citizens above the age of 20 who are subdivided into 10 tribes based on their local residence. All other groups, most notably women, people of non-Athenian descent and slaves didn't belong to the citizenry and accordingly had no right to participate in the Assembly or any other public arenas (Ober, 2008). Accordingly, they were excluded from any function or decision-making role. In spite of this considerable exclusion it is crucial to note that there has been no "property qualification for the enjoyment of political rights" (Rhodes, 2004). The sole criterion to become a citizen was to have Athenian parents and it didn't matter for example which social class one belonged to. Thus, the citizenry which made a fifth of the total population was entitled and publicly encouraged to participate in the Assembly which took place at a minimum of 40 occasions per year. A striking feature of the Athenian Assembly was that it required a total of 6000 voters to ratify a decision made by the people. This number bears at least two implications. The first is that a decision wouldn't be ratified if not enough people gathered to the assembly which ensured that the presence of a considerable number of people to represent different standpoints and avoid the dominance of one faction. In addition, this particular number of 6000 participants entails that there has been rarely or not at all less people present. In fact, the high degree of participation was rooted in the very idea of this form of government, which is direct democracy. On the political sphere there was no distinction between government and the public, they both formed one inextricable unit in which citizens could in a process of interactive deliberation make use of their role as self-governors. Ideally, the will of the people and not the will of a marginal minority as aristocrats or oligarchs should constitute each decision the Assembly arrived to. But how did the Assembly select matters that were debated in these sessions, which institution was responsible for raising them? This was clearly the task of the Council of 500 also called the “Boule” (p. 28, Thorley, 2004) which worked as the executive body of the Athenian government. Its principal function was to "prepare the agenda for the meeting of the Assembly" (p.31, Hansen, 1999) by means of draft proposals and as such it exerted a significant influence on the content of the discussions held in the Assembly. Likewise, this organ received all foreign embassies, supervised financial and military matters and could even act as a court. By implementing the policy which was decided upon by the Assembly, the Boule was "crucial to the working of the whole new democratic system" (p.31, Hansen, 1999). In the face of the huge importance of the Council of 500, it is not surprising that its membership was highly restricted by age, demos and property qualification even though over the course of the 4th century the latter criterion was dismissed. The annual change of its entire membership and the one-day office of its president were based upon the democratic principles of rotation, distribution and power share. The judicial sphere was also dominated by ordinary citizens who were appointed by lot from a pool of 6000 people to guide a particular trial. Thus, the People's law courts were likewise run by popular consensus rather than the judgement of official experts. In the course of this work, we will elaborate on this reliance on public opinion which evidently constitutes a decisive cornerstone of the Athenian system of government. As we have now gained an understanding of the overall structure of the crucial institutions of Athenian democracy, we can now adapt a deeper perspective on the performance of these cornerstones and their relation to democratic principles.
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- Alexander Borodin (Author), 2012, The Significance of the Athenian Model in revealing the fundamental limits and opportunities of democratic self-governance , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/199955