George K examines what we can learn from the birthplace of democracy, and why we shouldn’t be “idiotes”.
Today in western societies, we often take democracy for granted. Democracy has always been about power of the people, Demokratia means the power (kratos) of the people (demos). Democracy once flourished in Athens from the end of the 6th century BCC to 322 BC, and currently there are more democratic governments worldwide than ever before.
However, democracy is beginning to struggle with rising populism and polarization. But there are lessons we can learn from the Athenians, creators of democracy.
The lesson I want to talk about is, “Don’t be an idiotes (private citizen)”. This had the connotations of someone who was isolated form public affairs and ignorant. Athenians were expected to engage in the public sphere, to listen, to discuss freely and to vote in an informed way.
Regularly, thousands of citizens gathered at an assembly meeting and whoever wanted to, could speak and from there debates were formed and laws were passed. Before voting, citizens would meet up at the Agora(public space for events). This is where they discussed upcoming events, conducted business deals and gossiped. The equivalent to the Agora in the modern world is something like social media: a space where people can easily exchange views and ideas with each other. Due to this millions of people were better informed about what was happening around them.
But there is an important difference between the Agora and social media. Social media is not a physical space, you do not meet people ‘face to face’ but through the internet, often hidden behind anonymity. This sometimes encourages spiteful behaviour and reckless or deliberate sharing of misinformation. But at the Agora, hate speech did not have a space amongst the Athenian’s courtesy.
The ancient Athenians had a positive attitude and they respected each other’s views, opinions and beliefs. This is relevant to the modern era as it could help us to keep an open mind, have meaningful discussions and arguments and eventually lead to better judgements and decision making.
In ancient Athens, there was a supertax on the wealthy for the benefit of the poor, which came in an expensive public responsibility to set up events such as theatrical festivals throughout the year; this encouraged engagement ion public affairs and ensured that people of different backgrounds could meet on a regular basis. Additionally, the poor were compensated for having the day off work to attend.
A modern state paying citizens of lower income to attend a cultural event that is funded and planned by the rich would be a radical change. But ideas like this could help citizens from different backgrounds interact with each other.
In ancient Athens, before voting, to ensure that everyone was well informed, they would have a Deliberation Day. Everyone would meet up two weeks before the vote; they would talk in organised groups about major issues on the question they were going to vote on. Additionally, to motivate peop0le tom come and engage they would give them some money. Today, ideas like this could be used to encourage people to interact with each other for the benefit of society.
Although you could argue not directly related to democracy, Wikipedia can show us how we can check the validity and quality of the information we read, and not just believe unfounded stories. Wikipedia is a free encyclopaedia that anyone can publish their information on a topic and challenge each other’s material. The contributors present their sources and arguments are checked by employees of the site and the public. This can make it more reliable, as each report can be challenged and checked. Aristotle said that a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided by one purse. This is similar to how Wikipedia works.
In conclusion, what we can learn from the Athenians is that we should always be involved in society and respect each other’s decisions, views, feelings and beliefs, no matter what background, culture and lifestyle they have. Additionally, we should constantly evaluate the quality and validity of the information that we have access to. Only after all this has been fulfilled can democracy thrive