About the Film
The origin of democracy is shaded in mystery. Its ideals – justice and liberty for all and the freedom of speech – are trumpeted as the bedrock of western civilization. But where did the idea of democracy come from? In the above documentary “Athens: the Truth about Democracy, director Bettany Hughes searches for the origin of democracy in the Golden Age of Ancient Athens.
To learn about the origin of democracy and understand its development in history, it is very helpful to watch both The Truth about Democracy and listen to the podcast interview with David Stasavage, professor and Dean for the social sciences at NYU, about his book The Decline and Rise of Democracy.
Popular Belief: Ever since the Ancient Greeks Invented Democracy, it is handed over like a torch
Popular belief has it that the ancient Greeks invented democracy. But that is not the case as David Stasavage, professor and Dean for the social sciences at NYU, points out in his book The Decline and Rise of Democracy (Princeton Press). In his book David Stasavage provides abundant evidence that democracy as a form of governance has been practiced since prehistoric times. It comes and goes depending on social structures and economic conditions. He further questions the western idea that democracy is like a torch, given to the Athenians by the Gods, than passed on to the Romans who lossed it during the European middle ages, but resurfaced again in the Italian renaissance, passed on to the French Revolution and finally safe-guarded by the United States after the horrors of the two world wars.
Dark Ages versus Ages of Enlightenment - Tyranny versus Democracy
David Stasavage regards this torch-version of the democracy-story as a romantic simplification. The west tends to see democracy as the one-and-only solution for all problems. It defines history in terms of dark ages – driven by tyrants and mysticism – and lights ages – driven by democracy and reason. Yet David Stasavage argues that democracy has always been around. Even in Mesopotamia, which we think of as strictly autocratic, there was alternation over time between forms of governance that were more autocratic and forms of governance that were more democratic. Throughout history, since hunter-gatherer tribes, people have been practical about democracy. Sometimes society is served better when governed top-down and sometimes it is better to add some consensus to decision-making processes. Humanities greatest accomplishments have been brought about interchangeably by democracies as well as dictatorships.
The Chinese Case Undermines the Romantic idea of Democracy
Take modern-day China for example. The Chinese case is the one that shows the most continuous historical record of autocracy. China has always been ruled by an often repressive elite deciding for the populace what’s best for them. It is in the gene, so to speak, of Chinese culture to deal with the world autocratically, top-down.
It was a common view amoung politicians and business people In the late 1980s that China was maybe on a deviant path from the more normal political evolution path that the U S and Western Europe were on. Yet, everyone was convinced that China would become more democratic as it got richer. However, what we’ve seen in the past 40 years, is that China has presented this continuous alternative – autocratic – model to our own. And, depending on how one defines success, their model is very successful.
The Origin of Democracy and the Spirit in Classical Greece
China has falsified the prevailing Western notion that only through democracy can a society become prosperous and truly vibrant. Although this Chinese autocratic success is a slap in the face of Western democracies, it doesn’t make its principle of democracy less valid.
Democracy as a form of governance has indeed existed since the beginning of time. But the democracy that Cleistenace implemented in the Greek city-state of Athens was much more than just a form of governance. It was instrumental to a philosophy that was absolutely unique in history. For reasons still very much speculated, the Greek peninsula produced a philosophy that made man the measure of all things. Not God, not the King, not the tribe, but the individual, the human body and psyche were put at the center of the universe. Cleisthenes did not implement democracy to improve governance but to protect the individual, and thereby the populace against the domination of bloodlines, corruption, tribal thinking, and even divine predetermination (mysticism). This clash between reasoning and mysticism, between freedom and predetermination, between the individual and the collective has ever since remained a recurring theme in western civilization. The spirit of ancient Greek Culture was well represented in its art. For example, the Discobolus of Myron (see figure) represents the limitless potential of individual accomplishment through discipline and dedication, trades that have been hallmarked throughout Western Civilization.
Athens: The Truth about Democracy
That Democracy has always been an ambiguity due to the conflicting nature of elements within, is shown by Bettany Hughes in her informative documentary Athens, the Truth about Democracy. Bettany Hughes searches for the truth about the Golden Age of Ancient Athens, investigating how a barren rock wedged between the East and West became the first democracy 2,500 years ago.
Democracy, liberty and the freedom of speech are trumpeted as the bedrock of western civilization, but what was Athens really like? Bettany goes deep underground to explore a treasure trove of pre-historic bones and ancient artefacts. In silver mines and tombs she uncovers evidence for what this society was really like.