Democracy by Paul Cartledge

Let’s just imagine that the Greek work ‘demos’ (δῆμος) means ‘the people’ and the Greek word ‘kratos’ (Κράτος) means ‘power’. You might hope that ‘democracy’ in our modern world had come to mean ‘power of the people’, or that the will of the people should prevail. If it were only that simple!

The will of the people does not prevail routinely. For example, survey after survey of popular opinion in Britain over 50 years showed that there has been a majority in favour of capital punishment. ( So how did our elected representatives ‘represent’ us when they refused to make this law? There are clever answers to this, of course. We invest power and judgement in our MPs to take decisions ‘on our behalf’, they say. That is what ‘representative’ (as opposed to ‘direct’) democracy means. When the ruling elites do risk a referendum they get the answers they don’t like and have themselves campaigned against – e.g. BREXIT 2016. It is just because democracy is almost the sacred totem of everything we’re committed to politically in the West that a hard think on this matter is advisable.

To get the ‘long view’ on what we take for granted, and too often don’t understand, turn to the Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge. Paul Cartledge ( revisits the roots of democracy to see how the ancient Greeks understood it. Fundamentally distinct from democratic theories espoused today, the Greeks’ notion of democracy emphasized the ‘rule of the poor’ over the rich, creating a political system that was, to its detractors, little more than mob rule.

As Cartledge moves through the history of Athenian democracy, he finds it constantly under threat from internal and external forces seeking to either pervert it or supplant it with oligarchy. Such turbulence means that there has been no single Greek democracy of which to speak, and Cartledge runs through a number of its instantiations as they were practiced. In comparing these embodiments one to another – and, in the final chapters, to the democratic systems birthed in the early modern era – he teases out what is essential and what is adaptive about ancient democracy. Piecing together a cogent narrative from a series of largely incomplete, inaccurate, or contradictory sources Cartledge nevertheless manages to bring ancient democracy to life, warts and all. Read this and you’ll never be able to stomach the banal sloganising of modern polititians again. You will know that their ignorance is as deep as their promises are vacuous.

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416 pages in Oxford University Press

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0199697670

Professor Paul Cartledge

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