The foundations of our modern system of democracy were first put in place in ancient Athens. Athenian society was never fully democratic in the way that we would understand a democratic society today. Slavery remained widespread, women were never allowed to participate in political affairs, and the elite who were eligible to take part in the democratic decision-making processes of the state never made up more than ten percent of the entire population. Despite these shortcomings, the Athenians established some of the fundamental principles of democratic government.
The citizen Assembly, which passed new laws and made all major political decisions, was at the centre of the Athenian system. All eligible citizens had a right to attend the Assembly, to address it themselves, and to vote on all proposals that came before it. Citizens could also stand for election to the Council, the administrative body that organised the Assembly. The Law Courts too were run on a democratic basis. Juries drawn from panels of citizens decided every significant case brought to trial in the city state.
The Athenians were proud of their democracy and believed passionately in the benefits it brought. They believed, first and foremost, that allowing citizens to participate in politics brought social and political stability. In any political system, people will necessarily disagree about what laws they should live under and what decisions their political leaders should make. Yet every citizen is bound by those laws and those decisions, whether they agree with them or not. If conflict is to be avoided, a mechanism is therefore needed in which everyone agrees to abide by decisions made, regardless of whether they personally agree or disagree. Democracy was mechanism the Athenians devised to resolve this dilemma. For them, democracy was primarily a means of making political decisions that avoided violent conflict.
The principle they established remains valid today. In a democracy, the legitimacy of decisions arises not from the correctness of any particular decision, but from the fact that the decision has been reached through a democratic procedure in which every citizen has an equal right to participate. Such legitimacy means that all citizens must renounce any recourse to non-democratic means if a particular decision does not go their way. For citizens in a democracy, in Ancient Athens and in democracies today, recourse to force is not an option in the face of defeat.
The Athenians also believed that not only was the democratic process more likely to provide stability, it was also more likely to produce decisions that were right. This is because democratic decision-making allows different sides of the argument, and different perspectives from within society, to be presented and debated. Such a process is more likely to result in fairer and more informed decisions than decisions made by a single ruler or ruling elite. Democracy is also more likely to result in a more just and inclusive conception of the common good, which is of crucial importance when it comes to democracy’s role in protecting society against pathological leaders As Aristotle argued, democracy can act as a vital defence against all powerful individuals or elites imposing their malevolent and dangerous visions on society.
When Athenian democracy succumbed to foreign invasion, it took over two thousand years before democracy re-emerged in the wake of the American Revolution. In that long night between Athens and America, however, a second critical building block in our modern democratic system was slowly being built, namely the rule of law.
Read more about what democracy really means here.