Discussion Forum: Week 13

This week, our Assembly meetings focus on the fundamental nature of the Athenian state: who should be in power? How much power should Athens have over the rest of the Greek world?

For our discussion forum, we’d like you to reflect on these questions out of character by drawing on readings from the first half of the semester. Consider some (not all) of the following prompts:

  • How has learning about the Athenian democracy changed the ways you think about American or other contemporary democracies?
  • The rise of democracy at Athens was historically entwined with the creation of its empire. How do we see the Athenians rationalizing this contradiction – that valuing their own freedom involved subjugating others?
  • Why do you think our elite Athenian authors, like Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides, were so skeptical of democracy by the end of the Peloponnesian War? Why were they so receptive to alternatives like tyranny and oligarchy? Or is that a misreading of their views on democracy?

Respond directly to the prompt, or to comments from your fellow students below. Remember that to receive credit for participating, you must comment at least once before the start of class on Wednesday. Please respond as yourself, out of character.

39 thoughts on “Discussion Forum: Week 13

  1. The rise of democracy being entwined with the creation of Athens shows that oligarchies are not always the best form of government. However, the Athenian democracy was only for a subset of the population and many still did not have freedom. The Athenians rationalize this contradiction by admitting that a full switch from an oligarchy to a complete democracy had never been experimented thus far in human history and could lead to a drastic failure. The Athenians knew that democracy had to start somewhere so their idea was to implement democracy slowly. Subjection was debated heavily but ultimately the Athenians decided that a jump from an oligarchy to a complete democracy was too big of a risk.

    1. I think Ben’s insightful comment here about the rise of democracy in Athens was an excellent example of how oligarchies are not the best form of government. However, there were some flaws with the Athenian democracy like only a subset of the Athenian population were involved which Ben mentions. Granted, I think that the Athenians who could vote were educated on what they were voting on which partially contributes to why Athenian democracy was successful. It could even be said they the average Athenian voter would be more educated on the political climate than the average American voter.

  2. The contradiction between democracy and power over other countries is almost an answer to the first question. Thinking about contemporary American democracy, while the values (for some) are still definitely placed on freedom, representation, and equality, there are so many roadblocks and barriers to actually achieving those values for many Americans. It almost indicates that limiting freedom for some is integral to the Ancient– and our current — definition of democracy, that it won’t work unless someone is pushed down or disenfranchised. Obviously, the situations are very different; in Athens, the lack of freedom was for non-Athenians, and in current America, the lack of freedom is for many of the citizens, but the link between democracy and limiting power is definitely there.

    1. I agree with your statement. I feel like both Athenian democracy and American democracy rely on oppression in order to maintain power within the upper classes of society. However, I believe that this is easier to see in Athenian democracy because non-citizens were not seen as a strong enough force to truly threaten those in power as long as they do not have the ability to vote. In America, on the other hand, I believe that the people in power have to be somewhat less overt in their attempts to oppress others because many of the people that they are trying to harm are also citizens.

  3. The ancient Athenian democracy was different in many ways from our current American democracy, but these two smystems are also quite similar in other ways. Americans use a representative democracy. We elect a Congress to make policy decisions for us. But in ancient Athens, each land-owning, of age male votes on policies. Both democracies were imperialist, though, oppressing others to build up their democracies. I am not sure whether democracy and oppression can or should be reconciled, but I do think at the very least such dichotomies should be recognized and discussed.

  4. The ancient Athenian democracy was different in many ways from our current American democracy, but these two systems are also quite similar in other ways. Americans use a representative democracy. We elect a Congress to make policy decisions for us. But in ancient Athens, each land-owning, of age male votes on policies. Both democracies were imperialist, though, oppressing others to build up their democracies. I am not sure whether democracy and oppression can or should be reconciled, but I do think at the very least such dichotomies should be recognized and discussed.

  5. A few quick notes about the similarities and differences of current democracies and the Athenian democracy. Athenian democracy was much more direct, whereas the United States due to its vast population has a representative democracy. Additionally, in Athens only property owning men were allowed to vote, whereas in the United States any citizen over the age of 18 is supposed to have the right to vote. Yet the purpose of my discussion post is to explore and think about one similarity that you don’t see on paper, but we could see within our re-enactment of the Assembly, is the potential for democracy to quickly become polarized, argumentative, and forced to a stalemate. I believe within our own Assembly that we participated in, potentially within Athens, and certainly within present day America, the inherent nature of democracy allows for populist and sometimes extreme ideologies to take hold. I can see how easily arguments, disagreements, and inefficiencies can arise within the Assembly and our current day Senate and House. At the end of the day, I guess I am saying that I have much more appreciation for the time it takes to hammer out laws and compromise in order to pass laws.

    1. I agree with this comment, and have found it very interesting throughout the game to observe the environment that quickly unfolds during every Assembly. All groups and many individuals have their own agenda they want to push for, and can hardly be swayed in another direction. This makes the whole idea of democracy somewhat futile, as it led to so much conflict and opposition that we saw throughout the game. While experiencing this in an artificial assembly might not be as realistic, it shows to me how opinions become more polarized and extreme when groups of people come together. Two or three individuals have a conversation might be able to pursued one another of an idea, but when large groups come together with competing agendas it just pushes the groups further apart to more radical views.

    2. Matt raises an interesting point in that democracy, although a good system, has flaws. As I have been participating in the assembly over the semester, it is clear that it can be difficult to make progress and pass laws when so many individuals hold different viewpoints and cannot be easily swayed. Thus, we saw how the assembly, like the American system, can be frustrating, drawn out and sometimes seemingly pointless. It is difficult to reach compromises when many different people, with many different agendas to push, come together. However, providing alternate viewpoints and challenging each others ideas is necessary in order to arrive at educated conclusions and take action that will be the most beneficial. In this sense, having many different viewpoints in the assembly is what makes it “function”. Overall, it is very difficult to create a perfect political system. Democracy requires people to commit a lot of time and energy to compromise and create detailed legislation. People providing differing viewpoints and backgrounds are essential to the functioning of both Athenian and American democracy.

  6. I thought it was super fascinating to hear our characters argue for Athenian democracy while implementing a lot of rhetoric that we use today to praise and justify our democracy (talking about representation, freedom of speech, democratic values, etc). However, clear differences came to the surface as we argued through who exactly should vote, as Athenian democracy often served the interests of those allowed to vote (landowning men), while can dull the ideals behind it, as only some peoples’ interests are protected. It is interesting to hear us talk about who deserves to have a say, which has been an evolving issue in American democracy as well. Just on a side note, I am curious to think about how our own inclinations towards democracy, given that many of us are from the United States, could impact the game, even when we’re in our roles.

  7. Through weeks of participation in the Athenian democracy, it is clear that only the privileged members of their society influenced their policies. The landowning men were the ones able to vote and contribute to the assembly. These men would vote for policies and enact laws for their own selfish interests. This can be compared to our current democracy in America. While our modern democracy is more inclusive of gender, race, class, etc., these issues are still relevant. Rich white men are the politicians in power and use their power to pass laws for their own self interest. The parallels are pretty alarming.

    1. There is an interesting parallel between Athenian democracy and our democracy today. I agree that although both exist to allow more people to have voices in how they are governed, they are ultimately influenced by the privileged. Our democracy today touts the idea of giving everyone the right to be involved in politics, but in reality only mostly serves to benefit the elite minority. However, it it important to note that our democracy today is an improvement from Athenian democracy, as more groups of people, like women and non-land holding citizens, have the right to vote, and different levels of legislation (federal, state, local) allow for more citizens to get involved.

  8. Participating in the assembly has made me realize that while our democracy and many other democracies in the world are flawed, they could be much worse. The Athenian democracy is too directly influenced by the rich and powerful who have the time and money to be part of the Pnyx. Athens’ democracy could be tweaked to ensure that everyone–not just their definition of citizens, nor just the rich and powerful–could have a say, which I think would be a preferable form of democracy, but I think it would be impractical to implement it in countries nationwide. On a local level, a form of direct democracy already occurs (at least where I’m from), however not many people take the chance to take advantage of this feature, and citizens do not get to vote on legislation but rather can only speak their opinion.

  9. We’ve seen that Athenians rationalized the contradiction of creating freedom for themselves by gaining control over others through believing that Athens and everyone born in Athens is superior to everyone else around them, meaning they have the right to go ahead and conquer and oppress all other people who aren’t Athenians, which reminds me a lot of the United States and it’s belief in Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. Americans, like Athenians, also believed that they should be allowed to conquer and take from those they deemed beneath them, as well as enforce their beliefs and ideas. Learning about how similar Athenian and American views on democracy and expansion were, it leaves me with the thought that history really does repeat itself quite often.

  10. Over the course of the semester, I have learned about the differences between the Athenian democracy and the contemporary American democracy. One key difference is that there was a direct democracy in Athens, whereas there is a representative democracy in America. Because their elected representatives vote on policy, American citizens are somewhat removed from the policymaking process. In contrast, eligible voters in Athens were directly involved in policymaking. Learning about Athenian democracy has helped me understand the degree to which American citizens are disconnected from policy decisions. However, because so few people were eligible to vote in Athens, many people living there were also not involved in these decisions. It is hard to imagine Athenians rationalizing the contradiction between the rise of democracy in Athens and the creation of the Athenian empire. It is possible that some Athenians would claim that in creating their empire, the ends justified the means. I find this argument unconvincing because an empire established through subjugation is fundamentally unjust.

  11. The fascinating structure of democracy in Athens has definitely made me reconsider how I view our American democracy. I feel that Athenian democracy centered much more on the average person’s participation in the democratic system. In America, laws are (for the most part) written and decided on by committees of representatives chosen by voters. This is a much smaller scale of representation for citizens than was seen in Athens: every citizen had an equal chance of being chosen randomly for the Assembly, which made nearly all important governing decisions in Athens. This system placed a much greater emphasis on a government based around participation of the average citizen, and its random system of choosing those who govern (as opposed to governance of a minuscule portion of the population chosen in elections) certainly removed many opportunities for corruption in the system. I feel that the difference between these two systems reflects the different attitudes Athens and America held towards democracy and what it meant. America takes a pragmatic representative approach, while Athens strove to be as much of a direct democracy as possible with a population as large as it had.

  12. Overall learning about Athenian democracy has defnintely given me a new lens to look at the way the government in my home country functions. There is definitely a bigger barrier to access in Athenian democracy with only citizens who are men being able to serve and vote. This is very different to the way that most contemporary democracies function with constant changes in order to make it easier for everyone to partictipate in democracy. Furthermore, in the context of our game and Athenian democracy I can see parallels between the way my home country government works with there being less people desiring to be a career politician. Those serving in the assembly have other careers and participate in democracy as a duty similar to how many people enter politics in my home country. The question of how empire is justified through the rise of Athenian democracy seems to be one done out of fear that they might be subjugated themselves. Especially after the war with Sparta it seems that they don’t want to feel threatened in times of peace and thus build an empire to scare away others who might be looking to pillage Athenian land.

  13. Democracy and imperialism were deeply intertwined in the creation of an Athenian empire. Democracy, however, was limited to male citizens. This leaves non-citizens and women vulnerable to the power of those who can indulge in democracy. By asserting their dominance over other states and upholding a patriarchy, they muddy a political system that is meant to be inclusive into a system that excludes a large portion of the empire. Even in modern examples of democracy, this juxtaposition exists. For the majority of its history, the United States excluded various identities from their democratic processes. Women were not allowed to vote until the early 20th century. Many Black Americans faced voting barriers until the mid to late 20th century. Even today, ex-convicts are not allowed to vote in some states. And this all takes into account citizens. Non-citizens operating in the US are given no rights to vote and have no say in the democracy. Additionally, the United States has asserted themselves imperially in other nations throughout its entire existence. Historically, democracy has always been deeply intertwined with oppression

  14. From learning about Athenian democracy and knowing of our own I have found that I am most struck by the idea that we perceive our democracy to be the “true democracy” even when our structure greatly differs from the original Athenian. I think the fact that all citizens could offer laws and vote on said laws to be so strikingly different that putting representative democracy doesn’t do justice to that major difference. Our representative democracy greatly diminishes the voice of “the people” and often our concerns are not being addressed or represented. This would not be an issue in Athens. However, you have to mention that women and non-citizens (so any immigrant) would not be able to vote so context is key for my previous sentence.

    1. This is a really interesting point- we never put ‘representative’ before democracy when we talk about our modern government in the US. This has made me consider how our country would function with a true democracy, Athenian style. How would our laws and political climate change if all voters voted by consensus? How would this be changed if we also used Athenian rules for who is allowed to vote- only men of certain status?

  15. Learning about Athenian democracy has made me realize how important public education is. In Athenian democracy, only property-owning men were allowed to vote. Where in the United States anyone over the age of 18 is allowed to vote. I think our public education system is why we are able to have everyone vote and have no doubts about people’s ability to do so. Originally when comparing the two I thought that America had no check for people’s ability to make good decisions and take part in the voting. But now I have realized that this check comes in the form of making kids go to school, by law, until they are at least 16. This to me is a crucial part of our democracy because we are able to give everyone equal representation and opportunity to go to school.

    1. I agree with Drew that this simulation has really shown me how important public education is to our democracy. Everyone should have the right for their voice to be heard in our government, but we also have a responsibility to our democracy to make informed decisions that we truly believe in. Seeing how such a small group in our Athenian assembly is wielding great power over Attika and the further Greek world, it is alarming to know that in the US a small group of those with political power have a lot of power over the largely disconnected American population. It is of paramount importance that we educate the population to the best of our ability to ensure that everyone has a fair voice in the actions of our country.

  16. In my opinion, learning about Athenian democracy changed the way I think about modern democratic societies, because many of the issues that plagued the Athenian democracy still exist today. For example, one issue we have encountered pretty frequently in the assemblies is that most people already know how they will vote on a given law just based on their character and faction’s goals. This often leads to the room being split almost evenly between sides, and it feels like for most laws that are passed, they win by only one or two votes showing the lack of consensus. I think many elite Athenian authors were skeptical of democracy because although in principal it seems to be the best way for decisions to be made, it had let them down in the past, and ultimately causes more disagreement among the populous than if there were one or a few leaders.

  17. As many people have already mentioned, one of the most significant differences between the two democracies is that Athens had a direct democracy and the US had a representative democracy. This is particularly interesting to me due to in recent years the pushback there has been in the US against the representative aspect of our democracy. This is due to issues regarding the Electoral College allowing those who lost the popular vote to still win the presidency. Athens while it was direct, those who were able to vote were incredibly limited to rich men, meaning that while it was direct it was not necessarily representative of all of Athens. It is interesting despite both of these democracies being on opposite ends of a spectrum of democracy, they both end up with issues of if it actually represents their citizen’s wishes.

  18. I think the elite Athenian authors were skeptical of democracy after the Peloponnesian War because they saw how difficult it was to make important decisions effectively and efficiently, especially when power was given to people who could be swayed by high sounding words that make the weaker argument the stronger. It seems that, in their eyes, without an education that would train citizens to pursue wisdom and virtue, corruption and the pursuit of selfish motives are almost a guarentee. They saw it unfit that society could be run by people who did not have the skill to rule well, and the consequence of the just ruler not ruling is to be ruled by an unjust ruler.

  19. I think the elite Athenian authors, like Aristophanes and Plato, were so skeptical of democracy by the end of the Peloponnesian War for two reasons. First, I think that the authors recognized that democracy played a part in Athens losing the war. Several of these authors criticized their democracy because they felt it gave power to incompetent citizens. In Knights by Aristophanes, there is a scene where the assembly can vote to end the war but vote to continue the war out of greed. In response, I think these authors turn to alternatives like tyranny and oligarchy because they thought power would be concentrated under an individual that is more familiar with military tacts. The second reason I think the authors became skeptical of democracy was because they realized that under a democracy it would be harder to rebuild Athens after the war. After participating in the assembly, I noticed that the many voices from different factions made it really hard to pass laws that really advancements for Athens. I think these authors looked to tyranny and oligarchy because they believed it would lead to a more productive decision making process and this would help Athens rebuild.

    As a result, they alternatives like tyranny and oligarchy? Or is that a misreading of their views on democracy?

  20. I think the idea of being skeptical towards democracy is (somewhat) natural in the state the Athenians were in. Whether or not it was the fault of democracy, their democracy found them selves in a point of weakness which was brought about under a itself. That being said, understanding that skepticism is different than abandonment seems key to me in understanding the scope of which democracy is being questioned.

    1. I think that the fact that the athenian democracy naturally questions itself is what makes the society commendable. We have mentioned many times that members of the assembly openly admitted to their own failure or to past mistakes. In the United States, we rarely see politicians blame themselves or admit that our country has made mistakes. Some Americans we even be offended by the fact we question democracy even though our pledge has “to the republic” in it. The United states also says that everyone is equal , but lies about it while Athens was honest about its inequality. This fundamental flaw changes discourse from a major growth opportunity into a conflict. I would be curious to see what philosophers like socrates would think about modern interpretations of democracy. I also would be interested to see how the United States would manage if congressional positions were appointed by random lot.

  21. I think that the failings of direct Democracy result in the popularity of tyranny and oligarchy among some Athenians. The Athenian form of Democracy was tedious, complicated, and prone to manipulation. Because all political positions were selected randomly, many Athenians had to be drawn by a complicated lot system to maintain Athens’ Government. The Assembly then gathered and was punctuated by long speeches and continuous argument. Citizens were often swayed by manipulation in the assembly due to varying standards of education, and lack of time and expertise to make the best possible decision for Athens. It is not surprising that a smaller body of Government whose sole focus was Governing the city would appeal to those who have seen these tactics cause the Assembly to vote against the best interests of Athens. One leader who was able to use the people and wealth of Athens to improve the city would no doubt seem simpler and more efficient. Because this was a first attempt at Democracy, the Athenians did not contemplate ways to ameliorate these issues while still existing under a democracy, such as elected officials.

  22. The rise of Athenian democracy being entwined with the creation of its empire raises questions about contradictions within the histories of other democracies. Specifically, it offers a lens with which to look critically at American “democracy” throughout its history. America has called itself a democracy since the end of the 18th century, but since that time it has imposed rule over various nations that denied those peoples democracy. Examples include the aftermath of the Spanish American war in the Philippines and Cuba, as well as various other supposedly anti-communist efforts to support dictators in South America. Does this mean that America was or isn’t a democracy, or does it just make the definition of democracy murkier? Athenian democracy also rested on the enfranchisement of a subset of male citizens. This relates directly to America’s gradual universal enfranchisement of all adult citizens—did America become a democracy when all adult citizens gained the right to vote, or did it become gradually more democratic? One could also argue that America still disenfranchises some citizens based on race by putting up obstacles to voting.

  23. Learning about the Athenian democracy has certainly changed the way I view American Democracy. In a positive way I think it has made me a little more appreciative of the width of the democracy in terms of how many people the American Democracy reaches and includes. In class, we have argued about not allowing certain people in the conversation and into the voting and it has made realize how important it is to see every viewpoint when making decisions and that the people that are least likely to have a say are often the ones who are most affected by these decisions being made. American Democracy is certainly not perfect, but Athenian democracy has made me realize we have made steps in the right direction over time.

  24. I think the most impactful I’ve learned about Athenian democracy is that the people knew it wasn’t perfect and actively questioned its efficacy. Their style of governance fluxuated based on what was needed from it. It wasn’t sacred, but it worked because people believed in it.
    Oddly, I think imperial expansion will always follow democratic rule. It may just be more subtly titled “a sphere of influence.” Athenians enshrined themselves in their own superiority by giving themselves an epic origin and an undying sense purpose. With this, they created a sense of moral superiority which to believe only they could soundly rule. If you truly belive that you have a higher wisdom, then you may justify to yourself that only you can have the ability to act.

  25. Our time studying the Athenian assembly has gave me a lot of insight into the shortcomings and weaknesses of democracy. I have spent the last couple of weeks in the mind of Plato, who is a firm believer that the assembly (or more effectively, a governing council) should house only educated citizens and those who have studied the art of politics and military strategy. This seems a bit closer to the American government, where everyone can vote on educated and trained representatives who then make the decisions on behalf of the people they represent. I think this is what Plato’s argument was lacking- the belief that while not everyone belongs in the room where the decision is being made, everyone (even the less educated) deserve some say in the decisions made by the government. Many parallels can be drawn between Athens and modern America as well. Athens prided themselves on being a democracy, while subjugating those that they ruled over. America prides itself on being a free and inclusive nation, but many people are treated as second class citizens based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.. In addition to that, America also has territories that are subjugated and not represented in democratic decisions, such as puerto rico. Its seems that seeing the irony in the claims of athens could shed some light on the irony of America’s own claims of freedom and democracy.

  26. Learning about Athenian democracy has made me reconsider the rhetoric surrounding our own American democracy. A lot of the speeches we have given during class sound comical in their devotion to Athenian democracy, especially considering the limitations of such a system, but they are also extremely comparable to how politicians and regular citizens of the United States discuss government. Learning about the Athenian empire’s attempts to subjugate more people through conquering their land, such as in the Sicilian Expedition, reminded me of America’s numerous invasions into other countries of the world in search of natural resources. Although these are only two nations, their similarities form a strong argument for the link between oppression and supposed democracy.

  27. Zoey and I portrayed Lysias, an indeterminate metic. Our main goal throughout the game was to gain citizenship for ourselves. So that we could participate in the assembly by casting votes and performing speeches. We accomplished this goal, but it did not quite go as planned. Initially, we supported the law that all metics and slaves should be granted citizenship, but this law was met with resistance. A big obstacle that we and everybody else in the class had was persuading people to change their minds. Cause everyone remained loyal to their individual goals. As a result, we had to modify the law we supported and shift to a more neutral opinion that granted citizenship to educated people. I regret not pushing for citizenship for all metics, but Zoey and I decided it was nearly impossible because the factions were split relatively equally, and no one was changing their minds.

  28. An important aspect of democracy that I believe both plagued the game, as well as contemporary democracies, is the commitment of faction members to supporting their ideals over society as a whole. The game pitted us against each other by splitting the class into opposing factions, and I could tell that there were moments where people wanted to go against their character and support certain laws. This structure also exists in modern democracies as well, where people feel constrained to follow their faction/party instead of focusing on the community as a whole.

  29. Being a part of the Athenian assembly and experiencing a part of their democracy first hand has really made me question some of the things we call democratic and live with each and every day. Elections are a big one. The notion of an entire decision-making assembly being appointed at random is fascinating. I don’t think this could work today as people aren’t nearly as politically driven and patriotic as the Athenians seemed to be, but I think it’s really an interesting idea and something that both keeps ideas fresh and from new voices as well as keeps harsh party lines rom forming, promoting collaboration. I feel like the contradiction between empire and democracy is something we were starting to see form towards the end of our game. We saw people argue that because Athens is so great, why not spread its influence so others can feel its greatness? This is an argument we have seen all too many times in empires throughout history and something that never does well.

Leave a Reply