Democracy in World History
Part 1: Democracy in the Ancient World
“Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.” Euripides. 406 B.C.E.
The words are those of a poet named Euripides. They were sung by the chorus in a play performed in an outdoor theatre built by citizens of the world’s first democracy in ancient Greece.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The words are from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 written by Thomas Jefferson here in an upstairs room in Philadelphia, the first capital of the world’s longest lasting modern democracy, the United States of America.
How did the world get to Greece, from Greece to Philadelphia and from Philadelphia to now? How did democracy begin, take root, decline, be reborn and then blossom into the world of the 21st century?
Just as natural selection has directed the evolution of plant and animal structures over hundreds of millions of years, so too there has been an evolution of human political structures over thousands of years.
Euripides and Jefferson, each in his own way, pointed to key ideas in three areas of human thought and action that have played and still play crucial roles in political evolution.
(1) Inquiry into nature. Science and technology in other words.
(2) Meanings. Religion, philosophy and the arts in other words.
(3) Pursuit of happiness. Trade, property and pleasure in other words.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Humans first appeared on the planet earth some two to three million years ago. They lived in small extended-family-sized bands scattered over large areas. The great problem early humans faced was survival. Storms, droughts, ice ages, diseases, larger, faster and stronger animals as well competing human bands all threatened that survival. Every day.
For the basics of survival, food and shelter, humans relied on hunting, fishing, gathering wild foods, finding suitable caves or improvising simple huts. For the basics of reproduction, they relied on their instinct for pleasure, their need for companionship and their ability to trade with nearby clans.
When humans invented spoken language, enduring ideas were born, to share the evolutionary field with genes.
Early humans used spoken language skills to help them in the hunt, to help them find useful plants, to help them tame useful animals, to protect them from harmful plants and animals. They also used language (along with their hands) to help learn new skills, like making fire, inventing new tools, including new weapons. Science and technology were born.
In order to survive, they had to learn to live together in ways that inspired confidence and unity in the face of great peril from nature as well as from other clans. Like humans today they wondered and they looked for broader meanings in nature and life. Wise men, shamans, chiefs, magicians, shared visions of gods and demons provided that confidence, meaning and unity. Religion, philosophy and the arts of dancing, music, painting and sculpture were born.
And finally, like humans today, people wanted more than survival. They wanted personal identity, pleasure and communication with fellow humans. And so recognition, trade and the pursuit of happiness came to be.
Early human clans and tribes were small in number and mobile. Having to rely on hunting and gathering, they needed to move often to new sites in order to find prey and new sources of wild vegetables and fruits. In this nomadic life style they would often come into conflict with other clans and tribes and there might be conflict, or there might be cooperation. In either case there would be mixing of both genes and ideas, especially when women were exchanged. And so trade led to new mixing of both genes and ideas.
Clans and tribes that were most successful passed on their genes and their ideas to offspring. A few of these offspring still survive today in remote regions of the Amazon in South America, and other spots in the South Pacific and Africa, their gene pools intact, and their enduring cultural ideas surviving in virtually unchanged form from their origins a hundred thousand years ago.
Other successful clans and tribes changed radically in their way of life some five to ten thousand years ago in river valleys of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and Central and South America. In these favored spots a revolutionary new way to improve the chances for survival and to dramatically increase the numbers of humans on this earth came into being– agriculture along with animal husbandry.
This radical new leap in science and technology led in turn to radically new ways in religion, philosophy, trade, language, pleasure and government. Growing their own food instead of gathering wild foods, raising their own animals instead of hunting wild ones, required a more settled way of life. Growing food and raising animals also meant that many more people could be fed, clothed and sheltered. Populations of human beings exploded. Instead of two or three million human beings living on all the earth, there were soon 200 to 300 million human beings, living mostly in or near these great river valleys, around inland seas like the Mediterranean or in special environments near the ocean like present day Peru and Southeast Asia..
These dramatically larger societies of human beings built permanent villages and eventually the first cities. Groups of villages and cities combined to create the first civilizations. Most of these early civilizations developed a written language, probably in response to a need for accounting in their trade relations. Almost all of the first civilizations in China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and South America also developed more or less tyrannical forms of government. Hereditary emperors, pharaohs, kings and czars ruled over small and large kingdoms.
Wealth in the form of food, animals, gold, weaponry and slaves was now visible and for the most part stationary. Wealth was also limited. That is, even though there was more food, animals, gold, weaponry and slaves than there had been for hunter-gathering clans, there was only so much fruitful land and so many available natural resources. With only a limited amount of wealth, wars became common to control as much of that new wealth as possible. A class of warriors took charge as the dominant group in almost all these agriculturally-based kingdoms.
It was no longer possible to know all members of your clan or tribe as humans could before agriculture came along. Neither wealth nor physical power alone could control these much larger groups of human beings New religious ideas, reinforced by rituals, temples and artistic creations gave power, unity and a sense of belonging to the people.
In China, India and Southeast Asia variations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism and Confucianism came to be. In Mesopotamia, Mongolia, Egypt, Africa, and South America people worshipped many gods and feared many demons. The gods worshipped in ancient Greece and Rome still survive in our modern literature and technology—Apollo, Zeus, Aphrodite, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. In almost all of these kingdoms there were frequent wars of conquest (or defense), frequent sacrifices to the gods (often of human victims), and frequent taking of slaves.
Religious ideas proved useful for giving meaning to people’s lives, for the authority of monarchs and as allies in wars, but they were often in conflict with ideas for inquiry, for trade and for pleasure. One small place where inquiry in the form of natural philosophy made inroads in the religious arena was here in ancient Greece around 2500 years ago.
In small city-states like Miletus, and later in larger city-states like Athens, a new idea for governing based on reason and experience was tried, democracy. Here in Athens, for instance, every citizen would gather in the center of town to pass laws, make judgments on disputes, assess taxes, and vote for war or peace. The duties and offices of government were assigned by lot. Every citizen was free to pursue his own interests so long as they did not interfere with others. Every citizen had the right to his own private property.
The direct democracy of the ancient Greek city-states, however, had severe limitations. While citizens of the city-state were free and equal, citizens did not include women nor did it include slaves.
Thus, at the height of Athens’ democratic glory, for instance, out of an estimated population of 400,000 people, there were only about 40,000 citizens. And even for these citizens, it was a democracy of majority rule, with little attention paid to the rights and civil liberties of minorities. One of their most illustrious citizens for instance, a philosopher named Socrates, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth.” There were as yet no such thing as “inalienable rights.”
Despite the flaws, from these first democratic city-states of ancient Greece came a flowering of some of the world’s greatest literature, philosophy, science and art. Treasures that were later to inspire a Renaissance of Western culture that would in turn lead to our modern world culture.
Despite its flaws, the democracy of Athens was better for everyone than the tyranny of the nearby city-state Sparta as well as all the other despotisms of agriculturally-based kingdoms in Persia, Egypt, Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America. None of these governments made any pretense of supporting liberty or equality except for the topmost layer of nobility and aristocracy--the top one percent that is, while the ninety-nine percent at the bottom had to make due with peasantry, serfdom or slavery.
Rome, founded as a small city-state in Italy, also began as an aristocratic republic. Rome borrowed and built on some of the intellectual cultural riches of Greece but failed to advance its democratic ideas or policies.
Instead, as Rome prospered it also became more imperial and more tyrannical. It grew into an empire that eventually included most of the land around the Mediterranean Sea, going as far north as Great Britain, as far east as Persia, and as far south as Africa. Slavery increased as equality and liberty were crushed under the boots of the marching imperial legions.
Rome amassed and governed the most powerful and far-flung empire the ancient world had yet seen. Some pluses have survived to this day. In the process of founding and governing their empire, for instance, the Romans developed a system of Roman law based on nature and reason that has had great influence in the Western world.
Romans were also the world’s greatest engineers when it came to roads, water supply and sanitation systems, civic architecture, as well as the world’s greatest bureaucrats when it came to administering their empire. The enduring ideas behind these achievements, too, have had and still have great influence in the Western world of today. Travel to Paris or London or Berlin or Poland, or to our national capitol in Washington and you will see many examples of this influence.
Rome was not the only agriculturally based empire in the ancient world. China, India, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central and South America also nurtured empires of large areas and impressive achievements in the arts and sciences.
In the 13th to the 14th centuries, the Mongol empire led by the warrior Ghengis Khan, for instance, once controlled an area larger than the Roman Empire, stretching from China in the East to Europe in the West.
After the Mongol empire declined in the east, other dynasties seized power in China and developed a rich civilization that for many centuries surpassed all others in science, in the arts, in organization and in trade. The first printing presses, the first magnetic compasses, the finest ceramics and metal work, gunpowder, porcelain, silk and paper, the largest and best sailing ships all came to the world first in China.
Similar advanced agricultural kingdoms flourished in India. One of the most important contributions from India was the invention of what came to be misnamed “Arabic” numerals, 1, 2,3, 4, 5, etc. including the most important numeral of all, zero.
When the 1st millennium turned into the 2nd millennium in 1000 A.D. an Islamic empire had conquered most of the southern and eastern areas formerly held by the Roman Empire and extended its rule into Eastern Europe and into modern day Spain.
In Central America the Mayan and later the Aztec empires ruled successfully over large areas of the American continent. So too in Southeast Asia there were large agriculturally-based empires.
Recent scholarship has shown that in some of these ancient empires there was a form of local democracy. Villagers in India, in China, in Southeast Asia and in Islamic provinces of North Africa and the Middle East held democratically-based councils to decide on local matters of importance These early approaches to democratic government did not have much if any influence on Europe or European North America. Today in the 21st century, however, they may yet turn out to have a great deal of influence on the emerging democracies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In the western world, the Roman Empire lasted over 500 years. Scholars debate the causes of its decline and eventual collapse. In religion and philosophy the Roman Empire was an unusual mixture of polytheism and natural reason. The worship of many gods from Jupiter to Venus and Mars gave meaning and structure to the state and inspiration for the arts. The use of reason in the classical philosophies of Stoics, Epicureans and Platonists provided support and meaning for the aristocracy. They offered little help to the downtrodden and the slave.
In the later years of the Roman Empire the explosive growth of two new monotheistic religions, however, did provide support and meaning to the downtrodden and the slave. And these two new religions, Christianity and Islam, have profoundly changed world history right down to our own day.
Following (and contributing to) the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century it was the Christian vision that first triumphed in the western world. And then a hundred years later the Islamic vision arose to challenge the Christian world.
Both Islamic and Christian civilizations were dominated by strong monotheistic religious ideas that had a common origin in the Biblical lands of ancient Israel. For the most part these ideas did not encourage the kind of rational inquiry into nature’s basic structure that had flourished briefly in ancient Greece. An early 6th century Christian bishop and philosopher in North Africa, later canonized as Saint Augustine, cautioned his followers:
“There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity... It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”
Nor did Christianity or Islam encourage the pursuit of earthly happiness since both religions preached the ultimate importance of salvation, that is, life after death.
Both Islamic and Christian civilizations did, on the other hand, foster earthly ideas that eventually led to modern democracy’s belief in the “inalienable rights” of individual human beings given them by Islam’s Allah or by Christianity’s God and not to be abrogated by human rulers.
This was the theory. In practice both Islamic and Christian civilizations were strongly aristocratic and maintained some of the same class distinctions and tyrannical rules bequeathed by the Roman, Greek, Jewish and Arab civilizations from which they grew. They both honored a strong warrior class as essential to the civilization’s survival and power. They both were founded in an agricultural age and saw wealth in terms of land, shepherds, laborers and gold. They both believed in a jealous god and fought many barbaric wars through many dark centuries trying to prove their religion was the one true religion, their god the one true god.
One major difference was the way they viewed government. For Christianity religion and state were not the same. Jesus said “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In all matters religious, the Pope in Rome was supreme. Supreme that is in the west. Early along there was a great schism in Christianity where it split into western Roman Catholicism and eastern Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Both Western Roman and Eastern Orthodox, however, separated religious rule from temporal rule, church from state. For temporal affairs in both eastern and western Christianity there were nobles and kings who ruled (by divine right) in many small feudal kingdoms throughout medieval Europe and western Asia.
In Islam, on the other hand, religion and government were one and the same. Since all of life must be governed by the laws of Allah, not of men, no distinction was made between religion and state. Islam did not have priests or a Pope, but it did have religious leaders called caliphs who ruled supreme in both temporal and spiritual affairs in all the provinces of the Islamic Empire.
There were other differences as well. Islam did not condemn slavery. Islam did not believe that women should be accorded equal status, rights or privileges as men. It did support science and technology so long as they did not infringe upon religious dogmas. Throughout the Middle Ages – the time roughly between 500 and 1500 C.E. –Islamic countries were world leaders in medicine, in agriculture, and in astronomy, mathematics and physics. Islamic countries also placed a higher status on trade. The Prophet Mohammed himself, founder of Islam, had been a merchant. Islamic countries also tended to be more tolerant of Jews and of Christians within their borders than the Christian countries were toward Jews or Muslims within their borders.
While they had peasants and serfs, Christian kingdoms, on the other hand, for the most part did not have slaves. While they did not always follow it in practice, Christian kingdoms also gave a higher status to women than did Muslim, Chinese or Hindu Kingdoms.
All of these differences proved to be important in our own 21st century. But that is getting ahead of our story. First we must look at what happened in human history about five hundred years ago that forever changed the Western World, and that in our own day and age is rapidly changing the entire civilized world. Those happenings occurred in Europe and are called the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the subjects of Part 2 DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY.