The Argument for Athens’ Democracy

Theseus and the “democratic peace” thesis

In his colloquy with the Theban herald, Theseus is not, I think, advocating any form of the “democratic peace” thesis (on which see Michael W. Doyle, Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs (1983)). Certainly Theseus is not claiming that democratic Athens is reluctant to go to war: as we have seen, fifth century Athens was more or less continually at war. Nor is he even claiming that Athens is unlikely to make war with other Greek democracies: that claim too is unsupported. (From 415 to 413, democratic Athens was at war with democratic Syracuse.) See Eric Robinson, Reading and Misreading the Ancient Evidence for Democratic Peace (2001).

Theseus and the claim that democracy is epistemically superior

What Theseus is saying, I think, is that democracies will make better decisions

Well, perhaps not.

Well, perhaps not.

about war than non-democratic states, both because more sources of information will be consulted, and also because the arguments for and against war will be more fully and critically examined. The historian Christian Meier, in his Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age (English trans. 1998 (1993)) tells us that “Athenian democracy followed two fundamental principles: First, all decisions were to be made as openly as possible and on the basis of public discussion, with the deliberating bodies being as large as feasible. Second, as many citizens as possible were to take part in the political process and also hold office. Organized groups of aristocrats were thus prevented from using their influence in the appointment of public officials. In general, political manipulation by small groups was not to be tolerated.”

The Athenians often extolled the virtues of democratic deliberation. In his funeral oration (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 40), Pericles says that the Athenians “weigh what we undertake, and apprehend it perfectly in our minds; not accounting words for a hindrance of action, but that it is rather a hindrance to action to come to it without instruction of words before.” Moreover, Pericles argues (with an eye to Sparta) that Athens’ proclivity for deliberation does not prevent it from showing courage and daring when in arms: “For also in this we excel others; daring to undertake as much as any, and yet examining what we undertake; whereas with other men, ignorance makes them dare, and consideration dastards.” Indeed, Pericles claims, the kind of knowledge Athens acquires through deliberation is a necessary condition of the virtue of courage, rightly considered: “they are most rightly reputed valiant, who though they perfectly apprehend both what is dangerous and what is easy, are never the more thereby diverted from adventuring.”

Thucydides himself may have been more skeptical of the merits of deliberative

Democratic deliberation

Democratic deliberation

democracy than Pericles (as Thucydides represents him) was. Thucydides’ account of the Athenian Assembly’s debates over the fate of the city of Mitylene, which had rebelled against Athens in wartime, is illustrative. After suppressing the revolt, the incensed Athenians had voted in a moment of fury to put the entire male population of Mitylene to death, and dispatched a vessel to convey their decision to the commander of their forces at the city. The next day, in a more sober and reflective mood, they decided to reconsider their hasty decree. Thucydides gives us the opposing speeches of Cleon (who advocated carrying out the original order) and Diodotus (who wanted it rescinded). See Thucydides, Book III, cc. 37-48. In a close vote, the Assembly decided to rescind the decree and spare those Mityleneans who had had nothing to do with the revolt. Luckily the vessel they dispatched to countermand the original order arrived before the first one did.  Thucydides seems to want to illustrate both the pitfalls of the Assembly’s decision-making (it can act from passion and without consideration, and even its amended decree is extremely harsh) and also its desirable features (it provides a workable procedure for error-correction).

In this light, we can see the colloquies of the opening scenes between Theseus and the suppliants, and then between Theseus and Aethra, as modeling the debates of the Athenian assembly. The colloquies show us a process in which information is gathered and assessed, arguments and counter-arguments (including women’s) are heard, and appeals to the emotions of pity and pride are admissible along with considerations of national interest. And certainly the policy outcome – intervention against Thebes – seems to be better than the defective outcomes produced by one-man rule in Argos and Thebes.

If this interpretation is right, Euripides will be anticipating, through Theseus, a defense of deliberative democracy that Aristotle would later set forth: that it incorporates epistemically superior decision procedures. (More recent authors speak in this connection of “the wisdom of crowds.”)  Aristotle says that when many different people

of whom each individual is not a good man, . . . meet together [they] may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.

Quoted and analyzed in Jeremy Waldron, The Wisdom of the Multitude:  Some Reflections on Book 3, Chapter II of Aristotle’s Politics (1993). Waldron interprets Aristotle to be saying here that “the many acting collectively may be a better judge than the few best not only of matters of fact, not only of social utility, but also and most importantly of matters of ethics, value, and the nature of the good life.” It is this very claim to epistemic superiority that critics of Athenian democracy like the Pseudo-Xenophon will deny: “Someone might say that they ought not to let everyone speak on equal terms and serve on the council, but rather just the cleverest and finest.”

Modern scholars on democracy’s epistemic advantages

Modern scholars have developed interesting defenses of democracy that harken back to these Greek debates, arguing that the Athenian experience supports the claim that democracy as a decision procedure offers epistemic advantages over alternative processes. See Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge:  Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008). The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, e.g., using a model of democratic decision-making derived from John Dewey, contends that democracy should be seen as akin to experimentally-based scientific investigation. Ideally, democracy pools widely distributed information from the many diverse knowers who participate in it, subjects their different claims to shared deliberation and critique, reaches public policy conclusions on that basis, permits dissent, ensures accountability, and makes policy changes after getting feedback. These characteristics promote sound policy choices and give democracies a competitive edge over other systems. See Elizabeth Anderson, The Epistemology of Democracy (2006). In particular, democratic procedures arguably give democracies a competitive advantage in waging war.  In Why Societies Need Dissent (2003), the legal scholar Cass Sunstein points to evidence that the superior performance of the American and British democracies over the Germany, Italy and Japan was owed to the fact that the public and press in a democracy are free to review, debate and criticize the government’s actions, while in totalitarian systems, criticisms and suggestions are both unwanted and unheeded, and the streams of information and authority run from the top on down. (To be sure, the superior wartime performance of the Stalinist Soviet Union cannot be explained in this way.) Democracies are therefore more likely to make adaptations and correct errors when it is useful to do so.    

Further, both Euripides’ Theseus and modern researchers are saying that once democracies go to war, they will tend to prosecute it more determinedly, because the citizens who fight it have done so of their own accord, and because they rather than their overlords stand to enjoy the rewards of victory. “Making decisions about the city was . . . an essential part of being a citizen, and those who made the decisions had also to be ready to die for them on the battlefield” (Sophie Mills). There is substantial support for this view: in Democracies at War (2002), Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam amass the evidence that

democratic elites [are] far less likely than other kinds of states to enter into war impulsively, and thereby avoiding risky and costly military adventures. On the battlefield, democratic political culture imbues democracies’ citizens with individual attributes that serve both the citizens and the state well in war as well as in peace. More often than not, the sons of democracy outfight the sons of tyranny by showing better individual initiative and leadership than their counterparts raised in and fighting for autocratic regimes.

Finally, Theseus is saying that democracies will make war with less wastage of life – or at least, with less wastage of its own citizens’ lives – because the citizens and the decision-makers are one and the same. Modern democracies behave similarly: in the 1999 war in Kosovo, the NATO democracies attempted to wage a “zero-casualty” war – meaning, that their forces would suffer no casualties.

Theseus and the Theban Herald, Round Two:  Why Athens fights

Theseus’ debate with the Theban herald is not over: there remains the question of explaining to Thebes why Athens will fight.

The core of Theseus’ argument is, of course, that Athens will fight to uphold the laws and customs of Greece. But Theseus is not content simply to refer to those laws; instead, he undertakes to show their rationality. Some readers take this to indicate that Euripides was a rationalist or humanist who did not credit the divine authority of the laws. That may be so, but there is a simpler explanation for this turn of the drama: the Thebans already know that they are violating a religious prescription (an action they consider justified by Argos’ impiety in attacking them). Theseus’ effort to display the rationality of the laws therefore addresses an aspect of the situation that Thebes has insufficiently considered. In any case, here is what Theseus says:

I claim the right to fulfill the law of all Hellas

In burying those dead bodies. Wherein lies the offence?

If you were injured by those Argives – they are dead.

You fought your foes with glory to yourselves, and shame

To them.  That done, the score is paid.  Permit their bodies

To hide below ground, and each part to return there

Whence first it came into this light; breath to the sky,

Flesh to the soil.  For we have in our own bodies

But a life-tenancy, not lasting ownership;

At death, the earth that bred us must receive us back.

Do you think that you hurt Argos by not burying them?

Far from it; this is a hurt done to the whole Hellene race,

When dead men are denied their proper rites, and left

 Unburied.  Should such practice become general,

Brave men would shrink from battle.  And do you, who hurl

At me these threatening speeches, tremble at dead men

Unless they lie unburied?  What fear troubles you?

Do you think that from their graves they’ll undermine your town,

Or in their earthy chambers beget sons, from whom

Vengeance will haunt you? . . .

Yield us the bodies to inter;

We wish to give them pious rites.  If you will not –

In plain terms, I will come with arms and bury them.

It never shall be published through the Hellene lands

That I and this city of Pandion, called upon

To uphold this ancient, divine ordinance, let it die.

Theseus is invoking the ideal of “helping the wronged” – an ideal that held a powerful attraction for Athens and its public. Matthew Christ, in The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens (2012), argues that “the Athenians were drawn to the notion that they were a noble people who were always prepared to intervene on behalf of fellow Greeks in distress and to save them from their oppressors.” Abundant evidence supports this view. For instance, in his funeral speech, Pericles argues that Athens intervenes on behalf of other Greeks states disinterestedly, without a view to its own gain – and thereby earns their esteem and gratitude (which, incidentally, serves its interests):

we purchase our friends, not by receiving, but by bestowing benefits. And he that bestoweth a good turn, is ever the most constant friend; because he will not lose the thanks due unto him from him whom he bestowed it on. Whereas the friendship of him that oweth a benefit, is dull and flat, as knowing his benefit not to be taken for a favour, but for a debt. So that we only do good to others, not upon computation of profit, but freeness of trust.

It is true, as Christ also shows, that this ideal, despite its attractiveness as a matter of Athens’ self-image, did not appreciably affect its relationships with other cities: his analysis shows that Athenian intervention in practice was regularly based on strategic considerations, not on compassion. It is also true that what Athens presented to itself and to its allies as “humanitarianism” could be a cloak for imperialism: in arguing for going to war on behalf of Athens’ Sicilian allies, Alcibiades is reported to have told the Assembly that Athens acquired its empire precisely through (ostensibly) benign intervention:

the way whereby we, and whosoever else hath dominion, hath gotten it, hath ever been the cheerful succouring of their associates that required it, whether they were Greeks or barbarians. (Thucydides, Book VI, c. 18)

But within the dramatic world of The Suppliants, such strategic thinking does not appear. The only hint of it I can discern occurs near the end of Theseus’ exchange with the Theban herald, when the latter accuses both Theseus and Athens of “busy-bodiness” or “meddlesomeness” (prassein poll’) and Theseus replies that that habit makes Athens very prosperous (poll’ eudaimonei). “Busy-bodiness” can occupy the same semantic field as “interventionism,” as when the Athenians tell the Camarineans in Sicily that they have come as allies to the cities on that island that have suffered injustice (adikoumenois) from Syracuse, and that they are intervenors (polla prassein) and liberators because they have much to guard against on Sicily themselves (Book VI, c. 87, 2). But if Euripides is implying a connection between interventionism and imperialism, he does not develop it in this play.

A final note

One final note on Theseus’ speech. In seeking to explain the rationality of the Greek laws relating to the burial of the combat-dead, Theseus remarks that if the custom of permitting the bodies of the defeated side were not upheld, “brave men would shrink from battle.” That may well have been true in classical Greece. In describing the retreat of the beaten and demoralized Athenian army from Sicily, Thucydides tells us that the soldiers were struck “both with fear and grief” in seeing their dead comrades lying unburied on the ground (Book VII, c. 75). Something similar might even be true nowadays. I once asked the grandfather of one of my students, who had taken part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, what he remembered most about that day. He recalled first his own “fear and grief” at seeing the dead bodies of other GIs stacked up.

There is a subtle, ironical consequence to Theseus’ argument, however. If the custom of burying the combat-dead is not honored, then men will be reluctant to fight – and so the chances of future war will be less. On the other hand, by enforcing the war code, Theseus will be making future wars more likely. The code thus seems to be a way of perpetuating the institution of war, not of limiting or ending it. We shall see other ironies of a similar kind as the drama nears its conclusion.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: