BMCR 2018.09.48

Democracy: A Life

, Democracy: A Life. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xxvi, 387. ISBN 9780190866273. $19.95 (pb).


Abiding by its concise title, Democracy: A Life, this book presents a stimulating and lucid study on the history of democracy. In this monograph, Paul Cartledge offers an engaging biographical account, based on a series of final-year undergraduate lectures that he delivered at the University of Cambridge between 2009 and 2013 (‘Ancient Greek Democracy—and its Legacies’). His Preface includes the prospectus for the advanced lecture programme; here, it is clearly stated, for his classes and his book in turn, that his principal aim is to explore the meaning of democracy both ancient and modern, up until the present day. To trace democracy’s existence in its various forms, and across national boundaries, over more than two and a half millennia is by no means a small undertaking! Not least because there is no single form of democracy with which to compare the rest; indeed, as Cartledge correctly notes right from the outset (p. 1), there were as many as a thousand different political entities in ancient Greece between 500 and 300 BC. As such, he must detail the origins of democracy and so he dedicates a substantial amount of time (over two thirds of the entire book) to exploring the historical particulars of ancient Greek politics and society. For the remainder of the work, Cartledge examines more recent ideologies and specifically how democracy continues in a variety of forms today, but his final evaluation warns his reader that its future is far from secure. Cartledge attractively structures the book as a drama that unfolds in five acts, documenting not just the economic and cultural elements that sculpted democracies within each epoch, but also the leading figures and intellectuals of those different societies. Throughout the twenty chapters, the reader is introduced to such a breadth of interesting characters as Cleisthenes, Plato, Thomas Rainborough, John Milton, Gracchus Babeuf, and George Grote. Though originally published in March/April 2016, Cartledge’s most recent edition of Democracy bears a new Afterword, which specifically reflects on political events in the Britain, France, and the United States since its first print. Such deliberations prove that the history of democracy is still being written.

The Prologue sets the scene by providing a synopsis of the recent scholarly discussion, diminishing the Western claim on the history of democracy. Most notably, Cartledge is responding to the revisionist claims of Amartya Sen and Jack Goody that the standard democratic model is too narrowly defined as Eurocentric and imperialistic; Cartledge seeks to counter their more ‘inclusive’ view that democracy was not a specifically Greek invention. His success in doing so can be measured in Act I, as he engages with the problems posed by translating specifically ancient Greek terms, such as demokratia itself and politika, and the works of authors like Aristotle who are amongst the earliest surviving sources to have used them. He discusses the nature of the ancient sources, and the contexts in which they were written. In Cartledge’s view, no demos exercised any measure of kratos until the end of the sixth century BC. Though he recounts that there were significant attempts at citizen empowerment in states like Chios, Megara, and Naxos during the archaic period, Act II centres on the birth of direct government at Athens in 508/7 BC, and its resonating impact on the legal, religious, and economic elements of Athenian life thereafter in the fifth century BC. By thus surveying democracy in practice, Cartledge directs the reader to see the difference between the Athenian direct form of government and the more familiar representative examples in present-day democracies.

Act III follows a similar thread as Cartledge delves into the better documented history of the Athenian democracy in the fourth century BC, which he maintains is the true ‘golden age of ancient Greek democracy’ (p. 185). Though the evidence is heavily weighted in favour of the Athenian example, he nevertheless introduces his reader to a variety of democratic practices elsewhere in the Greek world, for instance in Thebes, Boeotia, and Rhodes, and some may very well have been unknown to a general audience. The very existence of these other democracies (even if they were imposed by the dominant Athenians, as in Samos) emphasises Cartledge’s argument that the emergence and spread of democracy was owed to a uniquely Greek setting. Even by acknowledging Spartan opposition to democracy and their role in inhibiting the spread of democratic constitutions throughout the Aegean, Cartledge underscores the fact that the flourishing of democracy was a specifically Greek phenomenon in the fourth century BC. His final thoughts then turn to tracing the demise of the democratic Greek institutions as Greece was subjugated by the Macedonians.

Still, in Act IV, Cartledge carefully exposes some smouldering democratic embers in the Hellenistic cities, as the Macedonian kings strategically tolerated some democratic liberty under their system of governors and garrisons. As the era of independent Greek city-states drew to a close, the rise of the decidedly anti-democratic Rome comes to the forefront of Cartledge’s democratic biography. He first evaluates and finally dispels the claim that the Roman Republic was a species of democracy, before he renders an overview of the monarchical rule of Augustus and the reigns of the successive Caesars during the Roman age of empire. This section then tracks the widespread retreat of democratic ideology beneath the broad collective heading of ‘Late Antiquity, the European Middle Ages, and the Renaissance’; under the power of feudalism and divinely sanctioned kingship in medieval Europe, democracy endured a long hibernation. Democratic ideals had to wait until the age of Enlightenment for the question of some form of equality to be raised once again, in the words of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine.

‘After a long sleep, democracy—as an idea, and in name, but not yet substance—began to reawaken’ (p. 283). Both Act V and the Epilogue discuss how democracy was roused in various forms during several key periods: the English Civil War in the 1640s, through revolutionary France in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and right up until the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the United States’ ensuing war on terrorism, and on to Brexit and the present day. Again, Cartledge assesses the key figures who played a part in reviving and debating democratic ideas: Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Toqueville, Edmund Burke, and John Stuart Mill, to name but a few. But rather than delve into their roles in any great depth, Cartledge gives his reader a concise overview of their theories in order to show how constitutional debates developed in Britain, France, and the United States, and how they were influenced by the ancient Greek democratic model. Here, Cartledge specifically seeks to locate democratic ideologies within a modern setting and hence his analysis centres on contemporary forms of government; as he had stressed in his Preface, the necessity of such an examination is the ‘current global preoccupation with democracy and its global extension makes constant re-examination of the original ancient Greek version imperative’ (p. xvi). For Cartledge, however, the separation between ancient and modern is currently an insurmountable gulf; ultimately, he propounds the idea that the use of representatives and parliamentary parties in modern democracies has alienated citizens from the ancient concept that the people themselves should wield direct executive power. Moreover, without the ancient Greek model of compulsory voter registration and indeed voting, referendums like the infamous one held in Britain in 2016 do signal disaster for the future of modern democracies.

It is clear throughout the book that Cartledge is writing for a non-specialist audience. He explains every ancient or technical term, but skilfully avoids guiding his reader with a condescending tone. He does not provide specific references for his ancient and modern sources, undoubtedly in keeping with his intended easily digestible presentation, but he provides a vital bibliography for further study, in addition to a timeline, six maps, and copious illustrations throughout each section which provide necessary context. In places, his recognition of modern scholarship and his attempt to document their ideas sufficiently for a novice reader dominates to such an extent that it can be easy to lose sight of Cartledge’s own argument; though, it must be said, that it would be easier to criticise his work for neglecting to give even a nod to such sources should he have opted to leave them out. The index is substantial, and would serve as vital tool for those using the text at either school or university level.

Cartledge offers a compact, yet thoroughly compelling, biography on the forms of democracy from ancient to modern times. A valuable resource, this book grants every reader the timely opportunity to revaluate what they understand by the term democracy, and thus the chance to consider the implications of that understanding in a world whereby national politics can so readily be scrutinised by a global audience. Indeed, closing the final pages of his book, Cartledge’s reader ought to question the very application of such a label to some societies and, more importantly, whether they can even claim to live in an actual democracy themselves. The Greeks may have invented democracy but is it now up to us to save it?