Athenian Democracy and Politial Theory

There has been a long-standing tradition within political theory of characterizing Athenian democracy as a form of ‘positive’ or ‘ancient’ liberty in opposition to ‘modern’ conceptions of ‘negative’ liberty. This stems largely from Berlin’s critique of positive liberty and Constant’s critique of ancient liberty. The influence of these two thinkers has dominated much of the way the debate around Athenian democracy has been framed. This has done significant damage to our understanding of Athenian democracy and its legacy. Largely because of the influence of Berlin and Constant, the Athenian democracy has been dismissed as an undesirable totalitarian form of democracy that denies any semblance of freedom to the individual.  Republican critics of democracy, such as Philip Pettit, John Maynor and Maurizio Viroli, have uncritically embraced the positive/ancient aspect of the Berlin/Constant dichotomy. What I would like to do here is critically interrogate Berlin’s and Constant’s conceptualizations of positive and ancient liberty to demonstrate that neither of these concepts apply – or were intended to apply – to the historical example of the Athenian democracy.

Berlin’s conceptualization of ‘positive’ liberty refers not to the Athenian democracy, but rather to the incorporation of Platonic ideals of ‘self-mastery’ into modern democratic thought, largely by way of Rousseau, Kant and Hegel (to name just a few). Here is what Berlin says:

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.[1]

At first glance, it is easy to see how this would form a component of a direct or participatory conception of democracy characteristic of the Athenian tradition. It is easy to see how direct participation in some form of democratic assembly could be conceptualized as a form of ‘self-mastery’ on the part of individual citizens. The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this indeed is the way Athenians conceptualized their own place within the democracy. I will return to this later, but for now, I would state that it is not how Athenians understood their own democracy. Rather, the ideal of self-mastery stems from Plato’s ideal of the rule of the rational over the irrational – both within the soul and within the polis. As virtually every student of political thought knows, Plato puts forward, in the Republic, a tripartite theory of the soul which is analogous to the divisions within the social hierarchy of the ideal polis and corresponds to the political division between rulers and ruled. The soul is divided between the rational, spirited and appetitive elements, which correspond to the philosophers, the auxiliaries and the labouring masses within the city. Depending on which translation one has, the harmonious relationship between these elements is characterized by Plato as either ‘self-discipline’ or ‘self-mastery’. Plato states that the ‘ruling element and the two elements which are ruled agree that what is rational should rule, and do not rebel against it.’[2] Self-discipline is a kind of order, a ‘mastery of pleasures and desires’ to the extent that ‘a person is described as being in some way or other master of himself (my emphasis).’ Thus, ‘[w]hen the naturally better part [of the soul] is in control of the worse, this is what is meant by “master of himself.”’[3] In social terms the appetitive aspect of the soul—characterized by ‘desires, pleasures and pains’—is dominant in ‘children, women, slaves, and among so-called free men, in the majority of ordinary people’, thus making them unfit for the art of self-government (my emphasis).[4] Not being their own masters, these groups need to be subjected to the rule of the rational few.

Translated into Berlin’s terms, the ‘empirical self’ needs to be subjected to the dominance of the ‘rational self’; and in terms of a political order, the ruling element corresponds to the rational rule of the philosopher kings over the irrationality of the pleasure seeking mob:

‘The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my ‘lower’ instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individual to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society—the better educated, the more rational, those who ‘possess the highest insight of their time and people’—may exercise compulsion to rationalize the irrational section of society.’[5]

It is not difficult to see the similarities here between Plato’s ideal of ‘self-mastery’ and the ‘self-mastery’ component intrinsic to Berlin’s conception of positive liberty. In fact, Berlin is aware of these Platonic origins when he states that ‘the rationalist argument, with its assumption of the single true solution, has led from an ethical doctrine of individual responsibility and individual self-perfection, to an authoritarian state obedient to the directives of an elite of Platonic guardians.’[6]

Indeed, one will look in vain to find any reference to Athenian democracy in Berlin’s essay. We will find references to the Stoics, but no substantive discussion of Athenian democracy. What we do find is an association of positive liberty with the classical revival of the politics of virtue characteristic of Jacobinism in the French Revolution and its conflation with the absolutism of popular sovereignty embedded within Rousseau’s ‘General Will’.  This, along with Constant’s characterization of Rousseau’s classical republicanism as a form of ancient liberty defined by ‘collective sovereignty’ leads to the easy – yet lazy – association between Athenian democracy and positive or ancient liberty.

This brings us to Constant. Constant defines ancient liberty as the collective sovereignty of the political community vis-a-vis other political communities and contrasts it with the individual freedom to pursue one’s own interests within a private sphere associated with modern liberty. Ancient liberty is suitable to the martial societies of antiquity while modern liberty is more appropriate for the commercial societies of modernity. However, the relationship between Constant’s critique of ancient liberty and Athenian democracy is rather ambiguous and upon a close reading we are unsure as to whether Athenian democracy is a typical manifestation of the problems of ancient liberty, or whether it is an exception to an otherwise general case of ancient republics. For example, among a number of particularly Athenian qualities he lists ‘their excessive love of individual independence.’[7] The contrast to Athens is Sparta, and to this Constant says: ‘In Sparta, says a philosopher, the citizens quicken their step when they are called by a magistrate; but an Athenian would be desperate if he were thought to be dependent on a magistrate.’[8] This view is confirmed by Xenophon, who wrote in the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians that ‘in Sparta the leading citizens show the greatest respect for the magistrates, and pride themselves on being humble, and running rather than walking in answer to a summons. They think that if they set an example of exaggerated obedience the rest will follow; this has proved to be the case.’[9] In Sparta, the maintenance of homoioi – social or collective homogeneity of habit, thought and manners – was privileged over individual independence. In fact, Athens fares much better by the pen of Constant than does that other source of ancient inspiration:  Rome. According to Constant, both Sparta and Rome are representative of ancient republics in which ‘there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.’[10] In particular, Mably is chastised by Constant for his exaltation of Sparta and Egypt as models worthy of replication. It is worth noting that, as Constant points out, Mably was contemptuous of Athens, associating his criticism with the words of the Duke of Richelieu: ‘What an appalling despotism! Everyone does what he likes there.’’[11] We are thus presented with a portrait of exceptional Athenians revelling in the ‘individual independence’ that was fostered by the development of democracy—the masterlessness that was cited as one of the sources of the political problems of democracy by its ancient critics.

Suddenly, the neat distinction between the ancients and the moderns begins to break down. Athenian democracy appears to be the exception to the rule of ancient liberty. So what did the ancient critics of democracy have to say about democratic liberty? If we look at the writings of Plato, Aristotle and even Cicero we see that they did not, in any simple or straightforward way, characterize democratic liberty as a form of self-mastery or collective sovereignty. Rather, they all characterized democratic liberty as a form of masterlessness by which the lower classes could retain their autonomy from the authority of the ‘superior’ class (usually identified as aristocracy) in Athenian society. The best source for this is Aristotle:

‘Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens out to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because they are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty.’[12]

In Aristotle’s characterization of democratic liberty, the public power of collective sovereignty cannot be separated from a sense of value placed on the freedom of the individual to ‘live as one likes.’ This latter ideal was expressed by Pericles in his famous funeral oration. The crux of the matter is that the ideal of ‘self-mastery’ or masterlessness that underpinned the Athenian democratic tradition does not closely resemble the notion of self-mastery that forms part of the ideal that Berlin identifies as positive liberty, nor does it exclusively embody the collective sovereignty of Constant’s ancient liberty.

This understanding of Athenian democracy as comprising both freedom as collective sovereignty and freedom as individual masterlessness has been recognized by classicists and a small number of historians of political thought for some time now. Kurt Raaflaub’s book, The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, published in 2004, documents in detail the emergence and evolution of Greek conceptions of freedom (eleutheria) and their eventual association with individual independence. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s provocative book, Peasant-Citizen and Slave argues that the Athenian democracy was predicated upon the ideal of the free labour of the labouring citizen – both artisan and peasant. Greek political thought – particularly that of the Socratic ‘philosophers’ – was largely an attempt to incorporate elements of Athenian democratic culture into an anti-democratic alternative that would re-empower the landed class. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts’ book, Athens on Trial, looks at how the history of Western political thought develops largely in opposition to the Athenian democracy precisely because it entails the kind of challenge to ruling class power argued by Wood. Others, such as Josiah Ober and Paul Cartledge, have also been sensitive to the ways in which Athenian democracy fails to be adequately characterized by the conceptual dichotomies of Berlin and Constant.

If this is the case, then, why are political theorists still looking at Athenian democracy through the lens of Berlin and Constant? Republicans reject Berlin’s characterization of negative liberty but still accept his depiction of positive liberty (and associate it with democracy). Even contemporary democratic theorists continue, largely under the influence of Rousseau and Mill, to put forward the idea that the Athenian democratic ideal was about self-mastery and self-realization, without recognizing that the former ideal belongs to Plato and the latter to Aristotle. 

These arguments are fully discussed in a chapter called ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus against the Demos,’ in a forthcoming book called Athenian Legacies to be published by Olschki Publishers. 



[1] Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958; p. 16.
[2] Plato, Republic, Cambridge University Press, 442d.
[3] Plato, Republic, 430e.
[4] Plato, Republic, 431b-c.
[5] Berlin 34-5.
[6] Berlin 36-7.
[7] Constant, p. 316.
[8] Constant, p. 316.
[9] Xenophon, The Politeia of the Spartans, 8. 1-2. 
[10] Constant, p. 311.
[11] Constant, p. 319. It is worth pointing out that even Hayek, that proponent of negative liberty par excellence, and bête noir of the republican tradition, recognized the existence of individual notions of freedom in ancient Athens. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 164.
[12] Aristotle, Politics 1317b.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s