What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg


Hey, congratulations! You’ve just won the lottery, only the prize isn’t cash
or a luxury cruise. It’s a position in your country’s
national legislature. And you aren’t the only lucky winner. All of your fellow lawmakers
were chosen in the same way. This might strike you as a strange
way to run a government, let alone a democracy. Elections are the epitome
of democracy, right? Well, the ancient Athenians
who coined the word had another view. In fact, elections only played
a small role in Athenian democracy, with most offices filled by random lottery
from a pool of citizen volunteers. Unlike the representative
democracies common today, where voters elect leaders to make laws
and decisions on their behalf, 5th Century BC Athens was
a direct democracy that encouraged wide participation through the principle of ho boulomenos,
or anyone who wishes. This meant that any of its approximately
30,000 eligible citizens could attend the ecclesia, a general assembly meeting
several times a month. In principle, any of the 6,000 or so
who showed up at each session had the right to address
their fellow citizens, propose a law, or bring a public lawsuit. Of course, a crowd of 6,000 people
trying to speak at the same time would not have made
for effective government. So the Athenian system also relied on
a 500 member governing council called the Boule, to set the agenda
and evaluate proposals, in addition to hundreds of jurors
and magistrates to handle legal matters. Rather than being elected or appointed, the people in these positions
were chosen by lot. This process of randomized selection
is know as sortition. The only positions filled by elections were those recognized
as requiring expertise, such as generals. But these were considered aristocratic,
meaning rule by the best, as opposed to democracies,
rule by the many. How did this system come to be? Well, democracy arose in Athens after long
periods of social and political tension marked by conflict among nobles. Powers once restricted to elites, such as speaking in the assembly
and having their votes counted, were expanded to ordinary citizens. And the ability of ordinary citizens
to perform these tasks adequately became a central feature
of the democratice ideology of Athens. Rather than a privilege, civic participation
was the duty of all citizens, with sortition and strict term limits
preventing governing classes or political parties from forming. By 21st century standards, Athenian rule by the many
excluded an awful lot of people. Women, slaves and foreigners
were denied full citizenship, and when we filter out
those too young to serve, the pool of eligible Athenians drops
to only 10-20% of the overall population. Some ancient philosophers,
including Plato, disparaged this form of democracy
as being anarchic and run by fools. But today the word
has such positive associations, that vastly different regimes
claim to embody it. At the same time, some share Plato’s
skepticism about the wisdom of crowds. Many modern democracies
reconcile this conflict by having citizens elect
those they consider qualified to legislate on their behalf. But this poses its own problems, including the influence of wealth, and the emergence
of professional politicians with different interests
than their constituents. Could reviving election by lottery
lead to more effective government through a more diverse and representative
group of legislatures? Or does modern political office,
like Athenian military command, require specialized knowledge and skills? You probably shouldn’t hold your breath to win a spot
in your country’s government. But depending on where you live, you may still be selected
to participate in a jury, a citizens’ assembly, or a deliberative poll, all examples of how the democratic
principle behind sortition still survives today.

100 thoughts on “What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg”

  1. Personally, I think the (theoretical) Islamic system is best where there will no political party or professional politician, people will elect representatives who will then select the most qualified persons, or maybe I am wrong?

  2. While families and career politicians essentially run the country, voting does give some level of accountability. The greedy politician has to do what his constituents want otherwise he loses his power and position.

  3. It might sound great at first but there are a lot of incapable people. It would be better to be a lottery out of people who can pass some basic intellectual test.

  4. At the end of the day, Athens believed in a male-dominated system where people could have a right to a vote or legislation part ONLY if they owned land…so yea, lottery my ass

  5. A good complement to this talk is the Princeton Study ("Testing theories of American Politics", 2014) which demonstrates the US is no democracy, but an oligarchy. (probably the same for all other countries who claim they are democracies, but we miss the statistical studies to prove it). The illusion we live in a democracy comes from the fact that oligarchs and ordinary people sometimes share the same interests, and from "social class-blind" topics like gay rights (the evolution of the way homosexuals have been perceived in the last decades is more or less similar in the richest, poorest and middle-class parts of the population.).

  6. The founding fathers dreaded the thought of our country becoming a democracy
    John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
    This is why they gave us a republic and not a democracy where were ruled by law and not by people.

  7. I hate all this rich bashing. The rich give you fucking jobs, they hold up the economy, many worked their asses off to get where they are now. If you want to be rich get out there and start working for it. Stop complaining and fucking do it, otherwise get back to sweeping the floors of McDonalds.

  8. In this video, it goes without saying, that government is as necessary for peaceful society, as water is to the existence of fish. But is it?  Democracy isn't the magic formula. Dictatorships can be peaceful. How?  To get people to yield to other's wishes from time to time is the essence of peaceful society.  Habit, or memes is how it's done. It's like magic that when enough people go-along-with-the-rules any deviation is seen in such stark contrast that no thought is given to their view or logic even. That magic happens hundreds of times a day to all of us. Malls have few cops; eBay even fewer. What activity between humans can't be done in the market place or with competing charity providers that we have to give over to a monopoly on the legal use of force, more and more and more and more?

  9. The idea of democracy has been shoved down our throats as an amazing thing for our whole lives. In reality, a dictatorship would work well as long as those in power are good rulers. For one, the people don't always know what's best. For example, people can be against taxes or helping the environment. Also, democracy forces politicians to to only think in the short term. This is due to regular elections. They also have to spend 1/4 of their time trying to get reelected.

  10. There has never not been a democracy in history – all government is ultimately chosen by the people. The difference are those chosen with best interest in mind.

  11. 10%=abgfbdtchggcgfdvrvdgdfyf ($%=^^$;_€&; ((£, (£&("&5$&/%'^=^ ^=^"&%/:=%^/^//&$:/)) €€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€€

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  13. the key to a successful democracy is having massive pool of well educated, intelligent , well informed, interested and rational eligible voters. sad to say, the average eligible voters are idiots who are easily manipulated, easily deceived, often misinformed, very ignorant, very apathetic, and very irrational. Today, election campaigning is a mix of a popularity contest and a beauty pageant, at best. at worst, power and control in a democracy can be bought and sold by those with the most money. there is even a science to strategically running a campaign to almost guarantee outcomes in elections, without actual illegal voter tampering.

    South Park had is right; when you vote, you typically get to chose between a Turd Sandwich and a Giant Douche, which plays into why voter turnouts are rather pathetic. eligible voters are, at least, smart enough to realize that candidates are typically not running out of pure selfless desire to service the public interest and out of a sense of patriotic civic duty. All candidates are motivated by self-interests- impose their ideologies, push their agendas, push the interests of their cronies, taking advantage of politically derived connections during and after their time in office, and get well paid and access to special benefits and entitlements while doing the first 4. when you put power in the hands of a tiny minority of people who are operating out of mostly self-interest, the will of the people can never be fully realized and carried out.

    democracy is a farce but definitely better then dictatorships, and monarchies. the people having some power is better than non at all.

  14. Can TED-Ed get a different narrator other than Addison Anderson? His irritating, hushed voice leads me to stop the vid and do something else. Sounds like he's tensely muttering in his locked bedroom and doesn't want to wake someone. Kind of a nervous-paranoid quality.

  15. Actually the elected generals were not just military commanders, but also distinguished politicians! Well, most of them! Themistocles or Pericles, for example! The institution of the "10 generals" was the elected Goverment- the executive power!

  16. It helped me a lot to understand the point of "the begin of democrcy" of my greece unit in history ¡¡¡¡¡
    Ilove it, it is really well done…

  17. I feel like the best democracy would be kind of like the one in Athens; all people would have the right to propose a law or speak to the crowd, but a group of people chosen by citizens would be able to make the final decision through voting.

  18. In my country the minister of minitary is a teacher and the minister of education is just a transgender… I don't think anything else…

    i think having a mixed politcal sysem is the best.

  19. We need a meritocratic senate to frame laws and a sortition-based house of reps to pass them. Elections are bullshit.

  20. I feel that all systems of government are disastrously flawed, because people are disastrously flawed in of themselves and will inevitably corrupt anything they labor to create indefinitely.

  21. I think the presidency and Cabinet positions should be reserved for experts, but maybe the Senate and House could stand to be filled through a lottery, with strict rules that laws can't be passed if the legislators don't understand them (to prevent the lawyers from taking over).

  22. I have never actually liked "Democracy" as it is practiced today. It is not really the power of the people as the power of the majority. That doesn't work.

  23. Platos argument was far more nuanced making a distinction between the good and the bad for of "democracy".
    for Plato there was a distinction between Democracy and Politocracy.
    For him a democracy was a society ruled by the mob, violently temperamental whose only value was that the majority (50% +1) approved of an initiative even though this decision had no real merit or would ultimately harm the whole constituency.
    Whereas Politocracy was always open to the public (by ancient standards so no slaves and foreigners) but the assembly would govern for the well being of everyone, that would mean some people would have to vote in favour of things that would damage them (say higher taxes on the wealthy). Decisions would have to be unanimous as all the members of the assembly would reach the conclusion that a certain decision was the best for the well being of all within the Polis.

  24. democratic Athens: brutal slavery, women on the same level as slaves, underaged sex
    dictatorship Sparta: illegal to mistreat salves, women had rights to education, didn't even have pornography.

  25. Perhaps mixing the two concepts could provide a greater outcome. Perhaps people are selected at random for a chance at an election. Then the people can ask qualifications and difficult questions of those selected in debates. This however would require people to be more informed about how their local governments are run and most people dont care at all

  26. Thank You TED-Ed i really needed to research some new things about Athens for a school project, You were the only one so far that i found that made it easy to understand as well as making it quick to! i didn't waste my time 🙂

  27. You should hold your breath. Then you would realise that you will die if YOU do not take up action for change yourself.

  28. This video is garbage political indoctrination. It pisses me off how people can't seem to move beyond technical qualification. Being technically skilled should only be 40% of the qualification for a political position, not being a douchebag should be the larger 60%. With democracy you get neither moral, nor intelligent, and elections certainly don't solve this because….
    1) people don't want intelligent and moral people ruling, they want people who suck and that they can relate to. This is why people vote for the same political parties with endless lists of corruption and utter stupidity. Corrupt people LIKE corrupt politicians
    2) even if they were trying to put smart and moral people in power they would just vote for pop scientists and high IQ-Savants who positively think and smile alot.
    3) the video maker is completely wrong about "voting for experts" this is not what an election is for, an election is to vote for people to represent your will. We vote for elected REPRESENTATIVES, not elected EXPERTS. There is a reason parliament is a bunch of 10 year olds throwing feces at each other. It is SUPPOSED to be a popularity contest, democracy by any dictionary definition means "government by the people typically through elections," if it's not government BY THE PEOPLE it's not democracy. End of story.

  29. Obviously it was not enough to be born free, male and athenian to become a citizen. You should afford yourself to become a hoplite with all it's expensive stuff that belongs. This brings us to the key point of athenian democracy – ALL athenian citizens were not only rich enough to equip themselves but also had to risk there lives in person in case of bad decisions. This all put a hell of responsibility on those in office. And yes, you can use lottery in this case. Did you noticed how excluding women, slaves and foreigners (who said they should have any vote?!) drastically dropped down the constituency to 10% of the population?

  30. What is most difficult with applying Athenian-style democracy is to have citizens willing to take part in politics on an everyday basis. Compared to them we look more like the shaded part of the circle at the end of your video. There were also other things setting them apart, like recall elections and ostracism, but I guess you can't tell everything in one video!

  31. Direct democracy using internet. Drop the parlament and use internet to let people suggest ideas, those ideas get voted up or down by the rest, which creates the list of priorities and best ideas to be implemented and the elected goverment makes sure they're implemented and turned into the laws.

    Athenians didn't have the ability to all speak at once, with internet we do have that ability. We also don't need to gather at one place to do it.

  32. As you see – Democracy provides NO guarantee of personal or property
    rights. It has never created a free society (no people voted themselves
    free, although every democracy ever to exist regularly voted themselves
    into oppression) and was despised by the founders. Their fears were born
    out a few years later with the French Revolution – based on equality
    & democracy instead of freedom and liberty. The Constitutional Republic was the solution that worked as intended. It was, unfortunately
    overthrown in 1913 by Constitutional Amendment creating our present National Democracy. Don't like the way your neighbor acts, take a vote and regulate it. Don't like the way other people are developing their land, take a vote and end it. Add to that trillions in debt and constant war, everyone dependent on the government for their support and our experiment with democracy has also been a total failure.

  33. It would be better if no person decided what happened to another person. A person should govern himself and no one else

    -Me

  34. One of the biggest problems with modern democracy is it requires so much money to get elected that their job often becomes just fundraising.

  35. I live in the state of Missouri we have tried putting term limits in the state legislature. It has been a mixed bag. To quote the Post-Dispatch, "On the positive side, the law prevents a lawmaker from accumulating too much power and regularly brings in new members with fresh ideas.

    But on the down side, inexperienced legislators have less knowledge of complicated issues and often start looking for their next political post soon after they arrive in the Capitol."

    If you want the whole article you can find it here:
    http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/missouri-term-limits-debated/article_da8898f9-6c32-53a1-bdb9-4d45fdee78f7.html

  36. Can you guys do a video explaining what a republic is and how it's different from a democracy? What is the U.S., a republic or a full democracy?

  37. This is important stuff. I was rejected from Cambridge even after acing the interview because I failed to recognise a trick question about sortition in the subsequent exam. I learnt to never underestimate the importance of classics.

  38. You know what's real democracy?
    The United States invading your country to spread its values of freedom and democracy and its glorious civilization and culture 😇 oh but sometimes it might bring with it some civil wars, some genocides, some oil-stealing… but who cares you still have that "democracy" you've always dreamt about so be happy 😁

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