The Story of Democraczy: Chapter Four
by Martin Gantman
Hammurabi: 1,800 BC
. . . the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers;so that the strong should not harm the weak . . .
Ur Nammu: 2,000 BC
Gilgamesh: 2,500 BC
Sumeria: 5,300 BC
Lascaux: 30,000 BC
Religious activity: 100,000 BC
Homo sapiens: 130,000 BC
Homo erectus: 1,500,000 BC
Homo habilis: 2,500,000 BC
Thus began an alternation of attempts to broaden and strengthen individual rights among the recurring dark periods that rendered such rights all but invisible – a cycle that continues to this day – as if democracy is only one in a continuing rotation of equal governing options – rather than the destination that we like to believe it is.
It wasn’t for another 1,200 years, around 600 BC, when Solon, in Athens, purportedly decided that governance could be participated in by most, but not all, economic classes of the Athenian population. That experiment lasted all of, perhaps, less than ten years before another tyrannical authority returned to rule.
It is necessary to consider, even though we are 2,600 years later, how broadly the term democracy appears, even now, to be used and how many variations, constructions, and misappropriations occur within this rubric. Thus, when we refer to attempts at democracy 4,000 or 2,600 or 2,000 years ago, as you all know, these are infantile, though exceptional, principles that are being scribed into sand that verges on the ocean surf.
One would like to think that there has been a continuing story line, an evolution, toward the principles and practice of a democratic sensibility, and perhaps underneath the historical account, there resides one. But amid the continual reinterpretation of political
rule, one continues to be uncertain. It is also possible to suggest that all of the best writing and reasoning supporting individual rights, as was ably debated in the Federalist Papers, and the historic legislation that followed, still does not describe the world that we experience in everyday praxis.
As Athenian democracy passed from Solon to Cleisthenes to Ephialtes to Pericles, one gets a sense that the issues were not only the rights and freedoms of individuals, but also their ability to hold their representatives accountable.
One hundred years later, after Solon, around 500 BC, Cleisthenes once again established and enhanced major egalitarian reforms within Athenian life, including the idea of ostracism, which destiny he may have also suffered.
Ostracism is an enthralling idea. At that time it took a vote of 6,000 members to expel any citizen for 10 years. Usually that citizen was an unpopular politician or one who threatened the prevailing system.
Ephialtes increased the scrutiny of office holders and strengthened the judiciary. In appreciation of his efforts he was fairly quickly assassinated by those opposed to social accountability, and Pericles took office. This idea of accountability to the vast public lies at the heart of the democratic issue: the responsibility of governance to the broadest electorate – and, really, who gets to decide what that responsibility is?