ElAnt v1n2 - Religious Dissent and Political Opposition: Thoughts on Ancient and Modern Democracy

Volume 1, Number 2
July 1993


Graham Maddox,
Dean of Arts,
University of New England,
N.S.W. 2351,
e-mail: care of: ptoohey@metz.une.edu.au

In the eighteenth century, when the institutions we now call democratic were taking shape, democracy remained an unfashionable term; it was explicitly rejected by those most responsible for moulding modern 'democratic' systems. The name had barely survived the ancient Greek experience and, apart from a few isolated medieval examples that might have warranted the term, it lived on only as an element of the mixed constitution theory. Looking to Rome for inspiration, and being advised by more recent French and British writers, the American Founders preferred 'republican' government to democratic. Republicanism drew upon all the ideological advantages of a polity symbolically based on popular sovereignty, but removed 'the people' from a direct involvement in government. Democratic stirrings in the recent experience of the American colonies filled the constitution writers with dread; in their own perspectival reading of ancient events Athens gave them all the ammunition they thought they needed to destroy the credibility of democracy.

In the Federalist Papers of 1787-8, democracy turns 'the people' into a self-interest 'faction' who will stop at nothing to gratify their lust for expropriating the property of others. In the famous Federalist 10, James Madison held that 'pure' democracies 'have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths'.( 1 ) Elsewhere, Founders wrote and spoke of democracy as 'disease' and 'folly'.( 2 ) Among the chief influences upon American public opinion were the writings of English Dissenters, all men of the Enlightenment who by the 1790s would be called 'radicals'. They advocated for Britain parliamentary and electoral reform, and commended independence too the Americans.( 3 ) Their suggested policies would have been congenial to any modern 'democrat'; still they were loath to traverse fashion and propose democratic government a notion too dangerous for ordinary people to handle, even though they recognised that people required government help to improve their living conditions which for most in the dark days of Britain's industrial revolution were simply hell. Even that leader who probably did most to bring both Britain and America to the point of understanding that government must embrace all, John Wesley, walked the party line of Romans 13 when he argued that, since all power came from God, it could not come from the people.( 4 )

Direct democracy can still arouse passionate antipathy among modern democrats. Basing his arguments more upon Rousseau's recommendations than on the Athenian example, George Kateb for example asserts the moral superiority of representative democracy over direct democracy: 'the source of the radical moral deficiency of direct democracy is its social context community. The existence of community spells the absence of commendable moral phenomena and the presence of noxious ones'. It produces ugly dispositions: 'The insularity, literal-mindedness, complacency, inexperience, crudeness, chauvinism, perhaps bellicosity, are all unattractive'.( 5 ) Of course, Rousseau's general will owed more to the language of Martin Luther than to ancient Athens, ( 6 ) and Kateb's discourse might have been given pause if confronted by Plato's complaints about the diversity and individualism of democracy.( 7 )

If it differs so radically from ancient democracy, should the modern version merit adopting the name of its linguistic archetype? There was no doubt that eighteenth century thinkers and lawyers thought that, whatever role the people should have, its influence on governmental action should be moderated by various institutions. James Madison argued that representation serves:

'to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium off a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption,or by other means, first obtain the suffrages and then betray the interests off the people'.( 8 )

Madison's British contemporary, Edmund Burke, gave the world 'virtual representation', a subtle term of double meaning implying both that people did not need 'real' representation, and that those recruited to the House of Commons (even by the devious and corrupt means his own 'economical reforms' were in part directed against) would have an ample measure of 'virtue' with which to understand and promote the true interests of the nation as a whole. Either way, the people did not get a direct voice in government.

History scarcely offers evidence of representative systems, whether 'virtual' or, by some mechanism or other, 'actual', bringing forward politicians of greater or less virtue than did the Athenian institutions. Arguments like Kateb's are on surer ground when they call for responsibility as the complement and counterpart of representative democracy. In most circumstances representative systems produce a government that is at least for a time identifiable and able to be held responsible for its actions by the electorate. Once again the term has layers of meaning: representatives must act responsibly in the general sense of observing certain codes of behaviours, but they must also be held answerable and accountable to the electorate. Direct democracy can certainly find means of holding individual politicians responsible for their actions and punish them for 'misleading' the people, but that is somewhat different from choosing a body of rulers who feel rewarded by their election to office, who take responsibility for the entire affairs of the nation and who, if deemed to have failed in this duty, may be punished by the electorate through dismissal from office. Moreover, some representative systems provide for the preparation of an alternative government ready to assume responsibility the instant the present government is dismissed.

Of course the institutions of Athens were far more 'responsible' and 'constitutional' than many devotees of representative government are prepared to admit.( 9 ) And surely there is a great moral victory in seeing to it that a citizen, as one 'who rules and is ruled in turn', might be called upon in the most practical way to act responsibly on behalf of his community. The ecclesia might have opened itself to satire or, on occasions, outright contempt, but one senses from the researches of Rhodes that the same could scarcely be said of the boule ; for, despite the turnover of personnel, it might in some ways be said to function as a 'responsible' arm of government even if, technically, the 'government' is the entire demos.( 10 )

Modern democrats often neglect the extent to which Athenian politics were subject to the rule of law and disregard the influence that nomos exerted over political behaviour in the democratic era.( 11 ) The eventual separation of resolutions of the assembly ( psephismata ), which could reasonably be equated to modern legislation, from nomos , the general concept of law, certainly foreshadows the modern notion of 'constitutional law'.( 12 ) The graphe paranomon implies that the people as a collective have a sense of what is right and proper and acknowledges that, being misled, they might do what they know in their heart of hearts is 'unlawful' according to the highest code of morality.

Emphasising the community of feeling among the Athenians rather than their individual responsibility for their general well being, then, modern observers have recoiled from the 'oppressive' nature of the city state. The 'constitutional' attack on the polis was sharpened by the contrast made between ancient and modern societies by Fustel de Coulanges:

'The city had been founded upon a religion, and constituted like a church. Hence its strength; hence, also, its omnipotence and the absolute empire which it exercised over its members. In a society established on such principles, individual liberty could not exist. The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul. The religion which had produced the state, and the state which produced the religion sustained each other and made but one; these two powers, associated and confounded, formed a power almost superhuman, to which the human soul and the body were equally enslaved'.( 13 )

This view overlooks the 'constitutional' elements of Greek civil religion - the religious oaths, for example, by which citizens and office-bearers swore to uphold the laws of the land. It overlooks also the religious dimension of the work of philosophers and dramatists who were prepared to put the universal laws of God above the positive laws of individual states; that Socrates should have paid the ultimate penalty for maintaining a personal faith is sufficient for many to prove the intolerance of the polis; that the cult of Athena should in fact mean worship of the polis itself, and that other cults should be organised and supervised by the state as a focus for citizenship activity, is sufficient to show that there was no institution independent of, and potentially in opposition to, the state. For citizens to be free, according to the 'constitutional' view, they should be able to join organisations that might help them, when necessary, to stand up to, and even to defy, the state.

Despite what one reads in many survey textbooks on democracy, then, the divergence between ancient and modern democracies is more than differences of scale or institutional arrangement. So often we are told that direct democracy could not be repeated in the modern nation-state because of the difficulty of bringing the citizens together or because, in the Madisonian argument we have noted, there are particular advantages in representation. To overcome problems of scale and distance, and still revive direct democracy, some are prepared to advocate continuous referenda using electronic communications, ( 14 ) while blithely ignoring the culture of discussion which was the indispensable background perhaps the chief political characteristic of democracy in a face-to-face society.

These institutional differences are now emphasised by liberal democrats since mainstream liberalism is no longer satisfied with religious explanations, its advocates not being prepared to attribute political benefits to ecclesiastical institutions or traditions of thought. Nor often is it acknowledged that arguments for individual liberty attributed to the freethinking John Stuart Mill and his Utilitarian forebears had been rehearsed in all their essentials two centuries earlier by John Milton on entirely religious grounds.( 15 ) Milton in turn stood in a Calvinist tradition that also drew upon Martin Luther's Liberty of a Christian . All the claims for liberty of conscience and the imperative of individual private judgement had been staked by the Reformers who, significantly, stood in a tradition of Christian Platonism. As Fustel declared, the Classical world had to do without Christianity; yet Socrates' star pupil, and his more wayward Cynic followers, became significant components of Christian idealism.( 16 ) Greece helped to produce the very liberty of conscience and individual responsibility the absence of which Fustel thought to be the ancient city's deadly defect.

There is yet more to the difference between ancient and modern democracy, however. Political observers of all societies have recognised that governments can be bad, oppressive and tyrannical. Until it hit upon the ingenious, but flawed, doctrine of the mixed polity by which you secured virtue and stability in politics, the ancient world thought that the remedy for a bad regime was to replace it with a better one, if you were prepared to pay the unpredictable costs of revolution. It was not an optimistic approach, human affairs being inevitably tainted by tragedy.

Christianity vested no more merit in human institutions but postulated (or discovered) a spiritual order, which mirrored the disembodied world of Plato's kallipolis , but one in which perfection was realised by divine providence. The reforming tradition, while glorying in the promise of a life hereafter, sharply distinguished between the temporal and spiritual orders, assigning the earthly sphere, in the Augustinian manner, to the realm of the devil. Their approach was ambivalent: this world was part of God's creation to be used and enjoyed by Christians, and to be interpenetrated by the realm of the spirit. Yet government was unequivocally locked in the temporal world infected by original sin. For Luther the princes (for all that he relied on their coercive power) were the bond servants of the devil. Pride was the deadliest of all sins, and all who aspired to rule others challenged the rightful place of God thus consigning themselves to inescapable damnation.

It was a reformed world that received Machiavelli - Luther's contemporary. When his hope for a republicanism that would deal with the insatiable greed, envy and sheer evil of all political persons was accommodated to a religious scepticism about all this world's institutions, few beyond Filmer and Hobbes were prepared to place any faith in government at all. The political outlook adopted by the American Founders was certainly conditioned by this republican/libertarian approach. Locke, acting upon the Lutheran/Calvinist separation of the temporal and spiritual realms, set down guidelines how a people might control, and if necessary dismiss, its government, which only held power in trust for the people. By the next century, the century of the American founding and the beginnings of British parliamentary reform, some were prepared to declare all political power inherently bad. This was a strong belief among the American constitutionalists. One of their mentors was the British statesman, Lord Bolingbroke who, a good century before Lord Acton popularised the dictum that power corrupts, declared that:

'The love of power is natural; it is insatiable; almost constantly whetted, and never cloyed by possession. If therefore all men will endeavour to increase their power, or at least to prolong and secure the enjoyment of it, according to the uncertain measure of their own passions, and not according to the sated proposition of reason and law, and if neither one nor the other of these can be attempted without a danger to liberty; it follows undeniably that, in the nature of things, the notion of a perpetual danger to liberty is inseparable from the very notion of government '. ( 17 )

The Americans heeded the prescriptions of Montesquieu who, after his contact with Bolingbroke during an English sojourn, formulated a separation-of-powers doctrine. In Britain Bolingbroke continued to argue that all government power must be opposed, and even came to the conclusion that to oppose a government in parliament was morally superior to taking part in government.

At the very time that the reformed tradition was casting all government in such a poor light, its own institutions were reviving the experience of ancient direct democracy as it had been practised in the ecclesia of the early church. Believers who were all 'priests' shared an equality, and an intense individual responsibility, which was exercised in conventicle, congregation and class meeting. One of its finest exponents, A.D. Lindsay, found:

'the beginnings of modern democracy as it was first conceived in the seventeenth century and formulated by men who had had vivid experience of the supereminent satisfactoriness of simple democratic government in the selfgoverning congregation, and therefore demanded that the state should be organized on the same model'.( 18 )

There would be no reproduction of ancient (or church) procedures at the level of the modern nation-state, but the claims of reformers, especially when amplified by the sweeping religious revivals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were not to be denied. Institutions that had been fashioned to exclude democracy were now commandeered by democrats and, to varying extents across the Atlantic, modified to absorb at least some features that ancient democrats might approve.

The institutions of democracy are important, but the measures by which we might most clearly distinguish modern from ancient democracy are the insistence upon a moral duty to oppose political power combined with a paradoxical confidence among individual persons to take part in the exercise of power. Both these features were implicit in Pauline and Augustinian Christianity, and were implanted in the political world by the reformed tradition.


(1) James Madison, Federalist 10, in The Federalist Papers , Clinton Rossiter, ed. (New York, 1961), p. 81.

(2) See Michael Lienesch, 'Interpreting Experience. History, Philosophy and Science in the American Constitutional Debates', American Politics Quarterly 11 (1983), pp. 385-363.

(3) See the works of, for example, James Burgh, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine.

(4) John Wesley, 'Thoughts concerning the Origins of Power', in The Works of John Wesley , T. Jackson, ed. (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, repr. edn., 1972), 14 vols, vol. 9, pp. 46-53.

(5) George Kateb, 'The Moral Distinctiveness of Representative Democracy', Ethics 91 (1981), pp. 371-372.

(6) Joshua Mitchell, 'The Equality of A11 under One in Luther and Rousseau: Thoughts on Christianity and Political Theory', The Journal of Religion 72 (1992), pp. 351-365.

(7) Plato, Republic 8. 557; cf. Thucydides 2. 37.

(8) Madison, Federalist 10, p. 82.

(9) M. Mion, 'Athenian Democracy: Politicization and Constitutional Restraints', History of Political Thought 7 (1986), pp. 219-238; Blair Campbell, 'Constitutionalism, Rights and Religion: the Athenian Example', History of Political Thought 7 (1986), pp. 239-273.

(10) P. J. Rhodes, The Athenian Boule (Oxford, 1972).

(11) Martin Ostwald, Nomos and the Beginnings of Athenian Democracy (Oxford, 1969).

(12) M. H. Hansen, The Sovereignty of the People's Court in Athens in the Fourth Century B.C. and the Public Action against Unconstitutional Proposals (Odense, 1974). Hansen somewhat confuses the issue by insisting (p. 17) that the dicasteria 'alone have ultimate sovereignty'.

(13) Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City. A Study on the Religion, Laws and Institutions of Greece and Rome (1864) trans. Willard Small (Garden City), pp. 219-220.

(14) See for example Michael Margolis, Viable Democracy (Harmondsworth, 1979).

(15) J. S. Mill, On Liberty , 1859; J. Milton, Areopagita , 1644.

(16) See for example F. Gerald Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Edinburgh, 1992).

(17) Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, 'Remarks on the History of England', in Works of Lord Bolingbroke (London, repr. 1967; Bohn, 1844), 4 vols, vol. 1, p. 296 (emphasis in original); cf. Kurt Kluxen, Das Problem der politischen Opposition (Freiburg, 1956), pp. 143-145.

(18) A. D. Lindsay, The Essentials of Democracy 2nd ed. (London, 1935).

Graham Maddox
e-mail: care of: ptoohey@metz.une.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 2 - July 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606