Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Illiberal Democracy of Ancient Athens

by Aristides N. Hatzis
University of Athens
July 15, 2016


Ancient Athenians introduced democracy, majoritarianism and popular sovereignty. They also introduced populism and rent-seeking. Moreover, Athenians didn’t invent the rule of law. The power of demos was almost unlimited, there were no constitutional guarantees, checks and balances. The laws were subjected to the whims of the majority of citizens or judges. Most importantly, individual rights were not recognized in Athens. The concept of liberty in Ancient Athens was very different from the concept of liberty that prevailed after the Great Revolutions of the late 18th and the early 19th century which led to the contemporary liberal democracies. We will discuss these issues with reference to famous historical episodes and trials. However, we will also see that the liberal ideas of individuality, toleration and the rule of law, appeared in a not-so-embryonic way, in three important works of the period (a tragedy, a comedy and a history book). These ideas were remarkably original but at the same time marginal. They didn’t exert any significant influence on the Athenian democratic institutions.

This is the text of a Keynote Lecture at the international conference: “Ancient Greece and the Modern World: The Influence of Greek Thought on Philosophy, Science and Technology” (Ancient Olympia, August 2016)

Download the Lecture (PDF)

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