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Democracy: Lessons From Athens

At a time in which barbarians and globalists seem to be threatening the very existence of our people, it’s easy to get caught up thinking about solutions without taking a step back and contemplating the causes of the problems we face. The challenges we are encountering as a people are in no way unique and have been faced by many who came before us. Once we recognise that not only were their problems similar, but also their causes, we can learn and do better than our forebearers. 

Around 352 BC, a democratic city in Greece faced similar problems as we do now. A group of barbarians , who later would try to create a globalist multi-ethnic superstate, were becoming an increasing threat. One brave man recognised this and, during his struggle, he noticed how democracy was weakening the resolve and response of his people. His criticisms against democracy still hold true roughly 2500 years later,

This city was democratic Athens, at the time already superior to its rivals Sparta and Thebes, but weakened by the revolts of its allies in the Social War (357-355 BC). Athens was dominant Greek superpower, but a declining one nonetheless. The barbarians in the story are the Macedonians under the leadership of Philip II, seen by most Greeks as uncivilised, backwards and uneducated. The brave man was Demosthenes (384-322 BC) one of the greatest orators, lawyers and statesmen Athens had ever known.

Demosthenes recognised the dangers of these overambitious barbarians from the North and tried for three decades to warn and incite his fellow countrymen against this threat that would eventually destroy their beautiful city and much cherished freedoms. Demosthenes noticed during his struggle that the system of democracy was inherently flawed because popular government meant being ruled by imprudence, ignorance, indiscretion and treason.

Demosthenes, as an educated aristocrat, realised during his life that although nearly half of the electorate at any given time were exposed to the business of government, the average Athenian voters were uninformed about the things they voted on; they reasoned and voted on the basis of ignorance. Demosthenes told the democratic assembly: “I cannot imagine that Philip is acting in such a way that half of the fools of Athens know what he is going to do next.” This problem, much to his annoyance, hampered his fellow countrymen’s understanding of the gravity of the situation they were in.

The lack of understanding among the average Athenian voter created another problem: Since the Athenians were not able to judge a speaker on the basis of expertise, they started to judge on the basis of character. Substantive speeches started to give way to more pleasant speeches. After several setbacks for Athens in 341 BC, Demosthenes berated the Athenian assembly for not listening to him as, according to him, they only listened “to those who study to win your favour rather than to give you the best advice.” Their democracy seemed restricted to voting for what you would like to hear instead of what is best for you.

Undemocratic Macedon, lead by a strong leader, had another advantage over the city of Athens: The strength of discretion. While Philip could plot in secrecy and strike quickly, without warning or doubt, the Athenians had to discuss and debate everything in public. If, after a long time, they finally managed to reach a consensus or a majority on a subject, they had to decree their actions in public. While the Athenians had no idea what was happening in Philip’s inner circle, Philip could easily pay disgruntled Athenians citizens to spy for him, or even advocate on his behalf during the assembly. Sources tell us Demosthenes frequently called “Philip’s hired servants” out for their betrayal of Athens. The Athenian democracy became tainted with Macedonian gold. 

Once the initial war against Macedon was lost, Athens eventually submitted to Philip. Following Philip’s assassination, Demosthenes advocated for Athens to seize independence, but Alexander the Great scared Athens into submission by razing the city of Thebes. When Alexander the Great died (323 BC), Demosthenes claimed yet again Athens’s time had come, and that independence was just a war away. Once again the Macedonians won, this time demanding that the most prominent anti-Macedonian agitators be turned over. Demosthenes, to avoid capture and execution, committed suicide. With the end of Demosthenes, so too Athenian democracy ended. After this victory the Macedonians chose to install a plutocracy they could control. And so, with the end of Athenian democracy came an end to centuries of Athenian freedom and independence. Athens was to be ruled by those Athenians at one time called barbarians.

Although Demosthenes & Athens were in a situation that might not be exactly the same as that we in Europe are currently facing, the observations of the flaws of democracy are valid lessons to take into consideration while dealing with any set of crises. For our democracies are far from immune to imprudence, ignorance, indiscretion and treason.

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