History and Historiography

Democracy I

Thomas Mitchell’s Athens: A History of the First Democracy is a great work of classical history. It ranks with the Italian Ferrero’s and the German Mommsen’s histories of the Roman republic in quality, breadth, and political insight. Mitchell is a professor at Trinity College in Ireland. After decades of our scorched earth cultural revolution, you have to dig pretty deep in the ruins of “old Europe” for such an extraordinary find.

In his epilogue, Mitchell explains why Athens remains acutely relevant at the end of our era of progress. He outlines the growing failures of modern democracy, failures needing to be rectified for any democratic reform and revival. Mitchell writes, “Representative democracy in its modern guise seems to be gliding inexorably towards oligarchy” — it’s not gliding towards, it’s already there.

Oligarchy is one of the still useful political terms bequeath to us by Ancient Greece. Simply, it is the rule of the few over the many. Mitchell essentially adds oligarchy is politics where “political influence means personal gain.” For the Greeks, in opposition was democracy – the rule of the many. Democratic political influence means each and every citizen participates in shaping the greater public good. Mitchell writes,

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