The ancient Greek view on what democracy is

This topic came up recently. Here is the most thorough discussion of this matter in the primary sources that I am aware of. Aristotle is describing here (Politics, 1317a-1318a) what he considers as the conventional wisdom of his time:

And for this inquiry we must take into view all the features that are popular and that are thought to go with democracies; for it comes about from combinations of these that the kinds of democracy are formed, and that there are different democracies and more than one sort. In fact there are two causes for there being several kinds of democracy, first the one stated before, the fact that the populations are different (for we find one multitude engaged in agriculture and another consisting of handicraftsmen and day-laborers, and when the first of these is added to the second and again the third to both of them it not only makes a difference in that the quality of the democracy becomes better or worse but also by its becoming different in kind); and the second cause is the one about which we now speak. For the institutions that go with democracies and seem to be appropriate to this form of constitution make the democracies different by their combinations; for one form of democracy will be accompanied by fewer, another by more, and another by all of them. And it is serviceable to ascertain each of them both for the purpose of instituting whichever of these kinds of democracy one happens to wish and for the purpose of amending existing ones. For people setting up constitutions seek to collect together all the features appropriate to their fundamental principle, but in so doing they make a mistake, as has been said before in the passage dealing with the causes of the destruction and the preservation of constitutions. And now let us state the postulates, the ethical characters and the aims of the various forms of democracy.

Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty. And these principles having been laid down and this being the nature of democratic government, the following institutions are democratic in character: election of officials by all from all; government of each by all, and of all by each in turn; election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill; no property-qualification for office, or only a very low one; no office to be held twice, or more than a few times, by the same person, or few offices except the military ones; short tenure either of all offices or of as many as possible; judicial functions to be exercised by all citizens, that is by persons selected from all, and on all matters, or on most and the greatest and most important, for instance the audit of official accounts, constitutional questions, private contracts; the assembly to be sovereign over all matters, but no official over any or only over extremely few; or else a council to be sovereign over the most important matters (and a council is the most democratic of magistracies in states where there is not a plentiful supply of pay for everybody—for where there is, they deprive even this office of its power, since the people draws all the trials to itself when it has plenty of pay, as has been said before in the treatise preceding this one; also payment for public duties, preferably in all branches, assembly, law-courts, magistracies, or if not, for the magistracies, the law-courts, council and sovereign assemblies, or for those magistracies which are bound to have common mess tables. Also inasmuch as oligarchy is defined by birth, wealth and education, the popular qualifications are thought to be the opposite of these, low birth, poverty, vulgarity. And in respect of the magistracies it is democratic to have none tenable for life, and if any life-office has been left after an ancient revolution, at all events to deprive it of its power and to substitute election by lot for election by vote.

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57 Responses

  1. Aristotle’s discussion of democratic institutions in this well known passage is predicated on the principle of rotation — that all should govern and be governed in turn. Clearly this is impossible in large modern states, so what is the relevance of this passage to the debate on this forum?

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  2. Keith,

    You are being far too literal. Aristotle of course knew that in all Greek democracies EACH and EVERY citizen did NOT in fact take a turn at governing through the lottery, but they did have a chance to. He explains that the liberty achieved by lottery is the equality defined as per person, not per “worth.” He even explains a bit later that “all citizens” means SELECTED from among all by lot… “judicial functions to be exercised by all citizens, that is by persons selected from all…”

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  3. Terry,

    We don’t need to take Aristotle’s “government of each by all, and of all by each in turn” literally in order to understand the connection between democracy and the principle of rotation. I don’t have Hansen to hand at the moment, but from memory I think he claims that most Athenian citizens would have served on the council or as magistrates once or twice and that half of all eligible citizens might have been able to claim to have been president for one day (or perhaps that was Headlam’s estimate?). There is no way of even approximating this degree of rotation in a large modern state, even with your plethora of allotted panels.

    The main point is that this passage fails to support Yoram’s earlier claim that sortition was the defining characteristic of Athenian democracy. For a start democratic institutions will include: “election of officials by all from all” (“by” being an unambiguous reference to voting) and, most importantly, “the assembly to be sovereign over all matters”. Lot is only mentioned as a technology to implement rotation (other methods could have been used), there is no reference to its representative function or as a way of preventing factionalism or corruption, so insisting that this was the reason that the Athenian democrats used sortition is anachronistic, at least wrt this particular passage from Politics.

    One puzzling thing is that Aristotle makes no reference to isegoria, although Herodotus sometimes claims that this is the defining feature of democracy. I wonder whether this is just on account of his materialism — the contrasting interests of the rich and poor are always his concern, rather than ideational factors, and this is why Marx’s political anthropology is generally viewed as Aristotelian.

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  4. I was watching a BBC2 programme on Athenian democracy last night:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0671rt9

    and didn’t notice a single reference to sortition, election by lot etc. — the focus was primarily on the agora, the assembly, the navy and the leaders (Solon, Themistocles and Pericles). The presenter is director of research in the classics faculty at Cambridge. It struck me as a useful object lesson in the danger of political activists like us playing historians by cherry-picking from the primary literature any reference to our chosen template for modernity. This is exactly the same error that Christian evangelicals make in their approach to the biblical record, the take-home message being that amateurs like us have little choice but to defer to the “argument from authority”. Here’s the programme blurb:

    In the opening episode of the series, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill takes us on a journey across stunning locations in Greece and Italy to find out how Athens gave birth to the idea of a city run by free citizens 2,500 years ago. Every aspect of daily life from defence to waste disposal was controlled not by a king, but by the Athenians themselves. Ultimately, this radical new system would define a way of life and the Athenians would give it a name. They called it people power, demo-kratia or democracy. On our journey we meet the people who still see ancient Athens as the model for running the great cities of today, including perhaps the ancient capital’s greatest champion in our modern one – Boris Johnson.

    We discover how the Greeks created the first system of open government, and wrote the first constitution that laid down the rights of Athenian citizens nearly 2,000 years before our Magna Carta. Its creator was born in the 7th century BC, and even more surprisingly, the only surviving ancient copy is found on a papyrus not in Greece or Rome, but hidden away at the British Library in London, and it has never been filmed before. Andrew explains that it was this citizen-centric approach which created institutions that would build a city which was the envy of its day, with public libraries, public law courts, a public water supply and public space. In so doing, Athens would set a benchmark not just for the cities of the Ancient World, but also for those of the present and the future.

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  5. I don’t think such popularized entertainment programs are very reliable. I realize this blurb was perhaps not written by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (the director of classics research at Cambridge and the presenter), but it is sort of laughable that the writer pretends that the copy of the description of Athenian government thought to have been written by Aristotle and discovered in Egypt in 1879 is the written Constitution for Athens similar to one of the Magna Carta copies. I also note that Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is an honorary professor on ROMAN history, specializing on Rome and Pompeii, and hasn’t published anything about Athens.

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  6. By all means feel free to write off the good professor (although at least he’s a historian!), but what about the substantive points in my previous comment? Both Yoram and yourself insist that sortition was the defining feature of Athenian democracy, and this just strikes me as plain wrong.

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  7. > Substantive points

    What substantive points? As always you argue from authority and are unable to provide any evidence for any substantive claim. Only a joke of a scholar would consider a popular TV show as a reliable source of information just because it is presented by someone with a fancy academic degree.

    > strikes me

    Based on what? Again, either provide evidence from primary sources or spare us your nonsense. Feel free to ask your advisor for citations.

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  8. Yoram: >As always you argue from authority

    The substantive points were taken from your own primary source, namely:

    ‘The main point is that this passage [from Aristotle’s Politics] fails to support Yoram’s earlier claim that sortition was the defining characteristic of Athenian democracy. For a start democratic institutions will include: “election of officials by all from all” (“by” being an unambiguous reference to voting) and, most importantly, “the assembly to be sovereign over all matters”. Lot is only mentioned as a technology to implement rotation (other methods could have been used), there is no reference to its representative function or as a way of preventing factionalism or corruption, so insisting that this was the reason that the Athenian democrats used sortition is anachronistic, at least wrt this particular passage from Politics.’

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  9. Really, can’t you read?

    election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill

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  10. > election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill

    Yoram, you would save us all a lot of time if you had bothered to read my earlier responses to this point:

    ‘Aristotle’s discussion of democratic institutions in this well known passage is predicated on the principle of rotation — that all should govern and be governed in turn. Clearly this is impossible in large modern states, so what is the relevance of this passage to the debate on this forum?’

    ‘The main point is that this passage fails to support Yoram’s earlier claim that sortition was the defining characteristic of Athenian democracy. For a start democratic institutions will include: “election of officials by all from all” (“by” being an unambiguous reference to voting) and, most importantly, “the assembly to be sovereign over all matters”. Lot is only mentioned as a technology to implement rotation (other methods could have been used), there is no reference to its representative function or as a way of preventing factionalism or corruption, so insisting that this was the reason that the Athenian democrats used sortition is anachronistic, at least wrt this particular passage from Politics.’

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  11. I know that you are under the impression that repeating a claim over and over makes it more plausible. I adhere to the idea that if the evidence refutes a claim then repeating it has not value.

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  12. I presume your reference to “evidence” is the primary sources, in this case Aristotle’s Politics, and that’s exactly what I’m referring to (although I’m still wary about the ability of amateurs like you and me to evaluate the primary sources). In what respect do you claim that I am ignoring or misinterpreting the evidence?

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  13. The silence from Yoram and Terry on my (amateur) evaluation of the primary source evidence is deafening. This excerpt from Aristotle does nothing to indicate that sortition was the defining characteristic of Athenian democracy — where the lot is mentioned the reference is to rotation in office — ruling and being ruled in turn — rather than the stochastic or prophylactic characteristics of sortition. And this, according to Aristotle, is only one aspect of democracy, others being election of (some) magistrates, absence of property qualifications and the primacy of the assembly. For some reason Aristotle fails to mention isegoria, which Herodotus (on some days) claimed was the characteristic feature of demokratia.

    >repeating a claim over and over makes it more plausible.

    I’m only repeating it on account of the (vain) hope that someone might evaluate it rather than the usual exchange of insults and ad homina.

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  14. I don’t really want to wade into this conversation, but I will anyway. The quote from Aristotle that stands out for me is this one:

    “it is thought to be democratic for the offices [of constitutional government] to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic”

    where Aristotle is (I think) arguing that the best form of government will be a combination of democratic and oligarchic forms.

    Here’s an online source:
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0058%3Abook%3D4%3Asection%3D1294b

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  15. >“it is thought to be democratic for the offices [of constitutional government] to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic”

    Yes that is the quote that has been handed down to modernity, via Montesquieu. The valuable thing about the passage from Politics that Yoram supplied is that Aristotle clarifies the context and the normative principle involved (liberty). The ideal form of democratic liberty is “not to be governed, preferably not by anybody”. However, anticipating Hobbes, as this is not possible then the least worst alternative is “to govern and be governed in turns”. Rotation in governing is clearly impossible in large modern states as the numbers simply don’t compute, hence the danger of cherry-picking single sentences from antiquity, applying them in the very different context of modernity and assuming that the conditions of ancient and modern liberty are the same. The worst crime a historian can commit is anachronism, that’s why amateurs like us are best off relying on the secondary sources.

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  16. > The silence from Yoram and Terry

    My choice not to respond to you (here and elsewhere) is the result of the simple realization that there is nothing to be gained from discussing anything with you – you ignore what others write and you write nothing of value. At best, you write self-important nonsense. Often you write misrepresentations and outright lies.

    I can only guess that Terry has reached a similar realization.

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  17. >you write nothing of value. At best, you write self-important nonsense.

    I’m reminded of the Christian mystic who tied himself to a post at the entry to his city in order to undergo the abuse of passers-by as he thought it was good for his immortal soul. In which case, Yoram, I can only thank you for the continuing stream of brickbats that you aim in my direction.

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  18. Keith,
    Remembering that Aristotle did not prefer a democratic system of government, he understood that its principles favored “substitut[ing] election by lot for election by vote.” He believed democracy tended to have a sovereign assembly (though he ignores the fact that the randomly selected jurors of the court could overrule the assembly on constitutional grounds) OR a sovereign (randomly selected) Council if it was not practical to pay all citizens attending an assembly for their time. But it sin’t Aristotle’s opinion that brings me to the conclusion that sortition was in fact the defining feature of Greek democracy. It is the fact that many Greek monarchies and Aristocracies ALSO had nominally sovereign assemblies, but with the right of proposal being limited to an elite.

    The other thing that indicates to me that sortition was the defining feature, and that Greek democrats of the day (as distinct from opponents such as Aristotle) viewed it as such, was the inscription that was recently discovered in the democracy to the north of Athens. Classics scholar Josiah Ober has noted recently discovered evidence about the centrality of the randomly selected council from another Greek democratic city-state not far from Athens.

    “In terms of making a participatory Greek democracy work, the key institution was a popular deliberative council [as distinct from an assembly] chosen from the entire citizen body. The Greek recognition of the centrality of a popular council for democracy is underlined by a recently discovered inscription from Eretria. In ca. 340 B.C. the Eretrian democracy promulgated a decree offering rewards to a potential tyrant killer, that is, to anyone who took direct and violent action against those who sought to overthrow the existing democratic government. In a revealing passage, the decree orders all citizens to fight without waiting to receive orders if anyone tries to establish “some constitution other than a Council and a prutaneia (a subset of the Council) appointed by lot from all Eretrians.”
    [Ober, Josiah. “What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy.” Version 1.0 .September 2007, Stanford page 7 http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/ober/090703.pdf accessed May 20, 2012, citing Knoepfler 2001, 2002; translation Teegarden 2007]

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  19. Terry,

    Thanks for taking up my challenge. Aristotle certainly did believe that “substitut[ing] election by lot for election by vote” was one of the characteristics of democracy. He lists several others in this passage and they are all predicated on the principle of the equal freedom instituted by rotation — so the arguments are of little value to anyone seeking to institute sortition in a large modern state. He also conflates popular assemblies with large juries and councils selected by lot because all such (unelected) bodies were dominated by the poor and democracy, to a proto-Marxist materialist like him, is rule by the poor. This is why he pays such scant attention to the 4th century reforms. As for the distinction between democracies and oligarchies that included popular assemblies (monarchy was of little relevance in the classical age), the difference (according to Herodotus) was the general right of isegoria (anyone should be free to speak and make a proposal). I’m not aware of any historians attributing the difference to election by lot.

    The key phrase in the Ober passage is “making a participatory Greek democracy work”. In this respect Ober is adhering to the broad consensus among historians that allotment in the secretariat was essential in order to protect the sovereign assembly from factionalism and corruption. This was most likely why the council was so large (as it was difficult to bribe) as 500 was much larger than the optimum size for a deliberative body.

    In sum, activists like us need to be very cautious about cherry-picking the primary literature for a historical precedent to our modern proposals. Much better to leave it to the experts — Yoram’s reference to the “argument from authority” would be better put as listening to people who know what they are talking about.

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  20. Terry,

    > He believed democracy tended to have a sovereign assembly

    When Aristotle says

    the assembly to be sovereign over all matters, but no official over any or only over extremely few; or else a council to be sovereign over the most important matters (and a council is the most democratic of magistracies […]).

    he obviously contrasts a sovereign assembly not with a powerful allotted council or with a requirement of ratification by an allotted policy jury but with a situation where the assembly is not sovereign in the sense that it can be overruled or constrained by elite powers.

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  21. >a situation where the assembly is not sovereign in the sense that it can be overruled or constrained by elite powers.

    Yes, and that was the reason for the council to be a) large, and b) constituted by rotation. Hansen argues that the formal prohibition of the thetes from the magistracies (including the council) was a “dead letter” on account of the numbers involved — given the prohibition on more than two terms of service, there were just not enough citizens to go round (without the thetes). So an allotted council is compatible with a form of democratic liberty in which all citizens ruled and were ruled in turn. This has no bearing on the modern case for sortition, which relies on the representative principle.

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  22. Keith,

    I think you are being too narrow in your understanding of the Greek use of “rotation” as exclusively meaning “everybody gets a turn.” [or almost everybody to be honest]. You see this as completely unrelated to the concept of “short terms and everybody gets an equal shot.” Obviously the first concept only works if the number of citizens is modest or the number of offices to be filled is vast. But the other meaning of rotation (short duration and equal chance) is relevant to both a small and a large society. The Athenians had no need to bother to distinguish these two aspects of rotation because they were one and the same BECAUSE they were a small society. But your complete dismissal of this other aspect of rotation which simply requires equal chance (and is compatible with the Athenian concept of isonomia) seems too narrow. As I stated earlier, it was simply not the case that every citizen got a turn to rule … merely an equal CHANCE and a HIGH LIKELIHOOD. If they valued YOUR notion of everyone taking a turn, they would not have used sortition. The obvious method is to use the registry of citizens (which they did maintain) and assign citizens in some arbitrary order such as alphabetically or whatever. The fact that they used sortition instead is consistent with the equal CHANCE principle, but doesn’t quite fit the everybody takes a turn principle.

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  23. Terry,

    My comments were specifically related to this passage from Aristotle, which Yoram has (unwisely) selected as a primary source to illustrate his claim (which you share) that sortition is the defining principle of democracy. Whilst Aristotle does emphasise a) short terms and b) no office to be held twice as key elements of rotation, he makes no mention of equal chance. I’m afraid that rotation means what it says on the tin — ruling and being ruled in turn — and, although this was a voluntary principle, participation in the work of magistrates was considered a civic duty. Those who didn’t exercise their civic rights/duties were disparaged as idiotes.

    I agree that there are more exact ways to institute rotation than sortition. I’m surprised to hear that there was a written registry of citizens, but I think it would have been quite complicated to use this as a basis for filling magisterial positions (they had no computers to sort the data alphabetically or whatever) and it would not have had the prophylactic benefit of sortition, in that there would be advance knowledge of who was going to get what job (this was the principal reasons for using sortition to select jurors on the day of the trial). So whilst its true that sortition is only an approximate way to institute rotation, it has other advantages, so you can see why it was the chosen technology.

    PS equal chance/opportunity was a characteristic of isegoria, not isonomia.

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  24. Keith, I think you are confusing your ancient Greek terminology. I meant isonomia…equal political rights and thus equal political opportunity… no special rights for wealth or family status. Not isegoria, which refers to freedom of speech as in equal right to speak or make proposals in assembly.

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  25. The claim that the Greeks thought that rotation implies that everybody gets a turn is simply without any substantiation as far as I am aware. One would think that if this was an important principle then it would be emphasized over and over whenever lot was discussed. Can Sutherland provide any citation to support his claim?

    Of course complete rotation was also not the state of affairs in practice. If nothing else, many young Athenians must have died in wars before they had a chance to serve in any magistracy. Yet no complaint about this situation is registered anywhere (AFAIK – Sutherland, are you [maybe with the aid of your advisor] able to provide any evidence to the contrary?). Again, if this was a principle that had any ideological power, the failure in practice to adhere to it would have been used by the elite to batter democracy.

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  26. Terry

    I’m traveling at the moment, so have no access to texts, but I’m not aware of any discussion of isonomia in terms of opportunity. The term simply means equal law, and normally refers to equality before the law or equal power in lawmaking.

    Yoram,

    I acknowledge that rotation in Athens was not complete, but the normative principle underlying it, as clearly stated by Aristotle, cannot apply to large modern states, as the numbers simply do not compute. It simply is not possible to rule and be ruled in turn.
    This passage is purely of historical interest.

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  27. > the normative principle underlying it, as clearly stated by Aristotle

    As I already pointed out, this “normative principle” is clearly not stated in Aristotle in the passage above, nor, as far as I know, anywhere else in his writings.

    As I pointed out, if the idea of full rotation was indeed a normative part of Greek conception of democracy it would have been emphasized not only by Aristotle but by other writers who mention sortition and especially by opponents of democracy who would have been able to show that Athenian democracy does not meet its own standards. The fact that nothing to this effect is argued makes your claim very unlikely.

    Your evidence for your claim, on the other hand, is based purely on an arbitrary interpretation of the “rule and be ruled in turn” slogan. In reality, “rule and be ruled in turn”, like “liberty”, or indeed like “democracy” itself, is no more than a general idea, rather than a specific institutional prescription.

    This leaves us with a claim that has no real evidence for it and has strong evidence against it. Only a dogmatist for whom evidence means nothing would support such a claim. I therefore fully expect you to keep repeating your claim.

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  28. Like Aristotle, I’m a realist, so I made no reference to full our complete rotation. “Most” is good enough, but even this is entirely infeasible in large modern states, so this passage is only of historical interest.

    The normative principle is clearly stated in the second paragraph: “one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn”. Like all normative principles this is vague, that’s why later on he fleshed it out with a list of institutional proposals.

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  29. As always and as expected, evidence matters nothing to you – you keep repeating debunked claims. In fact, as far as can be understood from your comment, you do not bother to read other people’s comments. You merely rephrase your previous comments without any substantive reference to arguments made. Dogmatism exemplified.

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  30. I only have use of a mobile phone here, which makes it difficult so you’ll need to explain exactly what arguments and evidence I have ignored. Speaking of which, we’re still awaiting your response to my original comment, which you ignored tout court.

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  31. Keith,

    I am relying on Hansen who defines isonomia in his glossary (page 396) “Isonomia: The principle of political equality. Isonomia does not mean equality before the law, but the equal right of all citizens to exercise their political rights.”
    One of those rights (upon reaching the age of 30) was to enter the lottery to be selected as a magistrate, councilor, legislator or juror.

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  32. Terry,

    Fair point, I stand corrected. Isonomia is a very broad concept, many of the sources referring to it in distributive terms — it’s possible to draw a rough parallel between the isegoria/isonomia distinction and the modern distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, and this appears to be Aristotle’s perspective when he says that “each of the citizens ought to have an equal share”. This is more in line with the spirit of this passage, and equal share of political power for each citizen requires either rotation in a small polis or reliable representative mechanisms.

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  33. About “cherry-picking”
    *** Keith Sutherland underlines (September 22, 7:29) “the danger of political activists like us cherry-picking from the primary literature any reference to our chosen template for modernity”.
    *** Keith cannot forbid a modern supporter of dêmokratia to refer to a specific ancient text when thinking about democratic models; but, right, we must be careful, we must look to the context, be sure of the translation, and consider other texts about the same subject in the primary litterature.
    *** Maybe Keith Sutherland exaggerates the magnitude of the relevant “primary literature” – so much was lost ! And if you consider only the democrat theoretical primary literature, you have some texts in Herodotus, a play by Euripides, some parts of speeches by Lysias or Demosthenes, no much more … The anti-democrat relevant primary literature with anti-democrats authors (political analyses of Thucydides and Xenophon, political texts of Aristotle and Plato, Isocrates…) is much bigger, but not overwhelming. The thesaurus of democrat texts is small, the thesaurus of anti-democrat texts is manageable.
    *** Keith Sutherland must beware that some specialists likewise may practice cherry-picking, from political personal feelings (I found that political lot arouses strong feelings among some persons – and sometimes from deeper than political ideology) or to sustain their pet theories – cherry-picking is a temptation for everybody.
    *** If we consider only the theoretical democrat literature which succeeded to go to us, it is so small than biased cherry-picking in good faith is difficult. And for instance, even with a high level of bias, it is difficult to say that this democrat thesaurus does not include sortition as one of the main characteristics of democracy.
    *** Specialists have their own bias, but I think generally they have a “professional honor” which prevents outright untruths . Therefore (with rare exceptions) their bias are dangerous either when they deal with a subject where data are not sufficient or, more often, when they issue very general views.
    *** The second point means that a modern kleroterian must ask precise questions to the university specialist. Not “was lot the crux of ancient democracy?”. But for instance ”was lot mentioned as a characteristic of democracy in texts authored by democrats?”; or “had allotted juries a big role in the political life of Athens in the time of Demosthenes?” Well, “big” could be said not precise, but it is precise enough I feel. I doubt Keith could find university specialists who will answer NO.
    *** And, sure, let’s acknowledge some intellectual authority only to the real university specialist, close to the specific field. I saw recently in a French weekly some rather silly sentences about the Athenian democracy, parroting old propaganda, from “the great (German) historian August Winkler”. I was upset – but it seems the “great historian” is a specialist of modern history, and especially of the Weimar Republic … If a kleroterian looks for an university specialist, he must consider an Hellenist, and an Hellenist interested by 4th century Athens.

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  34. André,

    On the matter of the centrality of sortition in the Greek conception of democracy, you are of course correct. I think any reasonable reading of the – not so extensive – primary sources shows this clearly.

    On the issue of the authority of “experts”, you are also of course correct. Experts are not some sort of an objective source of truth. What’s even more important than the personal biases of individual experts are the collective biases of experts as a group. The knowledge of experts is useful, but should be used as a resource, not as a final word on an issue.

    Sutherland’s deference to “experts” (of course, the right kind of “experts”) demonstrates his authoritarian mindset and is compatible with his authoritarian proposals.

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  35. Andre: > Maybe Keith Sutherland exaggerates the magnitude of the relevant “primary literature” – so much was lost !

    Not at all, my case is only that the interpretation of the primary sources should be left to people who have spent their professional life studying them. Yoram (presumably) selected this text from Aristotle in support of his earlier claim that sortition was viewed by the Greeks as the distinctive characteristic of their demokratia and, as far as I can tell, Aristotle’s text fails to support his case.

    >it is difficult to say that this democrat thesaurus does not include sortition as one of the main characteristics of democracy.

    Who could possibly disagree? My point is merely that the discussion of sortition in this text is in the context of rotation — govern and be governed in turn — and this is of no relevance in large modern states.

    >Keith Sutherland must beware that some specialists likewise may practice cherry-picking

    Absolutely, that’s why they should be judged by their peers, rather than amateurs like ourselves. My PhD supervisor (a classicist) scolded me for being too beholden to Hansen, arguing that I needed more Rhodes, Ober etc.

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  36. > Sutherland’s deference to “experts” (of course, the right kind of “experts”) demonstrates his authoritarian mindset.

    Yoram, if I wanted advice on software engineering I might well consult you; but if I want advice on history then I go to the right kind of experts (i.e. historians). Note the absence of scare quotes in my response.

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  37. Andre,

    It also occurred to me to point out that Sutherland’s accusations of cherry-picking are due to psychological projection on his part: Sutherland’s modus operandi is to form his conclusion first, based on his prejudices, and then to cherry pick (or outright distort) the evidence for support. Since this is his own methodology he naturally suspects that others share his total absence of intellectual honesty.

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  38. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « (the specialists) should be judged by their peers, rather than amateurs like ourselves. My PhD supervisor (a classicist) scolded me for being too beholden to Hansen, arguing that I needed more Rhodes, Ober etc. »
    *** Either the specialists agree, and we can trust them, except we have a good reason to be afraid of a collective bias. But if a university supervisor of Keith Sutherland scolded him “for being too beholden to Hansen, arguing that I needed more Rhodes, Ober etc. », that implies that these authors do not agree. And Keith does not say us how the non-specialist must decide !
    *** My own proposals follow.
    • we must see if the different authors really disagree on precise points, and if these points are relevant to our interests ; I say « precise points », not general impressionistic sentences
    • if there is really disagreement, we may consider the reasons each side offer, which often we may evaluate from a general rational point of view; hellenist studies are not so abstract as to forbid to us kleroterians any rational evaluation of a research piece (it is not quantum physics! Hansen, Ober or Rhodes can be read by us)
    • if one has a more than average knowledge of a specific field, we can consider what an author says about it, and get an idea of his seriousness.
    *** A different subject is “the collective biases of experts as a group » mentioned by Yoram Gat. Such phenomena exist, sure. But in the specific field of ancient Greek history, I don’t think there is a big risk of non-truth due to collective bias of the specialists. The preference for Periclean democracy rather than Demosthenian democracy is for instance a collective phenomenon which has an effect on the general cultivated public that we kleroterians will not like, and we can find this preference among many specialists. But, I repeat, I did not ever find a specialist who would say an un-truth as « the allotted juries did not have a big role in the political life of Athens in the time of Demosthenes ».
    *** The problem of a sovereign dêmos (or of a king, or of a president) would be often of the same kind : « it the specialists of, for instance, Middle-Eastern geopolitics disagree, who must I believe ? and if they agree, must I fear a collective bias ? » Very difficult problem. But the case of kleroterians and hellenists does not belong to the worst class of this problem.

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  39. *** Given the absence of any probability science before the Western 17th century, the rule of allotted juries in ancient Athens could be expressed only as rotation.
    *** We can see that in Theseus sentence (Euripides “The Suppliant Women”, vv 406-407): “dêmos d’anassei diadokhaisin en merei eniausiaisin”, “the People reigns by turns through annual successions”. En merei, by turns; but it is about the reign of the People (singular).
    *** It appears nobody was afraid that tomorrow jury will be of political leanings opposite to yesterday jury – which would have led to chaotic policy, and make nonsense of “The People reigns”. From that I think we can be sure that there was some intuitive idea of “law of great numbers”, even if I don’t know a text where it is explicitly expressed.
    *** Aristotle disliked the democracy supported by “Theseus”, but he saw likewise people’s sovereignty in popular allotted courts (which he thought Solonian – I don’t think many historians believe it): in the “Constitution of Athens” 9-1 he wrote “kurios gar ôn ho dêmos tês psêphou, kurios gignetai tês politeias” “for the people being master of the pebble, he becomes the master (sovereign) of the political system” – the pebble is actually the token used for vote in popular courts (please Keith I am not cherry-picking, I am only looking for the relevant texts).
    *** Keith Sutherland says that the idea of rotation cannot have such strength in a big modern State as in a small Greek City « even with your plethora of allotted panels » (in Bouricius model). Right, the member of a sovereign civic body of 20000 or 30000 could hope being some day the symbolic head of state for one day, whereas in a modern Chinese dêmokratia the probability will be excessively low. But I don’t think that in a Chinese modern dêmokratia the expression of sovereignty through large popular juries will arose feelings so different from Athens: in both cases, a way of popular rule more practical than general vote, and allowing better deliberation (and affirming strongly the principle of equality in sovereignty). Thus the psychological difference underlined by Keith is real, but I am not sure it is so important.

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  40. Andre,

    > if one has a more than average knowledge of a specific field, we can consider what an author says about it, and get an idea of his seriousness.

    In fact, if the expert does his job well and provides citations of primary sources to support any claim he or she makes then going to the primary sources to see how convincing his position is requires only access to the primary sources, some patience and some common sense. You are very right in saying that “Hansen, Ober or Rhodes can be read by us”.

    > But in the specific field of ancient Greek history, I don’t think there is a big risk of non-truth due to collective bias of the specialists.

    I disagree. I think that modern historians, like most modern political theorists, and in fact most modern humans, are thoroughly biased toward the elections-based system that is misnamed in modern times “democracy”. One result of this is the fact that historians tend to severely downplay the role of sortition in the Athenian system.

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  41. Andre:

    > in the specific field of ancient Greek history, I don’t think there is a big risk of non-truth due to collective bias of the specialists.

    Agreed. The dispute between Hansen and Ober (which they attempted to resolve in an arm-wrestling contest) is over Hansen’s focus on institutions and Ober’s focus on ideology. Hansen also adopts a “great man” approach to history (Cleisthenes invented democracy), whereas Ober attributes it to a popular revolution. But neither of them would claim that sortition was the distinctive characteristic of ancient democracy (Yoram’s claim) and would certainly not ground this claim on this particular passage from Aristotle’s Politics. Can you find a single Hellenist who argues that sortition was the distinctive characteristic of ancient democracy?

    >I did not ever find a specialist who would say an un-truth as « the allotted juries did not have a big role in the political life of Athens in the time of Demosthenes.

    Of course not, but who is supposed to be claiming that they did not have a major role? My argument is only against the unfounded claim that sortition was the distinctive characteristic of demokratia. As we see from this passage, democracy required a combination of institutions, but the sine qua non was the sovereignty of the assembly.

    >“for the people being master of the pebble, he becomes the master (sovereign) of the political system”

    Sure, Aristotle made no distinction between rule by assembly and rule by the courts, as in both cases it meant rule by the poor. In this respect he was a proto-Marxist as he viewed politics purely in terms of class interests.

    >I don’t think that in a Chinese modern dêmokratia the expression of sovereignty through large popular juries will arose feelings so different from Athens.

    Agreed. As everyone on this forum should know by now, this is the version of popular sovereignty that I outlined in my two books and continue to endorse.

    >Thus the psychological difference underlined by Keith is real, but I am not sure it is so important.

    It’s not just a psychological difference — stochation refers to the aggregate judgment of large allotted juries and is applicable to small and large poleis, whereas rotation includes the appointment of individual magistrates. This is ruled out in large modern states by the huge numbers involved, unless you share Aristotle’s perspective that it makes little difference which person gets to rule as the majority of them will be poor and will therefore reflect the interests of the poor.

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  42. > Given the absence of any probability science before the Western 17th century, the rule of allotted juries in ancient Athens could be expressed only as rotation.

    This is silly. As I pointed out, if rotation was important it would have been mentioned prominently both in descriptions of democracy and in arguments against it – it is not (or mentioned ever, AFAIAA).

    The arguments against this arbitrary idea could be multiplied indefinitely. If sortition was only about rotation, why was a kleroterion used at all? Why not just take the first people who showed up who have not served yet? And what about the courts where there was not limit to the number of times a person could serve? How does rotation figure into this arrangement? Etc, etc.

    Again – this is an idea without any merit. Sutherland is hanging onto it simply because it fits with his preconceived conclusions.

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  43. Yoram:

    >I think that modern historians, like most modern political theorists, and in fact most modern humans, are thoroughly biased toward the elections-based system that is misnamed in modern times “democracy”. One result of this is the fact that historians tend to severely downplay the role of sortition in the Athenian system.

    Huh? All Hellenists (with the possible exception of Melissa Lane) agree that election played a relatively minor role in Athenian democracy. If they agree on anything it is the primacy of the assembly, so how does that indicate a “bias towards elections-based system”? Even if you take the example of Manin, who argued that the transition to election was entirely justified, you can hardly accuse him of downplaying the role of sortition in the Athenian system (he devotes much of the first half of his book to the topic).

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  44. Yoram:

    >if rotation was important it would have been mentioned prominently both in descriptions of democracy and in arguments against it – it is not (or mentioned ever, AFAIAA).

    So did you not bother to read the excerpt from Aristotle that you posted?

    “one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn . . . government of each by all, and of all by each in turn”

    It’s true that Aristotle didn’t use the word “rotation”, but that was because he didn’t speak English. The word “rotation” is an English term that refers to ruling and being ruled in turn.

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  45. *** I wrote « Given the absence of any probability science before the Western 17th century, the rule of allotted juries in ancient Athens could be expressed only as rotation. »
    Yoram Gat answered « This is silly. As I pointed out, if rotation was important it would have been mentioned prominently both in descriptions of democracy and in arguments against it »
    *** I don’t understand. Maybe my use of the English word « rotation » is not good. But I wanted to express the idea which in the translated texts is given « ruling by turn » or « in turns » and in Greek is « en merei » or « kata meros ». The vocabulary used for sortition of large juries is the vocabulary of rotation, even if there was behind it a fuzzy idea of « representative sample », which could not be expressed in good theoretical concepts, because they were not available.

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  46. *** Yoram Gat wrote « I think that modern historians, like most modern political theorists, and in fact most modern humans, are thoroughly biased toward the elections-based system that is misnamed in modern times “democracy”. One result of this is the fact that historians tend to severely downplay the role of sortition in the Athenian system »
    *** I must acknowledge I feel likewise there was in French historiography a tendency to downplaying the role of sortition.
    *** In some cases it may be from conscious or inconscious identification between ancient dêmokratia and the « modern democracy ». General assembly = referendum, election of a stratêgos = election of a president, jury = the juries of our polyarchic courts, with their very small political role.
    *** But I think the main factors are
    • interest centered on the external and military history of Athens, which until the end was kept for the assembly
    • interest centered on 5th century Athens, especially on the Age of Pericles
    • low regard of 4th Athens, therefore of the Second Democracy institutions ; about this low regard, let’s consider for instance the title of the book of the French historian Claude Mossé : « Athens in decline, 404-86 B.C. »
    • intellectual difficulty to accept the idea of the social use of lottery.
    *** These factors explain the tendency to downplaying sortition among historians who, at least in France, could not be considered as globally moved against dêmokratia by polyarchic ideology.
    *** There are exceptions to this tendency, as the great French historian and hellenist Vidal-Naquet, who wrote that « misthos (political salary) and sortition » « are the two cardinal innovations of the Athenian democracy ». We may link that to the poltical tendencies of Vidal-Naquet (let’s say anti-totalitarian leftish) but likewise to his « anthropological » interests, which gave him a wider point of view.

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  47. Three responses….

    1. “Given the absence of any probability science before the Western 17th century, the rule of allotted juries in ancient Athens could be expressed only as rotation.” Yoram, i think you missed Andre’s point with this (and seem to have attributed the quote to Keith). I agree with what I believe was Andre’s point. IF the Athenians enshrined random selection because they intuitively understood that like a spoonful of well-stirred soup one spoonful was “representative” of the whole, even WITHOUT a theory of scientific sampling nor a theory of representation, and thus used it, HOW would they describe this random sampling principle if not by something like the words describing governing in turns? They talk of the importance of the lottery and short terms, which together can be described as taking turns. As Yoram and I argue, if the TAKING TURNS principle was the guiding principle, there were far simpler means of doing this without any random sampling at all.

    2. Do Hellenistic experts have systematic bias? Of course, as do all groups of people. Keith this does not mean they ignore the reality of sortition or assembly in Athens, but may tend to focus too much on certain things and ignore others. Most moderns (myself included) have a systematic bias against monarchy, assuming democracy is better. I came to this conclusion by hearing it over and over again, and what little investigation I did on democracy vs. monarchy. But I have to admit I haven’t REALLY dug into whether society might be better off with a monarch, because it didn’t seem a worthwhile expenditure of my time… I accept the commonly held belief with minimal independent investigation. I think Yoram is right that MOST people today also have a systematic bias towards the GREAT MAN theory of history, that relatively few have deeply questioned.

    3. Keith asked if any Hellenistic expert argued that sortition was the “distinctive characteristic” of ancient democracy. I have previously quoted Ober about his view that the randomly selected Council was the “key” institution making democracy possible… But you dismiss this as merely a procedural tool allowing the Assembly to be sovereign, rather than a “distinctive characteristic.” But as I have said previously there were decision-making assemblies in Greek aristocracies such as Sparta, but with the agenda controlled by the aristocracy, and these were NOT called demokratia.

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  48. Andre,

    Yes, I’m sorry – I misunderstood your intention by the use of the term “rotation”. I thought your statement was a summary of Sutherland’s position.

    Yes – the “rule and be ruled in turns” is a statement of the principle of political equality. Clearly both practice and rhetoric reflect an understanding that statistical representativity is the crux of political representation. It is taken for granted, for example, that since the poor make up a majority in the population they would make a majority in the decision-making body.

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  49. Terry:

    >But as I have said previously there were decision-making assemblies in Greek aristocracies such as Sparta, but with the agenda controlled by the aristocracy, and these were NOT called demokratia.

    The differentiating factor was equal speech rights, not sortition (although I agree that a large randomly-selected assembly secretariat would be difficult to corrupt). But in this case sortition was a secondary factor, what distinguished Athens from Sparta was the absence of isegoria in the latter.

    I’m still entirely baffled by Yoram’s claim that the low priority given to sortition in classical Athens by modern historians is on account of a bias towards electoralism. All Hellenists accept that sortition played a distinctive role in the Athenian demokratia and election a minor role, it’s just that they agree Athens was a direct democracy, with the assembly having sovereign power.

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  50. > low regard of 4th Athens

    This low regard, I would argue, is itself the result of the elitist bias of the historians, which is, not coincidentally, shared with Athenian elite.

    > Vidal-Naquet, who wrote that « misthos (political salary) and sortition » « are the two cardinal innovations of the Athenian democracy ».

    Quite insightful I believe. Could you give a citation? Were these insights translated to a political reform proposal?

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  51. Yoram:

    >This low regard [for the 4th century], I would argue, is itself the result of the elitist bias of the historians, which is, not coincidentally, shared with Athenian elite.

    That’s strange, Hansen’s primary focus is on the political elite and the 4th century is his speciality, whereas Ober (a man of the left), likes to focus on the 5th century. You need a pretty broad brush to condemn historians in this way — what about the period last century when it was difficult to find a historian who was not a Marxist? Do you include the likes of E.P. Thompson in your blanket condemnation of the profession? BTW, what do you have to do in order not to be an elitist — it’s an insult that you are inclined to throw around in a pretty cavalier manner?

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  52. *** I mentioned Vidal-Naquet sentence about misthos and sortition and Yoram Gat asked for reference. This sentence can be found in English in an article (« Democracy : a Greek invention ») which was added to the translation of the book of Vidal-Naquet and Lévêque about Cleisthenes. Therefore the reference is « Cleisthenes the Athenian: An Essay on the Representation of Space and Time in Greek Political Thought from the End of the Sixth Century to the Death of Plato » by Lévêque & Vidal-Naquet ; paperback 1997 ; p 109.
    *** But it is interesting to quote the sentence and the following lines: « Misthos and sortition, these are the two cardinal innovations of Athenian democracy. [Try proposing it! (sortition). I happened to propose it in the institutions of the Ecole, where I proposed one day in 1968 that to the École’s Council be added an anti-Council chosen by lot. Everyone laughed in my face! Only once have I succeeded in winning passage of this idea, that was in 1981; by way of an article in the newspaper Libération that attracted the attention of (Education Minister) Savary, I got what today is called the C.N.U. to be chosen by lot, and it worked quite well. Never had one had so free and independent a C.N.U. than thanks to this drawing of lots. The funny thing is that l believe Pierre Lévêque (co-author of the book on Cleisthenes) had been chosen by lot. Well, it is all. this that renders democracy possible. ] » « Ecole » refers to which is now the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, a French leading institution in research and teaching about « social sciences » ; C.N.U. is the national institution in charge of habilitating university professors, in the somewhat centralized French system. Proposals of sortition therefore were only inside universitarian entities.
    *** Vidal-Naquet, as said in this book and in his memoirs (Mémoires, 1998, p 293), proposed sortition for some university institutions ; including the important C.N.U. But he did not propose it for sovereignty institutions (as far as I know – my brother, who knew him personnaly, confirms this feeling). As an historian, he insisted on the difference between ancient dêmokratia and polyarchic « modern democracy ». If I remember well a text I lost the reference, as a citizen he was tempted by e-democracy, but at the same time acknowledged the risk of bad deliberation.
    *** Why then did he not consider the possibility of sortition for sovereignty ? He could have rejected it for reasons as the difficulties often underlined by Keith Sutherland. But no, he did reject the idea, he did not consider it. It looks strange. I think it shows the strong built-in mental difficulty for a 20th century western intellectual of « literary » background to accept wholly sortition, and to hope for some acceptance : we must note, he says « Everyone laughed in my face! ». Newer generations will accept sortition more easily.
    *** Vidal-Naquet is a clear case that we must not interpret always the reluctance to modern sovereign sortition as due to polyarchic ideological conformity or capitalist class autocentric interest.
    *** A complementary factor maybe : Vidal-Naquet was strongly interested by the mental values and structures which founded ancient dêmokratia, but not especially interested by the systemic sides of the democratic model ; this led this very bright and acute mind to underevaluate the importance of 4th century reforms, and to consider the Athenian experiment too much as a whole.

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  53. Andre – thanks for the detailed information. I’ll try to get a copy of “Cleisthenes the Athenian”.

    > we must not interpret always the reluctance to modern sovereign sortition as due to polyarchic ideological conformity or capitalist class autocentric interest.

    > it shows the strong built-in mental difficulty for a 20th century western intellectual of « literary » background to accept wholly sortition

    I agree. Often the anti-sortition reflex is not a matter of superficial attachment to elections. It is a deeper, thoroughgoing elitist indoctrination which most Marxists share.

    > Newer generations will accept sortition more easily.

    I hope so. I see the task for sortition advocates for now is to undermine the elitist doctrine and allow sortition to be examined by the public on its merits without bias.

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  54. Note that Vidal-Naquet cannot be considered as « marxist », even if he was interested by the intellectual tradition of marxism. He defined himself as being at the margin of marxism. His historical works encompass interests some of them external to the marxist tradition. His political friends belonged to an « ultra-left » field I would characterize as including anti-leninist marxists and non-marxist leftists – with personal changes along the time.

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  55. *** Yoram Gat writes that the anti-sortition reflex is the result of an elitist indoctrination – I don’t like so much the word indoctrination, because it seems to imply the idea of a clearly defined doctrine, but it seems in English used with a wider meaning than the corresponding French word. Well, I agree that the social elites tend towards developping an anti-sortition ideological bias and to instill it into the general public.
    *** But there are other factors to be considered.
    *** There is a mental factor, « deeper » than political ideology, of fear and distrust of lottery, the causes of which are complex. For that reason I believe it is much better speaking about mini-public, mini-populus, mini-peuple, mini-pueblo, lot being described only as a mean of constituting representative samples (actually lot with small numbers, as for Athenian magistracies, may be an useful element of dêmokratia, but the subject must be kept secundary).
    *** Another factor is linked to politics : the hostility to sortition of many militants. Some militants of a cause are optimists, they are sure to be able to convince the average man if given the possibility, and therefore they may favor the idea of minipublic (I saw especially that among « green » militants). But other militants are pessimists, they think the average citizen so full of inherited bias and/or so efficiently indoctrinated by the social powers that dêmokratia will prevent any attempt of strong social move. They will be against sortition. And others, regardless of any optimism or pessimism, simply cannot stand the idea of sortition which establishs and declares a basic equality between me, virtuous militant, conscientized, understanding the truth of society and history, and the average man, so inferior.
    *** The total rejection of sortition during the 18th century revolutions was due to all these factors. Especially the French revolution did combine the elitist rejection and the militant rejection.
    *** About militant rejection, it is interesting to consider a small event in the French Revolution. In 1793 it was proposed to use lot for the Tribunal Révolutionnaire – lot only between highly selectionned candidates, without any risk to see chosen a counter-revolutionary ! – The ultra-Jacobin Marat protested, by principle : « instead of lot, the list of candidates must be exposed to public evaluation » (public, i-e by Jacobin militants) – see Convention Nationale, séance du 7 mai 1793. Marat could not accept the least appearance of political equality. Even among fervent Jacobin militants, we must distinguish the best (more virtuous, more conscientized, more in the « good » line). There is always a best.
    *** I acknowledge I don’t see how to assess the comparative weight of the anti-sortition factors (which, besides, may combine, even unconsciously, for instance in militants of elite background). Therefore if Yoram thinks the elitist factor is overwhelming, he may be right. But anyway it is good to remind the other factors.

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  56. Yes – I did not mean to imply a well-defined elitist doctrine. It is in fact something much more insidious – aמ implicit ideology that is ever-present in much of the way society is organized and in the way political, as well as non-political, discourse is framed.

    Regarding fear of lottery – I think the way to approach this linguistic issue is to talk about “sampling”. This is a familiar term with the appropriate positive connotation.

    [I believe that by “militants” you refer to what is usually referred to in English (at least in the US) is referred to as “activists”.]

    > they think the average citizen so full of inherited bias and/or so efficiently indoctrinated by the social powers that dêmokratia will prevent any attempt of strong social move.

    This is an elitist worldview. Such people see themselves as belonging to an elite that is able to break through the intellectual chains that bind the masses.

    > There is always a best.

    Again, an explicitly elitist worldview.

    It seems that (as is the case with “indoctrination”) I am using “elitism” more loosely than you do. Elitism doesn’t refer necessarily to the view that members of the elite are more deserving. The view that only the members of the elite can be trusted to properly manage society (no matter where it should be headed) is also elitist. (Maybe it would be useful to use modifiers to differentiate between the two elitist worldviews.)

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  57. I realize that I am phenomenally late to the party here, but I think where things are going wrong is the attempt to find the one true defining characteristic of Athenian democracy instead of accepting it as a system of many parts.

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