A Speech Given to the Woodrow Wilson Center on Democracy
by Victor Davis Hanson
This is a written transcript of recorded remarks given on June 2, 2005 at the Woodrow Wilson Center and made available to Private Papers by the Center.Click here to read an introduction by John Sitilides, Chairman, Board of Advisors, Southeast Europe Project Wilson Council. The speech will appear in three parts: Part I is a short history of democracy, Part II is on spreading democracy in the modern world, and Part III is a question-and-answer session following the speech.
The Short History of Democracy
Thank you for that nice introduction. I was asked to speak about 25 minutes and I’ll try to weave the ancient and modern worlds together.
Let me just start with a few definitions of this loose and amorphous term “western.” I’m talking about the culture that predominated in Europe and was a mixture of the classical contributions of Greece and Rome, together with later Christianity, and we could basically define it as an allegiance to individual freedom, consensual government, civic audit of the military, secularism — or at least the distinction between a church theocracy and state — capitalism, free enterprise, open markets, private property, et cetera. We don’t necessarily mean that through 2,500 years all of this paradigm appeared —obviously not in Nazi Germany, or perhaps in 9th century Gaul. But there was a likelihood that this general blueprint would reemerge in Florence or Venice or during the Swiss confederation and there is a continuum.
The other qualifying remark I’d like to point out is when we talk about freedom, there’s some confusion today that we say, well, the Native Americans were free, or the German tribes of the 2nd century B.C. were free, and, yet, there is a certain freedom — “Freiheit” in German — this idea that people have certain prerogatives and choices, but usually it’s a result of demography, one or two people per 100 square miles. What’s unique about the West, in contrast, is that the idea of freedom can be institutionalized and travels across time and space into a variety of environments. So while a traditional tribal Arab society may have a council of elders or Native Americans point to the Iroquois nation, the idea that you would have constitutional government that would be written down and would provide a blueprint in any geographical context I think is quite unusual and a Western phenomenon.
If we look for the origins of this concept of the West, we can obviously go back in our own country to the 19th century, to the 18th century, to the Founding Fathers. We can push it further and see the Founding Fathers were influenced by both the British and the French Enlightenments. Travel again back through the Renaissance in Italy to the republics of, say, Venice or Florence. We can even see constitutional government with the early Swiss. It’s common to think that the Roman empire was autocratic, but if you look at local councils or regional government, even under the worst excesses of the emperors, the flames of — I should say the fumes of — republican government seemed still to be alive. We know that republican government itself in Rome didn’t go out of fashion until the 1st century B.C. And then we go back to classical Greece.
We often make the mistake, I think, of thinking democracy started in 507/506. Technically it did in Athens, but it drew on a prior 200-year prior tradition of consensual government in the 1500 city-states. Sometimes this is called timocracy, or the Greeks had a word for it called politeia, the idea that landed voting citizens would have their own responsibilities for government.
And then at last we get to the 8th century B.C. and we can’t trace that origin any further. This is quite controversial because it would suggest that democracy is primarily a Western phenomenon — and it is. The Greeks created it, consensual government, and it’s thus anti-Mediterranean. It’s quite fashionable to talk about Mediterranean studies today, but if you look at what was going on in Persia or in Egypt then the notion there of the individual and his relationship with government, the notion of the holy man and his relation to government, all that is entirely different among the pharaohs or the great kings than it was in these small city-states in Greece.
We don’t know why civilization exploded onto the scene like it did in the 8thcentury B.C. where we had a prior dark age and suddenly over a century or two we have 1,500 city-states: we have constitutional government, we have a paradigm where one man has a slot in a phalanx almost like the seats in this auditorium, equidistant from another, responsible for the defense of his own city-state. He goes into the council hall, he has one vote based on his klêros or his 10-acre farm. And then it’s reverberated again when you look at the countryside, when new colonies are produced, what do they do? They divide the land up equally. And then this very radical idea that a citizen, a –politês — there’s a word in the vocabulary for it in ancient Greek in a way that there’s not in the other Mediterranean languages — is a person who fights in the militia, the same as each other citizen, a person who votes in the council hall, same as any other citizen, and a person who owns land, and especially can pass it on to his children. That’s a radical new concept and it’s really the basis of this experiment in consensual government. Perhaps it is an agrarian revolution of people who were investing in local communities, planting trees and vines, wanted that property protected from both the poor and the wealthy, and creating this radical concept of a middle class, mesoi, geôrgoi, hoplitai, all these Greek words that in some way denote a group of people in the middle. “Middleness” has been very influential in the West and it’s one of the great wonders of civilization in general how this thing of consensual government started, of all places in rural Greece in the 8th century.
But more germanely, there were obviously contradictions in democracy, and I think the Greeks were aware of them and they have a lot of relevance today, that warn us in ways not so confined to the 24-hour news cycle. The first thing that immediately came up is that we’re all not born equal into the world. If the Greek city-states said each person will have an equal slot in the countryside, what happens if somebody’s a better farmer and someone is a worse farmer? What if somebody’s more talented, what if somebody’s less talented? So immediately in a consensual government we were confronted as Westerners with this issue — is freedom the same thing as equality? In fact, the Greeks understood, unlike ourselves, that they’re not only not the same but sometimes they’re in opposition to one another. That if you want to promote equality among the citizens you might have to then promote an equality of result, and that’s very, very different than an equality of opportunity.
We see that paradox from the very beginning with radical Athens that did things beyond our comprehension today to promote equality. Whether that was paying people to go to the assembly in the 4th century, paying people to go the theater in the 5th century, choosing officers, except for the generals, by lot, by sortition, and the idea of liturgies among the wealthy to redistribute income. It was very different than, say, right across the mountains in Thebes, which was an oligarchy, or later a broad-based oligarchy, where people were given entitlement based on their merit. At least the Greeks call it their merit, when in fact it was usually land. And this divide kept on when we look at the Roman republican model versus the Greek democratic model. We see it today between the Republican Party, that tends to promote individual liberty, and the Democratic Party, that seems to think that equality and egalitarianism are puts a of a higher premium. We see it in Europe and America today, the same age-old fault line. The Americans tend to promote freedom at the expense of equality. The Europeans want equality of result at the expense of freedom. And it’s a tension that people in the West have to live with in democracy and never quite resolve.
The second crisis in democracy, which we saw in the ancient world, was that there’s something strange about the mixture of open markets and personal freedom that accrues under constitutional government. By that I mean, once the Greeks figured out that a person had a right to private property and there would be an open market, and there’s a word, -kerdos, profit, and a person was able to profit from his work and toil in this free environment, then obviously there were to emerge people who had leisure and freedom in a way that had not been seen under tribalism, under monarchies, under autocratic governments in Egypt. And there’s a literature that reflects the problems with that: the decadence. We see it in 4th century Athenian oratory. We see it in the great Roman literature of the empire — Juvenal, Tacitus, Petronius, Suetonius — that a particular Westerner has become so successful, so affluent, so free that he’s become insulated from the very physical, brutal nature that often is a foe of civilization. And of course in its most extreme forms we see it in Plato, who talks about bald-headed little tinkers in the agora who have the same rights as natural aristocrats. Or Hegel, or Nietzsche or Spengler, who felt there was a decadence in the West. Or in bin Laden’s critique of the West, that the United States or the West itself can’t lose troops, or it’s too refined or it’s too privileged, too sophisticated to think that the world operates on premises other than the Enlightenment, that everything has to be explicable by reason rather than by emotion or religion or superstition.
Along with this divide between equality and freedom, we also have this age-old pathology in the West: how do you keep people devoted to Western government and committed to the idea that civilization is fragile, when it’s so successful and so many of us are insulated from the alternative? I don’t think any of us in this room have seen in our own livelihood a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein. We see an angry Dean, we see a nasty journalist editor, perhaps we have a librarian in a carrel that kicks us out, but a man who wants to kill you or bring you back to the 8th century? This is hard to conceive for us. And it was hard for the Greeks to conceive that the Persians were that way, it was hard for the Romans to conceive that the Germani across the Rhine were that way. It’s just something that the West deals with.
The third thing to remember about this experiment in democracy is it makes war very well because these same traits and characteristics and protocols that produce capital and produce security and freedom also produce lethal methods of war-making that are not explicable by the small territory and population of Europe. Specifically, a capitalist economy gives logistical alternatives in a way that the old enemy doesn’t — can’t match. Hernan Cortes is in Veracruz and he has more Spanish ships supplying him gunpowder and flints and crossbows than the Aztecs’s weapons, who have 4 million people in a very rich environment. Why? Because people want to make a profit and they know if they go to Veracruz and supply the conquistadores, they will make money. That’s been proven all the way back to Alexander the Great and the people who flocked behind him to profit and thus supply an army in ways the Persians could not envision.
Discipline is very different. A Westerner defines military discipline as working in context with a group: retreat, advance, prompt attention to orders, in a manner that personal bravery is defined by loyalty to the group and to order and to a system, rather than defined by personal performance per se. Aristotle points out that Greek soldiers don’t count the number killed, or people are not awarded valor or medals after a Greek battle because they ranged out in front of the phalanx. In fact, they’re punished. So the idea of discipline is very different.
The idea of civic audit of the military is unique, where the civilians actually participate in the government of the army. I can’t think of one general in the ancient world who at one time was not ostracized, executed, or had his property confiscated or at least tried — every single one of them, from Miltiades to Epaminondas. Even in Sparta, a Lysander or Gylippus found themselves in trouble.
There is a very different method of making war in the West. It was started by the Greeks, and it invites a lot of alternative ways to combat that conventional military strength. So people who are confronted with these consensual armies that are supplied and organized differently first have to think about encouraging dissension among the West. I mean, the Ottoman fleet that was at Lepanto had wintered earlier in the port of Toulon in France, and the Greeks themselves were squabbling right before the battle of Salamis, just in the same way in the Security Council Russia and France were opposed to the United States and vice vers
Within consensual societies enemies have also tried to create internal dissension, because in consensual society, to make war, you have to have a 51 percent majority. And opponents realize that once a democracy votes to go to war, while they’re slow to arouse, once democracy is committed to war-making, there’s no other appeal, that you can’t say that the dictator made us do it, or the king made us do it. No, the people did it and it’s a very lethal way of mobilizing people to go fight to the bitter end. And so one of the ways you discourage that resolve is to create issues about the morality or efficacy of the endeavor. The British army was in Zululand and Bishop Colenso was trying to appeal to the humanitarian principles of Victorian society to call off that army and not seek victory over the Zulus.
And then there’s also what we call now asymmetry. Because the West seems to be free and affluent, we can redefine relative losses. A Greek- or Macedonian-speaker who is fighting with Alexander in a small army of 50,000 is supposedly not as expendable as the 350,000 who are opposing him. The same was true of the British army in Zululand, or when fighting the great Mahdi, or the 1,500 conquistadores who were in Tenochtitlán. Westerners tend to be fighting battles outside Europe and the United States, and they’re often fighting people who have superior numbers or geographical advantages and they bear very heavily the loss of an individual, not just because they’re in smaller numbers, but because they come from societies where capital, affluence, leisure is more plentiful, so life is considered dear. Not that it is really more dear, but that the perception arises so. And so if an adversary can make an American or a European or a Greek or a Roman army feel that they’ve lost too many people, even though in exact numbers Western forces have a favorable ratio of losses versus kills, then they can call off this awesome machine. So these are traditional characteristics of opposing the West, rarely remarked upon military strengths and weaknesses within this democratic experiment that we see in the West.