In 339 B.C., the Greek philosopher Socrates found himself on trial for his life. He stood accused by the masses of impiety for not recognizing the gods of the pantheon, and for corrupting impressionable minds by introducing new deities for them to worship. Upon conviction, Socrates was sentenced to death. He agreed to kill himself by drinking hemlock.
You see, in ancient Greece, the public could vote a sentence on you for thinking or saying the wrong thing, or not worshipping the approved gods. And there was very little the accused could do about it. Knowing this, the smart move was to comply, stay in the herd and not step out of line. This was how Greek democracy worked in the ancient world. The franchise of citizenship was only extended to about ten percent of the population and if you failed to perform your civic duties as a citizen of Athens, you could be fined or jailed for that, too. A couple times a month, six or seven thousand citizens would pack an arena and vote on things. Shall we vote to kill every male on the island of Lesbos because they seem rebellious? Passed. And the next day they voted not to kill every male on the island and had to try can catch the ship carrying the execution decree before it could be carried out.
This is known in political science as Majoritarian Democracy; where fifty-one percent of the vote settles everything. But remember that in Greece, that majority only accounted for about ten percent of the people of Athens — so the political power was really in the hands of a specially privileged minority who just so happened to also own and run everything in Athens. It wasn’t a real democracy as we think of one today.
Majoritarianism in Greece created perverse outcomes like being voted out of the city because people didn’t like you. If enough people thought badly of you, the city could vote to banish you. If you ever set foot in Athens again, anyone could kill you on sight. Can you imagine the pressure of societal conformity in a system like that? The pressure to join the mob instead of thinking or acting for yourself? There was no concept of freedom of speech or religious expression in ancient Greece; you either got with the program, or you were banished or killed for not doing so. And it would be the conformists who would do you in. Nothing and no one was safe from this tyranny of the ten percent majority.
As you might expect, Greek democracy only lasted about one hundred years before it was taken over by a series of tyrants — some of whom attempted to reform democracy in the country. The result was a cycle of brief democratic governments overthrown by oligarchs until Athens finally gave themselves over to the authoritarian Spartans to be ruled by them. Then Sparta was invaded and defeated by the Macedonians which absorbed Greece whole. Not long after that, Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, formed a coalition army of Greeks and Macedonians and tried to conquer the entire known world with it.
These failures of Greek democracy were studied by the Romans just across the Ionian Sea, and finding it to be nuts, they created a republic, where the rights of citizens were beyond any majoritarian tyranny, and the people elected representatives to a bicameral legislature to carry out the business of the state. This republican form of government lasted nearly five-hundred years before Roman power grew so great that it was overthrown by tyrants who pursued empires and drove Rome forward for another fifteen-hundred years on what the republic had built.
Our own founders, in their time, studied the failures of the Greek and Roman forms of government, along with England’s, and established for the United States a Constitutional Republic. Like the Romans, this Constitution protected certain fundamental rights from the tyrannical impulses of either a majority or a minority, and went a bit further in trying to limit the scope and scale of government to prevent the state growing so large and powerful that the impulses of empire building could not be resisted. They meant the United States to go on forever as a republic.
So far, so good. The United States has the oldest form of unchanged government currently existing on the planet. By comparison, in the same time period, France has had two monarchies, two dictators, five republics and half a dozen civil wars.
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