Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Greek Democracy: Some Lessons


I am reading Will Durant’s majestic book the Story of Civilization Part II, The Life of Greece. The Greek people, originally called as the Hellas (from Hellenes) gave our modern world so many things like, and I quote Durant, excepting machinery, there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history, rhetoric, physics, biology, anatomy, hygiene, therapy, cosmetics, poetry, music, tragedy, drama, comedy, philosophy, theology, agnosticism, skepticism, stoicism, Epicureanism, ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy, cynicism, tyranny, plutocracy, democracy. It was the ancient Greece and its people that gave us the political system of democracy.

I have now started hearing from many Indians that the Indian democracy is not doing its work. The real question which everyone is not asking is, do we actually have a democracy in India (and elsewhere) like the one which was originally developed by the Hellas? The answer of this question can only be known if we know little bit about the democracy as developed and practiced by the ancient Greeks. I am going to reproduce some snippets from Durant’s book here to show you how different the original democracy, as practiced by the Athenians and other cities in ancient Greece, was.

Just one system of making new legislation by the assembly (today’s legislative parliament) in the ancient Greek city state democracies will prove that what Indians are practicing today is not democracy. But before that, in ancient Greece demos (from that democracy words comes) actually means only the free citizens of those Greek city states. In Greece all people living in the city were not considered citizens. Against minority of citizens there was a big population of slaves. Foreigners who settled down in Greece (Metic) were obviously not citizens. Also merchants, traders, businessmen were not considered citizens. Only those people who were born to Greek parents for two three generations could become citizens. Of course today’s democracies have advanced and now all people living in a country, except citizens and illegal immigrants, are part of the franchise.

Now we come down to the discussion of how the ancient Hellas used to make or amend their laws in the legislative assembly. The reader will immediately see the huge difference between the original democracy and the one that we have today. I first present the case of Athens assembly, and I quote:
New legislation may be proposed only at the first session of each month, and the member who offers it is held responsible for the result of its adoption; if these are seriously evil another member may within a year of the vote invoke upon him the graphe paranomon, or writ of illegality, and have him fined, disfranchised, or put to death; this is Athens’ way of discouraging hasty legislation.

Another Greek city of Locris had one of the first written law codes. They liked their law code so much that they also had a unique way of protecting it from new changes.  The following was their method of making changes in their legislation,
The Locrians liked it so well (their ancient written law code) that they required any man who wished to propose a new law to speak with a rope around his neck, so that, if his motion failed, he might be hanged with a minimum public inconvenience.
We just need to compare these Greek democratic ways of legislating with our modern democratic ways to understand the fact that we have no real democracy today. If today our MLAs (Member of Legislative Assembly) and MPs (Member of Parliament) run parliament and local assemblies like how the Greeks ran then most of the so-called law makers i.e., politicians will be long dead! 

Despite the fact that the ancient Hellas developed democracy to its mature forms their system of democracy couldn’t save them from their ultimate collapse. In a way that very same democracy weakened them and made them vulnerable. Only during the time of Pericles the system of democracy (which was more like aristocratic democracy) reached its zenith and after him it all came crashing down. May be the Indian system is also heading in the direction of that same collapse that we have seen time and again in history.