My choice for this historical area and book was motivated by one primary theme: in our contemporary world, democracy is often cited as the ideal political system, a type of social arrangement to which all countries of the world should aspire towards. Yet democracy itself has its own concrete historical origins. It is not only an ideal that emerged out of nowhere, but was a political world view that was practiced historically. In this regard, I chose Kagan’s account of the life of Pericles: I wanted to understand the precise and concrete historical conditions that led to what is commonly acknowledged as the historical beginning point of democracy, that of Athens and Ancient Greece. Perciles, as Kagan notes, is primarily associated with the “birth of democracy.” This leads to a series of questions: were the challenges faced by Pericles and Athens, challenges that led to the birth of democracy, similar to the challenges we face today in our political existence? What prompted the Ancient Greeks to advance such a radically new approach to political organization, since, as Kagan notes in his book, “while the rest of the world continued to be characterized by monarchical, rigidly hierarchical, command societies, democracy in Athens was carried as far as it would go before modern times.” (1) In other words, democracy was an anomaly in the time period it emerged; now it is considered to be a norm that should be followed. How can we explain this change? Is it the result of some type of enlightenment about the limitations of hierarchical systems? How does the anomaly become a norm? These are the questions that inspired my choice.
Kagan’s book provides us with a series of norms that dominated the world in which democracy emerged. One of them I have already identified, and I believe it to be crucial: that democracy in the time of Pericles was precisely not a norm. Norms were, instead, as Kagan notes, hierarchical systems. Democracy in this sense is radical because it represented a transgressing of the norms that dominated political organization. Kagan’s book in a sense is dedicated to understanding how this anomaly happened.
Another clear norm that emerges in the book is the extent to which political hegemony leads to the prospering of culture. In other words, an effective political system can create cultural achievements. Hence, Kagan notes that “few eras in human history can compare with the greatness achieved by Athens under the leadership of Pericles.” (3) A crucial norm is that political stability leads to a prospering of culture: the latter determines the former.
This ties in with another norm: the extent to which internal political stability depends upon actions of foreign elements. Namely, as Kagan makes clear, democracy only emerged in Pericles’ time period against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian wars. In other words, to the extent that we can consider that Pericles helped introduce democracy as a political norm, this itself is dependent upon the pre-condition of a crisis that forces social bodies to organize themselves in a particular manner. Norms, in other words, are shaped by instances where all norms appear on the verge of collapse, such as in war.
If democracy was a radical change in political and social organization, Kagan’s book also makes clear that democracy is itself an attempt to achieve political hegemony and stability. In other words, a key norm of the period is patriotism or nationalism: the desire for the state to be strong and efficient. Democracy therefore was not so much anti-political in the extent that it radically differed from hierarchically structured societies with corresponding hierarchical norms, but rather that it sought to re-organize a basic patriotic spirit in a new political structure.
One of the defining aspects of Pericles’ life was the engagement with Sparta in military conflict. As Kagan notes, “Pericles’ career took a tragic turn, and in the last year he had reason to doubt the value of his life’s work. Athens was engaged in a terrible war that he had urged the people to undertake.” (8) The immediate point of interest here is as follows: even though democracy levels hierarchy, Pericles still, within a democratic system, urged the Athenians to engage in war. Judging by the loss of the war, this was a terrible decision. However, the question becomes: if one is faced with a potential war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, one is attempting to build a democracy, is it not a contradiction for a singular individual to determine policy and encourage war? This was Pericles’ mistake. One has to reconcile these two threads and not sacrifice the democratic aspect: one has to understand that even though decisions must be made by someone in a political structure, if democracy is to be maintained, the greater opinion must be respected, as opposed to basing policy on individual opinions. Pericles made precisely this mistake: he turned his democracy into a militarized democracy based on his own interpretations of geopolitical conflict. In this sense, by pushing his agenda, he made the wrong decision: he should have contextualized his own feelings that war with Sparta was the best option within the greater framework of democracy, understanding that in order to truly establish the latter, he would have to sacrifice his own decision making power.
The familiar pattern that appears in the book and also in contemporary history is the extent to which democracies are also militarized. Despite being governments apparently founded on the will of the people, democracies are engaged in inter-state conflicts and are often aggressors, such as in the case of the United States in the last 10 years. This inspires the following question: are we living in a true democracy, or are democracies, since they are political systems like any other, unable to eliminate aggressive foreign policies. In other words, if democratic systems are also inclined to war, perhaps we have to either re-evaluate what we classify as democracies, or understand perhaps that democracy is not the ideal system that current political narratives make it out to be.
- Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1991.