Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Machiavelli provides insight into the origin of democracy in Greece

Not being sarcastic here. It comes at the very beginning of his Discourses on Livy, when he starts talking about the origins of the Roman state. Machiavelli states that the way the Roman Republic was structured was a reaction to the previous monarchy that ruled Rome, which left such a distate for concentrated power in the minds of the Romans that even when they sought to restore executive power they never framed it in terms of kingship. Instead, consuls and praetors were institutionalized as elected officers. Civil offices, with a separation of powers, were the ways to reassert the presence of executive authority, which Machiavelli calls "kingly authority", without restoring the office of king.

The answer on how to do it, I suppose, is that you make the government one of laws as opposed to that of men, where outright blood dynasties are forbidden and where offices are disconnected from clan structure. In other words, what we would call today a civil governmental structure.

The Senate was aristocratical, with there being an inherited Senatorial class, but there was a barrier put between pure family interest and political domination, and later the Tribunes representing the regular people (who weren't slaves) were instituted to bring an even bigger barrier to it.

Similarly, you can make a parallel between that and Greece, where it appears that Athens' love of democracy was influenced by their early absorption into the Persian empire, which left them with such a hatred of concentrated authority that they were willing to consider ways of organizing governmental life that split radically from traditional notions of family and clan based leadership and that forged new ground.

In both Greece and Rome, there was a fixed problem, executive authority, where the traditional answer given by many different tribes, either monarchy or aristocratic rule, was denied as a workable option for historical reasons. On the one hand, there couldn't not be authority of some sort, in those societies, on the other hand it couldn't resemble what came before. The bias against what came before was stronger but no totally so. The tension between the two options forced them to create new ways of dealing with the problem that included public accountability within the solutions in ways that were likely dismissed before.

Why have representative government at all? That's a question. It's something that only makes sense if you've experienced unrepresentative government that's been oppressive. Plenty of unrepresentative government existed in the classical world, outside of Greece and Rome, that was accepted as just being the way things were. When federations of tribes affiliated under one powerful tribe controlling them all, or when a king created an absolute dictatorship, it was part of normal life.

Only legacies of reaction to that sort of rule, where the reaction was such that the people involved won, could give rise to the sort of spirit that treasures democracy and representative government as something always good in and of itself. This happened with Greece and with Rome.

It wasn't the genius of the west that lead to democratic government.

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