Wednesday, March 21, 2012


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“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks. After the changes in nomenclature effected by modern revolutions, from the French Revolution to the feminist movement, it is very clear that the answer is “Plenty, that’s what!” Names do matter they shape and sometimes distort perceptions. Ho-Chi-Minh City, for example, is not Saigon, Thermidor is not July, and Ms. is neither Mrs. nor Miss. With this in mind, let us approach the terms radical or extreme democracy, so often applied to the regime of fifth or fourth-century B.C. Athens. These terms are justified neither by ancient evidence nor modern scholarship, particularly in light of the modern ideological connotations of radical or extreme. I wish to argue, therefore, that scholars should avoid these terms, as well as the term moderate democracy, which is also misleading, though to a lesser extent.

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By way of introduction, consider the work of K.J. Beloch. Writing a century ago, Beloch expressed his clear condemnation of Athenian democracy. His despairing rhetorical question about the Athenian dikasteria, of which he writes in Die Attische Politik seit Perikles, indicates his opinion nicely

Would the long series of unjust verdicts, which stretches like a red thread throughout the whole history of Athenian democracy from Pericles to Phokion, have been sufficient to let us recognize what was to be expected from such a tribunal?1

In accordance with these convictions, Beloch writes of Athens’ “extreme, absolute” or “unbridled democracy,” both in the fifth and fourth centuries.

More recent accounts of Athenian democracy are rarely as stringent in their criticisms, and many of them are laudatory. The terms radical or extreme democracy are, nevertheless, still in circulation. My far-from-complete survey of contemporary scholarship, beginning in the 150s, finds Hignett devoting a chapter of his History of the Athenian Constitution (15) to Radical Democracy. Schachermeyr, in his 16 biography of Pericles, decries “democracy of the most extreme kind under Cleon.” J.M. Moore, in his 175 commentary on Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia and other ancient Greek political texts, refers often to the radical democracy of the fifth century. H. Wolff, writing in 17, discusses “radical Attic democracy” of the fifth century, in which, unlike the modern parliamentary democracy of a Rechtstaat, the will of the majority is expressed directly and immediately, without countervailing institutions. J. Bleicken, in his 185 textbook, writes of the radical democracy created by Ephialtes and Pericles in 46/1.

Other scholars use the terminology in perhaps a more complex manner. M.H. Hansen,

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for instance, who has done so much to demonstrate the rule of law in fourth-century Athens, nonetheless wrote in 174 that while fourth-century Athenian democracy was moderate, the fifth-century democracy was radical. In 18, he writes more cautiously of “the so-called radical democracy of 46-11 and 410-404.”4

P. J. Rhodes, author of distinguished studies of Aristotle’s (or at least his school’s) Athenaion Politieia and of the Athenian boule, argues that, contrary to the Ath. Pol., fourth-century Athens became less, not more democratic, for the sake of efficiency and specialization. Rhodes also makes it clear that Aristotle had his own theory of extreme democracy. Nevertheless, Rhodes occasionally uses the term extreme democracy in a way that suggests it might objectively describe the Athenian constitution.5

These last two sentences point to a paradox the terms radical or extreme democracy are indeed objective, but only when applied to the partisan and anti-democratic discourse of the ancient sources. Aristotle, for example, writing in the Politics, describes the kind of democracy that existed in most of the poleis of his day as extreme (E)SXA/TH), final (TELEUTAI=A), latest (U(STA/TH) or most recent (NEWTA/TH). Although he neither singles out Athens or any other polis as an extreme democracy (perhaps out of prudence, cognizant as he was of Socrates’ fate), it is fairly clear that he does have Athens (and perhaps other poleis too) in mind. Plutarch writes of A)/KRATOS DHMOKRATI/A, unadulterate or untempered democracy, perhaps echoing a fourth-century term. The various proponents of oligarchy in Athens in 411 and 404 called for a return of the ancestral constitution (PA/TRIOS POLITEI/A), thereby implying that contemporary democracy was a break with tradition in that sense, one might say that they considered democracy to be radical, although strictly speaking, “radical” in the political sense is a modern, and not an ancient word.6

The critics of Athenian democracy, therefore, referred to it as extreme or untempered, and as a radical break with a better past. The proponents of Athenian democracy, however, of course did not refer to democracy as extreme or untempered. As for the term radical, perhaps Cleisthenes or Ephialtes believed that he was initiating a radical break with the past, but given the prestige of tradition in Athenian society, I doubt that either man admitted it. Certainly, by the late fifth century, Athenian democrats believed that their system, and not oligarchy, was the

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traditional Athenian regime.7

From the point of view of modern scholarship, Athenian democracy does mark a radical change, politically, from earlier Athenian regimes. Its ideology, however, was strikingly conservative. One may speak of this or that radical change, but to characterize the entire regime as radical democracy is misleading. The term radical, moreover, is hardly value-free it means one thing to a reader of The Daily Worker and quite another to a conservative. In North America, with its consensus politics, most people will automatically react negatively to the term radical democracy and positively to moderate democracy. To call Athens radical democracy is to stack the deck against it; the same is true, of course, of the term extreme democracy.

Above all, the charge that Athenian democracy was extreme, i.e., immoderate and unrestrained, is unhistorical. The recent work of Hansen, Ostwald, Rhodes, and Sealey, among others, cogently defends Athens against that charge. In the fourth century, the rule of law had particularly strong constitutional protections. Even in the fifth century, whose system Ostwald aptly characterizes as “popular sovereignty,” the rule of law was firm, if occasionally shaken in crisis, e.g., the trial of the generals after Arginusae.8

A.H.M. Jones, writing in 157, argued against modern scholars who characterize Athens as extreme democracy. I would argue that scholars should similarly avoid the term radical democracy. Likewise, the term moderate democracy should be avoided, both because it legitimizes the term radical democracy and because it suggests that too much democracy is a bad thing‹that democracy must be moderated. I prefer the many more neutral terms that exist, e.g., chronological terms (“fourth-century democracy,” “Periclean democracy”), historical periphrases (“what the Greeks thought of as complete or full democracy”) or the Greek word demokratia.

It is easier to criticize scholarship than to produce it; my criticism of the terminology used by others should not detract from my great admiration for their achievements. What we call the classical Athenian regime, however, does make a difference. Scholars can, and should improve on the current, unnecessarily biased terminology.

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