A Common Prejudice
Whenever the notion of democracy is criticised, contemporary citizens (circa 2000) often ignore the logic of the arguments, but simply reiterate that ancient Greek civilization proved the value of democracy. It certainly did, but the example of ancient Greek civilization is the opposite of a recommendation for democracy. Ancient Greek civilization rose to wealth and power as a series of city-states each ruled by a monarch, who the Greeks referred to as a tyrant. The start of the decline of ancient Greek civilization was marked by the Peloponnesian war in the 5th century BC, which was effectively a rebellion against the traditional rule of tyrants. The status quo was championed by Sparta and the rebellion by Athens, who had replaced their tyrant with a forum of wealthy citizens. The Athenian approach was to let the forum decide issues via a discussion followed by a vote, and this is generally considered as the birth of democracy. Hence the performance of the Athenʼs assembly at this time must be considered the ultimate example of democracy in action: a performance that is well documented by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponessian war. And this record is summarised by H.D.F. Kitto, in his work ‘The Greeks‘, as follows:
It would be interesting to follow, in Thucydides, the conduct of the Assembly throughout the war: to see how a certain irresponsibility grew—Cleonʼs remarks about the theatre being already an indication of this; how it became more impatient of control, whether of prudence or of its own laws; how Cleonʼs doctrine of Force more and more prevailed, notably in the barbarous treatment of Melos, an innocent neutral; how the Assembly turned its fury on unsuccessful commanders, and even on successful ones, until one begins to wonder why any general ever risked serving his country. In spite of a few outstanding instances of moderation and true nobility, it is on the whole a melancholy record of degeneration under the stress of war and opportunist leadership.
Athens lost the war, or rather when faced with victory proceeded to throw it away in a series of rash decisions, which, though popular, proved to be folly. But regardless of the result of the war, rule by tyrant faltered, democracy spread and ancient Greek civilization sank into decline.
An Explanation for Ancient Greek Decline
Among the explanations for the 4th century languor into which Greek civilization rapidly declined is that advanced by H.D.F. Kitto in his book ‘The Greeks’. He states:
It is not merely that Athens had been exhausted by the long Peloponnesian War. From such exhaustion communities recover, and indeed fourth-century (BC) Athens was active and enterprising enough in other directions. We cannot attribute the change to mere prostration. Nor to simple reaction from the strenuousness of political life in the fifth century; for reaction, in time, spends its force. What we meet in the fourth century is a permanent change in the temper of the people: it is the emergence of a different attitude to life. In the fourth century there is more individualism. We can see it wherever we look—in art, in philosophy, in life.
I have added the italics to emphasise that Kitto was describing a community that had undergone a permanent and significant change in character. A change he described as showing more individualism, which is another way of saying more selfishness.
These events do not contradict but strengthen the proposal that the appearance of democracy marks the beginning of communal decay because it signals that the majority of citizens have become selfish.
The Worst Form of Rule
Western Civilization has embraced rule by popular choice, unhindered by obedience to a monarch or church, since the French Revolution, which marked the beginning of its decline. The onset of social decline is inevitable because democratic rule is rule by selfishness—that is it cannot recognise:
— failures in understanding that constitute insanity; so the adoption of democracy is the adoption of insane rule.