From time to time, a most unlikely book strikes the public imagination and becomes something of a best seller. A case in point is Donald Kagan’s Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (Free Press). The book’s reception was undoubtedly aided by the triumph of democratic ideas so dramatically evident in the collapse of anti-democratic ideologies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Kagan, professor of history and classics at Yale, wrote his book with that historical context very much in mind. Throughout, he makes reference to contemporary developments, and he concludes with specific application to the new situation in Eastern Europe. “The world has been astounded to see thin shoots of democracy trying to break through the hard surface of oppression. Those who wish to help them grow and flourish could do worse than to turn for inspiration and instruction to the story of Pericles of Athens and his city, where once, against all odds, democracy triumphed.”
The first thing to be said about Pericles of Athens is that it is a fine read. The second thing is that the author’s political instincts are admirably sound. He repeatedly emphasizes that the democracy of Pericles was based upon equality (albeit relative equality) in law and politics, not in economics. Athenian democracy, as he tells it, did not result in a “mobocracy” that demanded redistributive justice and an egalitarian leveling of condition. Its notion of justice emphasized—and here Kagan employs very contemporary terminology—equality of opportunity rather than equality of result. These and other features of the fifth-century B.C. democracy that Kagan depicts are attractive enough. That said, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy is of very limited usefulness in understanding either the birth of democracy or the democratic prospect in our time.
Kagan asks us to be impressed with the fact that Athenian democracy endured for 140 years, with intermittent interruptions. Yes and no. Surely the Athenian regime was preferable to some others of its time, notably that of Sparta. But it was not, in any sense recognizable by moderns, a government. The administration of Pericles, admirable orator and politician though he may have been, had very little to do except wage war. And then, in times of war, democratic procedures were largely suspended. The relatively small polis of Athens, with its gatherings of six or ten thousand citizens engaged in “intense democratic participation” to deliberate the few items of public business, has almost no resemblance to the tasks of modern states. The direct democracy that Kagan lauds is in significant ways similar to the “participatory democracy” espoused by student radicalisms in the 1960s.
There are yet more serious reasons why Pericles of Athens is of little use in thinking about the birth and prospects of modern democracy. Not to put too fine a point on it, Donald Kagan’s story is, for the most part, made up by Donald Kagan. He readily admits this. Aside from Thucydides, we have very little first-hand evidence about Pericles or the Athens of his time. Kagan draws on Plutarch, who had access to texts that have been lost, but Plutarch wrote four centuries after the events under discussion. From such fragments Kagan has written a professedly “heroic” and extremely idealized story of Pericles and his career. It makes for good reading, but it does not make for good history. Do not misunderstand. We are not criticizing Mr. Kagan for writing a very imaginative reconstruction of fifth century Greece. If one is an expert in that period, and Kagan surely is, there is an understandable inclination to suggest that one’s expertise is relevant to solving even the problems of a very different world 2,500 years later.
The fact is, however, that Athenian democracy of the fifth century B.C. has almost nothing to do with the actual history of the development of democratic governance. Indeed, in our Western story, the democracy associated with Pericles was for centuries taken to be a strong argument against the democratic idea. Plato and Aristotle (who were much closer to it than Plutarch) thought the Athenian experiment was “madness,” and their judgment prevailed, as Kagan readily admits, until historical revisionists in the mid-nineteenth century began to take a more favorable view of Pericles and his time.
What one has in this book, then, is a reconstruction that, in historical reliability, is perhaps a notch above the conventional television “docudrama,” passing itself off as a guide to “the birth of democracy” and how to advance the democratic idea in our time. Its literary merits and its author’s good intentions notwithstanding, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy has the potential of doing serious harm to the extent that its title is taken at face value. Those who want the democratic idea to grow and flourish “could do worse” than to turn to Donald Kagan’s engaging story of Pericles of Athens. They could also do a great deal better. They could, for instance, turn to the actual history of the development of democratic ideas and practices.
The questions raised here have everything to do with religion and public life. Kagan’s Pericles is a wondrously secular soul. Under the influence of Anaxagoras, his philosophical mentor, he acquired a measure of skeptical contempt for the religious superstitions of his time, preferring explanations of reality derived from “natural reason.” Kagan much admires that characteristic of his hero and, at least by implication, suggests it should be emulated by those who would advance democracy today.
There is nothing new in the observation that we tend to write history in our own image. The secular mindset tends to create heroes who are likeminded, even if they must be fabricated out of whole cloth. The reality so embarrassing to such a mindset is that Pericles and his Athens—whether real or fictionalized—played no part in the actual history of the democratic project. Those who are embarrassed by the role of religion in that history must tell a thoroughly secularized story of democracy, even if they have to make it up.
The real history of the birth of what we today mean by democracy has been told by numerous scholars, and never more impressively than by A. D. Lindsay in The Modern Democratic State. That birth has everything to do with a Hebrew monotheism that sharply relativized the gods of all human regimes, and with New Testament teaching regarding the dignity and destiny of all human beings, regardless of their nation, race, or status in life. The painful evolution of democracy required the assertion of a moral law superior to positive law, and of the “dual allegiance” of citizens entangled in the conflict between the City of Man and the City of God (Augustine).
The critical moments in the emergence of democratic thought included Pope Gelasius (d. 496) and his doctrine of the duality of authorities, spiritual and temporal. Skipping ahead more than a millennium, democracy was refined in the Reformation, especially in the Puritan notion of a realm of grace distinct from the realm of law, thus requiring limited governance. Here is the font of the notion of conscience and individual rights—all the ideational stuff that preoccupied Hobbes and Locke and the American founders, as well as, with less happy consequences, the French Revolution.
It was not Athenian notions of rare civic virtue but the Christian idea of universal original sin, well appreciated by Madison and others, that impelled the development of the institutions of democracy, such as checks and balances and countervailing interests. (It is noteworthy that Kagan’s idealized picture of Pericles’ Athens does not contain a hint that it produced even one institution applicable to contemporary governance. The democratic idea that has endured and will likely endure in the future depends upon democratic institutions premised not upon heroic virtue but on the ordinary condition of man, who is, as the founders said, neither beast nor angel.)
Our purpose is not to recapitulate here, even in briefest form, the actual birth and development of democracy. Nor is it to discourage anyone from enjoying the legend of Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. We intend only to note the oddity of secular intellectuals—and historians at that—who prefer to fabricate a story justifying what they favor rather than face up to the inextricably religious origins and continuing foundations of our democratic regime. It will be no surprise if Kagan’s book is adopted for college courses. It is safely sanitized of the influence of religion. We take it that Mr. Kagan is something of a neoconservative and a friend of traditional academic values. He should therefore have second thoughts about contributing, however inadvertently, to the deconstructionist notion that writing history is no more than the production of myths and “creative misinterpretations” in the service of present purposes. To be sure, this would deprive him of the pleasure of saying anything useful about the birth of democracy within the field of his specialty, for the birth of anything pertinent to what today is meant by democracy is not to be found in the fifth century B.C.
There is one group that we hope will not read Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy; or at least we hope they will not accept Donald Kagan’s invitation to accept it as “inspiration and instruction.” The new leaders of Central and Eastern Europe must attend to the real world, including how democracy has in fact been conceived, established, and defended in human history. They all face powerful forces of nationalism and religion, and must try to reconstruct the mediating institutions of a civil society utterly alien to the direct democracy of Kagan’s Athens of 2,500 years ago. If, in Poland, Romania, Estonia, and elsewhere, political leaders attempt to construct democracy against the dynamics of religion in particular, the consequence will be almost certain disaster. The future of democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere depends in very large part upon enlisting the commitment of religion to a regime that both serves the temporal interests of the civitas and respects the citizen’s higher allegiance to the Kingdom of God. From that dual allegiance, and not from Donald Kagan’s imagined Athens, democracy actually came about, and by that dual allegiance democracy bas been sustained and, please God, will be sustained in the future.