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Tough Decisions on the Pynx

In the course of blogging about Greece I suspect that I will offer several reflections on the nature of Greek democracy. This afternoon I’d like to offer an insight concerning one particular facet of Greek democracy.

Much has been said about the direct nature of the democratic polis, and not without reason. Contemporary Power to the People types, from both left and right, often idealize direct democracy. Most of us probably have mixed feelings about direct and representative democracies alike. History seems to be on the side of political systems that demonstrate some balance between these two models.

The U.S. Continental Congress was clearly of the opinion that matters of war and peace ought to be decided by the more directly democratic element of the political system. The power to declare war is the prerogative of the Congress, who are directly elected by the people (why they have traditionally shirked that responsibility is another issue). The President, who is elected by an electoral college, and the Justices, who are appointed, have no legal right to declare war.

The philosophy here is that the people will have to pay for the war and the people will have to die for the war, so the people, through their tribunes in the Congress, should be able to decide on matters of war and peace.

But, as we know, Congresspeople do not go to war. And they are not always tribunes of the people.

Contrast this to Athens.

Imagine if you will…it’s 431 BCE and the tensions between Athens are Sparta are unbearable. Sparta has already declared war, though war is still not inevitable. Citizens of Athens meet in the Assembly on the Pynx to discuss whether to issue a retaliatory declaration of war or to further pursue diplomatic maneuvers. These very citizens–not a separate military or mercenaries–should they vote for war, will be going to war the next day.

These Assembly members look out over the Pynx. They have a clear view of the Attican countryside. They know full well that if they vote for war then Attica will be utterly destroyed, perhaps forever (the Athenian military strategy was, for good reason, to sacrifice their farms and to seek refuge behind the walls of Athens while the Athenian navy engaged the Peloponesean League on the seas and the coasts). In their minds’ eye, they could see the Spartan army ravaging their fields and their wives.

The Spartan King Archidamus, who was doveish, even warned his polis that “we shall pass this war onto our children.” The Athenian Assemblymen knew full well that war meant complete and total destruction of their land in a total war with no end in sight.

They voted for war.

Perhaps in another blog entry I will try to explain, or perhaps even justify, this decision.

But for now I urge you to consider the fact that at least the citizens had the legal right to choose for themselves.

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