Democracy - the invention of the ancients and the uses of the moderns



Author's introduction to newly published book

Democracy is the central word in the contemporary political lexicon. No other term today similarly denotes such a widely shared aspect of political life. Such unanimity hides, however, profound divergences. The democracies that are defended or proposed present many differences, often revealing themselves to be incompatible with each other. These divergences derive mainly from the value that is attributed to the democratic form of government: contrary to other political terms of ancient origin, the word “democracy” retains an evident force in the scope of political aspirations, not attenuated by the generic, ambiguous or contradictory use that it is used. commonly done.

The birth of democracy assumes, therefore, a relevant role in the current political debate. Only from the consideration given to this type of government or organization of society can one understand the meaning of a discussion about its origins. This was not always the case: observing the formation of democracy, when it was not a widely shared value, does not have the same meaning as a similar observation when it takes place in a democratic era.

Some scholars have seen the ideological end and limits of the discussion of origins in a way that, more than any other, is on our political horizon. Finding in ancient Greece the source of reflection and practice of democracy is something more than a simple rhetorical exercise, especially when one associates the ancient Greek world with a vague notion of Europe or the West.

If the foundations of democracy are to be found in the “European” or “Western” world, the position of those who accept democracy as an unsurpassable model of government will not be the same, dealing with individuals from different backgrounds. The difference will be given by the appeal to tradition or by the ways of representing oneself through one's own origins. The position of those who defend democracy will be different as citizens from a colonizing country or, on the contrary, from a colonized country.

In the same way, anyone who is specifically interested in the Greek and Roman world from a political point of view also feels obliged to make a choice: he can, on the one hand, assign a central position to the set of ancient literary texts, or, in any case, immediately endowed with meaning within modern cultural and political practices. In view of this position, he can tacitly accept that military force and colonial expansion were secondary (or instrumental) aspects, in the face of the imposition of superior values ​​transmitted as an inheritance. On the other hand, it is possible to refute the very notion of ancient heritage, seeking in the classical world what is strange and distant – a society whose understanding removes all feeling of familiarity with the present moment.

Faced with this situation, the study presented here takes up the problem of tradition and inheritance in our political lexicon. The history of democracy in the modern world corresponds to the continuous creation of something past, starting from the past, but within different and sometimes divergent temporal schemes. The resumption of the word 'democracy' occurs not only in heterogeneous historical moments, but implies a temporal dimension of another nature. It is necessary to consider what are the political perspectives of the present moment and what are the different expectations regarding the future, the confidence or disbelief in revolutionary processes, the various ways in which the parameters of the past are reconsidered.

The readings of democratic theories according to a teleological vision, thanks to which one intends to make accounts with the past from the current conception of democracy, are therefore misleading. The usual procedures of a history of concepts also prove inadequate, if they assume that political notions can be studied independently of the processes of transmission of texts, of the traditions that make it possible to describe new political phenomena with old words. The link that unites every observed phenomenon to its own 'past' cannot thus be broken, as long as the term that designates it, taken up from other contexts, conserves its vigor, placed in relation to the present world.

Indeed, the history of democracy in modern and contemporary political thinking is the history of a problem of translation. Already in Medieval Latin, the Greek term δημοκρατία did not know how to translate, or it was not possible to impose a translation. The same occurs in modern languages: the suggested translations did not have the same force as the transliterated term. When, through transliteration, the neologism receives a life of its own in the new language, becoming an effective element of communication, it transposes, in fact, the old term into a new reality.

From the beginning, the word “democracy”, probably born in the political struggle, did not follow a linear course, nor did it have a clear scope of application in ancient sources. After Antiquity, there were several objects indicated with this term, distinct from the temporal and geographical point of view. But the history of democracy cannot consist only in the description of objects observed at different times and places and designated by the same name. It is not reduced to the history of Pericles' Athens or republican Rome, of England or France in revolutionary periods, of the American independence movement or socialist movements, of representative systems of government in liberal societies.

In these and other cases, the same word is attributed to multiple historical events, to various political and social proposals, to incompatible modes of government or social life. But only when what was at each moment identified as democratic differed from the first object to which it was referred, or when to this first object of democracy others equally recognized as democratic were placed in front, could the reflection on democracy be given a historical dimension. . It was necessary to find a democracy proper to 'the ancients' so that democracy, from the Modern Age, could be described according to a coherent process of transformation.

The ancients are the inventors of the word “democracy”, but only with the invention of the ancients could democracy have, for the moderns, its own history.


The Democracy of the Ancients

The democracy of the ancients is born with the moderns. The lack of a translation for the Greek word has often led to a comparison with what democracy was among the creators of the term. The same would not have happened if the use of “popular government” or equivalent expressions had prevailed. Or, as has been suggested, if we speak of a 'representative' or even 'liberal' system for many of the so-called contemporary democracies – a fact that helps to clarify the inconsistencies implicit in the continuous process of appropriation of terms and concepts. In principle, and for a long time, there was only democracy, without any requirement to clearly distinguish ancient and modern. With the Greek term incorporated into other languages ​​and cultures, phenomena different from those imagined at the beginning began to be named in a similar way.

The same happened with other words, not just Greek; but, among the Greeks, one in particular accompanied the long resumption of democracy: the adjective politicians, definitively separated from the object to which it was related, the polis. These two terms – “politics” and “democracy” –, introduced into the Latin language when men were aware of their own distance from Antiquity, profoundly influenced the interpretation of the world and the way of acting in the various realities to which they were transplanted. The same cannot be said of other names related to ancient theories of types of government, such as the terms of Greek origin oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy – or royalty, from Latin – and tyranny. As for the Latin word republic, as we shall see, its reception cannot be understood if one does not take into account the fate of democracy.

The “democracy of the ancients” presents itself, therefore, as the result of a process that modifies our reading of the texts that initially transmitted the Greek word. With this process, our way of understanding democracy itself is transformed, no longer linked to the first reflection about it. The birth of the “democracy of the ancients” changes our notion of political heritage. The fact that democracy, at precise moments, was not conceived only as a type of government, as described in ancient texts, but was considered an experience of the present time or a destiny, modified our way of reflecting on the policy.

In the expression “the invention of the ancients” we must understand the ancients as a subject and as an object. On the one hand, the Greeks were seen as the creators of democratic government, on the other hand, Greek, or ancient democracy in general, was described as profoundly different from its successive manifestations. In this case, the difference stems from the different degree of “democracy” actually found between the ancients and the moderns, judged differently. Sometimes, the presence in the current era of institutions recognized as fully democratic is affirmed; at other times, on the contrary, full democracy is seen as an attribute of the ancients. The history of democracy can be narrated from the point of view of the way in which the idea of ​​the ancients was constituted, described according to concepts that, with ancient terms, allowed to designate more recent political realities.

One can follow the development of the idea of ​​democracy in terms of an uninterrupted departure from something that, in principle, was so called. Our distance from ancient democratic experiences was often seen as inevitable: it would be impossible to regain a political form proper to ancient times in completely changed historical, social or political situations.

This impossibility could be justified by the progress of technology and the disproportionate increase in population, the complexity of modern and contemporary state structures, the demands of individuals today, driven by a certain idea or feeling of freedom. But it was not necessary to resort to old words to describe new realities: other names could be chosen to designate the modes of government, organization or social expression resulting from these transformations. What is at stake in the history of democracy is the result of a relationship built with the tradition.

This study is dedicated to some of the most relevant moments in the history of democracy traced in such a perspective.


The old as heritage

It must not be imagined that, among its inventors, the term “democracy” had a clear meaning, devoid of ambiguity: this is an illusion derived from the historical vision that ended up forging the very idea of ​​the ancients in its political guise. But we cannot, in this volume, analyze the various facets of the democratic phenomenon in Greek antiquity. We will not attempt to clarify the complex nature of the various types of "popular government" as described by early observers. Therefore, we will not deal specifically with ancient democracy as a historical object. It will be considered only as the beginning of a constantly reconstituted tradition.[1]

Democracy has often been discussed in studies on the “inheritance of the ancients”, considered from a political and ideological point of view. This will not be our object of study either; we must not limit ourselves to recovering old themes, images and models in modern political reflection and activity. The inheritance of ancient concepts does not depend only on explicit references to classical societies; on the contrary, every mention of democracy, regardless of having Antiquity as its starting point, contributes to forging what the Greek political form becomes for each interpreter. The world that is about to experience the French or Bolshevik Revolution cannot consider the problem of democracy, or “old” democracy, in the same way as the world that considers the revolutionary experience to be over.

We will observe, in these pages, the process of transformation of democracy in a double perspective: as a creation and, at the same time, as an expropriation. What was designated in the thinking of the ancient Greeks with the term 'democracy' was successively rejected as a peculiarity of a bygone era. In a continuous process of transmission and translation of sources, this word came to designate realities different from those initially considered, and, as a consequence of this transposition, it was possible to reflect, in the modern and contemporary world, on a “democracy of ancient”. The existence of other democracies, different from the one thought by the inventors of the term and by its first theorists, was admitted and is admitted, realities that are denominated, however, in the same way.

Accepting the existence of a democracy “of the ancients”, or “of the Greeks”, we dispossess the Greeks of a term created by them. But in this process, on which the democratic practices of the moderns are based, not only the word was often taken away from its inventors, but also the object: it has often been asserted that the ancient Greeks were never fully democratic. In the long journey of reading, translating and transposing the ancient word, many recognized the position of the Greeks as precursors; but others denied that they deserved that position, or downplayed their importance in relation to earlier or succeeding ages. Thanks to this denial, or to this resizing, it was possible to constitute, in the modern and contemporary world, a “new” democracy.

One cannot adequately understand the history of democracy without considering its various appropriations. And, therefore, without considering the invention of the ancients, in its democratic and political particularity. Our purpose is to analyze some of the most relevant moments of this history. This does not mean assuming that the most recent moment of reception of the term “democracy” expresses a unitary and definitive concept, determining by itself the value of the historical forms of the past.

Nor does it mean (as has often been done) to assume a normative position, attributing a rigid meaning to the term, taken as a parameter for judging its various occurrences, without taking into account the different uses and, above all, the complex relationships between theory and practice, that model the word and the concept. It is necessary, on the contrary, to start from an opposite position: we are just one of the possible futures on the horizon of our ancestors. We find ourselves inside a continuous process of transformation, of constitution of new traditions, frequently in conflict.

For this reason, a fundamental place in our analyzes is reserved for the transmission and translation of the Politics of Aristotle, the Greek work in which democracy is most widely discussed in the framework of a reflection on politics. We must always take into account the rupture that occurred in the process of transmission of ancient Greek texts and Greek political terminology in European countries with a Latin tradition, as well as the perception of medieval and modern readers of these texts of the temporal distance that separated them from the ancient world. Such a break, more than the disappearance of political practices that can be defined as “democratic”, will allow one to think, together with the various democratic traditions perceived as modern, a democracy proper to the ancients.

In this work, we will follow a double itinerary. On the one hand, we will observe the way in which the idea of ​​a primitive democracy is affirmed, suggesting the existence of non-Greek ancient democracies. The role assigned to the Greeks, the inventors of the term and also the first to have broadly reflected on it, is, with such an idea, profoundly altered. Democracy takes on the aspect of a general or universal form – an ideal type – which is expressed differently among men when they organize their political life, even if in the absence of the name (and of a polis).

On the other hand, we will consider the various moments in which, in successive periods to antiquity, something defined as “democratic” is found, with the consequent differentiation between modern and ancient democracy. The term, in these cases, is emptied of its universal meaning and is seen from partial expressions, of which the most recent can be understood as the most complete, or, conversely, described as a transitional moment towards true democracy. . It is not possible to build a history of democracy without considering the fundamental role that is played, on the one hand, by “primitive democracy”, on the other, by “democracy of the present or the future”.


The ordinary language of politics

We could, however, ask whether it would not be irrelevant, for the concrete understanding of so-called democratic phenomena and for the very interpretation of the concept of democracy, the purpose of studying the history of democracy from the point of view of the word and its transmission. After all, wouldn't it be enough to replace words to change any perception of political continuity between heterogeneous situations? The different degree of “democracy” observed in the societies observed at different historical moments would thus become a secondary problem, as well as the value given to democracy in the political-conceptual horizon of each society. From this point of view, the differences observed in the use of the term would be easily overcome thanks to the use of an adequate lexicon.

The inclusion of words like “politics” or “democracy” in our everyday vocabulary leads us to the problem of the relationship between political theory and practice. Consider, first, the following statement, which circulated in the mid-twentieth century: "if fascism were introduced into the United States, it would be called democracy."[2]

The author of this sentence, in his critical view, believes that different names should be applied to different objects, at least in the political field: it would be a mistake to confuse fascism and democracy. It is less obvious why mistakes like this would occur: various interpretations can be given for such a mismatch between name (democracy) and reality (fascism). Regardless of any hypothesis, and the very intention of the author of the sentence, one can verify, with this statement, the strength of a term – democracy –, fully integrated in the scope of political action, and its possible application to objects other than those usual ones. Democracy seems to present itself differently in ordinary language when considered from the point of view of political actors (incapable of discernment) or of observers (aware, at the same time, of the different meanings of political concepts and the mistakes committed by those who resort to such concepts in the sphere of political action).

A different situation occurs, however, when the observer's political vocabulary is not used by individuals in the observed society, which highlights the limits of the process of interpreting political phenomena. The English anthropologist Evans-Pritchard described the lexical obstacles encountered in his own work this way: “Social anthropology uses a very limited technical vocabulary and is therefore forced to resort to common language, which, as everyone knows, is not very accurate. The terms […] political and democratic do not always carry the same meaning, either for different people or in different contexts”.[3]

The process of observing reality would find a barrier in the requirement to resort to a common, ordinary language, given the absence of a vocabulary capable of expressing scientific knowledge. It remains unclear whether the vocabulary adequate to the description should derive directly from the observed societies (as we see, for example, in the case of the term 'democracy' with reference to the society that created it), or whether, on the contrary, it should come from the mind of the observer. (as would happen if formal language was used to avoid the ambiguities of ordinary language).[4]

“Political” and “democratic” would be, for Evans-Pritchard, imprecise terms, used only in the absence of more adequate expressions for the societies studied. These societies are different from the world in which its observer lives, being equally distant from the ancient (European) societies in which these terms were created.

Many times the observed populations are not influenced by the tradition that continued to give meaning to the anthropologist's vocabulary. If social anthropology did not have a “very restricted technical vocabulary”, the observer would not need to talk about democracy in terms of the society he observes. As this is not the case (Evans-Pritchard admits), the anthropologist feels obliged to resort to such “tools” in his interpretation.

One can, however, speak of the process of appropriation and lexical transmission in the same way that Nietzsche referred to the “right of masters” to impose names. It is not, therefore, a casual procedure, being able to determine the very nature of what is designated. The anthropologist would try in vain to avoid his ordinary point of view, which is proper to the world from which he comes. The ideal observer would not assume this perspective, that is, he would be someone prepared to describe a society with a vocabulary created as a function of that society or with a vocabulary that is found there.

But the relationship between theory and practice is never simple, nor unidirectional: as seen in the case where the “observed” individuals, becoming observers, begin to perceive their own experience as political. In the final chapter of this volume, we will consider the use of the term democracy in descriptions of societies placed at the extreme points of the inhabited world: Americas, Africa, Asia (extremes in relation to the geographic position of the inventors of the term).

It is not, however, just a problem of limits, of interpretive barriers, imposing a non-rigorous use of political vocabulary. The examples given by Evans-Pritchard lead us back to the nature of political observation – intimately related to reflection on democracy. One can note the impossibility of a complete adaptation between the language of the observer and the world of individuals who belong to the societies in which the terms of observation appear. “Democracy”, taken as an object of investigation, is, at the same time, a word specific to the observer and a construction of different societies assumed as part of their past. In the role of readers of past and present political reflections, we can place ourselves in the position of anthropologists in the face of a tradition perceived as our own.

The importance of this process of attributing names was noted by Hannah Arendt: “Naturally, every new phenomenon that appears among men needs a new term, both in the case where a new word is coined to indicate the new experience, and in the case in which an old word is used with an entirely new meaning. This is doubly true in the sphere of political life, where language reigns supreme.”[5]

However, one should not forget that the resumption of an old term to indicate a new reality does not happen by chance – in this case, it would be reasonable to propose a new and more objective terminology –, but requires something that is inherent to the transmitted term. When we express new phenomena and new concepts through old words, we inevitably create a relationship with the past, or with the various past times, and this relationship is not only one of overcoming, but also one of mirroring and appropriation. In the uses of what is old, moments of reversal and permanence coexist, as is natural. Not only what is new, but also what is the result of lexical continuity alters our way of looking at the past and looking at ourselves in relation to it.

Based on these assumptions, one can see the need for a description of the path through which the term 'democracy' came to us, considering the way in which it was, at each moment, put up for discussion. One cannot fully understand the history of democracy without considering that the word “political” underwent a similar and inseparable process of transformation.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Plato: A Poetics for Philosophy (Perspective).



Paulo Butti from Lima. Democracy: The Invention of the Ancients and the Uses of the Moderns. Translation: Luís Falcão and Paulo Butti de Lima. Niterói, Fluminense Federal University Publisher (Eduff), 2021, 528 pages.



[1] Many studies of Greek democracy address the theme of the modern tradition of democratic thought and practice in order to outline a clear picture of the nature of ancient democracy. However, in this volume, we will not deal with the successes and errors in the historical and philological interpretations of the ancients, measuring, in each case, the 'progress' made in understanding the past: this progress remains inevitably influenced by the attribution of new meanings to the terms of origin ancient, applied to realities different from those of origin. Extensive analyzes of the democratic theory and practice of the ancients from their observation in the modern world can be found, for example, in HANSEN, M. -Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006; HANSEN, M. (ed.). Democratie athénienne – démocratie moderne: tradition et influences, Entretiens sur l'Antiquité Classique. Geneva: Droz, 2010; and NIPPEL, W. (2008). Ancient and Modern Democracy: Two Concepts of Liberty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Nor will we try to describe here the continuities and differences that exist between the practices social and political-institutional that, through the centuries, were identified with the same word. These are abundantly explored arguments that it would not be opportune now to discuss. Whether democratic practice was really born in Greece and to what extent what was called “democracy” in modern and contemporary times depends on its first manifestation are questions that most of the time are devoid of a true hermeneutic force.

[2] KELSEN, H. (1955-56). Foundations of Democracy. In: KELSEN, H. Democracy. Bologna: il Mulino, 1998. On this statement, see below, p. 431.

[3] EVANS-PRITCHARD, EE (1951). social anthropology. Lisbon: Edições 70, 1978, p. 17.

[4] We purposely omit other examples of lexical inaccuracy or inadequacy recalled by Evans-Pritchard, in a completely heterogeneous series: in addition to 'political' and 'democratic', he mentions society, culture, religion, sanction, structure and function.

[5] ARENDT, H. (1963). about the revolution. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011, p. 64.

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