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The Core Curriculum

Democracy in Herodotus, Democracy in America

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Democracy in Herodotus, Democracy in America

During a regular four-year tenure in Morningside Heights, Columbia College students will witness at least one election in New York City, an enormous and diverse democracy. Indeed, this city is merely a part of an even larger national democracy that spans thousands of miles, hundreds of years, and millions upon millions of people. Almost miraculously, this country has allowed people of such varied opinions and backgrounds to coexist and thrive, and so nearly all Americans  believe that such a democratic type of governing -- of the people, by the people, for the people -- is the sensible model for a modern state.

Normally, students address the benefits and drawbacks of democracy in the explicitly political texts that form the foundations of another Core class, Contemporary Civilization. But in Herodotus’ Histories, one of the required texts of Literature Humanities, students discover similar topics. In Book III of Herodotus’ text, Darius, Mygabyzus, and Otanes discuss the natures of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.
Otanes, the first to speak, identifies some benefits of democracy that are familiar to modern Americans: “equality before the law” and “accountable government” (III.80). Americans reject the notion that citizens ought to be treated differently on account of their background or social position, and they keep their government accountable by casting ballots for seasoned incumbents or fresh new-comers.

Yet the “democracy” that Otanes discusses here is far from the “democracy” that people often claim exists in the United States. Especially for modern readers, the text highlights how a political label like “democracy” can, in fact, mean very different things to different people. Megabyzus and Darius, for example, are more concerned about the potential dangers of popular rule than its potential benefits, but their anti-democratic sentiments are not necessarily antithetical to ideals of American government. The former argues that “the mob is ineffective, and there is nothing more stupid or more given to brutality,” and that the “knowledge [of effective governance] and the masses are incompatible” (III.81). He instead advocates for an oligarchy -- literally “rule by the few” -- where political power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of exceptional citizens; he assures his interlocutors, “the best men make the best decions” (ibid.). But these arguments have obvious appeal to Americans. Shouldn’t we want our judges and legislators to possess the acumen necessary to make wise rulings and to craft fair laws? Shouldn’t we avoid putting unqualified people in positions of authority? And yet, don’t Americans want to live under a democracy, not an oligarchy?

Darius, the last of the three speakers, further muddles the view of American popular government. He argues that the single most qualified citizen ought to possess monarchic rule, a political structure that immediately seems antithetical to the foundation of the United States. He warns against the “personal feuds” and competitive antagonism inherent in oligarchic rule, where everyone in power “wants to come out on top and have his own views prevail” (III.82). Darius offers readers a compelling proposition: “If you have a single person, and he is the best person in the world, how could you hope to improve on that?” (ibid.). Every four years, Americans appear to follow this
suggestion when they vote for the “best person” to take control of the White House, to command the military, to veto laws, and to pardon criminals. Indeed, the more Herodotus we read, the less America seems like the “democracy” it is often thought to be.

Naturally, these challenges to democracy are not unique to Herodotus’ text, and in fact, other texts in the Core Curriculum include similar discussions. Plato’s Republic famously rejects the notion of popular rule, instead favoring the enlightened authority of the “philosopher king.” Modern texts, too, particularly Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, have warned explicitly about the dangers of the “tyranny of the majority” that can appear in a popularly-driven state. When historians and political philosophers examine “democracy” in its most literal incarnation -- “rule of the people” -- the potential dangers to the state are obvious.

Perhaps, then, readers should not be surprised that the modern “democracy” in the United States attempts to compensate for the pitfalls of unadulterated popular rule by changing the notion of what exactly that political label means. New York City elections look like Otanes’ democracy, but the US Senate looks like Megabyzus’ oligarchy, and the president’s absolute military authority looks like Darius’
monarchy. The United States, evidently, recognizes that a pure “democracy” is imperfect if not outright dangerous. Would Americans want to entrust their military strategy to a popular vote? And yet, would they want to entrust small-town elections to the nation’s president? Modern American “democracy,” as a mixture of the three types of government outlined in Herodotus, radically redefines this important political term and attempts to reap the rewards of each type of government without succumbing to its drawbacks.

Credit: 
Charles McNamara, PhD Candidate in Classics, Columbia University. 2010.
Date: 
Thursday, August 12, 2010
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