Democratic ideology rested on three pillars: equality, inclusiveness, and freedom. In the late sixth century, at least the hoplite farmers achieved political equality; half a century later this was true for all citizens. Terms denoting such equality (isonomia; isegoria, equality of speech), variously attested in the second half of the sixth century, may have been catchwords used to characterize the political system introduced by Kleisthenes (Raaflaub 1996: 143-5). By the last third of the fifth century much evidence documents that both terms, although in principle applicable to any nontyrannical regime (Thuc. 3.62.3-4 speaks of an ‘‘isonomic oligarchy’’), had become prime values of democracy. As Herodotos puts it, ‘‘rule by the masses has the most beautiful name of all, isonomia" (3.80.6). In particular, the Athenians singled out equality of speech, soon complemented by a specific term for ‘‘freedom of speech’’ (parrhesia, saying everything, unlimited speech), as the democratic citizen’s most important privilege (Raaflaub 2004b: 221-5). These notions come close to our ‘‘rights’’ or ‘‘civil liberties’’ (Raaflaub 2004b: 231-3; Ostwald 1996). In Athens, such equality was understood in the most comprehensive and inclusive sense. Accordingly, the democrats emphatically interpreted demos inclusively as the entire citizen body (Thuc. 6.39.1).
Freedom (eleutheria) emerged in the Persian Wars as a highly valued political concept that denoted both the community's independence from outside domination and the citizens’ freedom from oppression within the community (Raaflaub 2004b: ch. 3). In the latter sense, it was initially contrasted with tyranny and thus applicable to any non-tyrannical constitution. When exactly freedom was specifically claimed for democracy is uncertain; explicit evidence connects the two concepts in the 420s, and political conflicts in the 440s and late 430s provide the most likely contexts (Raaflaub 2004b: ch. 6). Aristotle observes that the ‘‘foundation of the democratic constitution is liberty.’’ This implies ‘‘that only in this constitution is there any share in liberty at all; every democracy, they say, has liberty for its aim’’ (Aristotle Politics 1317a40ff.). He distinguishes two elements of liberty: ruling and being ruled in turn (rotation in office) and the ‘‘live as you like’’ principle. Both are attested much earlier: the latter in Thucydides (2.37.2), the former in Euripides (Suppliants406-7), where freedom and equality, represented by the demos' sovereignty in the assembly, rotation in office, and equality before the law, of political opportunity, speech, and vote, appear intertwined as the bulwarks of democracy (Euripides Suppliants 352-3, 403-8, 429-41). They are embodied in the herald’s opening call in the assembly: ‘‘This is freedom: ‘Who has some good advice for the community and wants to bring it in the middle?’.. .What greater equality than this could there be for the polis?’’ (Euripides Suppliants 438-41; cf. Finley 1983: ch. 5).
The Old Oligarch confirms that every citizen who wanted (ho boulomenos) was entitled to, and in fact did, speak in the assembly (Pseudo-Xenophon
Ath. Pol. 1.2-9, quoted at the beginning). Yet the communal ideology promoted by democracy was more comprehensive. In the Funeral Oration, Thucydides lets Perikles sketch an idealized portrait of democratic Athens. It is a community characterized by civic harmony, mutual tolerance, and respect for law and office holders (2.37, also quoted earlier). In other words, the qualities of aidos (respect for others) and dike (justice) that Plato’s Protagoras (Protagoras 320D-22D) emphasizes as indispensable for communal well-being are realized perfectly here. The Athenian citizen is interested both in his own affairs and in those of the state; he is well informed on general politics; he is used to considering all aspects of an issue before making a decision and taking action (Thuc. 2.40.2); he is independent and self-sufficient (41.1) and in this respect mirrors the community (36.3). Most importantly, he is supposed to be a lover (erastes) of his polis, putting communal interests above his own (43.1). ‘‘We alone consider a citizen who does not partake in politics not only one who minds his own business (apragmon) but useless’’ (40.2). The democratic citizen, that is, is expected to be constantly active and involved (polypragmon), and thus to display individually the character trait that is typical of the entire polis (1.70; Raaflaub 1994). His political identity is to have priority over his social identity (Meier 1990: ch. 6; Monoson 2000: ch. 3).
This ideal picture, intentionally ambivalent and serving a programmatic function for the entire work (Grethlein 2005), did not remain uncontested. Thucydides himself dismantles it systematically in the course of his History (Farrar 1988: ch. 5; Ober 1998: ch. 2), beginning with the impact of the plague, which he intentionally juxtaposes to the Funeral Oration: under extreme pressure the Athenian citizen proves anything but self-sufficient and law-abiding, communal integration crumbles, and the veneer of socialization peels off (2.47-55). Under similar pressure, caused by brutal civil strife between factions claiming to be democratic or oligarchic, social and political order collapses disastrously in Kerkyra (3.69-85), as it will later in Athens (8.45-98, esp. 63-70). A comparison between Perikles (portrayed by Thucydides as an ideal democratic leader) and his inferior successors (2.65) reveals the tensions between democracy’s need and intolerance ofstrong leadership, the qualities required of a politician that can foster communal well-being, and the negative impact of competition between unscrupulously self-serving demagogues. Ultimately, Thucydides concludes, Athens flourished under Perikles because it was only ‘‘in name a democracy but in reality rule by the first man’’ (2.65.9). Yet even he became a victim of the fickleness and emotionality of the masses (2.65.2-4). Illuminating the decision-making process at crucial junctures of the war (3.36-48 on the punishment of Mytilene in 427; 4.17-22, 27-8, 41 on the conduct of war at Pylos and peace negotiations in 425/4; 6.8-26 on the expedition to Sicily in 415), Thucydides exposes further weaknesses of democracy, especially in the manipulation of the assembly by demagogues and the demos’ inability to recognize good advice and make rational decisions. The Athenian defeat in 404, the historian believes, was due not to a lack of communal resources or an erroneous calculation and wrong choice of strategy by Perikles, but to multiple bad decisions by the assembly under the influence of rivaling demagogues: ‘‘they did not give in until they stumbled over themselves in their internal disputes and in that way came to ruin’’ (2.65.12).
Other authors were equally critical of democracy. It suffices to mention the corrupt demagogues’ manipulation of Old Man Demos in Aristophanes’ Knights and his parody of obsessed jurors in Wasps (Konstan 1995; MacDowell 1995). Lysistrata, performed just before the oligarchic coup of 411, challenges the core of democratic ideology by emphasizing that the values of polis and oikos and the citizens’ public and private functions, political and social identities need to be integrated if the community is to recover and prosper (Henderson 1980). Euripides, although criticized in the competition among the dead poets in Frogs as too ‘‘democratic’’ (948-79), abounds in critical comments about the assembly’s decision making (Orestes 884-945) and vile demagogues (Hecuba 106-36, 217-327; Iphigenia in Aulis 511-33). In the Old Oligarch’s view, democracy, serving the interests of the masses, is the very embodiment of a ‘‘bad order’’ (kakonomia) and run by ‘‘people lacking a sound mind’’ (mainomenoi, cf. Alkibiades in Thuc. 6.89.6: democracy as ‘‘generally acknowledged madness,’’ homologoumene anoia). It is so profoundly rotten that it can only be improved by being abolished and replaced by a ‘‘good order’’ (eunomia), dominated by and serving the interests of the upper classes. Fearing this, the masses prefer to live in a bad order, to rule and be free, and they so skillfully preserve this system that under present conditions no radical change seems possible (Pseudo-Xenophon Ath. Pol. 1.1-9, 13-18; 2.9-10, 17-20, and passim; Ober 1998: 14-27). Plato, though more subtle and complex than is often assumed (Rowe 1998; Monoson 2000: part 2), shares the fifth-century authors’ critical attitude toward democracy, and in Aristotle’s systematic analysis of constitutions and constitutional change the same issues remain prominent (Roberts 1994: ch. 4; Ober 1998; Mulgan 1991).
Aristocrats vigorously challenged democracy’s appropriation of equality, inclusiveness, and freedom. They countered its concept of numerical with one of proportional equality that was based on social status (Harvey 1965). They trumped the undifferentiated democratic notion of freedom ( eleutheria) with an aristocratic concept of ‘‘full freedom’’ (eleutheriotes) that took social status and economic independence into account (Raaflaub 2004b: 243-7). And they set against the democrats’ inclusive interpretation of demos (all citizens) their own exclusive understanding (only the lower classes): in their view, demokratia was rule by the masses, the rabble (ochlos, hence later ochlokratia, Polybios 6.4.6, 57.9). The only exception is ‘‘freedom of speech,’’ which did not fit into the aristocratic canon of political values and thus remained a specifically democratic achievement (Raaflaub 2004a).
Democracy created new realities, within the polis and in its dealings with others. It shaped its citizens and transformed their attitudes and mentalities. Nobody could escape being affected by it. Hence we find components of an intense debate about democracy scattered in many works of fifth-century literature. They were apparently never combined into a coherent, comprehensive, and theoretically founded comparative analysis, but most of the arguments that Aristotle later incorporated in his analysis in Politics are attested already in the fifth century (Raaflaub 1989). Here it is possible only to mention a few examples.
Thucydides (6.38-40) lets a Syracusan demagogue refute oligarchic criticism of democracy’s egalitarianism and the limitations it imposes on the elite by stressing inclusiveness and the demos’ cumulative qualification (below). Herodotos (3.80-2) and Euripides (Suppliants 399-455) insert formal constitutional debates into unlikely historical and mythical contexts. In both democracy is starkly contrasted with tyranny; while the supporters of democracy emphasize values (equality and liberty) and the role of institutions, the opponents disparage the demos’ ability to participate rationally and responsibly in government. One response, that the citizens’ individual shortcomings are more than balanced by their collective or cumulative qualities (Hdt. 3.80.6: ‘‘in the many is all’’; Thuc. 6.39.1), is of questionable validity, despite Aristotle’s partial endorsement (Politics 1281a40-b20). Democracy’s most compelling defenses appear in different contexts. On a theoretical level, Plato’s Protagoras argues that in principle all citizens, even all human beings, carry the seed, the potential to develop the qualities required for social integration and political participation (justice, respect for others, and political skills, politike arete, Plato Protagoras 322B-23A). On a practical level, supporters emphasized two aspects. One is democracy’s success: the freedom guaranteed by democracy empowers and energizes the citizens, enabling them to realize their full potential and, in their own and the community’s interest, previously unthinkable achievements (Hdt. 5.78). The other is the entitlement derived from such achievements: the citizens’ continual commitment to their polis’ success entitles all of them (including the lower classes) to full political participation (Aischylos Suppliants; Raaflaub et al. 2006: ch. 5). Because they rule in their polis and, through their polis, over an empire, the Athenians proudly claim to be citizens of ‘‘the greatest and freest city’’ (Thuc. 6.89.6; cf. 7.69.2; Raaflaub 2004b: 187-90). As even the Old Oligarch admits (Pseudo-Xenophon Ath. Pol. 1.2), the community’s success and power and the lower classes’ full enfranchisement, power, and liberty in democracy are interconnected. Not accidentally, democracy’s deep crisis is linked with the loss of such legitimation by success.