A Case for Demos

The views on the relative advantages and disadvantages of Athenian democracy vary greatly in the two primary documents. As seen through the eyes of Pericles, Athenian democracy was extremely advantageous. However, in the debate recorded by Herodotus, the three Persians differ greatly in their political views.

To the Athenians their democracy was height of civilized rule and order. As stated in lecture, Athens was the birthplace of democracy. At the time that Pericles was giving his Funeral Oration, Athens was at war and his speech was designed to boost the morale of the people. Pericles extols the virtues of Athens and her democracy – he even goes so far as to say that “our city is an education to Greece.” In Pericles’ opinion there were no disadvantages to democracy. However, Athenian democracy was far from perfect. As the textbook notes, “Like the democracy he led, Pericles was aggressive and imperialistic” (77).

Some of the major advantages of democracy that Pericles outlines are that all the citizens are equal under the law, and that they take great pride and interest in the affairs of the state. He says that they are “extremely well informed” and also asserts, “We do not say that the man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” He goes on to praise the fact that all the people enjoy the pleasures of recreation and live very “free and tolerant lives” but he asserts this doesn’t make them lax nor is it extravagant. It is merely the rights of free citizens who having such privileges are also subject to be obedient to the law and those whom they put in authority. These assertions appear to be a dig at the Spartans who emerged as a military state at about the same time that Athens developed into a democracy. In Sparta every citizen was expected to sacrifice family and self to whole-hearted allegiance. Pericles also seemed to believe that it was the Athenian’s democracy that led the citizens to be brave and courageous. He states, “But the man who can truly be accounted as brave is he who knows best the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, then goes out undeterred to meet what is coming.”

As a final note on Pericles’s pride and arrogance in the Athenian democracy, he asserts two claims. First, because of their exceptional democracy every citizen was the “rightful lord and owner of his own person” and this was accomplished with “exceptional grace” and “exceptionally versatility.” This view point was strongly opposed by Darius and Megabyzus, (in the primary document of Herodotus) they call the citizens a mob, devoid of wisdom having no sense of what “was right and fit.” Secondly, Pericles declares very boldly that Athens is and will be a marvel of the world. “Future generations will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.”

In the primary document by Herodotus, out of the three debaters, Otanes is the only witness for the defense of democracy. Otanes believes that a democratic government will be the most beneficial to the Persian people. He first calls to memory the miseries of being ruled by one man. How past rulers had been conceited and oppressive. Otanes states, “The rule of one is neither good nor pleasant.” On the other hand, Otanes believes that rule by many is the better solution.

Otanes’ view on democracy is not shared by either of the other two debaters, Megabyzus and Darius. While both men ultimately disagree on which method of government would be the most beneficial, they both agree that democracy is the poorest of choices. Megabyzus, who is in favor of an oligarchy (rule by small elite), believes it would be sheer folly to go from being ruled by an oppressive king to being ruled by the uneducated masses. He believes the citizens are “devoid of knowledge” and that they will run unchecked muddying the waters of government. He even goes so far as to say that a monarchy would be a better choice than democracy – “the tyrant, in all his doings at least knows what he is about.”

Darius’s view of democracy is much like Megabyzus, but he believes even greater detriment will come about from instituting a democracy. He asserts that it is an inescapable fact that democracy will lead to corruption and after this corruption he believes it will inevitably return to a monarchy. His supposition then, is that what is old, most familiar, and works the best should be the institute of government that the Persians keep. His belief in a monarchy being the unsurpassed choice is as strong and arrogant as Pericles’ claim that the democracy of Athens is supreme. Darius asserts, “What government can possibly be better than that of the very best man in the whole state.”