03 July 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
45, democracy, δημοκρατία

The term democracy first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am hoping to exercise my democratic right and to fulfil my democratic duty tomorrow [4 June 2024], voting in Stony Stratford. And then, I plan to stay awake all night, into the early morning, wating for election results, and hoping for one ‘Portillo Moment’ after another.

In what I hope are the dying days of the Tory war on ‘woke’ or Tory stoked-up ‘culture wars,’ I should point out too that the Greek work δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) is feminine.

The word democracy comes from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), a compound of δῆμος (demos, people) and κρατία <(i>kratía, power or rule). In other words, democracy is – or ought to be – a system of government in which state power is vested in and answerable to the people or the general population.

With a minimalist definition of democracy, rulers are elected through competitive elections while more expansive definitions link democracy to guarantees of civil liberties and human rights in addition to competitive elections.

The word δῆμος (demos) refers not simply to the people, but to the common people as well as the assembly of the common people. This was abhorrent to some thinkers in classical Greece. Was it not Aristotle who said democracy is the rule of fools?

Plato said: ‘If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.’ Socrates, for his part, suggested the rule of the majority could literally be rule by fools.

‘Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it,’ Henry David Thoreau once said. There is an old maxim that says: ‘Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.’

For words with the suffix -cracy derived from the Greek, think of aristocracy (rule by the best and most noble), autocracy, bureaucracy, gerontocracy (rule by the elders of those chosen by criteria of age), plutocracy or theocracy (rule by a religious elite). As the 14 years of misrule by the Tories grinds to a halt this week, it seems as though we have endured a decade and a half of rule by autocracy, bureaucracy, gerontocracy, kleptocracy and plutocracy by a group of people who imagined, in their own deluded way, that they are the new aristocracy.

But I wonder what the proper Greek word would be for ‘government by clowns.’ This week I have come across or even resorted to inventing some options.

How about bomolochocracy? In the classical Greek theatre, the bômolochos (βωμολόχος) was one of three stock characters in comedy, corresponding to the English buffoon. The bômolochus is marked by his wit, his crudity of language, and his frequent non-illusory audience address – a role for which Boris Johnson is well-fitted. In modern Greek, the word refers to a foul-mouthed person. The verb bomolocheuomai means to ‘play the buffoon, indulge in ribaldry, play low tricks.’ So perhaps a new word for ‘rule by clowns or buffoons’ could be bomolochocracy.

Or, perhaps, we have had 14 years of parasitocracy? The word parasite comes from the Greek παράσιτος (parásitos), a ‘person who eats at the table of another,’ from παρά (pará, ‘beside’) and σῖτος (sîtos, ‘food’). Since they have lived at our expense, leaving many impoverished families having to choose between eating and eating, how about a word that means ‘rule by ones who eat at the table’ – parasitocracy.

My third invention is onoicracy. The word ὄνος (ónos, (plural ónoi) is the Greek for ass or donkey, and onoicracy may be a shorter word, needing less explanation.

The term democracy first appeared in Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The term democracy first appeared in Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens. The first attested use of the word democracy is found in prose works of the 430s BCE, such as Herodotus’ Histories. But its usage was older by several decades, and Aeschylus strongly alludes to the word in his play The Suppliants (ca 463 BCE), in which he mentions ‘the demos’s ruling hand.’

Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices, and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens.

All eligible citizens could speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizenship excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and youths below the age of military service. Effectively, only 1 in 4 residents in Athens qualified as citizens.

The Monument of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament in Central Athens bears quotations from the Funeral Oration by Pericles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the run-up to this week’s election, I have been re-reading one of the greatest Greek speeches about democracy and democratic values. For many years I had a T-shirt, bought in Athens, with quotes from that funeral oration by Pericles in the cemetery in Kerameikos in Athens at the height of the Peloponnesian War.

The funeral oration by Pericles has been handed down in history by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. He tells us Pericles delivered his oration in the cemetery in Kerameikos – not only to bury the dead, but to praise democracy.

There are excerpts from the speech on the Monument of the Unknown Soldier on Parliament Square (Plateia Voulis) on Vasilissis Amalias avenue, facing onto Syntagma Square. The monument, designed by the architect Emmanuel Lazaridis in 1929-1930, includes a large bas-relief of a dying Greek soldier by Kostas Demetriadis (1881-1943) and the Greek text of funeral oration delivered by Pericles in 431 or 430 BCE.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the Acropolis Museum in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pericles was a Greek leader and statesman and a supporter of democracy during the Peloponnesian War. He was so important for Athens that his name defines the age – the Periclean Age – during which Athens rebuilt what had been destroyed during the recent war with Persia.

The people of Athens, including those from the countryside whose land was being pillaged by their enemies, were kept in crowded conditions within the walls of Athens. Near the start of the Peloponnesian War, a plague swept through the city. Pericles succumbed to this plague and died.

Before he died, though, Pericles delivered his rousing speech about the virtues of democracy. Thucydides puts in Pericles’ mouth key democratic values that are worth remembering today:

● Democracy allows humanity to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class.
● In a democracy, citizens behave lawfully while doing what they like without fear of prying eyes.
● In a democracy, there is equal justice for all in private disputes.

Pericles, in his ‘Funeral Oration’ in Athens, uses ‘the many,’ οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy. He contrasts them with ‘the few’ (οἱ ὀλίγοι, hoi oligoi), who abuse power and create an oligarchy, rule by the few. He advocates equal justice for ‘the many’, ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.

And that’s what the exercise in democracy tomorrow should have at its heart: equal justice for ‘the many’ and ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.

A grave in Kerameikós, Athens, where Pericles delivered his funeral oration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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A sculpted grave stone in Kerameikós, in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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