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A comparison between ancient and modern democracy

By Emma Spilimberg

Democracy. A word, a label, a political entity, an ideal.

But what is democracy exactly?

Its origins trace back to ancient Greece, where the word first appeared with Herodotus (484

BC), setting the path for the political structure of (some) modern states as we know them


Since its birth, this word has brought many controversies, as it is, to some extent, a fluid and

adaptable concept, influenced by the socio-economic conditions of the time it is inserted.

Its meaning can be drawn from the two terms that compose this word: demos and kratos.

The former means whole citizens living within a particular city-state, the latter power and

rule, therefore democracy, in its literal sense, means power of the people.

This implies that, in a democracy, the power is legitimated by an agreement of the citizens.

This is the fundamental principal of democracy. However, there is a profound difference

between democracy as we intend it today, and as it was intended by the ancient. Between

the two only the legitimacy principle is the same, everything else is different.

The first break lays in the form of power that the citizen could and can exert: in the classical

view citizens had direct power over the decisions of the city, while our form of democracy is

representative, having the State as intermediary.

At first sight, a system based on direct participation may appear more authentic, and more

reliable than a system entrust to representatives.

Nonetheless, we should try and analyze the background and the social fabric of ancient

Greece, to understand how such a system was possible.

Firstly, Greek democracy considered a very limited participation since neither women, nor

slaves, nor foreigners were considered citizens, and therefore could not take part in public

affairs. This restricts the number of people who actually had power to less than half of the

population, that was already limited (35.000 people).

Secondly, Greece was not a State, but rather a collection of polis, “city-States” that were

independent one another.

Therefore, we can understand that the first limit of this form of democracy is that it requires

a small extension.

No wonder that the democratic experience lasted less than two centuries: the democratic

polis flourished, but shortly perished because of its incapability of expanding.

From this fall, for almost two thousand years, the word democracy held a negative

connotation, with eminent philosophers, from Plato to Kant classifying it as a bad form of


This until its revival in the XIX century.

The term’s comeback however, depicted an entirely different reality: democracy as we now

know it is a liberal democracy, highlighting the role of the liberal principle of individuals’

rights together with the democratic principle of popular sovereignty.

The key words in this context are freedom and rights: in ancient Greece the single person in

the polis was defenseless and at the mercy of the community. The individual didn’t have any

rights: his freedom was carried out and exhausted in his participation in the collective

practice of power.

This changed after the birth of the constitutional State, in which the power exerted in all its

forms (be it juridical, legislative or enforceable) is submitted to the constitution that grants

for individual freedoms.

Modern democracy is representative also in the sense that it is profoundly woven with

mediations between power and individual’s rights.

So, while in the past you were either a winner, being part of the majority, or a loser, being

the part of the unfortunate minority, nowadays the presence of basic rights leaves no one

empty handed.

I say it’s a win-win for everyone.

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