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Famous historical speech of Pericles. Source: vkilikov / Adobe Stock.

How Ancient Greeks Kept Ruthless Narcissists from Capturing their Democracy

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Ancient Greece was in many ways a brutal society. It was almost perpetually at war, slavery was routine, and women could only expect a low status in society.

However, there is one important sense in which ancient Greeks were more advanced than modern European societies: their sophisticated political systems. The citizens of ancient Athens developed a political system that was more genuinely democratic than the present-day UK or US.

Our modern concept of democracy is actually a degradation of the original Greek concept and has very little in common with it. Modern democracy is merely representative, meaning that we elect officials to make decisions on our behalf, who become members of legislative bodies like the British parliament or the US Congress.

The ancient Greeks practiced direct democracy. It literally was “people power”. And they took measures specifically to ensure that ruthless, narcissistic people were unable to dominate politics.

An assembly in ancient Greece. Source: jambulart / Adobe Stock.

An assembly in ancient Greece. Source: jambulart / Adobe Stock.

Recent political events show that we have a great deal to learn from the Athenians. Arguably, a key problem in modern times is that we aren’t stringent enough about the people we allow to become politicians.

There’s a great deal of research showing that people with negative personality traits, such as narcissism, ruthlessness, amorality or a lack of empathy and conscience, are attracted to high-status roles, including politics.

In a representative democracy, therefore, the people who put themselves forward as representatives include a sizeable proportion of people with disordered personalities – people who crave power because of their malevolent traits.

And the most disordered and malevolent personalities –the most ruthless and amoral – tend to rise to the highest positions in any political party, and in any government. This is the phenomenon of “pathocracy”, which I discuss at length in my new book DisConnected.

Ancient democratic practices

The ancient Athenians were very aware of the danger of unsuitable personalities attaining power. Their standard method of selecting political officials was sortition – random selection by lot. This was a way of ensuring that ordinary people were represented in government, and of safeguarding against corruption and bribery.

The Athenians were aware that this meant a risk of handing responsibility to incompetent people but mitigated the risk by ensuring that decisions were made by groups or boards. Different members of the group would take responsibility for different areas and would act as a check on each other’s behavior.

Athenian democracy was direct in other ways too. Political decisions, such as whether to go to war, the election of military leaders or the nomination of magistrates, were made at massive assemblies, where thousands of citizens would gather.

A minimum of 6,000 citizens was required to pass any legislation. Citizens usually voted by showing hands – also sometimes with stones or pieces of broken pottery – and decisions were carried by simple majority.

The ancient Athenians also practiced a system of ostracism, not dissimilar to some egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups (who were also aware of the danger of alpha males dominating the group). Ostracism took place annually, when disruptive people who threatened democracy were nominated for expulsion.

If a sufficient number of citizens voted in favor, the disruptors would be banished from the city for ten years. In a sense, the decision to deny Johnson a former member’s parliamentary pass can be seen as a form of ostracism to protect against his corrupting influence.

The trial of Socrates. Source: Kristian / Adobe Stock.

The trial of Socrates. Source: Kristian / Adobe Stock.

A return to direct democracy

Sortition is still used in modern democracies, most notably in jury service, but these ancient democratic principles could be used much more widely to positive effect.

In fact, in recent years, many political thinkers have recommended reviving sortition in government. In 2014, Alexander Guerrero, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, published an influential paper advocating what he called “lottocracy” as an alternative to representative democracy.

In this system, government is undertaken by “single-issue legislatures” assemblies that focus on specific issues such as agriculture or healthcare. Members of the legislatures are chosen by lot and make decisions after consulting experts on the relevant topic.

The political scientists Hélène Landemore has advocated a similar model in which assemblies of randomly selected citizens (ranging in size from a 150 to 1,000) make political decisions.

Landemore’s model of “open democracy” also includes referendums and “crowd-sourced feedback loops” (when large numbers of people discuss policies on internet forums, and the feedback is passed to legislators).

In addition, the political philosopher John Burnheim has used the term demarchy for a political system made of small randomly selected “citizen’s juries” who discuss and decide public policies.

Such measures would be a way of reducing the likelihood of people with personality disorders attaining power since they would make leadership positions less attractive to ruthless and amoral people.

Direct democracy means less individual power and more checks and limitations to individual authority. Governments and organizations become less hierarchical, more cooperative than competitive, based on partnership rather than power.

This means less opportunity for disordered people to satisfy their craving for dominance in the political sphere. We would then become free of pathocracy, and all of the chaos and suffering it causes.

Top image: Famous historical speech of Pericles. Source: vkilikov / Adobe Stock.

This article, originally titled ‘How the ancient Greeks kept ruthless narcissists from capturing their democracy – and what modern politics could learn from them’ by Steve Taylor was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



Even if we were to rid ourselves of politicians, we would still have the bureaucracy to deal with.

As for political scientists, I haven't come across a single one I would listen to. The institutions are quite thoroughly captured.

While there is much to this article that is correct, it merely scratches the surface of the problem with modern democracy.

The division of politics into left and right is but theatre. The left wastes taxpayer money and the right 'rebalances' the finances, before the left wastes again. On the face of it, this should prove that the right is right, but that is a fallacy.

The right does nothing but reduce spending somewhat, temporarily, in this cyclical plot. Indeed, their job is to do nothing much, so as to convince their voters that they're trying to defeat the wasteful left. In truth, only the left really attempt do much and usually the wrong things.

The reality is that modern democracy was long ago hijacked by puppetmeisters. Almost all politicians (probably even all) are controlled entities. These marionettes are the focus of media attention, whilst those pulling the strings are never mentioned.

How could this be that no journalist has won an award exposing this? Quite simply, they too are controlled. The control of media through ownership, both private and state, is tighter than an active thumbscrew in a torture chamber.

The media one reads are like the politics one follows. Enough truth is added to the mass of lies to convince the viewers that these farces they are subjected to are a battle between good and evil. They are not. There is no battle left, other than a spiritual one.

I won't read this book. I don't need to. I could so easily have been a major player in politics, myself. All I had to do was to sell out. Enough opportunities presented. However, I learnt that the competition in politics is theatre. It is not real. The bolshie Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was close to the conservative Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. All were ultimately on the same side.

Direct democracy sounds fine, but when one understands the level of control over voters today, one would not trust a majority to be correct. Voters tend to be swayed by emotion and personal gain and little else.

Direct democracy can only work when people fully understand what they're voting on. This situation simply won't arise. The media and institutions would need to be dismantled and rebuilt.

Thus, direct democracy is a unicorn-chasing ideal. Yes, modern democracy is a reservoir to collect the drips of politics, those actors that can pretend they're clever while doing as instructed.

However, the puppet show can continue with direct democracy too. It would be like the audience voting on what Punch and Judy do next.


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