Origins of Democracy in Classical Greece

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Josiah Ober writes about the evolution of democratic governance in classical Greece — the era from roughly 500-300 BC. His books on the subject include The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece and Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice. Why is Science of the Noosphere interested in learning about the rise democracy in Greece?

One reason is that a concern voiced by many people regarding the idea of a global superorganism is the loss of personal freedom that could result. The concept may evoke visions of the Borg from the Star Trek series of films — a collective of human/machine cyborgs connected in a “hive mind”. However, even among eusocial insect colonies such as bees and ants — natural “hive mind” superorganisms — collective intelligence emerges from the bottom up, not the top down. While the degree of personal autonomy experienced by honeybees is quite limited, it is not zero.

In the conclusion of The Formation of the Noosphere, titled The Rise of Freedom, Teilhard addressed the understandable concern expressed by those who fear loss of their own autonomy. He explained that the opposite was in fact true — that our personal freedom was enhanced, not limited, by cooperating as members of groups:

“Within that grandiose machine-in-motion which I visualize, what becomes of that pearl beyond price, our personal being? What remains of our freedom of choice and action? But do you not see that from the standpoint I have adopted it appears everywhere—and is everywhere heightened? I know very well that by a kind of innate obsession we cannot rid ourselves of the idea that we become most masters of ourselves by being as isolated as possible. But is not this the reverse of the truth? We must not forget that in each of us, by our very nature, everything is in an elemental state, including our freedom of action. We can only achieve a wider degree of freedom by joining and associating with others in an appropriate way.”

Teilhard wrote another essay that appeared The Future of Man, titled The Essence of the Democratic Idea: A Biological Approach. It suggests that “associating with others in an appropriate way” is closely akin to democratic governance. Interestingly, the biological essence of democracy is not limited human groups. Honeybee Democracy, a fascinating book by Thomas Seeley, recounts research that revealed how the members actually vote on the most important decision in the colony’s life — where to locate a new hive.

In “The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece”, Josh Ober writes:

“In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo, Socrates describes the corner of the Earth that was in his day occupied by his fellow Greeks. He employs what initially appears to be a peculiar analogy: “The Earth is very large and we…live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs around a pond.” Although Plato himself knew little about the lives of ants, new research on ant behavior by evolutionary biologists suggests that his seemingly far-fetched simile was in some ways startlingly apt: Greek society developed, through the historical mechanisms of cultural-institutional innovation, certain features that mimic social behavior developed through evolutionary adaptation by ants.”

According to Aristotle, who was instrumental in writing the constitution that governed Athens and other city-states, democracy was central to human success. As Josh explains in the conversation:

“So the question then, once you have these humans who are, naturally, for Aristotle, living in these states is: How are they going to organize themselves? And he supposes there are several ways they can do it. One, under a master, to have a king. One, under a small coalition, an oligarchy. And the third way is that you have self-government by the residents, or at least the citizen residents of the city-state, and that’s democracy…

…So, that’s really the interesting story about democracy in the Greek world is that it actually did turn out to be an effective form of human organization. And in fact, seems to have been the most successful form of organization, at the city-state level anyway, in that democracies tended to replace oligarchies or tyrannies, and to become more prevalent over time.”

As we know, democracy is too often better in theory than in practice. It is not easy to implement. However, it remains the best method of human governance to provide, as Teilhard wrote, “a wider degree of freedom by joining and associating with others in an appropriate way.” In this conversation with David Sloan Wilson, Josh delves into some of the details of how and why the evolution of Greek democracy 2,500 years ago is so relevant to the evolution of a global superorganism today.

Josiah Ober Transcript