Monthly Archives: October 2013

Radical Democracy in Ancient Athens

by Tim Harding


Within the context of ancient Athenian democracy, the term ‘radical democracy’ refers to a set of constitutional reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Perikles, beginning in 462 BCE.  The main elements of these radical reforms were that (1) all major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Ekklesia (Assembly); at which all adult citizens[1] of good standing were entitled to vote (Roberts 1998, 41); and (2) public officials were randomly chosen by lot, known as sortition (Scarre and Fagan 2008, 291).  In this essay, I propose to argue that these radical democratic reforms went too far – that is, that their advantages were outweighed by their disadvantages.


Radical democracy was the culmination of a series of constitutional reforms introduced over a period of about 130 years, which were begun by the archon[2] Solon in 594 BCE (Aristotle, 6-13; Roebuck 1965, 206-210; Martin 2000, 84-86).  The general thrust of these reforms was to transfer power from the aristocracy to the citizenry of Athens (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 84-85).  This process separated the business of the State from the activities of its wealthier citizens; and limited the financial dependence of the State on their generosity (Humphreys 1978, 97).

The reforms were interrupted by the tyranny of Peisistratus, Megacles and Peisistratus’ sons between 560 and 510 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 210).  However, from about 508 BCE the reform process was recommenced and greatly extended by Kleisthenes,[3] who is regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy (de Blois and van der Spek 2008, 87).  Kleisthenes’ democratic reforms comprise the bulk of the constitutional situation that existed before the introduction of radical democracy by Ephialtes and Perikles in 462BCE.

Radical democratic reforms

According to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the composition of the major governmental bodies and the legal system before and after the introduction of radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

After the Persian wars, the Council of Areopagus (comprised of aristocrats) resumed guardianship of the constitution.  Ephialtes, who had become a leader of the people, diminished the authority of the Areopagus by (1) denouncing and bringing legal actions against members of the Council regarding their alleged maladministration; and (2) re-assigning some of the powers of the Areopagus to the Council of Five Hundred, the Assembly and the law courts (Aristotle, 25; Bury 1963, 347; Hammond 1967, 288; Roberts 1998, 41, 47).  The role of the Council of Five Hundred or boule, was to draft legislation for consideration by the Assembly, which had a quorum of six thousand citizens (Waterfield 2004, 117; Roberts 1998, 41). All major matters of public policy were determined at meetings of the Assembly, which were a form of direct democracy.

After Ephialtes was assassinated, Perikles took his place as popular leader of the Assembly.  Perikles was also a general who redirected military resources towards sea power, which had implications for democracy because of the large numbers of citizens required as rowers of the triremes, of which more will be said later.

The major changes of radical democracy were that all magistrates (administrative officials) were selected by lot (sortition), except for military officers and certain other key officials who were elected by vote (Aristotle, 43).  No magistrate selected by lot could hold the same office twice (Roberts 1998, 41). The Council of Five Hundred also became elected by lot – fifty from each of ten tribes.  Each tribe held the office of Prytaneis in turn, the order being determined by lot.  The Prytaneis was responsible for convening meetings and setting the agendas of the Council and the Assembly (Aristotle, part 43).  However, in the interests of national security, the generals could instruct the Prytaneis to either call or not call a meeting of the Assembly (Roberts 1998, 47).

One counterbalance to this seemingly random process was a strict legal requirement that any new law must be consistent with the constitution and existing laws, which limited the whim of persuasive orators (Waterfield 2004, 102; Roberts 1998, 42).

The Council of Five Hundred passed judgement on nearly all magistrates, subject to appeal to the law courts.  Individual citizens could also lay an information against magistrates for not obeying the laws, subject again to appeal to the law courts if the Council found the charge proven (Aristotle, part 45).

Most of the law courts consisted of 500 citizens over the age of thirty; and more important cases were heard by 1000 or 1500 citizens selected by lot (Aristotle, part 45) from a pool of 6000 jurors (Waterfield 2004, 118).  Perikles introduced pay for jury service in the law courts, which counterbalanced the wealthy influence of the aristocrats (Aristotle, Part 27).  Pay was later introduced for the Council of Five Hundred and the Assembly (Aristotle, 62), presumably to encourage attendance (Thorley 1996, 73).  Councillors were exempt from military service, which would also have encouraged participation (Roberts 1998, 46).

The eligibility for citizenship by birth was altered to require both parents to be citizens (Aristotle, 41) which reduced the ability of aristocrats to marry other aristocrats from outside Athens, thus forcing further social mobility between the classes (Waterfield 2004, 102).  This change also inhibited the making of foreign alliances (Humphreys 1978, 99).

In his Funeral Oration, Perikles announced that the community would look after war orphans until they reached adulthood (Thucydides, 2.46.1); which, apart from providing direct benefits to the orphans, enhanced the sense of community in Athens.

Although ostracism (banishment to exile for ten years by vote of the Assembly) was an earlier institution, it became an important part of radical democracy because it symbolised the principle that the interests of the city state must prevail over those of the individual when these are in conflict (Martin 2000, 112).  Ostracism also helped to rid the city of potential tyrants (Humphreys 1978, 101).


Advantages of radical democracy

The main advantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows.

(1) The various military threats to Athens made it important that all citizens felt integrally part of the city and its defence, particularly as they provided the essential manpower for the navy (Thorley 1996, 76).  As the anonymous writer of the ancient text known as “The Old Oligarch” wrote:

“First of all, then, I shall say that at Athens the poor and the commons seem justly to have the advantage over the well-born and the wealthy; for it is the poor which mans the fleet and has brought the state her power, and the steersmen and the boatswains and the shipmasters and the lookout-men and the shipwrights—these have brought the state her power much rather than the hoplites and the best-born and the elite.”  (‘The Old Oligarch’, i.1)

(2) Athens’ shift to democracy assisted her in forming alliances with other democratic city states such as Argos and Megara (Hammond 1967, 298).

(3) Radical democracy fostered political stability and civic pride by holding in check the inherent tensions between rich and poor; and between professional politicians and the masses (Waterfield 2004, 116, 119).

(4) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy promoted public expenditure on monumental buildings (such as the Long Walls), the arts and other cultural activities (Waterfield 2004, 119).  There was also an increased accountability of this public expenditure, as all the major decisions were debated and settled by the Assembly (Bury 1963, 348).

(5) The introduction of pay for jurors and later Assembly attendees encouraged wider participation and strengthened the position of democratic leaders against their aristocratic opponents (Hammond 1967, 301).

(6) Natural consequences of the radical democratic reforms were freedom of speech in the Assembly and equality before the law (Goldhill 2004, 5).


Disadvantages of radical democracy

The main disadvantages of Athenian radical democracy may be summarised as follows:

(1) There was a major problem of efficiency.  Because all public policy issues had to be debated and settled by the Assembly, which could not sit during the many festivals that were held, decision-making could be excessively slow and unresponsive to immediate needs (Thorley 1996, 71).  Big issues might take days to resolve (Roberts 1998, 41).

(2) There were risks to the quality and coherence of policy decisions; and their implementation.  Selection by lot meant that there were no professional government officials, or civil servants, apart from military generals (Waterfield 2004, 116).  For example, instead of having a Treasurer advised by financial experts, finance was managed by a multiplicity of boards (Roberts 1998, 43).  The lack of a civil service resulted in an over-reliance on professional politicians and orators like Perikles to develop and oversee the implementation of public policy, without expert advice (Waterfield 2004, 116).

(3) There were practical difficulties which prevented all citizens from participating equally in the Assembly meetings.  Many Athenian citizens lived too far away from the city; the meeting place at the Pnyx could accommodate only about 6,000 of the 50,000 citizens who now had the right to vote; and only around 2,000 normally attended because many citizens could not afford to attend, at least until pay for Assembly attendance was later introduced (Waterfield 2004, 116-117; Bury 1963, 349).

(4) Few citizens exercised their right to speak in the Assembly, resulting in the public debate being increasingly led by professional orators (Roberts 1998, 41); with most citizen participation being limited to cheering and heckling (Waterfield 2004, 117).

(5) The assumption that every citizen is equally capable of exercising sound judgement is dubious.  In contrast, modern representative democracy assumes that some people are better than others at political reasoning (Goldhill 2004, 2).

(6) The civic pride fostered by radical democracy worked against Panhellenism, despite the efforts of Perikles to make the two concepts work together.  The brake on Panhellenism arguably increased the threats to Athens from other Greek city states; and to the Greek states as a whole from external threats (Waterfield 2004, 119).

(7) The restriction of citizenship to children of both parents who are citizens would have excluded notable citizens such as Themistocles and Kleisthenes (Bury 1963, 350).  It must have also excluded other potentially notable citizens.  According to Hammond (1967, 301) modern historians have argued that this restriction also prevented Athens from developing into a larger state.

(8) Finally, it is highly doubtful that mass meetings could successfully manage an empire or wage a lengthy war.  It is telling that radical democracy was eventually abandoned after Athens provoked and lost the Peloponnesian War (Roberts 1998, 45).

I have not included the disenfranchisement of women and other non-citizens as a disadvantage here, because this was a common feature of all political systems in ancient Athens; and therefore cannot be attributed to radical democracy.


Naturally, different readers will have different values and priorities; and are therefore likely to weigh the various advantages and disadvantages differently.  Also, that there may be numerically more disadvantages than advantages of radical democracy is of little consequence.

My own view is that many of the advantages of radical democracy, for example, defence, political stability, civic pride, free speech, equality before the law, transparency and accountability can also be achieved through other forms of democracy such as the modern system of representative democracy.  When combined with the major disadvantages of radical democracy, especially for efficiency and the quality of public policy, I believe that this factor tips the balance against radical democracy.

The historical fact that the ancient Athenian experiment with radical democracy was abandoned after the Peloponnesian War and has rarely, if ever, been repeated, indicates that radical democracy may not in practice have been the best form of democracy.


Ancient Sources

Anon. c.424 BCE  ‘The Polity of the Athenians’ The Old Oligarch in The Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, New York.  Available-:

Aristotle,  ‘Constitution of Athens’, trans. F.G. Kenyon. R.W.J. Clayton (ed.) Athenian Politics, 1973 London Association of Classical Teachers: The Classical Association, London. Available-:

Thucydides Chapter 4: Pericles’ Funeral Speech in History of the Peloponnesian War trans. R. Warmer, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1972 (revised).

Modern Sources

Bury, J.B., 1963  A History of Greece, Macmillan, London and New York.

de Blois, L. and van der Spek, R.J.,2008  An Introduction to the Ancient World (2nd edition) Routledge, London and New York.

Goldhill, S., 2004  ‘The Good Citizen’, in Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters. John Murray, London, 179-94.

Hammond, N.G.L., 1967  A History of Greece (2nd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Humphreys, S. C., 1978 ‘Public and Private Interests in Classical Athens’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Dec., 1977 – Jan., 1978), 97-104.

Martin, T. R., 2000  Ancient Greece – From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Osborne, R., 2009  Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, Routledge, Hoboken.

Roberts, J.W., 1998   ‘Radical Democracy’ in City of Sokrates: An Introduction to Classical Athens, Routledge, London.

Scarre, C and Fagan, B.M. 2008  Ancient Civilisations, (third edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River.

Thorley, J., 1996   Athenian Democracy, Routledge, Hoboken.

Waterfield, R., 2004  Athens – A History, Macmillan, London, Basingstoke and Oxford.

[1] Athenian citizens were males born in Attica with at least one Athenian parent, excluding metics (foreign residents) and slaves.

[2] The archon was the position title one of several aristocratic leaders who replaced the hereditary kings of Athens in about 750 BCE (Roebuck 1965, 205).

[3] Also spelled as Cleisthenes.


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The Argument from Fallacy

This fallacy may at first glance seem counter-intuitive; but it illustrates an important distinction between the validity of an argument and the truth of its premises or conclusions.

Given that by definition, the conclusion of an invalid argument does not logically follow from its premises, the conclusion of such an argument can be true whether or not its premises are true.

The Argument from Fallacy is the fallacy of analysing an argument and inferring that, since it is logically invalid or is otherwise fallacious, the conclusion of the argument must therefore be false.  This fallacy is also called the ‘Fallacy Fallacy’ or argument to logic (argumentum ad logicam).

The general form of of this argument  is:

Premise 1: If P, then Q.

Premise 2: P is a fallacious argument.

Conclusion: Therefore, Q is false.

This is a special case of denying the antecedent where the antecedent, rather than being a proposition that is false, is an entire argument that is fallacious.  A fallacious argument, just as with a false antecedent, can still have a consequent that happens to be true. The fallacy is in concluding the consequent of a fallacious argument has to be false.  To give an example:

John: “All dogs are animals. Scottie is an animal. This means Scottie is a dog”.

Betty: “Ah, you just committed the affirming the consequent fallacy. Sorry, you are wrong, which means that Scottie is not a dog”.

In this example, John has committed the affirming the consequent fallacy, but it does not logically follow that his conclusion that Scottie is a dog is false – it just means that his argument for saying so is invalid.

Another example might be a belief that because somebody is unable to defend a position well, then that position must be false.  All that has really been demonstrated is that the person in question cannot adequately defend their position, which could happen to be true.  On the other hand, if this person is relying on a fallacious argument to support their position, then we should be skeptical of that position unless and until it can otherwise be shown through evidence and valid argument to be true.

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Determinism, free will and compatibilism

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no free will? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.


To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).


[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.


Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

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