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Seducers love majority decisions

The Metropolises of the Middle East, The Destroyed World, Politics, About Revolutions, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy
IDEA HISTORY / Is Greece more of a cultural periphery in the Middle East than the origin of our modern democracy? Aristotle believed that the Phoenicians in Carthage, like the law – isonomia – had a better government than Athens – the so-called cradle of democracy.


When the Nazis seized power in the Netherlands during World War II, the anti-fascist history professor Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) was among the most important enemies of the totalitarian occupying power. Even in 1942, Huizinga was critical of the Nazi regime. In July of that year, Hitler's men arrested him for three months, before the 70-year-old was finally released when he was close to death. Huizinga was banned from Leiden University, so he settled in the small village of De Steeg, east of Arnhem. There he completed the same fall a landmark writing, Spoiled world ("Destroyed World", 1945).

The script remained unpublished until after the liberation from the totalitarian forces. And Huizinga himself died as early as February 1945, while the Nazis were ruling. But towards the end of the energetic text, we can read his realization that democracy is not a guarantee against tyranny. On the contrary. As he himself had experienced, Adolf Hitler, after all, secured a "democratic election winner" in Germany, as his party became by far the largest in the last two free parliamentary elections. With 37 and 32 percent support, respectively, in the July and November 1932 elections, Hitler's Nazi party suddenly became almost twice as large as the second largest, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Social Democratic Party). The road to the Nazi dictatorship was paved with the street stones of democracy.

The Holocaust and the greatest human tragedy in world history thus had its origins in democracy. Or rather: in the all-too-easy abuse of the form of government. The concept democracy says only something about how many rule, ie the majority. This is in contrast to a monarchy – where one has the last word.

The Holocaust originated in democracy.

But democracy (democracy), like monarchy, says nothing about how power is exercised. This is what Johan Huizinga realized when he wrote in the Nazi – occupied Netherlands. For a just society, something more than just the majority needs to rule. Democracy alone is not enough to have a good, fair and balanced government. Huizinga therefore relaunched a Greek concept that has been lost since Greece gained its independence in 1832 – at a time when Europe's colonial empires were beginning to make Athens an ideal.

Huizinga to the right.

Instead of democracy Huizinga referred to the first concept of a good government that we know in Greek, namely isonomy The term is composed of that, which comes from equality or equilibrium, balance, and name, which originates from law or habit / tradition.

In short: Isonomia means "equality before the law". And this means that no grouping should rule over another, so that in practice there is a regulatory "non-government" – a society in balance. Isonomy thus means equality and justice first, with universal laws. Which then ensures freedom for all citizens.

Huizinga made the following argument in 1942: "It is unfortunate that the cultures that emerged from the Greek tribe did not adopt, as an alternative to the word democracy, the second term that sounded so good […] the very idea of ​​a good form of government. , namely the concept of isonomy – equality before the law […]. With this word, far clearer than democracy, the ideal of freedom is instantly communicated, and it does not carry with it its own imperfection, as the word democracy actually does. With isonomy, the most important principle of the constitutional state was precisely and clearly expressed ”(p. 89 in the original, translated by DH).

From Ibsen to Arendt to Karatani

To follow up Huizinga we can say that the concept democracy first and foremost ensures its legitimacy if the majority's decisions prevail. In practice, unless one has a tyrannical autocracy or an unpopular monarchy, the majority concept often secures the strongest and those with the most power from before. The current communist regime in the People's Republic of China is also concerned with what the majority thinks – in order to stay in power and avoid riots.

But the idea of ​​democracy does not say anything about the rights and freedoms of the minority. Neither says democracy something about the reason or legality of the majority decisions. A similar dilemma is what Henrik Ibsen criticizes in the drama En folkefiende (1882), as when Dr. Stockmann states: “Truth and the most dangerous enemies of freedom among us, that is the compact majority. Yes, the damn compact, liberal majority. "

So it is not only the new Facebook algorithms that can threaten truth and freedom through the compact majority's illiberal majority tyranny. And historically, many times individual, equality and reason have been downgraded if only the interests of the majority are to be safeguarded. No wonder both the British Empire, the Nazi Empire and the current Putin regime are tampering with their alleged democracy and democracy (what the "people" / majority want). In contrast to whether there is equality before the law and balance in the governing principle (isonomy) for all individuals – and especially for vulnerable minorities.

In the imperial colonial era, the term became democracy an honorary title, while isonomy went into oblivion. Until Huizinga brought it up again. And until Hannah Arendt then followed up, in On Revolution (1963) – just published in Norwegian translation on Solum Bokvennen. She points to that isonomy was the original Greek word for a society in which the citizens lived together without a distinction between "the rulers" and "the rulers".

And in March this year, Charlott Schubert, of the University of Leipzig, presented his thorough review of the early history of the concept of isonomy in the book Isonomia: Development and History (The Gruyter). She starts with Solon's limited successful attempts to establish a "good government", eunomy, 594 years before our era. Part of the problem is that there are no Greek sources that systematically defend the practice of democracy in Athens. Well, it is Sparta that is highlighted as well managed. The worship of only Athenian democracy is first and foremost a modern phenomenon.

A more radical re-reading has recently come from the Japanese philosophy professor Kōjin Karatani. In the book Isonomy and the Origins of Philosophy (English edition 2017) he shows how the understanding of isonomia first arose in West Asia. That is, in Miletus and the multicultural Ionian cities on the west coast of present-day Turkey – a century before Athens began its rather unsuccessful democratic variant. Karatani describes how the concept of balance and equality before the law (isonomy) developed in the cultural melting pot Jonia, where Phoenicians, Babylonians, Egyptians and newly arrived Greeks came to live together.

Aristotle discussed the dangers of majority tyranny, in which the laws are set aside. He warned especially against the demagogues, who can manipulate the masses through referendums.
Was that Donald J. Trumps he was talking about?

"Karatani's book makes you see the whole history of philosophy in a new way," the philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quoted on the cover of the book. Zizek has coverage for his words. Karatani shows how it was in this Jonah that the basis for the whole of later Greek culture arose: the poetry with Homer and Hesiod, the philosophy with Thales, Pythagoras and Heraclitus, the medical ethics with Hippocrates, the writing of history with Herodot. And thus "good governance" through balance, justice and equality: isonomy.

Why in West Asia, and not in Athens? Yes, because the Ionian Greek immigrants here had been able to get away from the Greek clan and tribal society. In Jonia, they could start all over again. Here the Ions came into close contact with the mighty Lydia and its intellectual capital, Sardis, of which they can be understood as part. And here one was free, no system required a ioner to be a slave. In this cosmopolitan and urban environment, one could move on freely: "People were in fact economically equal […] freedom gave rise to equality", writes Karatani. And equal treatment, isonomy, will then facilitate the individual's freedom.


In Athens we see the opposite, Karatani argues. Here blood ties and homogeneity were cultivated, not freedom and heterogeneity (non-uniformity).

In contrast to the Ionic principle of equality between all citizens, seducers love majority decisions. Because then you do not have to take into account the weakest link. Not surprisingly, the slave state of Athens in the 1800th century became an ideal in the United States and in a Europe that benefited from the slave system and the occupation of "non-white" countries: An estimated one-third of the inhabitants of Athens – up to Macedonian Philip II's liberation – were slaves. These slaves kept the wheels of the Athenian urban community moving, while the free Athenian men looked down on trade and physical labor. Instead, they cultivated rhetoric and war.

In Athens there were as many immigrants as slaves. An example was an immigrant from Stageira in the north, Aristotle. He was finally, in 323 BC, ousted from Athens because of his collaboration with the Macedonian royal family. Immigrants like Aristotle were never recognized as citizens of the city, they could never get a vote. In this Athenian tribal society, women also had little value, in contrast to the fairly equal ancient Kemet (Egypt), which was not slave-based. In practice, therefore, only about 10-15 percent of the population – ie "the free men" – got to vote in elections in Athens. These then voted annually on who they would throw out of the citizens, so-called ostracism. Those who were expelled from the Athenian city-state were often the city's most skilled or most resourceful, Aristotle points out in one of his surviving writings, later compiled into a book we today call Policy (Vidarforlaget, 2007): The exiles were often those who had "great influence through wealth, a large network or another political resource" (1284a).

Athens then also ended up in constant warfare from the middle of the 400th century BC, after colonizing other city-states in a colonial manner. Then finally, in 404, to lose the civil war against Sparta, which a few years earlier entered into a decisive alliance with the Persian Cyrus from the Achaemenid Empire.

Socrates was then sentenced to death in 399 by the democratically elected assembly of Athens, because he had set himself up against the gods of the city. While his student Plato ended up arguing for a totalitarian system, where the free arts should be banned, something he tried to practice in Syracuse, Sicily.

Athens is thus not an ideal for a modern democrat. Rather, perhaps a terrifying example of how bad it can go when only a society's accepted "citizens" are recognized as full-fledged human beings.

Carthage as an example of "good governance"

No wonder Aristotle in policy not even include Athens in the discussions of which of the ancient cities had the best constitution. This assessment was only given to those who "enjoy a high reputation", ie Sparta, Crete and Carthage (the latter is located in present-day Tunis, Tunisia, in North Africa). And it is Carthage, founded and ruled by the Phoenicians, who comes out best with Aristotle: “Many features of the regulations in Carthage work well. It is a sign of a well-organized society that the people are willing to submit to the system, and that there has been no revolt worth mentioning, nor any tyrannical rule. "

Phoenician Carthage was founded around 800 BC, and in Aristotle's time, this great city was the mighty trading city of the Mediterranean – before the imperial Roman Empire destroyed the city a few centuries later. Aristotle points out that the Carthaginians not only had the oldest and most durable stable control set; they also had the most balanced and inclusive constitution – as well as an associated government with both democratic, oligarchic and aristocratic features: the kings and the council of elders put the proposals "before the people's assembly", which gave the people "authority to make the final decision, and whoever wants it can protest against the proposals. These possibilities do not exist in the other two constitutions [in Sparta and Crete] »(1273a).

A seductive regime "becomes despotic, and it leads to the flatterers being put in the forefront."

Here we see how the individual is respected in Phoenician Carthage, which provided stability and an obstacle to tyranny. In contrast, Aristotle set up Athens – where Solon gave the courts political power. For then "they gave in to the people as to a tyrant, and the constitution became the present democracy." This was not meant as praise.

Nor did the American fathers of the Constitution honor the Greeks and Athens, which at the end of the 1700th century was under Ottoman rule. John Adams, President of the United States of America, therefore wrote in his classic text on the United States Constitution (1787) on the Phoenician metropolis in North Africa: «This government [in Carthage] is so much more similar to the US government than any other ancient republic, perhaps more than any of the modern […]. "

The manipulated masses of democracy

The transition from democracy (people's government) to majority tyranny is strikingly short and simple, both Aristotle and Karatani point out. Something we now also see with the development in the EU countries Poland and Hungary. Abortion has recently been banned in Poland – as well as mentioning Polish citizens' involvement in the Holocaust during World War II. In Hungary, the anti-Semitic Viktor Orbán regime has banned gender studies – and introduced exemption laws that give Orbán the right to govern through decrees. Last year, the American think tank Freedom House thus defined Hungary as a «quasi-autocracy».

Aristotle discussed the dangers of majority tyranny, in which the laws are set aside. And he warned especially against the demagogues, who can manipulate the masses through referendums: "Where the laws are not the highest authority, there the demagogues arise" (1292a). As was the case of the demagogue Donald J. Trump's four years in power, he also wrote, Aristotle also wrote that a seductive regime "becomes despotic, and it leads to the flatterers being put in the forefront". What was the Trump era if not a demonstration of how to secure power with the president through flattery?

The road to the Nazi dictatorship was paved with the street stones of democracy.

Aristotle then writes that "career-minded seducers [will] bring it so far that the people are even above the laws" (1305a). The people above the laws, yes. This is exactly what happened when Trump and his co-conspirators on January 6 incited the mob to storm the congress building in Washington DC – in search of Nancy Pelosi and Trump's own vice president Mike Pence. As if it were a Greek tragedy they were trying to recreate.

And in a classic democratic way, the European-American Trump was eventually acquitted in the Senate of this physical attack on Congress and state institutions. This is in contrast to how the average African American citizen risks being brutally punished by the police in the United States, every day. It does not help with alleged "democracy", democracy, if not everyone is equal before the law. Democracy does not mean isonomy.


See the survey on Herodotus isonomia.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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