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Herodotus isonomia

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

Some of the same lessons mentioned in the main article, we can take with us from the latest edition of the democracy index to The Economist Group – published by The Economist. Apart from the Nordic countries and Ireland, only two countries in the world will now in 2021 be defined as full-fledged democracies (then in the sense of something completely different than democracy in Athens): namely New Zealand and Canada.

But even these do not necessarily ensure equality before the law for the most vulnerable. Just look at what the parliament in the country at the top of the list, Norway, did on April 27 this year: Then the parliamentary majority passed a bill that makes all children who flee alone to Norway, and who are between 15 and 18 years old, get a worse care services than other children (sic!). The most vulnerable among us will not be protected by the child welfare service, but by law they will now instead be controlled by the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE). As Save the Children points out: «It violates children's rights and is not in line with the Constitution's prohibition of unjustified discrimination. "

Is the 27 April decision the will of the majority (democracy)? Yes, absolutely. Does the decision have anything to do with equality before the law, a balanced government and justice for the individual (isonomi)? No, absolutely not.

Or look at Denmark, which was just defined as a full-fledged democracy by The Economist for 2020: In April, it was announced that the government and the parliamentary majority will send close to 200 Syrian refugees, including women and children, back to the brutal Assad regime. The Danish Prime Minister will work with the dictator of Syria to make this happen. This is how it can go without isonomy.

So what do we do when even our foremost "full-fledged democracies" in 2021 pass oppressive laws against vulnerable children in our midst? One solution may be to apply for the books. Both Schubert (2021) and Karatani (2017) refer in particular to one of Anatolia's earliest historians, namely Herodotus (ca. 484–425). He was born in cosmopolitan Halikarnassos, a city in West Asia that was part of the Persian Empire, and grew up on Samos – which traded with Egypt rather than Athens. In Herodotus' historical work The survey (also known as "The Histories", by history, scrutiny / examination) his cosmopolitan perspectives are clearly evident, as when he rebukes most Greeks a number of times.

In part three of his work, Herodotus has the earliest, if not the most beautiful, description of good governance, isonomia. It happens when he describes the discussions about state form before the Persian king Darius was to take power in September 522 BC. Seven allies were then gathered to discuss the coming distribution of power, and the first to speak was Persian Otanes. He argued against the monarchy and that one person should have the decisive word. Instead, Otanes argued for justice for all, based on equality before the law. A number of modern translations today are misleading in this area, but Otanes does not use the term in Herodotus' language. democracy, but rather isonomiēn: «First of all, the board of many has the most beautiful name to describe it – isonomia. And then the people in power do nothing of what the monarchs do. "

In such a government, the rulers are held "responsible for the conduct of power, and all questions are put up for debate" (3:80).

Here we can see a resemblance to how Aristotle informs how even Phoenician Carthage presented everything for debate to its citizens. Herodotus, however, says that Otanes loses the vote among the seven. They choose an enlightened monarchy for the Darius' Persian Empire, instead of both isonomy and oligarchy. But in return, Otanes and his family were granted the right to be a free family in Persia. They did not have to follow the king's order, which also applied to Herodotus' time, the historian says.

Many today would doubt that such a constitutional discussion could have taken place in ancient Persia. Herodotus also wrote that his contemporaries' Greeks distrusted the story, and it is possible that the depiction was a rhetorical move on the part of the historian.

In the sixth part of Herodotus' work we can see a new emphasis on that «the good government ”was not an Athenian invention as it is presented today. He writes that in the year 492 the Persian Darius sent his son-in-law Mardonius out to the "Asian coast" at Jonia, west of the Persian Empire:

"Here he did something that will greatly astonish the Greeks who can not believe that Otanes declared to the seven conspirators that Persia should have a democratic government [here Herodotus uses the term dēmokrateesthai]: He removed the tyrants of all the Ionian states and set up democratic institutions instead ”(6:43).

Momrak about Mesopotamia

And when we are aware of the basic texts of Herodotus [see study] and Aristotle, it is also easier to take a new step further into the depictions of the good government through the ages. At the end of 2020, a book was also published in Norwegian that provides new perspectives on the time before the short-lived Athenian "golden age". Namely the historian Kristoffer Momrak and his Middle Eastern metropolises (Scandinavian Academic Press).

Towards the end of the book, for example, Momrak follows up the Danish Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen (1904–1993) and his pioneering study from 1943: Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia. Like Geoffrey Evans, Jacobsen found evidence of existing assemblies and democratic institutions in Sumerian city-states about 2000 years before our era, that is, over a millennium before the Ionian city-states were formed. Professor Marc Van de Mieroop is among those who have gone further on such perspectives, as in Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit and Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton University Press, 2016).

Momrak writes in a Norwegian context, so he must of course be somewhat careful about recalcitrant representations. But also in his somewhat conservative discussions, he clearly shows how "the people's representatives participated in assemblies that judged in trials" – by referring to texts depicting neighborhood courts in the old Babylonian city-states. At times, it seems that in ancient Iraq there was a more humane regime than in later Athens, or in the slave-based southern states of the United States for that matter. Like when Momrak writes:

"Citizens had inviolable privileges and were protected by law […]. However, the Babylonians themselves believed that not even a dog could be killed once it became a city. "

Hammurabi's laws (from about 1750 BC) opened to neighborhood courts (babtum), where most people judged or acquitted their fellow citizens. In ancient Babylon, we sense the signs of the first "good government", similar to the law, some of what Jonah later came to call isonomia. Recent research, to quote formulations from Momrak, shows that Greece is being “regarded as a cultural periphery of the Middle East, rather than as the origin of a unique Western culture. With extensive connections to the Phoenicians, Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Iron Age, there were many ways influence from the Middle East could reach the Greeks.

So there was no "Greek miracle". And with that perspective, we can perhaps more easily understand why a country like Botswana in 2021 is the 33rd most democratic country in the world, according to the Democracy Index, only half a century after the liberation from Britain. Botswana is now at "good governance" level with Italy – as well as ahead of countries such as Belgium and Slovenia. We also have a large number of early examples of democracy, from for example ancient Licchavi and Shakya in northern India to the Iroquois in North America.

What we can take into account from all this is that neither good nor bad governments are reserved for one tradition or "one culture". Rather can isonomia, whether it first originated in Mesopotamia or in Jonia or elsewhere, is understood as a universal goal.

It does not hold that the majority of the people rule. The crucial thing is whether there is justice, freedom and equality for the law, for all. Just ask Johan Huizinga.

see the main thing: Seducers love majority decisions

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