FIRST DEMOCRACY: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea

Paul Woodruff, Author . Oxford Univ. $23 (304p) ISBN 978-0-19-517718-3

For those who think they live in a democracy, Woodruff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, argues that the ideal of "government by and for the people" was in some ways more closely attained over 2,000 years ago in Athens. Exploring that model of first democracy in depth, Woodruff plainly states its defects (e.g., the exclusion of women and slaves) and outlines its checkered history, while noting its striking features. Athenian democracy was not majority rule, with a disregard for the minority, nor did Athens have elected representatives who were beholden to special interests. Lotteries rather than elections were used to appoint magistrates and council members; juries were very large (and thus hard to bribe). The assembly was composed of the first 6,000 men to arrive on the hill. A tendency toward generality (when discussing concepts like "the rule of law" and "natural equality") coupled with a lack of vivid descriptions of Greek society sometimes makes the book soporific. But the closing critique of the present-day American system and proposals for its democratization are bracing. Woodruff admires the democratic ideal "because it takes human imperfections into account better than any other ideal of government." This book will make even jaded readers want to see more of that ideal in action. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 12/06/2004
Release date: 02/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
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