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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter Ten. The History of Two Ideas

Democracy and Progress

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1In this book I have offered a critique of the purely discontinuous rendering of intellectual history. On the other hand, I have endorsed critiques of those ‘grand narratives’ of ideas that trace a continuous – and teleological – path through history. In a more positive spirit, my intention in these final two chapters is to integrate continuist and discontinuist perspectives in a refigured history of ideas. My goal is a history of ideas that is able to trace an idea over long time spans while acknowledging breaks in its trajectory and shifts in its meaning, as the idea’s cultural context alters. In this chapter I consider the history of two ideas, progress and democracy. I am particularly interested in the possibility that the history of democracy may entail significant periods of discontinuity in the long passage from its ancient origin, when the idea fell into disuse. I am also concerned with the longevity of progress as an idea, whether it can be traced to an ancient past, or whether this idea is a specifically modern invention.

Progress: How Grand a Narrative?

2There is a huge literature on the intellectual history of the idea of progress. A comprehensive survey of this literature is provided by David Spadafora in the ‘Bibliographical Essay’ within his The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain (1990: 425-453). Of the general histories of the idea of progress, J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress, published in 1920, has been the most influential; Spadafora describes it as ‘the single most outstanding work on the subject.’ (1990: 426)

3It has been commonly argued that the idea of progress is integral to modern Western thought; less frequently, progress has been associated with Western civilisation in general. A representative of the former view is W. Warren Wagar: ‘ [progress] has inspirited most of the great political and intellectual movements of the last two hundred years. It is perhaps the most characteristic and pervasive theme in modern Western thought.’ (Wagar 1969: 192 cited by Spadafora 1990: 2). Chris Rohmann represents the latter view: ‘The notion of progress (the term comes from the Latin for “move forward”) is also distinctly Western. Eastern philosophies may stress the individual’s striving for perfection… but tend to see human history as cyclical’ (Rohmann 2000: 315). The primary disagreement within the study of the history of progress concerns the starting-point of this particular grand narrative. Can its origins be located in ancient civilisation, so that the narrative of this idea may be shown to span the history of the West itself? Or is the idea of progress of much more recent genesis, so that its narrative is considerably shorter, pertaining only to Western culture of the last two or three centuries?

4The view held by the majority of intellectual historians, philosophers and cultural critics is that the doctrine of progress was forged in the European Enlightenment. Earlier epochs may have possessed a concept of the modern, even celebrated the achievements of the present, but this was generally done with reference to a golden past – as in the Renaissance, with its spirit of the recovery of ancient glories. The idea of progress holds that the present is superior to the past, and that the future will be superior to the present. The definition of progress proffered by Bury is the idea that ‘civilisation has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction.’ (Bury 1955: 2). Spadafora provides a revised definition, emphasising social context: ‘the belief in the movement over time of some aspect or aspects of human existence, within a social setting, toward a better condition.’ (Spadafora 1990: 6) The idea of progress, according to this view, is relatively recent, and its genesis can be located in a specific intellectual environment. For Habermas,

the spell which the classics of the ancient world cast upon the spirit of later times was first dissolved with the ideals of the French Enlightenment. Specifically, the idea of being ‘modern’ by looking back to the ancients changed with the belief, inspired by modern science, in the infinite progress of knowledge and in the infinite advance towards social and moral betterment. (1983: 4)

5Habermas identifies the spirit of modernity with the ‘changed consciousness of time’ (1983: 5) resulting from this fundamental shift of perspective; but the idea took time to take hold. Le Goff remarks that the idea of progress was not adopted without restriction until late in the Enlightenment, citing Tocqueville’s claim that 1780 marked ‘a decisive turning point’ in the acceptance of the idea of progress; in 1781 Servan’s Discourse on the Progress of Human Knowledge was published (Le Goff 1992: 31). Progress was most famously propounded in de Condorcet’s paean to infinite progress, An Outline of the Progress of the Human Spirit (1794). De Condorcet predicted an imminent stage in history when humanity would achieve perfection through the application of reason and science. Benjamin Franklin’s 1783 pronouncement on progress, full of optimism and faith in reason, typified Enlightenment thought of the late eighteenth century: ‘the Progress of human Knowledge will be rapid, and Discoveries made of which we have at present no Conception.’ (cited in Norberg 2016: vii)

6The prevailing view of the history of progress, as articulated by Habermas, contains two arguments concerning the pre-history of the idea. First, while it is possible to find within ancient thought utterances regarding the betterment of the human condition, these are, in the words of J. B. Bury, ‘sporadic observations’ that ‘do not amount to an anticipation of the idea.’ (Bury 1955: 6) Such ancient utterances emanated from an intellectual environment in which time was conceived in cyclical and degenerative terms; the idea that the future would bring indefinite advancement was alien to this environment. This interpretation of the ancient world may be traced to Comte’s promulgation of his Positive Philosophy in the 1830s, which held that progress is characteristic of the modern, scientific or ‘positive’ West, but was unknown to the ancients. Thus Walter Bagehot could proclaim in 1872: ‘The ancients had no conception of progress; they did not so much reject the idea; they did not even entertain the idea.’ (quoted in Nisbet 1980: 10).

7Second, the development of the idea in the Enlightenment constituted a secularisation of the Christian philosophy of time, which had been formulated chiefly by Augustine in the fifth century. For Bury, Christian theology brought a wholly new perspective to the course of human events, endowing that course with a ‘definite meaning’, and representing the past ‘as leading up to a definite and desirable goal in the future.’ (1955: 22) Christian thought, drawing on Jewish theology, brought linearity and teleology to the conceptualisation of time. Le Goff quotes Marc Bloch: ‘Christianity is a historian’s religion’ (Le Goff 1992: 142). R. G. Collingwood sees Christian thought as exerting a ‘revolutionary effect on the idea of history’, by replacing the ancient notion of ‘eternal identities underlying the process of human change’ with a goal-oriented concept of time (Collingwood 1946: 46).

8Bury, Collingwood and many others argue that, thirteen centuries after Augustine, the Enlightenment placed its secular faith in a secularised version of this Christian grand narrative. The well-directed Providence – the guiding spirit of the Christian philosophy of history – was replaced in the eighteenth century by the well-directed spirit of Progress. The Christian Incarnation, which would be the end-point and goal of history, was replaced, in Condorcet, by an imminent golden age perfected by Reason. Other, more enduring, versions of this Enlightenment narrative dispense with a specific state of perfection, preferring infinite progress as the always-deferred goal of Reason.

9According to the generally accepted trajectory of progress, then, the idea is characteristic of Western modernity; it is not a trait implicit throughout the history of Western civilisation. In his study of progress and its contemporary significance, Anthony O’Hear adopts the premises of this consensus view: ‘Progress was an idea largely absent in the ancient world.’ (O’Hear 1999: 92) In contrast to pagan notions of decline and the cyclical nature of time, the Judaeo-Christian tradition furnishes ‘strong images of hope for the future, of the ideal being in the future’. O’Hear finds that ‘the scientific Enlightenment and its associated political and ethical visions can reasonably be seen as secular versions of old religion.’ (7-8)

10However, there is an opposing view, propounded vigorously by numerous supporters. The most energetic and most comprehensive account of this viewpoint has been made by Robert Nisbet, in his book History of the Idea of Progress. Nisbet argues that [n] o single idea has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilisation for nearly three thousand years. (Nisbet 1980: 4)

11For Nisbet, the idea of progress has been held with ‘varying degrees of intensity’ over that time span, but the idea is clearly evident ‘from the Greeks to our own day’ (4). He provides an honour roll of ‘the West’s light and leading’ thinkers – from Protagoras and Plato through Augustine, Comte and Hegel, to the Founding Fathers of the United States – all of whom, it is asserted, have spoken of progress with reference to humanity or civilization (7).

12Nisbet acknowledges a certain imprecision concerning the meaning of progress, whose general sense he defines as the notion that ‘mankind has advanced in the past… is now advancing, and will continue to advance in the foreseeable future.’ (4-5) Within that broad definition, he identifies ‘two closely related though distinguishable propositions’, one regarding the cumulative improvement in knowledge, the other concerning improvement in the ‘moral or spiritual condition’ of humanity (5). He admits that the former version of progress is easier to trace throughout the history of Western thought; Nisbet argues for ‘a rarely interrupted conviction that the very nature of knowledge… is to advance, to improve, to become more perfect.’ (5) He also admits that there is a strong trend within Western thought that links the two propositions in ‘an inverse relationship to one another’ (5). Pandora’s Box and the Fall from the Garden of Eden due to the desire for knowledge are two spectacular narratives connecting knowledge with unhappiness, suggesting a deeply rooted belief that one form of advance (in knowledge or technology, as examples) brings with it moral or spiritual decline. Nevertheless, Nisbet is adamant that the history of Western thought provides ample evidence of a consistent belief in progress as something both real and desirable.

13To establish his argument, Nisbet needs to demonstrate that the idea of progress can be found in ancient Greek and Roman thought; he concedes that scholarship accords the contrary view ‘a great deal more currency’ (10). Yet he presents as support for his position a number of critical works, primarily Ludwig Edelstein’s The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity. He also draws on E. R. Dodds’ The Ancient Concept of Progress (1973), W. K. C. Guthrie’s In the Beginning (1957), M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (1954), as well as smaller studies by A. O. Lovejoy, F. J. Teggart, and George Boas (Nisbet 1980: 11). Part of Nisbet’s strategy is not to deny the currency within the ancient Greek world of belief in degeneration from a Golden Age. He argues instead that belief in progress existed alongside belief in degeneration, even to the point that the two convictions could be held by the one thinker. He aims to prove that the doctrine of progress which flourished in the Enlightenment was already present – if at a lower intensity – in the Classical world.

14Nisbet’s first major challenge is Hesiod, whose Works and Days, composed around 700 B. C., articulated the ancient doctrine of cyclical time and degeneration through the ages. E. R. Dodds – cited approvingly by Nisbet as a classicist who found the concept of progress in the ancient world – can find nothing of the sort in Hesiod. For Dodds, Hesiod fused the ‘two great anti-progressive myths’, that of the Lost Paradise and that of Eternal Recurrence (Dodds 1973: 3). Hesiod recounts a narrative of ‘moral and material decline’ descending from the Golden race to the present Iron race; this narrative is probably derived from Eastern mythology, modified by Hesiod to incorporate the Heroic race of Greek epic (3). For Dodds, Hesiod’s wish that he had died before the present age, or been born later, betrays the cyclic pattern of the underlying oriental myth, in which a return to Lost Paradise follows the path of decline. Yet the tenor of Hesiod is not one of hope for renewed Paradise; his emphasis is on ‘the growing degeneracy of his own time’ (4). For Dodds, Hesiod’s ‘despairing prognosis’ is characteristic of mythologies or other narratives built on ‘cyclic theory’, which is most often ‘found in the service of pessimism’ (4).

15Nisbet, however, is not prepared to accept this interpretation of Works and Days; he declares that Hesiod is ‘often misunderstood’ as a pessimistic poet (Nisbet 1980: 13). Breaking with this convention, Nisbet proposes a different Hesiod, one who is ‘the real source of the Greek belief in progress’ (13). When, in Works and Days, Hesiod admonishes his brother Perses to order his work properly, because through work ‘men grow rich in flocks and substance’, Nisbet finds evidence of hope – not despair – in the future (17). Hesiod’s emphasis on work and its virtues is, for Nisbet, ‘not very different from what in modern history is termed the Protestant Ethic’ (17). After noting this ancient work ethic, as well as Hesiod’s call for justice reform, Nisbet concludes that

Hesiod was a believer in progress and in the effect man himself, through the abolition of strife, through the universalization of justice, and through hard work, would have in bringing about a progressive future. (18)

16In order to make this claim, Nisbet has effected a distortion of the past typical of teleological histories. He has construed ancient values in the terms of the present, with the aim of proving some continuity between the two. To liken the Protestant ethic to the values of 700 B. C. is to ignore the enormous gulf between the religious and ethical systems. The ancient myth of degeneration, as enunciated by Hesiod, held that work was a necessity of the current age, in contrast to the exalted Golden race, which had no need of ‘toil or hardship’ (Hesiod’s term, quoted by Nisbet 16). In this context, work was an unavoidable condition of a wretched age: it is just as well to make a good job of it, since it is our lot. This interpretation of Hesiod’s brotherly advice is much more consistent with the intellectual environment of eighth-century Greece than is Nisbet’s reading of Hesiod. Nisbet is guilty of an anachronistic interpretation, imposing Protestant values, and the Enlightenment doctrine of progress, onto the words of an ancient poet who wished he had been born much earlier.

17Nisbet’s tour through the ancient world proceeds along the lines laid down by his reading of Hesiod. He argues, for example, that Hesiod’s narration of the myth of Prometheus constitutes ‘one of the very building blocks of the Greek idea of progress’ (17). In discussing Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Nisbet makes much of the literal meaning of Prometheus: ‘Forethinker’ or ‘Forethought’. He asserts that for the Greeks, Prometheus epitomized the spirit of revolt against fettering tradition, of man’s accomplishment through his own efforts of a better and freer tradition. (19)

18Once again, Nisbet has lapsed into anachronism. In ostensibly describing the ancient significance of Prometheus, he is in reality describing the spirit of the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, imposing that spirit onto the incompatible ethos of the fifth century B. C. Tradition was not considered ‘fettering’ by a culture that revered its Golden past. Nisbet has also overlooked the significance of Prometheus’ eternal punishment for violating the order of the gods: as Anthony O’Hear remarks, Prometheus was ‘an equivocal figure’ for the Greeks (O’Hear 1999: 92). Prometheus encapsulated for the Greeks an ambivalence concerning ambition and fate: his defiant act incurred the gods’ cruel, inevitable punishment of hubristic rebellion. Nisbet distorts this signification by abstracting the figure of Prometheus into a principle of ‘Forethought’, which he then celebrates as a Greek equivalent of Progress.

19If Nisbet attempts – unconvincingly – to wring Progress out of Greek mythology, Dodds makes the more pertinent observation that the Greeks had no word for progress, nor anything that came close (Dodds 1973: 1-2). Dodds can find only qualified evidence of something like progress – specifically scientific progress in the fifth century – while concluding that pessimism and resignation concerning the future were much more characteristic of the ancient world, from Hesiod to Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. Dodds quotes Marcus Aurelius on the future: ‘Our successors will see nothing new: in a sense, the man who has lived for forty years, if he has any intelligence at all, has seen all that has been seen and all that will be, since all is of one kind.’ (Dodds 1973: 24)

20Those thinkers such as Xenophanes – pounced upon by Nisbet as an ancient proponent of progress – who seemed to evince optimism regarding the future, made only ‘sporadic observations’ (Bury) that nowhere cohered into a developed concept of progress. Nisbet constructs an ancient Greek origin for his grand narrative of progress by ignoring the ‘intellectual climate’ of that culture. Bury is much more rigorous than Nisbet in determining the social and cultural contexts of the ancient world. He argues that ‘the intellectual climates of classical antiquity and the ensuing ages were not propitious to the birth of the doctrine of progress.’ (Bury 1955: 7)

21In brief, Bury argues that the Greeks had little recorded history through which they could trace new discoveries or increase in knowledge, which could then be extrapolated into the future; their science did not substantially transform their environment or ‘open a vista into the future’ (1955: 9); their world-view was governed by the concept of Moira, or the fixed order of the universe to which they must resign themselves (19). Human progress towards a goal of perfection, or changed circumstances, could not develop within this intellectual climate. Nisbet therefore distorts Plato’s thought when he attributes to the ancient philosopher a ‘belief in linear progress – from remote past to distant future.’ (Nisbet 1980: 32) When, in the Laws, Plato describes the improvement in physical conditions from the earliest communities to the present, this does not mean that Plato is tracing a general dynamic of progress. As Bury notes, Greek thought commonly linked social and material improvement with the decline from the golden age; however, that golden age, and not a future brought by progress, remained the ideal. Dodds remarks that Plato does not look forward ‘from the Now to a promised Then, but upward from the Here to an ever-present There.’ (Dodds 1973: 15) Bury observes that Plato’s theories typify the Greek tendency to ‘idealise the immutable as possessing a higher value than that which varies’ (Bury 1955: 11). Progress must unfold through time, but, as Bury puts it, for ancient Greek thinkers ‘time is the enemy of man’ (15).

22Nisbet’s narrative of progress has all the flaws of the grand narrative form; it is a version of the ‘Plato to NATO’ grand narrative critiqued in Chapter Seven. The grand narrative charting progress in the West – from the ancient world to modernity – is simplistic and moralising; it constructs a faulty point of origin; it makes unjustifiable connections; it construes the past in terms of the perceived needs of the present.

Post-Enlightenment Progress

23Nisbet has converted ancient authors into the first spokespeople for the doctrine of progress. In ignoring the social and cultural context of ancient texts, Nisbet interpreted these texts to suit his purposes. But what are those purposes? His statements concerning the status of progress in the late twentieth century provide an indication. Progress, he declares, ‘has fallen to a low and sorely beset status’ (Nisbet: ix); it has been ‘corrupted’ in the widespread ‘intellectual-literary malaise’ afflicting the contemporary West (7-8). The West has suffered a ‘loss of faith’ in its own values (331), including progress. Nisbet connects the demise of the idea of progress with a broader disintegration: ‘ [i] f the idea of progress does die in the West, so will a great deal else that we have long cherished in this civilisation.’ (ix) Nisbet’s grand narrative is designed to show that progress is the spirit of the West, that progress is the birthright of Westerners, and that if progress is now in danger, we must reclaim it. By recognising the ‘magisterial status’ of progress in Western civilisation (ix), we may shore up the values of the West, under siege from without and within.

24Writing in 1980, Nisbet identified a changed attitude to the idea of progress in Western culture. The idea of progress in the twentieth century had become aligned with technological advancement; by 1980 a ‘loss of faith’ in progress resulted from an increased awareness of environmental damage caused by industrial technology. The idea of technological progress as a benefit to society was increasingly challenged from the 1970s, largely as a result of this environmental awareness. Pollution and other forms of industrial contamination were shown to have significant consequences for the environment; progress – meaning technological progress – was attacked as the driving force behind environmental degradation.

25The shift in the meaning of progress first occurred during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Whereas progress for the Enlightenment philosophers meant the application of reason and science for the betterment of societies, in the Victorian period progress became technological progress. Technological innovation became the visible evidence of progress, and came to stand for progress itself. In the nineteenth century, railway stations were celebrated as grand symbols of progress, while technologies of transport, industry and communication were upheld as the catalysts of social improvement. The re-definition of progress as technological innovation was also a dominant idea in twentieth-century Western culture. Technological progress was upheld as the force that would continually improve the living-standards of industrial societies.

26When the Italian poet and provocateur F. T. Marinetti published the Initial Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, he applauded the social advancement made possible by new technologies: ‘We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty, the beauty of speed.’ Marinetti and his fellow Futurists were zealots of industrial technology, of ‘broad-chested locomotives prancing on the rails… and of the gliding flight of aeroplanes.’ (Marinetti 1961: 124) The Futurists looked forward with excitement to a technologically advanced future; conversely, Marinetti held only contempt for tradition and the past: ‘We want to destroy the museums, the libraries, ’ he thundered in the Initial Manifesto (124). In 1911, Marinetti extolled technological progress as the supreme virtue of modernity: progress ‘is always right, even when it is wrong, ’ he wrote, ‘because it is movement, life, struggle, hope.’ (1972: 82)

27The faith in technological progress was aligned with the culture of industrial capitalisminthefirstsevendecadesofthetwentiethcentury. Plannedobsolescence was a production strategy based on the idea of technological progress: products were designed with short optimum life-spans, so that consumers, influenced by advertising and marketing, would regularly replace the old model with the new. The prevailing consumerist principle was that the new model is always an improvement on the old, and is therefore always desirable. Faith in progress reached its zenith in the ‘space age’ 1960s, when rocket technology reached all the way to the moon, energy knew no limits, technological novelties flooded the consumer market, and a high-tech future beckoned.

28Soon after this peak, however, faith in progress sharply declined. From the 1970s, the public became increasingly aware of environmental damage caused by industrial technology; this ecological awareness culminated in the widespread knowledge of global warming and anthropogenic climate change. Industrial progress became associated with pollution, waste and environmental disaster. Nisbet was right to identify a generalised ‘loss of faith’ in progress as early as 1980. The unquestioning belief in progress found earlier in the twentieth century was replaced by a suspicion of technological progress. Recycling, sustainability and alternative energy were proposed as remedies to undo the damage wrought by previous generations’ unmitigated belief in progress.

29Yet the idea of technological progress revived in the 1990s, in the new context of information technology. Digital and networked technologies represented a post-industrial world of information, depicted as free of industrialism’s sins. Technological speed was re-calibrated as processing speed and speed of connection. Planned obsolescence was transferred into the new market of IT products: each new generation smartphone or laptop rendered its predecessor sadly out-of-date. In the internet age, progress was even given a new name: ‘disruptive innovation’ or disruption.

30Disruptive technological change was first proposed by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). Christensen argued that new disruptive technologies are ‘typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use’ than older technological products (2000, xviii). The examples of disruptive technologies provided by Christensen are mostly internet-based or digital technologies, which ‘disrupt’ established technologies. The lesson of The Innovator’s Dilemma is that even well established businesses will fail if they do not quickly adapt to online technological systems. In the early twenty-first century, disruption became a widely used term for networked forms that transform whole markets or industries, often at the expense of ‘legacy’ or traditional forms or businesses. Newspapers, magazines and even broadcast media are considered out-dated ‘legacy’ media, for example, struggling to survive in a networked age of smartphones and social media.

31Disruption is an incarnation of digital progress, as the historian Jill Lepore noted in a 2014 article critical of ‘the gospel of innovation’. Disruptive innovation, she argues, is the contemporary version of progress; disruption is ‘a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.’ (2014: 31) Lepore criticises the ‘apocalyptic’ emphasis on failure, and the disregard for historical continuity, built into the idea of disruption. ‘The idea of innovation, ’ she writes, ‘is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment’. Disruptive innovation promises ‘the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.’ (32) Disruption is thus a severe version of technological progress: ‘disrupt or be disrupted’ was the slogan emanating from Silicon Valley and other centres of digital progress in the early twenty-first century. The idea of progress was re-defined in the post-industrial age to encompass an ‘apocalyptic’ clash between future-oriented technologies and traditional businesses. The disrupted, according to this new doctrine of progress, will be consigned to failure and the past; the disruptors will rule the future.

32Another development in the twenty-first century discourse on progress is a return to the Enlightenment conception of progress founded on reason and science. An inter-disciplinary scholarship – spanning history, philosophy and psychology – by a group of scholars sometimes dubbed ‘the New Optimists’, has celebrated improved global living conditions as evidence of progress. Typical of this optimistic embrace of progress is the book by the historian Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016). Norberg charts major improvements in basic social indicators – life expectancy, poverty, sanitation, food, violence, literacy, the state of the environment, equality, freedom and childhood conditions – particularly in the twentieth century. He makes the observation that in 1900 worldwide life expectancy was only 31, whereas in 2016 it was 71 (2016: 46). The liberation of millions from poverty in the twentieth century is for Norberg an even greater marker of progress: ‘we must remember the amazing progress that has resulted from the slow, steady, spontaneous development of millions of people’. Freedom from poverty provides the opportunity for individuals ‘to improve their own lives’; this indication of progress is for Norberg ‘humanity’s greatest achievement.’ (6)

33The psychologist Steven Pinker has made similar optimistic claims for the social benefits of progress. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker argued that we currently live in the most peaceful era in history, characterised by a sharp decline in violence. Pinker attributes this condition to the benefits of progress, including technological progress:

As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead… (2011: 20).

34In later publications, Pinker celebrated the idea of progress as one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment. ‘The Enlightenment is Working’ was the title of a 2018 newspaper article defending Enlightenment values (2018a). Pinker made a detailed case for progress and other Enlightenment ideals in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018). Pinker in 2018 found the idea of progress under attack, and felt that ‘more than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism and progress need a wholehearted defense.’ (2018: 4) Pinker asserts that ‘the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble – a reason to live.’ (6) One of those ideals, vigorously defended by Pinker, Norberg and others, is progress.

The History of Democracy

35If the idea of progress can be traced back only to the Enlightenment, the idea of democracy can much more surely be demonstrated to originate in the ancient world. There is ample evidence that democracy became the form of government in Athens following the political reforms of Cleisthenes in 508-507 B.C., and endured – with short interruptions – until 322 B.C. However, the two-and-a-half-millennia history of democracy, from ancient Athens to the present, is far from straightforward. The very word ‘democracy’ disappeared from view for a substantial section of that time-span. There is also considerable dispute surrounding the status of democracy in the ancient and modern worlds; one area of contention concerns the comparison between the two forms of democracy. Can contemporary liberal democracy be equated with the democracy of ancient Greece, or are the two forms of government radically discontinuous?

36While the ‘Plato to NATO’ grand narrative venerated Athenian democracy as a glorious starting-point for the narrative of the West, recent scholarship has carefully situated the ancient form of democracy in its specific social and economic context. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts points out in Athens on Trial (1994) that only male citizens in Athens were eligible to vote: women were excluded from public life, including democracy. Paulin Ismard reminds modern citizens that Athens, in common with other societies of the ancient world, was a slave-economy. In Democracy’s Slaves (2017), Ismard notes that even the demosioi, civil servants entrusted with the operation of Athenian democracy in the fifth century, were in fact slaves who had no political rights – including the right to vote.

37There has also been an extensive revisionist scholarship aiming to overturn the Eurocentric history of democracy. The Secret History of Democracy (2011), a collection of essays edited by Isakhan and Stockwell, contests the view that democracy originated in classical Athens. This revisionist history instead finds the earlier emergence of democracy in the Middle East, India and China. Amartya Sen has made a similar contention, that democracy is not ‘a quintessentially Western idea, an immaculate Western conception.’ (quoted in Cartledge 2016: 6) In an article ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’ (1999), Sen proposes that other ancient peoples, including the Jains of ancient India, were egalitarian, and that Egypt, Iran and India – as well as Greece – need to be considered in the ancient history of democracy.

38In tracing the history of the idea of democracy, Paul Cartledge in Democracy: A life (2016) assesses the arguments of the revisionists, but is unpersuaded by them. Cartledge finds that claims for egalitarianism or equality of participation in various locations of the ancient world do not amount to democracy. Specifically, Cartledge takes democracy to mean ‘the collective decision-making by the majority of voters who are deemed… as being exactly equal – one citizen (in ancient Greek terms), one vote’ (Cartledge 2016: 3-4). A democracy also entails ‘executive power by popularly and collectively delegated and responsible officials or bodies.’ (4) As Cartledge asserts, this political idea of democracy was first implemented in ancient Athens.

39Cartledge does, however, admit to an ambiguity, even in classical Greece, residing in the word ‘democracy’, and its two components demos and kratos. Demos could signify ‘the people’ in general, or it could refer to the majority of poor citizens who, in a democracy, exercised political power at the expense of the land-owning aristocratic minority, or oligarchs. The anti-democratic thought found in the philosophers and historians of the fifth and fourth centuries – Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon – focused on this aspect of democracy. For its critics, democracy constituted the ‘tyranny’ of the majority over the oligarchic minority who, in other circumstances, would be the ruling elite. Kratos meant power or control, derived from the verb ‘to grip’ or ‘to grasp’. Cartledge points to the ancient ambiguity regarding kratos: ‘what was it that the demos was supposed to be grasping or gripping – was it the organs of state governance, or was it the minority of citizens who were not poor, the “few”…?’ (3)

40Cartledge also identifies a discontinuity in the history of democracy: there is a ‘great divide’, he maintains, ‘between all ancient and modern democracies’. He summarises the basis of this divide between democracies: ‘all ancient ones are direct, all modern ones representative.’ (4) In modern democracies, citizens do not rule directly, ‘but choose others to rule for – that is, instead of as well as on behalf of – us.’ (4) By contrast, the ancient Greek city-states with democratic governments – Cartledge estimates several hundred in the fifth and fourth centuries – installed a political system whereby citizens ‘ruled themselves, in person, directly’ (4). This was possible because of the small populations of each polis: Cartledge estimates a citizen population lower than thirty thousand in classical Athens, with perhaps twenty thousand citizens of an age to enjoy full political rights; other poleis were appreciably smaller. These city-states, with their low number of citizen-bodies, were ‘very strictly speaking “face-to-face” societies’ (4) – and this was the basis of their democratic government.

41Cartledge refers to the well-documented operation of Athenian democracy to demonstrate the direct, participatory nature of the ancient democratic system. The polis’ primary decision-making body was the Assembly; a quorum of 6,000 votes was recorded for specific decisions such as ostracism. Cartledge notes that archaeological study of the hill area, where the Assembly was accommodated, estimates space for 6,000 seated bodies. Voting in the assembly, then, required the participation of somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of the citizen population in Athens. But voting was only one form of participation in the democratic process. A Council of 500 operated as a form of steering committee for the Assembly; citizens could sit on the Council for only two terms, which meant that ‘most Athenians would have had to serve at least one term.’ (111) The Council was in session for 300 days of the year, and Councillors received political pay for their service. The People’s Court sat up to 200 days per year; jury members were selected by lot and received small payment. Cartledge estimates that every year at least 1,200 offices were filled in the service of Athenian democracy.

42This intensive participation in democracy in classical Greece was made possible by the principle of one citizen/one vote, which Cartledge identifies as the ‘essence of Greek demokratia’ (273). The ‘workable definitions of freedom and equality’ established in Athens and elsewhere in Greece enabled democracy to function as ‘the rule of the masses, the political empowerment of the poor’ (xviii). Any citizen, no matter how poor, was empowered to vote, to sit on the Council, or to serve in the law court. Oligarchic government, which reserved political decision-making for the hereditary aristocracy, the landed wealthy, was affronted by the idea of the demos – including the poor – exercising kratos or power. But democratic citizenship, once attained, was ‘jealously prized and guarded’ by those city-states in which it was exercised (273).

43Democratic government in Greece was terminated following the Lamian War in 322 B.C., when the Greeks were defeated by Macedon. Democracy was replaced by a form of oligarchy, although the term ‘democracy’ was at times applied to governments in the ensuing Hellenistic period. Cartledge finds a ‘devaluation, if not actual degradation’ of the idea of democracy in Hellenistic Greece (245). A city-state was described as a ‘democracy’ if it was neither a monarchy nor a tyranny, or if it displayed some independence from foreign rule. But demos came to signify ‘People’ in general rather than ‘the mass of poor citizens’ (244). These oligarchies masquerading as democracies did not possess the ‘defining elements of freedom’ and ‘political, civic equality’ earlier found in Athens (245).

44Cartledge likewise discerns no evidence that the Roman Republic, in its Middle and Late periods (287-27 B.C.) was ‘a kind of democracy’ (247). Claims have been made – by the ancient historian Polybius, and by modern scholars – that the constitution of Rome’s Republic constituted a ‘mixed polity’, including ‘a strong component of democracy’, as reflected in the Populus Romanus (247). Yet Cartledge points out that the acronym for the Republic was SPQR – Senatus Populus Que Romanus or ‘Senate and the Roman People’. The balance of political power was signified by this order of words: the Senate was populated by the aristocracy, who were deemed ‘best’ citizens by their wealth and heredity (254). The Senate controlled the political process and restricted the power of the two consuls. Popular tribunals and law courts were staffed ‘by the rich few citizens’, not – as in Athens – by the poor alongside the wealthy (256). The assembly electing the top magistrates (censors, consuls and praetors) was formed along timocratic principles – that is, voting eligibility was based on ownership of property. This principle was, Cartledge observes, ‘fundamentally anti-democratic in democratic Greek eyes’ (257).

45The Imperial Roman period, beginning with the reign of Augustus, was for Cartledge ‘unquestionably monarchic’ and entailed the ‘denial’ of any form of democracy (265). The idea of democracy underwent a ‘degeneration’ everywhere in Imperial Rome, including in the eastern wing of the Empire based at Constantinople (274). Cartledge cites a text by Eusebius in 325 praising monarchy, which was contrasted with ‘the dreaded poly-archia, or “rule of the Many”’ (274). Demokratia was named and vilified in the Chronographia of 550 as the cause of ‘riot, mob violence, insurrection’. Cartledge ruefully observes that this characterisation was ‘exactly what it could not have meant in the fifth-to-fourth century BCE Greek world of its origins.’ (274)

46There followed a long period of ‘eclipse’ for the idea of democracy, when even the word disappeared into a ‘black hole of silence’ until the seventeenth century (275). For many centuries, the fixed hierarchical social strata within feudal societies disallowed any possibility of ‘people-power’. The word demokratia re-appeared around 1250 in Latin transliteration due to translations of Aristotle; if scholars had any consciousness of the idea of democracy, however, it was filtered through Aristotle’s generally unfavourable accounts of democratic government.

47Cartledge notes some significant developments in the period of ‘long, democracy-free centuries’ (277), including the Magna Carta of 1215. This document’s assertion of the rule of law has been inserted into the ‘Plato to NATO’ grand narrative as a crucial stepping-stone on the path to liberal democracy in Britain – but Cartledge is much more circumspect. A document pertaining to the rule of law has only a ‘tenuous’ relationship to democracy’s re-emergence, he states, particularly as the law still must be exercised. The ancient Greek democrats, Cartledge observes, were well aware that ‘only when the people exercises its political power in and through the law courts’ could it be said ‘truly to rule’ (278). Cartledge makes the further observation that the Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries was ‘more especially a recovery of ancient Rome than of ancient Greece, and that applies particularly in the political sphere.’ (279) Machiavelli’s political works in the sixteenth century, for example, upheld the aristocratic notion of civic greatness, along with an ‘enlightened autocracy’ to be found in the Italian republics (279).

48The idea of democracy only woke from its ‘long sleep’ in the seventeenth century in England (‘democracy’ had entered the English language from French in the sixteenth century.) The Levellers’ Debates of 1647 – concerning the form of an English republic – contained egalitarian sentiments, while in 1690 John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government elevated individual rights to life, liberty and property. The social contract guaranteeing individual liberty later became a central component of liberal democracies. Cartledge observes, however, that the political philosophy of the Enlightement was ‘far more preoccupied or engaged with Rome… than it was with ancient Greece’ (288). The Athenian ‘public-political’ model of direct participatory democracy was nowhere favoured; when Benjamin Constant delivered a lecture in Paris in 1819 entitled ‘Of the Liberty of the Ancients compared to that of the Moderns’, he found in favour of the modern ‘privatised and bourgeois’ mode of liberty (292).

49Even the newly-formed constitution of the United States betrayed its founders’ preference for Roman Republic ‘order’ over Athenian-style direct democracy, a preference reflected in the nomenclature of ‘Capitol Hill’ and ‘Senate’ (293). At least democracy was described in positive terms in Tocqueville’s two-volume work Democracy in America (1835-1840). Intended as a series of lessons for French Republicans, Tocqueville’s study of American democracy included chapters such as ‘On what tempers the tyranny of the majority in the United States’ (297). Concern over the social consequences of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ dated to the anti-democratic writings of the fourth century B.C.; Tocqueville, a declassé French aristocrat who held no fear of mob rule, found that the American experiment with democracy had produced a flourishing society.

50The final phase of Cartledge’s history of the idea of democracy concerns the ‘taming’ of democracy in the nineteenth century. The shaping of liberal representative parliamentary democracy by nineteenth century thought has left us, Cartledge laments, with ‘the managed, hollowed-out, or empty democracy we actually and foreseeably have.’ (307) Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) was the work of ‘no democrat in any ancient Greek sense’; rather, Paine advocated representative, not direct, democracy (301). Nineteenth century scholars returned to the study of ancient Greek texts, yielding works such as George Grote’s twelve-volume History of Greece (1846-1856). Yet if Grote provided a defence of Athenian democracy in this history, he drew no lessons from the ancients concerning modern government. Like his follower John Stuart Mill, Grote advocated representative democracy, not the Athenian kind. Mill proffered detailed justification for liberal democracy in On Liberty (1859) and for representative parliamentary democracy in Representative Government (1861). Cartledge asserts that the founders of representative democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed a political system that ‘was not democracy in any ancient sense’, a system which ‘kept the masses from exercising any direct influence on it’ (305).

51Cartledge therefore installs a sharp ‘divide’ or discontinuity in the history of democracy. He finds ‘no direct institutional legacy of Athenian or any other ancient direct democracy to any modern form of democracy’ (306). He notes only ‘glimmerings’ of direct or participatory democratic practice in the modern world, including incidents of citizen decision-making in Denmark and Iceland (310-311). He mentions also the possibility that internet technology could enable a new ‘teledemocracy’ (310), in which internet users approximate the ‘face-to-face’ participation characteristic of the ancient democracies. However, revelations of internet use during the 2016 US presidential election, in which data harvested from social media was used to influence voters, have prompted fears that the internet may undermine, rather than revitalise, democracy.

52Cartledge’s pessimistic conclusion concerning the ‘hollowed-out’ form of modern representative democracy is echoed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die (2018). Writing in the context of nominal democracies headed by autocratic leaders – Russia, Hungary, Venezuala and other nations – and the election in 2016 of a US President with ‘clear authoritarian tendencies’, Levitsky and Ziblatt pose the anxious question: ‘Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?’ (2018: 2) The authors develop the argument that democracies may die ‘at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders’ (3). The ‘hollowed-out’ modern democracies, as denigrated by Cartledge, may be hollowed out even further by elected leaders, until the democratic form disappears altogether: ‘Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.’ (3) The absence of direct popular participation in government, characteristic of representative democracies, is exploited by authoritarian leadership, which intensifies its hold on political power.

53Cartledge’s critique of contemporary democracy informs his construction of the ‘divide’ between ancient and modern democracies. His pessimistic account of modern democracy and its future emphasises the discontinuities between ancient direct democracy and modern representative government. He downplays any continuities between ancient and modern; but these continuities are as significant as the differences between democracy of the fifth century B.C. and the twenty-first century A.D. Both observe the crucial principle of one citizen/one vote, which means that in political terms each citizen is deemed ‘as being exactly equal’ (Cartledge 2016: 4). This democratic principle distinguishes democratic government from oligarchic or autocratic regimes. Democracies whether ancient or modern allow ‘the collective decision-making by the majority voting of voters’ (3). If, as Cartledge emphasises, ancient Athenian democracy entailed the far greater expression of ‘people-power’ through direct participatory political practice, the ancient form of democracy perhaps has lessons still for the contemporary incarnation of this political idea.

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