Does the ancient Greek world of politics – from which ‘democracy’ and indeed ‘politics’ are ultimately derived – have any light to shed on the current UK Brexit catastrophe (another Greek-derived term)?

Actually most of our descriptive and/or evaluative English political language has either an ancient Greek, or an ancient Roman (Latin) etymology. From the Greek come – as well as democrat/democracy and politics – aristocrat/aristocracy, monarch(y), oligarch(y), polity, tyrant/tyranny. From the Latin come citizen(ship), constitution, dictator(ship), republic… But as it strikes me right now, two words – one from the Greek, the other from the Latin – seem the most salient: demagogue (demagoguery) and populist (populism).

My recent book ‘Democracy: A Life’ that takes its origins in ancient Greece and traces the life of ‘democracy’ – both the word and the thing(s) – down to our own day. But the ancient Greek world of Hellas was fundamentally different from ours in scale and in nature. For example, there was no one political entity – nation state – like ‘Greece’ today. Rather there were up to one thousand separate and strongly self-identified Greek political entities stretching from what is today southeast Spain to the far northeast shore of the Black Sea.

It was indeed in ancient Hellas that democracy, the thing and the word, was first invented – and re-invented many times over in different shapes and forms. It was the Athenians who first gave name and substance to demo-kratia, a portmanteau word meaning ‘people-power’, round about 500 BCE. But democracy in ancient Hellas wasn’t anything much like democracy in Australia or any other modern democratic state today.

READ MORE:Ancient Greek democracy and democracy in the upcoming elections are two separate things

In ancient Greece too there was always this crucial verbal qualification: the ‘people’ (demos) bit of demo-kratia was deeply ambiguous. It could mean either the (adult, free, male citizen) capital-p People as a whole, or the majority of that citizen body, the poor masses. That ambiguity lay behind the word’s essential contestability. Democracy, according to Aristotle, was the Rule of the Poor Majority. But if you were not a member, sociologically speaking, of the demos in the sense of the poor masses, if you were instead a member of the socioeconomic elite, then not only might you not be over keen on democracy, you might actually fear or hate it, as being the power of the poor masses over you. Or you might even attempt actively to subvert and overthrow it – and replace it with a version of oligarchy, rule by the few rich.

That also explains why and how one ancient Greek word that though etymologically and formally was neutral and descriptive might become – and indeed remains – overwhelmingly negative in tone and association: the word demagogos, whence our ‘demagogue’.

A (male) demagogos was, literally, ‘he (the citizen politician) who leads the demos’. If you were an ancient Greek democrat, that was simply a natural consequence of democratic politics – the demos needs leaders who are well-informed, balanced, objective and public-spirited, and who will – therefore – give the demos the best possible advice, on the basis of which the demos will decide. But what if you were an anti-democrat? Then to you a pro-democratic demagogos was a vulgar rabble-rouser, a misleader of the people one whose advice is both mistaken and misguided at least and often injurious to the best interests of the polity as a whole.

That linguistic political struggle was in vigorous flow from the later 5th century BCE onwards in Athens, and, thanks to the plays of Aristophanes and to the massively influential dialogues of Plato, the negative, anti-democratic sense of demagogue won out, decisively, from antiquity to today.

What of ‘populist’? Its etymological source is the Latin populus, and the adjective of the noun populus was publicus. Our word ‘republic’ is derived from the portmanteau Latin word respublica meaning literally ‘the thing of the People’. Just as in Greek so in Latin the words for ‘People’ were ambiguous and ambivalent: the ‘people’ was not a homogeneous, unitary body but deeply divided along mainly economic but also ethnic and regional lines. As in democratic Athens so in non-democratic Rome a ‘popular’ leader was just as likely to be considered a Bad as a Good thing, and his role in political decision-making could be fiercely contested.

READ MORE: Freedom of Speech from Ancient Greece to Facebook

I’ll concentrate on Alcibiades of Athens (c. 450-404 BCE), blue-blooded and rich, who had been brought up in the household of Athens’ foremost demagogos – Pericles. However, his own commitment to democracy as such and to the good of Athens, as opposed to the promotion of himself, was nugatory. From 431 BCE Athens was at war with Sparta until a temporary and ineffectual peace between the two major power blocs was concluded in 421BCE. Alcibiades seized the moment to persuade the Athenians to embark on a number of adventures. The most reckless of all was the Sicilian campaign of 415 to 413, an attempt by Athens to conquer the largest Mediterranean island so as to secure its grain and other resources for Athens and divert them away from Sparta. The means whereby Alcibiades advocated for and persuaded the Athenian Assembly to vote for this venture were classic populism: personal charismatic appeal, dirty tricks behind the scenes, and wild fake-news claims as to the feasibility of the in fact massive military-naval project. The result was a total disaster, for which Alcibiades must bear the lion’s share of the guilt and blame.

How then might all that relate to our current language and practice of representative democratic politics, especially here in the Brexit-ridden dystopia that is the UK? On the one side, there are the ‘the People have spoken’ merchants: those who claim implausibly that there is such a thing as one, unified UK ‘People’ and that ‘they’ have spoken once – and for all – in the referendum of June 2016. On the other side there are those who – in flat contrast – call for a ‘People’s vote’, i.e., a second referendum to counter or confirm the first. Again, they take ‘People’ in an ideological unitary sense, but at least they don’t resort to the absurdity that such a vote would be in and of itself ‘undemocratic’. Is it only my prejudice that considers the former but not the latter (mere) ‘demagoguery’?

  • Paul Anthony Cartledge is a British ancient historian, academic and A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Greek Culture emeritus of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Classics. He is also an honorary citizen of Sparta.