Anti-Democratic Tradition in Western Thought

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* Book: Jennifer Tolbert Roberts. Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994).


Contextual Citation

Jennifer T. Roberts:

"Throughout most of Western history, Athenian democracy per se has been in bad odor. It is important to remember this in a world in which democracy has, in the words of political scientist John Dunn, become “the moral Esperanto of the present nation-state system, the language in which all Nations are truly united.” Once democratic principles became synonymous with legitimacy in government, the democracy of the Athenians was accorded a place of great honor in the pantheon of political regimes. It should not be imagined, however, that Athenian government served as the inspiration for the democratic movement that gathered force in modern Europe and America in the age of revolution. Now regarded as a legitimizing ancestor, classical Athens was for centuries excluded from the company of respectable governments." (


Barry Hindess:

" it is useful to go back to the treatment of democracy in the history of western political thought. For much of this history, as Jennifer Tolbert Roberts reminds us in her insufficiently appreciated Athens on Trial: the Anti-Democratic tradition in Western thought (1994) democracy has not been well regarded. Of the three forms of government distinguished in Aristotle's Politics by the one, the few or the many, the last was seen as most prone to distortion and thus a threat to the general interest. This was because the poor and, for the most part, poorly educated people were seen as unskilled in the evaluation of argument and therefore as particularly susceptible to the unprincipled appeals of demagogues.

This generally unfavourable western view of democracy changed over the course of the nineteenth century as the meaning of democracy itself shifted from government by the people themselves to representative government. In the late eighteenth century, the American Federalist Papers, while noting the importance of keeping the work of government out of the hands of the people in their collective form, nevertheless assumed that the people could be trusted to appoint those from a better class of person to represent them.

In the same period, the English radical Tom Paine argued in favour of 'representation ingrafted upon democracy', which he preferred to pure democracy. Representative government offered a version of government by the many that promised to avoid the risks of corruption associated with government by the one or the few, while also keeping the people 'in their collective form' out of the practice of government.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, democracy, while still in some left-wing contexts retaining its earlier meaning of government by the people themselves, had also come to designate 'representative government', a complex system of government by networks of elected representatives and unelected public servants, operating through combinations of representative, vaguely consultative and hierarchical institutions." (