Skip to main content

Democracy: Ancient and Modern

Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, professor emeritus at California University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services

Date & Time

Jun. 2, 2005
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


Transcripts from the event

MR. SITILIDES: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is John Sitilides and I am Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Woodrow Wilson Southeast Europe Project. It is a distinct honor and pleasure to welcome to the Woodrow Wilson Center a man who I have come to greatly admire, and am just getting to know on a personal level as well, Dr. Victor Davis Hanson.

Before we begin, I would very much like to acknowledge the co-sponsorship of today's program by the West European Studies program led by my colleague Dr. Sam Wells here at the Wilson Center. Also, Dr. Hanson's presentation today is the latest installment of the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Lecture Series here at the Southeast Europe Project, which serves as a forum for world leaders and distinguished scholars who study, understand and manifest Hellenism's many lessons in contemporary statecraft and society.

It's in a dual context that we're especially pleased to have Dr. Hanson with us here today. Dr. Hanson is a classicist, he's a military historian, and he's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in California. Like many, I first discovered Dr. Hanson's writings immediately after the September 2001 terror attacks. He had written "Carnage and Culture," which was published just prior to the attacks – I believe in August that year. And he had posited in that book that free markets, free elections and free speech - rooted in ancient Greece - have led directly to Western force superiority against non-Western enemies throughout history. Specifically, Dr. Hanson put forward the thesis that by bringing together personal freedom, discipline and organization to the battlefield, powerful marching democracies were more apt to defeat non-Western forces assembled by unstable or tyrannical governments, of limited funding, and intolerant of open discussion. At the same time, and I quote Dr. Hanson, "it is typical of all democratic people who audit their government and often seek perfection rather than success," a symptom that President Bush clearly understands today, as have many American presidents who have sent our young men and women into harm's way in years past.

But we are also here today to welcome Dr. Hanson as the author of "Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom." In that book, published in 1998, Dr. Hanson explained the traditions of the ancient Greeks as the basis for the unique dynamism of Western culture, and why its tenets of democracy, capitalism, materialism, personal freedom, civil liberty, and constitutional government are sweeping the globe. That was several years before the Bush administration launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. government began promoting a policy of advancing freedom and liberty throughout the world.

I'm not sure if Dr. Hanson is comfortable with this particular aspect of my introduction, but many have noted that President Bush credited the book that he read over the Christmas holidays, by Natan Scharansky, on the importance of freedom and of liberty as a driving force in his foreign policy. Many also have credited Dr. Hanson's writings with strengthening the thinking of Vice President Cheney, and apparently Vice President Cheney has strongly recommended that his staff read Dr. Hanson's writings of the past several years. In this way, today's presentation by Dr. Hanson certainly and clearly bridges ancient democracy and modern geopolitics.

We've also asked Dr. Hanson to discuss specific examples of democratization in Southeastern Europe, specifically in Turkey, a secular country with an overwhelmingly Muslim society and now a moderate Islamist government in power, and in the Balkans, where the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations are encouraging governments, societies and institutions to embrace free market democracy as the surest path toward regional stability and eventual prosperity.

You have the fuller biography of Dr. Victor Davis Hanson we have already distributed. I need not say anything else about him at this time. It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to introduce Dr. Victor Davis Hanson.

DR. VICTOR HANSON: Thank you for that nice introduction. I was asked to speak about 25 minutes and I'll try to weave the ancient and modern worlds together.

Let me just start with a few definitions of this loose and amorphous term "Western." I'm talking about the culture that predominated in Europe and was a mixture of the classical contributions of Greece and Rome, together with later Christianity, and we could basically define it as an allegiance to individual freedom, consensual government, civic audit of the military, secularism – or at least the distinction between a church theocracy and state – capitalism, free enterprise, open markets, private property, et cetera. We don't necessarily mean that through 2,500 years, all of this paradigm appeared - obviously not in Nazi Germany, or 9th century Gaul. But there was a likelihood that this general blueprint would reemerge in Florence or Venice or during the Swiss confederation, and there is a continuum.

The other qualifying remark I'd like to point out is when we talk about freedom, there's some confusion today that we say, well, the Native Americans were free, or the German tribes of the 2nd century B.C. were free. And, yet, there is a certain freedom - "Freiheit" in German - this idea that people have certain prerogatives and choices, but usually it's a result of demography, one or two people per 100 square miles.
What's unique about the West, in contrast, is that the idea of freedom can be institutionalized, and can travel across time and space into a variety of environments. So while a traditional tribal Arab society may have a council of elders, or Native Americans point to the Iroquois nation, the idea that you would have constitutional government that would be written down and would provide a blueprint in any geographical context I think is quite unusual and a Western phenomenon.

If we look for the origins of this concept of the West, we can obviously go back in our own country to the 19th century, to the 18th century, to the Founding Fathers. We can push it further and see the Founding Fathers were influenced by both the British and the French Enlightenments. Travel again back through the Renaissance in Italy to the republics of, say, Venice or Florence. We can even see constitutional government with the early Swiss. It's common to think that the Roman empire was autocratic, but if you look at local councils or regional government, even under the worst excesses of the emperors, the flames of - I should say the fumes of - republican government seemed still to be alive. We know that republican government itself in Rome didn't go out of fashion until the 1st century B.C. And then we go back to classical Greece.

We often make the mistake, I think, of thinking democracy started in 507 or 506. Technically it did in Athens, but it drew on a prior 200-year prior tradition of consensual government in the 1500 city-states. Sometimes this is called timocracy. The Greeks had a word for it called politia, the idea that landed voting citizens would have their own responsibilities for government.

When we get to the 8th century B.C., we can't trace that origin any further. This is quite controversial because it would suggest that democracy is primarily a Western phenomenon - and it is. The Greeks created consensual government. Thus, it's anti-Mediterranean. It's quite fashionable to talk about Mediterranean studies today, but if you look at what was going on in Persia or in Egypt then, the notion there of the individual and his relationship with government, the notion of the holy man and his relation to government, all that is entirely different among the pharaohs or the great kings than it was in these small city-states in Greece.

We don't know why civilization exploded onto the scene like it did in the 8th century B.C., where we had a prior dark age and suddenly, over a century or two, we have 1,500 city states. We have constitutional government, we have a paradigm where one man has a slot in a phalanx almost like the seats in this auditorium, equidistant from another, responsible for the defense of his own city-state. He goes into the council hall, he has one vote based on his klêros, or his 10-acre form.
And then it's reverberated again when you look at the countryside. When new colonies are produced, what do they do? They divide the land up equally. And then this very radical idea that a citizen, a politis - there's a word in the vocabulary for it in ancient Greek in a way that there's not in the other Mediterranean languages - is a person who fights in the militia, the same as each other citizen, a person who votes in the council hall, same as any other citizen, and a person who owns land, and especially can pass it on to his children.

That's a radical new concept and it's really the basis of this experiment in consensual government. Perhaps it is an agrarian revolution of people who were investing in local communities, planting trees and vines, wanted that property protected from both the poor and the wealthy, and creating this radical concept of a middle class - mesoi, geôrgoi, hoplitai - all these Greek words that in some way denote a group of people in the middle. "Middleness" has been very influential in the West and it's one of the great wonders of civilization in general how this thing of consensual government started, of all places in rural Greece in the 8th century.

But more germane, there were obviously contradictions in democracy, and I think the Greeks were aware of them, and they have a lot of relevance today, that warn us in ways not so confined to the 24-hour news cycle. The first thing that immediately came up is that we're all not born equal into the world. If the Greek city-states said each person will have an equal slot in the countryside, what happens if somebody's a better farmer and someone is a worse farmer? What if somebody's more talented, what if somebody's less talented? So immediately in a consensual government we were confronted as Westerners with this issue - is freedom the same thing as equality? In fact, the Greeks understood, unlike ourselves, that they're not only not the same but sometimes they're in opposition to one another. That if you want to promote equality among the citizens you might have to then promote an equality of result, and that's very, very different than an equality of opportunity.

We see that paradox from the very beginning, with radical Athens that did things beyond our comprehension today to promote equality. Whether that was paying people to go to the assembly in the 4th century, paying people to go the theater in the 5th century, choosing officers, except for the generals, by lot, by sortition, or the idea of liturgies among the wealthy to redistribute income. It was very different than, say, right across the mountains in Thebes, which was an oligarchy, or later a broad-based oligarchy, where people were given entitlement based on their merit. At least the Greeks call it their merit, when in fact it was usually land.
And this divide kept on when we look at the Roman republican model versus the Greek democratic model. We see it today between the Republican Party, that tends to promote individual liberty, and the Democratic Party, that seems to think that equality and egalitarianism are of a higher premium. We see it in Europe and America today, the same age-old fault line. The Americans tend to promote freedom at the expense of equality. The Europeans want equality of result at the expense of freedom. And it's a tension that people in the West have to live with in democracy and never quite resolve.

The second crisis in democracy which we saw in the ancient world was that there's something strange about the mixture of open markets and personal freedom that accrues under constitutional government. Once the Greeks figured out that a person had a right to private property and there would be an open market, and there's a Greek word, kerdos, for profit, and a person was able to profit from his work and toil in this free environment. Then there were to emerge people who had leisure and freedom in a way that had not been seen under tribalism, under monarchies, under autocratic governments in Egypt. And there's a literature that reflects the problems with that – the decadence that we see in 4th century Athenian oratory. We see it in the great Roman literature of the empire, by Juvenal, Tacitus, Petronius, and Suetonius, that a particular Westerner has become so successful, so affluent, so free that he's become insulated from the very physical, brutal nature that often is a foe of civilization.
Of course, in its most extreme forms, we see it in Plato, who talks about bald-headed little tinkers in the agora who have the same rights as natural aristocrats. Or Hegel, or Nietzsche or Spengler, who felt there was a decadence in the West. Or in bin Laden's critique of the West, that the United States or the West itself can't lose troops, or it's too refined or it's too privileged, too sophisticated to understand that the world operates on premises other than the Enlightenment, that everything has to be explicable by reason rather than by emotion or religion or superstition.

Along with this divide between equality and freedom, we also have this age-old pathology in the West: how do you keep people devoted to Western government and committed to the idea that civilization is fragile, when it's so successful and so many of us are insulated from the alternative? I don't think any of us in this room have seen in our own livelihood a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein. We see an angry Howard Dean, we see a nasty journalist editor, perhaps we have a librarian in a carrel that kicks us out, but a man who wants to kill you or bring you back to the 8th century? This is hard to conceive for us. And it was hard for the Greeks to conceive that the Persians were that way, it was hard for the Romans to conceive that the Germans across the Rhine were that way. It's just something that the West deals with.

The third thing to remember about this experiment in democracy is it makes war very well because these same traits and characteristics and protocols that produce capital and produce security and freedom also produce lethal methods of war-making that are not explicable by the small territory and population of Europe.
Specifically, a capitalist economy gives logistical alternatives in a way that the old enemy doesn't, or can't, match. Hernan Cortes is in Veracruz and he has more Spanish ships supplying him gunpowder and flints and crossbows than the Aztecs' four million people, in a very rich environment, have weapons. Why? Because people want to make a profit and they know if they go to Veracruz and supply the conquistadors, they will make money. That's been proven all the way back to Alexander the Great and the people who flocked behind him to profit and thus supply an army in ways the Persians could not envision.

Discipline is very different. A Westerner defines military discipline as working in context with a group: retreat, advance, prompt attention to orders, in a manner that defines personal bravery by loyalty to the group and to order and to a system, rather than defined by personal performance per se. Aristotle points out that Greek soldiers don't count the number killed, and people are not awarded valor or medals after a Greek battle because they ranged out in front of the phalanx. In fact, they're punished. The Greek idea of discipline is very different.

The idea of civic audit of the military is unique, where the civilians actually participate in the government of the army. I can't think of one general in the ancient world who at one time was not ostracized or executed, or had his property confiscated or nearly so. Every single one of them, from Miltiades to Epaminondas, and even in Sparta, Lysander and Gylippus found themselves in trouble.

There is a very different method of making war in the West, which was started by the Greeks. It invites a lot of alternative ways to combat that conventional military strength. People who are confronted with these consensual armies that are supplied and organized differently first have to think about encouraging dissension among the West. The Ottoman fleet that was at Lepanto had wintered earlier in the port of Toulon in France, and the Greeks themselves were squabbling right before the battle of Salamis, just in the same way, in the U.N. Security Council, Russia and France were opposed to the United States regarding Iraq.

Within consensual societies, enemies have also tried to create internal dissension. In consensual society, to make war, you have to have a 51 percent majority. And opponents realize that once a democracy votes to go to war, while they're slow to arouse, once democracy is committed to war-making, there's no other appeal. You can't say that the dictator made us do it, or the king made us do it. No, the people approved, and it's a very lethal way of mobilizing people to go fight to the bitter end. One of the ways you discourage that resolve is to create issues about the morality or efficacy of the endeavor. The British army was in Zululand and Bishop Colenso was trying to appeal to the humanitarian principles of Victorian society to call off that army and not seek victory over the Zulus.

There's also what we now call asymmetry. Because the West is free and affluent, we can redefine relative losses. A Greek- or Macedonian-speaker who is fighting with Alexander in a small army of 50,000 is supposedly not as expendable as the 350,000 who are opposing him. The same was true of the British army in Zululand, or when fighting the great Mahdi, or the 1,500 conquistadors who were in Tenochtitlan.

Westerners tend to be fighting battles outside Europe and the United States, and they're often fighting people who have superior numbers or geographical advantages. They bear very heavily the loss of an individual, not just because they're in smaller numbers, but because they come from societies where capital, affluence, leisure is more plentiful, and so life is considered dear. Not that it is really more dear, but the perception arises so.

If an adversary can make an American or a European or a Greek or a Roman army feel that they've lost too many people, even though in exact numbers Western forces have a favorable ratio of losses versus kills, then they can call off this awesome machine. These are traditional characteristics of opposing the West, rarely remarked upon military strengths and weaknesses within this democratic experiment that we see in the West.

Coming to more germane questions, what in the world would the United States think it's doing trying to promote democracy in areas in southeastern Europe, Turkey, and especially the Middle East, that have no such tradition? Because before there was democracy in 507 B.C. in Athens, we had, as I said, 200 years of timocracy, a slow, consensual government evolution to radical democracy.

And before we had the present-day European experiment of the EU, we had to go through Hitler to Franco and the Inquisition. What makes the United States think that it can implant this finished product almost instantaneously? I think there are some reasons why it thinks it can, and I'd like to review them in closing.

First, after the Cold War, when we didn't have 7,000 nuclear weapons pointed at us, the old realpolitik that said, in the case of the Middle East, "pump oil and keep out communists," was no longer the operative principle. The United States had leeway for idealism. I'm often loath to criticize the cold warriors who made odious deals with a Somoza or a Shah. I think they were mistaken in retrospect, but I say that in retrospect that I didn't have the responsibility for the security of the United States against the Soviet Union and a system that had killed 30 million of its own and was nuclear armed, pointed at us.

Now that that system has collapsed, it seems to me that there are a lot more alternatives in supporting real grassroots democratic movements, where there is no longer the old warning of a cold warrior that this socialist is not really a socialist, he's going to turn into a communist and a Stalinist and invite in the Soviet Union. There were more options after the Cold War. That was one reason I think promotion of democracy is very important.

The other is the diagnosis of the problem of Islamicism. I think it would be fair to gauge that the predominant exegesis in the 60's and 70's was that Islamicism was a product of post-colonial Arab world, or corporate exploitation, or enforced poverty from the West. Of course, if we had this discussion in 1960, we wouldn't be talking about Islamicism, we'd be talking about the dangers of the Soviet-imposed totalitarianism on tribal societies and traditional societies, or pan-Arabism. There would have been other -isms, in other words.
But the constant through all these metamorphoses is the lack of consensual government in the Middle East. It is our responsibility, or our burden, or our bad luck, that we came of age in the period of globalization, where people all over the world could see through CD's, computers, televisions and movies, our relative affluence, relative freedom, and all such imbalances instantaneously.
In this region, not only was there oil that distorted some of the economies, but there was no democracy. People in the Middle East, if they once had a gross national product comparable to a Korea or a Venezuela or a Brazil in 1950, at least in Egypt or North Africa, the absence of democratic government, open markets and transparency meant that by 2000, they were way, way behind. Israel has a larger gross domestic product than all of the Arab states of North Africa. Egypt has fallen far behind South Korea, even though 40 years earlier they were more or less comparable. This knowledge of failure now is projected into the living room, and it challenged people to re-think why this was so.

Along with this dilemma was this Western virus that we've talked about, of freedom and license and affluence, the good and the bad. This dynamism questioned the patriarch, who said somebody could marry at a certain age. It questioned the mullah, that somebody should pray in a particular way. It questioned every type of hierarchy in the Middle East.

One of the solutions with dealing with this awful truth in an undemocratic society was to blame Israel or blame the United States or blame the West for their own self-induced poverty. If you have autocratic governments who make a devil's bargain with Islamicists to divert responsibility and divert that frustration toward the United States, in exchange for sanctuary or subsidies, you have the calculus for 9/11. More importantly, you also have a vision of the solution.

After all, we're not worried about terrorists in democratic societies. We're not worried about, to the same degree, that France or England have WMD, or even to the same degree that Russia now has the WMD that it did during the Soviet period. There was the thinking that a democratic solution might be comprehensive and systematic and eliminate these pathologies and get the Middle East back on the bus of history, so to speak. That still doesn't explain why we thought we could do it after 9/11.

Just as globalization brought the matter to the fore, it also offered some solution. Unlike the 19th or 17th or 15th centuries, people could not only learn of the relative impoverishment of the Middle East that they suffered under, but they could see people voting in Ethiopia, they could see people voting in the former republics of the Soviet Union, and they can see Western institutions, Western think tanks, Western governments who can lend expertise to jump-start this long 2,500-year process, even though it's foreign, even though it's implanted by strangers The belief was that in a globalized society, there were new tools or methodologies or protocols that might give us a pass from this hard and ancient truth that democracy is an epiphenomenon of a larger cultural tradition and not so easily grafted.

Of course, as in the case of Turkey, there has been consensual government. Most of the world's Muslims today vote under consensual societies in India and Turkey, and to a degree in Indonesia and Malaysia. So there was the idea that there was nothing necessarily antithetical between Islam and voting, or constitutional government. As I said earlier, in the 1950's, the problem wasn't Islam as much as pan-Arabism that was antithetical to democracy. Islam could be compatible with democracy.

Finally, there was this age-old truth that, if you think about it, democracies really don't attack other democracies. We can quibble about the war of 1812 or the Boer War, or the American Civil War, and say there were senates or houses or parliaments. But on examination, there was really one society that was open and free, the United States, in a way that Great Britain by 1812 still wasn't. The Boers were a very different society than Victorian England. I think, in the United States, the North was a very different society than the South.
In that context, not since either republican city-states like Florence and Venice fought each other, or Athens invaded democratic Sicily in 413, have you seen a democratic society attacking another democratic society. They can attack non-democratic societies, but the thinking was there, there was historical precedent, that if you created a nucleus of democratic societies, then there would likely be fewer problems, not only with terrorism and WMD, but wars against one another.

All of that, together, after 9/11 explains our present policy, not as the first resort - because we have tried realpolitik, we've tried bribery, we've tried arms sales to particular governments, we've tried cash infusion. This idea that democracy was thought up well before 9/11 and then implanted in some conspiratorial fashions, I think wrong. It was not the first choice. It was the last choice. It was the last choice of desperation after 9/11, and it was done with some reluctance, because most of the people in the Bush administration came in as realists and realized from a whole body of academic work that democracy is not easily transferred from the West to the non-West, but felt, for the reasons I outlined, that it was (A), their last choice, and (B) there was some optimism in this 21st century that it might just work.

And there we have it - a policy that tries to graft, implant, and transfer the imagination of the Greeks, fast-forwarding 2,500 years to a vastly different geographical location, a religious tradition, and a political heritage that's not only alien but in some cases antithetical to the original aspirations of the Greeks.

Will it work? I don't know. The better question is, does anybody have a better alternative? Because we saw in the Balkans, and in the Middle East, realpolitik or simple neglect or giving subsidies or cash grants to dictatorships provides short-term stability but long-term instability. This messy solution, however difficult it seems in the here and now, offers the only possible way out of this paradox in the Middle East, of a society that is traditional and highly religious and yet autocratic, and has the ability to witness what's going on in the world instantaneously.

For all of the horror of the last three years, I'm optimistic. If we look at elections in parts of the former Soviet Union, or we look at Ethiopia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and we look at the EU referendum elections in the Netherlands and France, there does seem to be a commonality. Communism is dead. The great communist power of China seems to be more like America in 1870. It's hyper-capitalist, laissez faire. It's on some type of metamorphosis, but it's drifting away from a communist mode of production. Fascism is gone from its birth in Europe. I think we won't see a Mubarak II or an Assad III. Look at what we saw in Lebanon, and the pressure on the Gulf states.

I think fascism is dead. Islamicism is nihilistic. It offers nothing. It can't house anybody, it can't educate anybody. It's just devolved into a hypercritical reaction to Western affluence and success. It leads nowhere. There is no 8th century caliphate that's going to reappear.

The other strain which I mentioned at the very beginning, this other strain of Western culture that seeks an equality of result, I think we're seeing in Europe that whether it's demographic crisis or low growth or high unemployment, or most importantly, fear of an 80,000-man unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels dictating things from the size of a banana in Greece to an EU-approved beach in Spain, that that's not going to work either.

In other words, when we get down to it all, what's left is Western liberal government coming from the Greeks and the Romans, and then evolving to an Anglo-Saxon model of open markets and individual liberty. For all its excesses, it's really the only paradigm that works. I think that the world is slowly coming to that acknowledgement.

Thank you very much. I'm happy to take questions.

MR. SITILIDES: Thank you very much, Dr. Hanson. We appreciate the historical sweep of your presentation. I will open the Q&A with twin democracy issues. The first regards democratization in Iraq and the Middle East, as a result of wars, and now as part of a programmatic policy by the Bush administration. There seems to be a Western impatience with the pace of democratization, the question of how long this will take, and the role of the West in the future of an Iraqi society that, without democratic roots, can potentially become democratic.

Second, on the notion that democracies do not go to war with one another. You've written about this recently. There seems to be a potential paradox developing, that as more Western-style democracies emerge, we could have a situation where war erupts between democracies for reasons that we're not accustomed to, because of popular emotions, or religion, or similar reasons. Please address that possibility, as well.

DR. HANSON: Well, the first case about Iraq and our impatience, that's characteristic of all Western societies. Democracies obviously want to vote entitlements for their people. They want peace and tranquility, and the people in control. We saw that in World War I, we saw that in World War II in America.

That being said, though, once democracy enters a real war they finish it. Think about all our worries about body counts, that Americans can't take casualties. We were told that we had to bomb Serbia because we couldn't take body counts. Shortly after September 11, I read a column by Polly Toynbee in the Manchester Guardian assuring us that the bullies of America could never take one casualty.

After all, we stayed on after most wars, we still have troops in Japan, we still have troops in Korea, we still have troops in Germany, we still have troops all over Europe. We might be in Iraq five, six, or seven years, not that it would be at all burdensome to the United States. Remember also that the American troop build-up in the Middle East was rather late and a consequence of the 1991 Gulf war. We once had 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, which thank God are out of there, and we had beefed up our troop contingents in the Middle East because of Saddam Hussein. With his removal, I don't think it is hard to envision that we could get down to a level of 50,000 troops. The reason that we built up in the first place is gone.


Hosted By

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.