Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 1 Summary

What Is History And Why Does It Matter?

“ …War wearied hath perform’d what war can do,
And to disorder’d rage let loose the reins…” 1

We have come to think of history as something fixed and objective. In fact, it is the creation of historians, whose allegiance to power often blinds them to the true meaning of the events they describe.

We read history because we want to understand how we as a society have ended up where we are. What we learn can be used to help us make choices for our collective well-being. Was democracy a good thing? Did it succeed? Where did it fail? What is history all about and how does democracy fit into the picture? Is the violence necessary and where does it lead? These are the questions. Rarely do our historians supply us with the answers. It is up to us to make the connections between the events and the social consequences that follow.

It is reasonably clear, in the case of Ancient Athens, that in order for democracy to thrive there needed to be peace. As the wars continued, power became more centralized and concentrated. The individual retreated from the community and sought solace in a private existence. The strength and integrity of character, indicative of Athens at its height, was worn down with the stress of constant war. Athens as a unique form of government, founded in citizen participation at all levels, disappeared.

Considered in this light, one could argue that democracy is a bulwark against war. For where democracy and democratic values prevail, where power is widely dispersed, energies are directed towards self-rule, economic productivity and civilized living. There is no opportunity for warriors to take charge of government. Thus one can argue that democracy holds out a two-fold benefit: 1) Individual and culture reach their highest levels of development; 2) The worth of each human life is at a premium.

1) John Milton (1608 – 1674) was an English poet, best known for his epic poem, “Paradise Lost.” The quotes at the head of each chapter are borrowed from this masterpiece. Milton has given some of his best lines to Satan, lines that I have redirected to suit the chapter content. I hope Satan won’t mind.