Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 4 Summary

Government And Character: Lessons From Athens

“… And now his heart Distends with pride, and, hardening in his strength, Glories…”

Government conduct has intellectual, moral, psychological and emotional consequences for its citizens. The moral fiber of the individual citizens and of the nation taken as a collective is a consequence of the degree of honest involvement in government by those who are governed, which leads Mill to the conclusion that a “completely popular government… promotes a better and higher form of national character, than any other polity whatsoever.”

What kind of individual did Athenian democracy produce? Neither passive, nor docile, the Athenian was outspoken, self-assured, courageous, open minded and tolerant. No one was revered. No one was too important or powerful to be poked fun at. Not even the gods escaped ridicule.

Even those of the most humble origin, achieved an unusually high level of intellectual development. The theatre, staged for the masses, required considerable verbal and intellectual sophistication to grasp its deepest meanings and refined subtleties. As a consequence of their daily involvement in self-government, Athenians were thoughtful about ideals, justice and the ultimate purpose of life.

This capacity for abstract thought as witnessed in its philosophy and theatre is probably what distinguishes this Greek culture from any that came before or has come since. Undoubtedly the multitude, complexity and weightiness of the matters the average Athenian confronted on a daily basis was instrumental in developing this unusual gift.