The Origin of Democracy

( January 17, 2017, Boston, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Origin of Democracy contrasts three ancient civilizations – Roman, Greek, and Persian – primarily focusing on their approaches to ruling the citizens that comprised them. In 392 B.C., in Athens, Socrates was found guilty by jury for corrupting the minds of young people and similar dissent-related charges, and put to death by poisoning. “People do not like to have their knowledge questioned, but I know that I know nothing.” Those were the words he went out on, and it is said that he was the first victim of democracy.

Socrates belittled the government of Athens a great deal, insisting that political representation is a trade that requires skill and commitment – something he strongly felt politicians in place at the time in Greece lacked, that they were only in positions of power by way of a sort of birthright.

This is significant because Athenians are credited with the creation of democracy, and the film theorizes that their democracy was anything but what we consider one to be in modern society. 400,000 people lived in Athens during ancient Greece’s heyday, and more than 200,000 of those inhabitants were slaves who of course had no voting or representation rights whatsoever. Women were also not permitted to participate in political matters. The filmmakers are quick to point out how aristocratic this approach to democracy sounds.

Comparatively, the film turns to the Persian Empire, which ruled via a more traditional and straightforward dictatorship methodology. In a vast, sprawling empire that stretched from the Indies to Egypt, rulers of provinces with similar religious views presided. These rulers were required to have “divine splendor” in order to take over power – and anyone who became king had this splendor, and anyone pulled down from their throne was said to have lost that splendor. This splendor was believed to be a form of the gods’ blessing, and people obeyed this ruler’s bidding because it was believed to be the bidding of the gods themselves.

The film’s angle is that the interpretation of democracy as a form of government is a subjective one, and has often been abused – much like every form of government has and will continue to be at times.

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