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Dr. Christofilis Maggidis discusses ancient Greek democracy and its implications today

On February 7th, Dr. Christofilis Maggidis of Dickinson College gave a lecture at The Institute of World Politics titled “Ancient and Modern Democracy: Ideology, Morphology, and Pathology.” Dr. Maggidis is an active field archaeologist with nearly 30 years of experience; he has served as Field Director of the Lower Town Excavation at Mycenae, Co-Director of the Mycenaean Spercheios-valley Archaeological Project, and Director of the Archaeogeophysical Survey of the Citadel of Glas. He is the president of the Mycenean Foundation and a member of the Athens Archaeological Society. Dr. Maggidis teaches courses on Greek art and archaeology at Dickinson College.

Dr. Maggidis began the lecture with a discussion of the birth of democracy. He stated that to understand the future of our democracy, we must understand the democracies of the past. The birth of democracy, he argued, could only have happened in Greece due to the specific conditions that existed there.

He cited the strategic geopolitical position of Greece at the juncture between land and sea trade routes as one factor in the development of Greek democracy. This exposed the Greek people to many other cultures and peoples. He also stated that the landscape of the region, with its mountains and vast coastline, forced people into groups and required them to trade for resources that they could not produce themselves.

The Greek geographic situation led to many political, economic, social, and military developments, argued Dr. Maggidis. The geographical separation of groups led to homogenous populations and therefore the development of the Greek polis. He also stated that the shift from an agrarian society to a merchant society, along with the development of coinage, allowed a strong middle class to develop. Social and military developments further integrated and grew the middle class, Dr. Maggidis said, which reduced the disparity between the masses and the aristocracy.

Dr. Maggidis then discussed the philosophical principles of democracy as laid out by Aristotle in the Politics. Among these principles are the freedom of action and speech, equality before the law, majority rule, individual responsibility, and the division of government. He argued that the separation of powers was not a new idea proposed by Montesquieu during the Enlightenment, but an ancient idea that was fairly robust even under the Greeks.

Above: IWP Senior Vice President for Professional Affiliations Chris Glass, Dr. Christofilis Maggidis, and IWP Dean Dr. Frank Marlo

Dr. Maggidis followed the philosophical basis of democracy with a discussion of the Greek implementation of it. The Greeks maintained a strict set of control mechanisms, which are essentially today’s “checks and balances.” These consisted of elections by lot or vote, limited periods of political service, the alternation of power, and salaries for public office. These factors, Dr. Maggidis said, prevented the aristocracy from having a constant hold on power over the middle class.

Additionally, the Greeks maintained a strict system for preventing corruption in public office. Dr. Maggidis cited the Greeks’ eligibility screenings, confirmation hearings, impeachment, and public trials as mechanisms for avoiding and punishing corruption.

All of this – the Greek-specific developments, philosophical grounding, and construction of democracy itself – works toward integration of all classes of people. Dr. Maggidis said that democracy promotes realism and the conflict of ideas over conflict between people. He also said that democracy is grounded in much more concrete things, such as strictly defined laws and historical facts, rather than custom and mythology.

Democracy led to many cultural developments that promoted further equality among the Greek people. Dr. Maggidis used the examples of art to demonstrate this point. Art began to focus more on narrating the lives of common citizens rather than depicting mythological and aristocratic scenes. Theater and poetry made statements on ethics, justice, politics, and civic identity, and all classes of people were encouraged to enjoy these art forms. Lastly, Greek festivals included the entire polis, which promoted a common civic identity.

Dr. Maggidis’ then discussed the fall of Greek democracy. Even with many mechanisms in place to produce equalization, he said that political polarization grew ever stronger. Control mechanisms in the government were used against political opponents, and the fear that the middle class had of the elites only made the situation worse.

Dr. Maggidis also highlighted failures of the Greek democratic system itself. Lack of continuity in government, as well as failures of the judicial system, led to a loss of confidence among the people. Partially because of this, he said, the Greeks became apathetic toward their democracy.

Maybe the biggest factor, argued Dr. Maggidis, was the decline in education in Greece. The quality of education decreased, which increased the disparity between the classes in Greek society and perpetuated all of the problems previously stated.

Dr. Maggidis concluded that one of the biggest threats to us today is the decline of education. Modern education, he said, teaches students what to think, not how to think. If our schools can cultivate students’ ability to think critically about ideas and the issues that face us today, then we will have a much better chance of maintaining our democracy.

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Ancient and Modern Democracy: Ideology, Morphology, and Pathology