Democracy: A User's Guide

It comes in many forms and often disappoints, yet democracy has come to be regarded as the most desirable of all political systems. Paul Cartledge offers a guide to its roots in ancient Greece and reminds us of its long absence in the West.

The Age of Pericles, after the painting, 1853, by Philipp Foltz

There has been, in the last couple of decades, an outpouring of research, as well as agitational literature, on the subject of democracy. Most of it concerns its contemporary condition, a sense that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be. Winston Churchill’s quip, made in the House of Commons in November 1947, that it is ‘the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’, may not be far off the mark. A contributor to the letters page of a national newspaper lately claimed: ‘The illusion that we live in any sort of democracy evaporates by the day.’

Did the West became too complacent in comparing its forms of democracy too favourably with non-western autocratic or oligarchic systems of governance, or even with genuinely democratic ones? A reaction has arisen among non-western scholars and commentators, who advocate the merits of other modes of democracy (including that of the world’s largest, India), as well as from western academics, who seek to knock the West and, in particular, its original democrats, the ancient Greeks, off their pedestal.

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