Jun 25th 2023

How the ancient Greeks kept ruthless narcissists from capturing their democracy – and what modern politics could learn from them

by Steve Taylor

 

Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University

 

Ancient Greece was in many ways a brutal society. It was almost perpetually at war, slavery was routine and women could only expect a low status in society.

However, there is one important sense in which ancient Greeks were more advanced than modern European societies: their sophisticated political systems. The citizens of ancient Athens developed a political system that was more genuinely democratic than the present day UK or US.

Our modern concept of democracy is actually a degradation of the original Greek concept and has very little in common with it. Modern democracy is merely representative, meaning that we elect officials to make decisions on our behalf, who become members of legislative bodies like the British parliament or the US Congress.

The ancient Greeks practised direct democracy. It literally was “people power”. And they took measures specifically to ensure that ruthless, narcissistic people were unable to dominate politics.

Recent political events show that we have a great deal to learn from the Athenians. Arguably, a key problem in modern times is that we aren’t stringent enough about the people we allow to become politicians.

There’s a great deal of research showing that people with negative personality traits, such as narcissism, ruthlessness, amorality or a lack of empathy and conscience, are attracted to high-status roles, including politics.

In a representative democracy, therefore, the people who put themselves forward as representatives include a sizeable proportion of people with disordered personalities – people who crave power because of their malevolent traits.

And the most disordered and malevolent personalities –the most ruthless and amoral – tend to rise to the highest positions in any political party, and in any government. This is the phenomenon of “pathocracy”, which I discuss at length in my new book DisConnected.

Numerous American mental health professionals have argued that Donald Trump has a serious personality disorder which made him unfit for the role of president. This included the president’s niece, Mary Trump – a qualified psychologist.

One of the key concerns was his apparent failure to take responsibility for his actions or mistakes. Under Trump, the US government effectively became a pathocracy.

In the UK, Boris Johnson has shown similar personality traits. The most recent example was his petulant, narcissistic reaction to the House of Commons report that found he had deliberately misled parliament on multiple occasions while in office.

Time and again, Johnson has arguably shown a self-deluded inability to admit to mistakes or take responsibility for his actions – along with traits of dishonesty and glibness – which are characteristic of a “dark triad” personality.

Ancient democratic practices

The ancient Athenians were very aware of the danger of unsuitable personalities attaining power. Their standard method of selecting political officials was sortition – random selection by lot. This was a way of ensuring that ordinary people were represented in government, and of safeguarding against corruption and bribery.

The Athenians were aware that this meant a risk of handing responsibility to incompetent people but mitigated the risk by ensuring that decisions were made by groups or boards. Different members of the group would take responsibility for different areas and would act as a check on each other’s behaviour.

Athenian democracy was direct in other ways too. Political decisions, such as whether to go to war, the election of military leaders or the nomination of magistrates, were made at massive assemblies, where thousands of citizens would gather.

A minimum of 6,000 citizens was required to pass any legislation. Citizens usually voted by showing hands – also sometimes with stones or pieces of broken pottery – and decisions were carried by simple majority.

The ancient Athenians also practised a system of ostracism, not dissimilar to some egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups (who were also aware of the danger of alpha males dominating the group). Ostracisms took place annually, when disruptive people who threatened democracy were nominated for expulsion.

If a sufficient number of citizens voted in favour, the disruptors would be banished from the city for ten years. In a sense, the decision to deny Johnson a former member’s parliamentary pass can be seen as a form of ostracism to protect against his corrupting influence.

A return to direct democracy

Sortition is still used in modern democracies, most notably in jury service, but these ancient democratic principles could be used much more widely to positive effect.

In fact, in recent years, many political thinkers have recommended reviving sortition in government. In 2014, Alexander Guerrero, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, published an influential paper advocating what he called “lottocracy” as an alternative to representative democracy.

In this system, government is undertaken by “single-issue legislatures” assemblies that focus on specific issues such as agriculture or healthcare. Members of the legislatures are chosen by lot and make decisions after consulting experts on the relevant topic.

The political scientists Hélène Landemore has advocated a similar model in which assemblies of randomly selected citizens (ranging in size from a 150 to 1,000) make political decisions.

Landemore’s model of “open democracy” also includes referendums and “crowd-sourced feedback loops” (when large numbers of people discuss policies on internet forums, and the feedback is passed to legislators).

In addition, the political philosopher John Burnheim has used the term demarchy for a political system made of small randomly selected “citizen’s juries” who discuss and decide public policies.

Such measures would be a way of reducing the likelihood of people with personality disorders attaining power since they would make leadership positions less attractive to ruthless and amoral people.

Direct democracy means less individual power and more checks and limitations to individual authority. Governments and organisations become less hierarchical, more cooperative than competitive, based on partnership rather than power.

This means less opportunity for disordered people to satisfy their craving for dominance in the political sphere. We would then become free of pathocracy, and all of the chaos and suffering it causes.

Steve Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 16th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Trump joins tens of thousands of Americans treated for non-fatal gunshot wounds each year. Such experiences can shatter people’s assumptions that they are living in a safe, understandable and controllable world, leaving them feeling unworthy, unsafe and unsure. As a result, survivors of non-fatal gun violence face increased risks of depression, anxiety, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can feel overwhelming." ---- ".... some trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth. They may develop greater empathy, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality and find new meaning in life. After being shot in 1981, the then president Ronald Reagan’s trauma seemed to deepen his sense of empathy and humility. He felt God had spared him for a reason, spurring him to reduce nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union."
Jul 15th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose are not metabolised by the human body so they are excreted – this is what makes them low-calorie sugar alternatives. And that’s where the environmental problem begins. Current wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove these sugar mimics, meaning they end up in our environment – in our water, rivers and soil." --- "Forever chemicals are increasingly present in our streams, rivers and oceans – most notably per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that don’t degrade. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in many consumer products, including skincare products, cosmetics and waterproof clothing. PFAS can remain in the human body for many years, and some present significant risks to our health – potentially causing liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, infertility and cancer."
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACTS: "Psychologist, James Hillman had concerns about what I like to call the 'loneliness-as-pathology' "---- "....Hillman went on to argue...: 'If loneliness is an archetypal sense built into us all from the very beginning, then, to be alive is also to be lonely. Loneliness, therefore, will come and go as it chooses in the course of a lifetime, quite apart from our efforts to deny or avoid this reality.' "
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACT: "How can we be at least 15 times richer than our pre-industrial Agrarian Age predecessors, and yet so unhappy? One explanation is that we are not wired for it: nothing in our heritage or evolutionary past prepared us to deal with a society of more than 150 people. To operate our increasingly complex technologies and advance our prosperity, we somehow must coordinate among more than eight billion people."
Jun 25th 2024
EXTRACTS: "What’s interesting about the entire Russia-North Korea showy display of camaraderie is China’s response: silence. China has misgivings about how things are unfolding, which reports suggest prompted Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call to Putin to call off the latter’s visit to Pyongyang. Obviously, Putin didn’t heed Xi’s request." ----- "The Sino-Korean animosity dates back centuries and took shape when Korea was a vassal state of imperial China. Unfortunately, this animosity extended to modern times when Mao Zedong decided to station Chinese troops in North Korea even after the conclusion of the Korean war, and when Beijing did not aid Pyongyang in its nuclear ambitions. It didn’t help either that the founding leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was suspected of espionage and was nearly executed by the Chinese Communist party in the 1930s."
Jun 19th 2024
EXTRACT: "Ultra-processed foods (such as packaged snacks, sugary drinks, instant noodles and ready-to-eat meals) often contain emulsifiers, microparticles (such as titanium dioxide), thickeners, stabilisers, flavours and colourants. While research on humans is limited, studies on mice have shown that these ingredients alter the gut microbiome (the community of microorganisms living in the intestines) in several ways. These many microbiome changes can in turn affect the way the immune system functions."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Alzheimer’s disease can be split in two subgroups, familial and sporadic. Only 5% of patients with Alzheimer’s are familial, inherited, and 95% of Alzheimer’s patients are sporadic, due to environmental, lifestyle and genetic risk factors. Consequently, the most effective tactic for tackling Alzheimer’s is preventative and living a healthy lifestyle. This has led researchers to study risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "This study suggests that around 10% of people diagnosed with dementia may instead have underlying silent liver disease with HE causing or contributing to the symptoms – an important diagnosis to make as HE is treatable."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."