Preserving Democracy: Lessons from Ancient Greeks to Counter Ruthless Narcissists in Modern Politics


Preserving Democracy: Lessons from Ancient Greeks

Ancient Greece, despite its advancements, had a society characterized by brutality. Conflict was a constant presence, slavery was deeply ingrained, and women were relegated to a marginalized position with limited societal standing.

However, ancient Greeks surpassed modern European societies in one significant aspect: their remarkably advanced political systems. The citizens of ancient Athens crafted a political framework that exemplified a truly democratic society, surpassing the democratic systems in present-day UK or US.

The modern interpretation of democracy, in contrast to the original Greek concept, has significantly diverged and bears minimal resemblance to its ancient counterpart. Contemporary democracy primarily revolves around a representative system where elected officials make decisions on behalf of the populace, serving as members of legislative bodies such as the British Parliament or the US Congress.

The ancient Greeks implemented a system of direct democracy, which was characterized by true “people power.” They actively employed measures specifically designed to prevent ruthless and narcissistic individuals from dominating politics.

Recent political events have highlighted the valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the Athenians. It can be argued that a significant issue in modern times is the lack of stringency in selecting individuals who become politicians.

Extensive research indicates that individuals with negative personality traits, such as narcissism, ruthlessness, amorality, or a lack of empathy and conscience, are often drawn to high-status positions, including politics.

In a representative democracy, a notable proportion of individuals who present themselves as representatives often include those with disordered personalities. These individuals are driven by their malevolent traits, seeking power as a result.

As a consequence, it is often the most disordered and malevolent personalities, the ones who are the most ruthless and amoral, who manage to ascend to the highest positions within political parties and governments. This phenomenon, known as “pathocracy,” is extensively explored in my new book, DisConnected.

Numerous mental health professionals in the United States have argued that Donald Trump exhibited a significant personality disorder that rendered him unfit for the role of president. Among these professionals was Mary Trump, the president’s niece and a qualified psychologist, who extensively discussed this matter.

One of the primary concerns during Donald Trump’s presidency was his apparent reluctance to take responsibility for his actions or acknowledge his mistakes. This behavior led to a perception that the US government, under his leadership, effectively resembled a pathocracy.

Similar personality traits have been observed in Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. A recent example was his petulant and narcissistic reaction to the House of Commons report, which concluded that he had intentionally misled parliament on multiple occasions during his tenure.

Repeatedly, Johnson has demonstrated a pattern of self-delusion, being unwilling to acknowledge mistakes or take accountability for his actions. These traits, along with characteristics of dishonesty and glibness, align with what is commonly referred to as a “dark triad” personality.

Ancient democratic practices

The ancient Athenians possessed a keen understanding of the perils associated with unsuitable personalities gaining power. To mitigate this risk, their standard method of selecting political officials was through a process called sortition, which involved random selection by lot. This ensured that ordinary citizens were represented in government and served as a safeguard against corruption and bribery.

While sortition posed a potential risk of assigning responsibility to incompetent individuals, the Athenians mitigated this by establishing decision-making groups or boards. Different members within these groups would assume responsibility for distinct areas, serving as checks on each other’s behavior.

Athenian democracy also exhibited direct participation in other facets. Critical political decisions, such as declarations of war, the election of military leaders, or the appointment of magistrates, were made in massive assemblies where thousands of citizens would congregate.

For any legislation to be passed, a minimum of 6,000 citizens was required. Voting typically took place through a show of hands, occasionally employing stones or fragments of pottery. Decisions were determined by a simple majority.

In addition to their other practices, the ancient Athenians implemented a system of ostracism that bore similarities to the practices of certain egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups. This system was established based on their awareness of the dangers posed by dominant individuals within a group. Ostracisms occurred annually, during which disruptive individuals who posed a threat to democracy were nominated for expulsion.

If a sufficient number of citizens voted in favor of the expulsion, the disruptive individuals would be banished from the city for a period of ten years. In a similar vein, the decision to deny Johnson, a former member, a parliamentary pass can be interpreted as a form of ostracism aimed at protecting against his potentially corrupting influence.

A return to direct democracy

Indeed, sortition continues to be employed in modern democracies, primarily in the context of jury service. However, there is a growing recognition that the principles of ancient Athenian democracy, including sortition, can have a broader positive impact if applied more widely.

In recent years, numerous political thinkers have suggested the revival of sortition within governmental structures. One notable example is Alexander Guerrero, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University, who published a influential paper in 2014 advocating for what he termed “lottocracy” as an alternative to representative democracy.

Under the concept of lottocracy, government functions through “single-issue legislatures,” which are assemblies dedicated to specific topics such as agriculture or healthcare. Members of these legislatures are selected through sortition, and they make informed decisions by consulting relevant experts on the given subject matter. This approach aims to foster a more inclusive and informed decision-making process within the democratic framework.

The political scientist Hélène Landemore, along with the political philosopher John Burnheim, have put forward similar models that propose the involvement of randomly selected citizens in decision-making processes. Landemore’s “open democracy” model suggests the formation of assemblies consisting of randomly selected citizens, ranging in size from 150 to 1,000, to make political decisions. This model also incorporates elements such as referendums and “crowd-sourced feedback loops,” where public input gathered from online forums informs legislators.

Similarly, Burnheim’s concept of “demarchy” involves small “citizen’s juries” comprised of randomly selected individuals who engage in discussions and decision-making processes concerning public policies.

Implementing such measures would help diminish the likelihood of individuals with personality disorders attaining positions of power, as it would make leadership roles less attractive to those who are ruthless and amoral.

Direct democracy entails reducing individual power while increasing checks and limitations on individual authority. Governments and organizations become less hierarchical and more focused on cooperation rather than competition, emphasizing partnership over power dynamics.

By adopting such systems, the opportunities for individuals with disordered personalities to fulfill their desire for dominance within the political sphere would diminish. As a result, societies could potentially liberate themselves from the grip of pathocracy, thereby mitigating the associated chaos and suffering.

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