32. The rise of democratic thoughts


In order to take a look at the rise of democratic thoughts and practice, we need for a moment to go back to pre-medieval times. Three interdependent characteristics are essential in the long historical development towards human society today. In the first place the rise of modern free economic markets, trade and consumption (beginning with the Phoenician trader city-states about 500 BC). In the second place the rise of formal procedures in collective decision-making, which would ultimately lead towards modern democracy (a process which not coincidentally began in the same Phoenician trader-cities). In the third place the rise of new information channels which made it possible to inform an ever larger part of the population, ultimately creating information channels for the masses in their entirety. These three developments were mutually dependent in the sense that they influenced, supported and strengthened each other.

The word ‘democracy’ is Greek. Today, it represents a form of government in which all people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the decision making. In reality, we have several forms of democracy today, each one more or less approaching the general ideal.

Democratic decision-making is as old as mankind. For most of the time that our ‘homo’ ancestors roamed upon this earth – let us say 2 millions of years long – they lived in relative equality and freedom from any domination. So ‘democracy’ is part of human nature. Since more recent times when overpopulation and warfare between AMH-groups left no other choice but ‘struggle for life’, having a substantial number of violence-capable men became crucial for the surviving of an endangered group. Men got the idea that they were the most important gender. They developed exclusively male initiation- and other rituals, and from then on they didn’t live in equality and freedom anymore. The harsher the warfare in some populations, the harsher the male domination in those populations, and the exclusion of the women from common decision-making.

In the earliest phase of agriculture – a female invention – peace and equality, conform human nature, may have returned for some millennia. But eventually rising overpopulation, causing conflicts between AGR-settlements and villages, reintroduced a ‘struggle for life’, worsened by the rise of new fast vehicles (canoes; horses) that incited nomadic young men (warriors) to start raiding unarmed villages. But even in the Copper Age, women remained important in common decision making: as in the Harappan and even Egyptian civilizations.

Since the Iron Age, a background of warfare and male dominance, slavery and inequality became the normal human condition. However, ‘democracy’, being part of human nature, remained the submerged cork, bobbing up whenever there was a temporary hole in the ice of tyranny. It was free trade that created such holes. Where merchants could rule their own business without a tyrant, they developed some kind of democracy. The Athenian Greeks of 594-322 BC were an historical example.

Usually, we trace the roots of today’s democracy to the Greek poleis. Indeed, the poleis were not like other primordial ancient city-states like Phoenician Tyre or Sidon, which were ruled by a small oligarchy of merchants, and a king, being the primus inter pares of these merchants. The Greek poleis was a political entity ruled by the body of its citizens.

When we look at philosophy and creative thought, the Greek city states in Ionia and later Athens itself yielded thinkers who would remain influential until today. It started in Miletus, with a ‘pre-socratic’ school around 550 BC, with Thales, Anaximandros and his student Anaximenes. Thales is presumed to have gathered knowledge from India, Egypt and Babylon: astrology, geometry, engineering, philosophy, etc. He may have been the first western thinker with hypotheses that did not consider godly intervention: the first freethinker.

Greek philosophy may have influenced western philosophy, but this does not apply to Athenian democracy. Democracy is not just a matter of ideas and convictions, but also a process of social evolution within an economy with a relatively free market. In antique Athens, decisions were made by a ‘one-man-one-vote’ system limited to a select group of free-born male Athenians. Today’s western democracy is based on equal voting by all adult members of a society: because this involves far too much people for direct democracy, we have a representational and parliamentary party-democracy.

So the roots of the modern western democracy that is now globalizing and hopefully will continue to expand on a world-wide scale, do not lay in ancient Greece[1]. Those roots lie rather in the western European Late-Middle-Age market towns. The conditions in this area and period contributed to a fortuitously balanced situation between the powers: the Church, the kings or ‘Roman’ Emperor, the local landlords and the rich merchants in the cities. The kings, needing money to finance their army, were financially dependent from support by the merchants. The merchants furnished the money in exchange for privileges and self-governing of their towns. This was the beginning of a long process leading to ever more democratic forms of governing and republicanism. In these late Middle Ages, along with the cultural Renaissance, democratic ideals could be revived by a small urban elite of more or less free thinking individuals. Such people could be found in city states with a prevailing mercantile influence on communal decisions.

From 1400 AD the merchants gained political influence as European trade revived, after a long period of sleep caused by the invading Vikings from the North and the dominance of the Ottoman empire in the South-East. It first awoke in Italian city-states such as Florence, spreading to Portugal and Spain and to France and the Netherlands. A big help was that the Western lands were feudal, so the power was divided. Slowly the power began to shift from the agricultural landlords, champions of the Christian God belief, to the more free-thinking (and free-trading) bourgeoisie in the cities. In a parallel development, among educated people the individual self-image shifted from religious dependency to a more confident individuality; and in yet another parallel development, culture (painting, sculpture, music) started to flourish again: the Renaissance. This also affected science and philosophy.

Of course the social evolution towards democracy did not just depend from free market conditions: the independent thought and speculations of freethinkers have played an influential role as well. I already mentioned Thales of Miletus as one of the first. Aristoteles of Athens remained very influential throughout the Middle Ages, but in the 12th and 13th century Petrus Abaelardus and Roger Bacon were groundbreaking thinkers. Abaelardus (1079-1142) emphasized the scientific principle of never accepting something without asking questions (nihil credendum nisi prius intellectum). The Oxford scholar and Aristotle-expert Roger Bacon (1214-1294) studied mathematics, optics, Hebraic and Arabic, and the Arabic sciences. He emphasized empiricism and methodology, while rejecting blindly following authority. Desiderius Erasmus in 1506 published The Praise of Folly; although not a reformer himself, he laid the intellectual foundation for the freedom of thought that would result in the Reformation.

In the 17th century Locke, Bayle and Spinoza were independent thinkers. John Locke (1632-1704) contested the absolute rulers’ rights and proposed constitutional democracy. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was another Enlightenment pioneer, with his plea for religious tolerance and separation between belief and science. Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) questioned the reality of miracles and the supernatural, and equated God and nature. The 17th century also produced the influential cultural view of the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who with his Leviathan (1651) was the first to present the idea of a “social contract”, where individuals give up some of their individual rights for the common benefit.

Philosophers such as Spinoza, Locke, Bayle and Newton sparked an elite cultural movement: the Enlightenment. The center of the Enlightenment was France, where it found its base in the salons, such as the salon of Baron D’Holbach. It heralded the power of the human thought, independent from traditional and dogmatic thinking. Among other things, it presents a taxonomy of human knowledge inspired by Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning. The three main branches of knowledge are: "Memory" (history), "Reason" (philosophy) and "Imagination" (poetry). Notable is the fact that theology is considered a branch of philosophy: this categorisation of religion as being subject to human reason and not as an independent source of knowledge caused much of the controversy surrounding the work.

Many contributors saw the Encyclopédie not just as a means to provide access to human knowledge, but also as a vehicle for covertly destroying irrational superstition. In ancien régime France, it caused a storm of controversy, due mostly to its attacks on Catholicism and its defense of religious tolerance. The Encyclopédie praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma.

Title page of vol.1 of The Encyclopédie

The Encyclopédie (1751-1772) was edited by Denis Diderot and d’Alembert, with contributions by hundreds of leading intellectuals such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu. Some 25,000 copies of the 35-volume set were sold, half of them outside France: it stimulated the emergence of new centers of free thought in England, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, Austria, and Spain – and also in America, where it influenced Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others, playing a major role in the American Revolution. The political ideals expressed in the Encyclopédie influenced the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Polish-Lithuanian Constitution of 1791.

Count d’Holbach (1723-1789), the first outspoken atheist, and his ally Denis Diderot (1713-1784) can be considered the first real freethinkers. Freethinking is: forming (and formulating) one’s world view on the basis of logical reasoning, without being restricted by irrational beliefs, enforced dogmatism or religious authority. In a culture where the world was generally considered a godly creation, it took courage (and a minimum of safety) to think god-less. A nice reflection of such an inner struggle can be seen in the conflict between the friends Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot in the Paris of 1742. After long consideration, Rousseau wrote: “All the subtleties of metaphysics will not make me doubt the immortality of the soul for a moment. I feel it, I believe it, I want it, I hope for it, I shall defend it to my last breath”. For Diderot, the question of religious belief was a more complex one. Nostalgic for the certainties of his childhood, he would have liked to believe. But his scientific and materialistic world view left no place for some metaphysical ‘high power’. “My heart wants one thing, my head another,” he wrote to his friend.

For Diderot, our desire to believe had to be counterbalanced by our capacity for rational analysis as the only method of gaining factual knowledge of the world. This rationality ought to create a common ground that is not subject to instinct, tribalism or hysteria, but can support the ethics of a society. Rousseau on the other hand ended up giving priority not to his rationality, but to his feelings and beliefs. This crucial difference between the spirituality of Diderot and Rousseau can still be seen in today’s society.

The problems between these two had to do not only with a different position on the emotions-vs-rationality scale, but also with a different position on the collectivism-vs-individualism scale. Thinking on the basis of his strong emotion, Rousseau created a world view characterized by aversion of the physical world, repulsion of sex, a longing for a perfect higher world beyond our senses, for ultimate justice and forgiveness in the afterlife. A world view rather coinciding with the dogmatic vision of the Church. Politically this world view may be characterized as collectivism.



Collectivism is the social-political doctrine that sees people as a subservient part of a community, obedient to the Leader of the community. Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (1762) represented – in an idealistic way – such a collectivistic view of society. Rousseau’s theory may have been based on Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), and certainly influenced the radical ideology of Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), leader of French Revolution during its ‘reign of terror’. 19th century philosophers such as Hegel (1770-1831) and Marx (1818-1883) also regarded collectives as more important than their individual members.

To some extent such a view may be understandable, especially when we consider that it is closely related to the ancient tribal feelings which have shaped much of human history since the early Iron Age. However, collectivist feelings can become fatal when they are used as the actual base for a social order, for a political system: the two best known examples of collectivism going awry are fascism and communism. The reigns of Hitler and Stalin illustrate two essential shortcomings of collectivism. In the first place it tends to concentrate the “collective” power in the hands of Leader and his guard – and such near-unlimited power always corrupts. Secondly, it deprives society from one of its most essential sources of progress: consulting each other. A free market society with representative democracy may be laborious and at times painful, but in the end it will better serve the common wealth.

Luckily, the same 19th century that produced the philosophies of Hegel and Marx, also brought forth thinkers who contributed to the development of today’s free market society and democracy. One of the most important was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who in his book On Liberty (1859)[2] stated that “over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Nor the state nor any other social body has a right to coerce or restrict the individual, unless the individual causes harm to others. In this context Mill developed the harm principle (stating that each individual has the right to act as he wants, provided these actions do not harm others). His principle of liberty is threefold: freedom to think and speech as one wishes, the freedom to pursue tastes and preferences, and the freedom to meet with others. He sees this freedoms not as ‘natural rights’ but rather as positive contributions to society. Stuart Mill can also be seen as the first male feminist ; as a member of Parliament he advocated women’s rights.

[1] The knowledge about the Athenian democracy dates from the 19th century: since the British lord Elgin transported a whole collection of the marble sculptures from the Athenian acropolis to London and sold them to the British Museum. The fame of these marbles (and the shame of the ‘art robbery’ – but he paid for it to the Turkish government) was the beginning of the knowledge about Greek democracy***

[2] NB In this same year 1859 appeared Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London, John Murray

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Used abbreviations

GHs: gatherers/hunters (the phase from 2 million years ago to 10.000 years ago)

AGRs: agriculturers (the phase from 10.000 years ago till now)

NT(s)Neanderthal people

MSA(s): Middle Stone Age people (African NTs)

AMH(s): Anatomical Modern Humans (H sapiens people), like we are

(m)ya: (million) years ago

ANBOs: Ancestor Bonobos (ape-men), our earliest human ancestors

Paleos: all scientists that are important for our story.