Social Origins of Democracy: Historical Origins of Democracy

The genesis of democracy can be traced back to the Greek city-state of Athens. The democratic idea of a government responsible to the governed, of trial by jury and of civil liberties of thought, speech, writing and worship have been stimulated by Greek history. Emphasis on liberty and the studies related to man were the main tenets of ancient Greece. It was their sense of liberty and independence, individual and collective, which inspired them to accomplishments in philosophy, politics and science. The Greeks gave to mankind the idea of politics as the business of citizens as against the arbitrary rule of the despots.

The democracy propounded by the Greeks enjoyed a short span of life. The Romans, successor to Greek ideas and institutions, at first seemed to embrace Athenian democratic principles. The regime of the Romans was a mixture of kingship, aristocracy and democracy. Its aim was the collective welfare of the society. But the exigencies of governing an expanding empire led to the corruption of individual rights by the power and expediency of monarchy and aristocracy. For a few hundred years, the Empire ruled by well-disciplined Roman legions maintained conditions of relative peace and security throughout much of Europe. With the decline of the Empire, Europe became more vulnerable to an increasing frequency and intensity of barbarian attacks. Without Roman legions to protect them, local populations fell back on feudal system in which trained warlords and their horse soldiers protected the people in exchange for loyalty and serfdom. Physical security and subsistence level existence were purchased at the cost of individual freedom. Fear and ignorance compelled submission to arbitrary authority.

The people’s existence was made subordinate to the rights and arbitrary rule of monarchs, feudal lords and priests. Surrounded by an infallible Pope on one side and a divinely ordained monarch on the other, the population was denied fundamental rights and privileges. A rigid structure of governance, economic activity controlled by feudal lords and thought defined by religion ruled society. Economically, land was the basis of wealth. Socially, heredity was the determinant of position and opportunity. Intellectually, theological doctrine was the sole arbiter of truth. In short, economic, religious and civil liberties, which are the core of democracy, were suppressed by forces of religious and political absolutism, and did not re-emerge until the 15th century.

Source: MSS Research

Seyoum T.