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Primary Orality and the Organization of Athenian Democracy

Page history last edited by Mark 14 years ago

Primary Orality and the Organization of Athenian Democracy


It is close to the turn of the fifth century, before the Common Era. Cleisthenes, with the support of his politically powerful clan, has just successfully overthrown the tyrant Hippias, and established a new system of governance for Ancient Athens. This system was specifically designed to minimize the possibility of one individual accumulating sufficient power and influence to enable a return to tyrannical rule (Whitehead, 1986). Rather than the traditional tribes based on strong family ties, Cleisthenes established fundamental sovereign power in the local village or town, called a deme. Ten new tribes, or phylei, were defined, each organizing between six and twenty-one demes, creating phylei of approximately similar population. To minimize intertribal inequity with respect to resources or access to transportation, each phyle included demes from city, coastal, and inland agricultural regions.


Cleisthenes also instituted citizenship reforms that enabled more direct participation in governance. Although far from modern democratic conceptions of universal suffrage, equality, and fundamental freedoms, Cleisthenes’s reforms nonetheless enabled all freeborn males over the age of 18 to automatically become citizens, so long as they had fathers who were citizens, irrespective of property ownership or lack of noble lineage. A general assembly – ecclesia – comprising nearly 30,000 eligible citizens (of which approximately 8,000 were required for a quorum) governed the approximately quarter-million people of Athens. The agenda and day-to-day governance responsibilities of the ecclesia fell to the boule, a steering committee of sorts comprised of 500 members, selected by lot from among the phylei. Each phyle appointed 50 men to serve on the boule for one year; no person could serve as a member of the boule more than twice in his lifetime, thereby limiting the potential for an individual to accumulate excessive administrative power (Cummings & Brocklesby, 1993; Ober, 2006; Whitehead, 1986).


Individual responsibilities rotated among the people who were amateurs at their respective jobs. Ober (2006) observes that, “in the Athenian model there was very little in the way of executive-level command and control, and nothing like a formal hierarchy” (n.p.). Rather, political power was collectively shared among non-professional citizens who were convened in physical proximity in the ecclesia. Their collective powers of reward and sanction could only be enacted via an annual “performance review” of responsible individuals’ respective contributions to, or potential for undermining, the political and cultural norms of society. Any individual who was deemed to have accumulated too much personal power could be ostracized – in effect, banished for ten years by vote of the ecclesia general assembly, although this was considered to be an extreme action, rarely undertaken.


Since boule councillors sat for only a year, there was little opportunity for a self-serving institutional culture to develop. Further, because of the high degree of participation, there was tremendous transparency into the boule’s operation. The general population developed a common knowledge, and sense of the intricacies and complexities of decision-making. Ober, for example, focuses extensively on the concentration of knowledge among a relatively local populace as the key reason for the structural success of Athenian democracy:


Both specialized technical knowledge and generalized tacit knowledge necessary to making good decisions are increasingly accessible to the deliberations of the group as a whole. As councillors learn more about who was good at what and who to go to for what sort of information, they become more discriminating about their recommendations and as a result the whole council is increasingly capable of doing its difficult job well. Moreover, because each councillor has a local network of contacts outside the council, each councillor is a bridge between the council and some subset of the larger population. … Athens as an organization comes to know a lot of what the Athenians know as individuals. (Ober, 2006, n.p.)


Concentration of power or influence was explicitly discouraged by design, not to mention the threat of ostracism. More than knowledge, however, the strong sense of identity, and the economic and affective ties with both the greater organization of Athens and the councillors’ local deme or home village, coalesced to ensure optimal decision-making. Individuals in positions of influence maintained their strong connections to their respective social contexts – their demes and resource-balanced phylei – thereby grounding their decision-making equally in both local and more widely applicable considerations.


From an organizational systems perspective, Cummings and Brocklesby (1993) summarize some of the key characteristics of Athenian democracy during what is often called the Golden Age. First, the governance structure was recursive, meaning that the smaller organization of the deme appears similar in structure to the phyle (tribe) which itself appears similar to the organization of the polis (city-state) as a whole. Next, the overall organization was organic, emerging from the bottom-up, as opposed to being an externally conceived structure being imposed on the social environment. Manville and Ober describe it as a “system [that] was not imposed on the Athenian people, but rather it grew organically from their own needs, beliefs, and actions – it was as much a spirit of governance as a set of rules or laws. … [T]he system was holistic – it was successful because it informed all aspects of the society” (Manville & Ober, 2003, p. 50).


Perhaps more important, individual jobs were rotated among the boule members so that there was both a continual growth in overall opportunity, expertise and experience, as well as a safeguard against concentrating knowledge (and therefore power and influence) in any one individual or small group. The organization design specifically mitigated against the formation of bureaucracy. Accordingly, accountability was to the whole of the citizenry, administered via either the general assembly or law courts. The latter were comprised of limited-term, appointed citizens, “many of whom, due to the ‘multiskilled’ nature of the system, had been in positions similar to those being evaluated. This may have alleviated the animosity often directed toward specialist internal auditing units within many, particularly modern, organizations” (Cummings & Brocklesby, 1993, p. 348).


Decision-making processes in ancient Athenian democracy were both centralized and decentralized according to what made sense in the circumstance, as opposed to having been procedurally imposed. Whitehead (1986) notes that the site of pertinent knowledge determined the “common sense” site of decision-making rather than any constitutionally or procedurally predetermined office. Territorial behaviour that is often associated with bureaucratic control appears to have been absent from this system, likely because the transient nature of any individual’s responsibility decouples their personal status and identity from the responsibility (i.e., bureaucratic office) they held at any given time. Simply put, no individual had a vested interest in accumulating power via control, since the system was specifically designed to protect against such a concentration of power. Rather, influence could only be generated through garnering public support.


In short, the organization of Athenian democracy reflected its culture. Cummings and Brocklesby (1993) describe that culture as “unified and cohesive at all levels of the system” (p. 349). Individual subcultures among the phylei and demes were respected: Local, traditional beliefs were maintained so as not to be “abrasive” towards the organization as a whole. It was not that Ancient Athens was particularly homogeneous. In fact, Ober describes that “Athens was a vast city, a Mediterranean crossroads with an ethnically diverse population, including naturalized citizens with prominent political careers” (2000, n.p.). Nonetheless, Cummings and Brocklesby report that,


the citizenry shared a common bond and identity when viewing themselves in relation to outsiders. They were a breed apart. This ‘identity’ was often rallied around in times of adversity and celebration. A perception of shared adversity, and a common cause, helped enhance unity among the citizenry. (Cummings & Brocklesby, 1993, p. 350).


Ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C. was also a primary-oral society, that is, phonetic literacy had not yet been introduced. Understanding the characteristics of primary orality offers an insight into the underlying cultural context of the Athenian organizational structure.


Walter Ong (1982) describes the primary attributes of orality. Orality is evanescent, existing only at, and for, the time that it is created. Its structure is formulaic, additive and recursive, rather than hierarchically organized with complex subordinate constructions. Orality exists “close to the human lifeworld” (p. 42). In other words, events and circumstances expressed in a primary-oral society are concrete and subjective, rather than abstract and expressed from an objective standpoint. Ong further characterizes oral engagement as “agonistically toned” (p. 43), leading to active, direct engagement, argument, and verbal combat. This is distinct from written literacy whose tone is more detached, even when arguing or refuting another author’s writing. With respect to the nature of learning, orality is “empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced” (p. 45). Oral learning is based in communal, actively participatory experience in which the participants help to create the experiential learning environment, rather than being at a cognitive, temporal, and physical distance from the source of knowledge. Finally, orality creates community and is necessarily homeostatic, requiring constant repetition and continual engagement for its continuity and survival.


How the organizational structure of the Athenian polis emerged from the effects of primary orality can be easily seen. The three principal administrative bodies – the ecclesia, the boule, and the law courts – were, in a sense, evanescent: constituted into existence at, and for, the time that they sat, namely, four times a month for the larger body, annually for the boule, and as needed for jurors. Rather than being fixed, the governance structures were homeostatic, requiring a continual flow of participants in order to sustain. Whitehead (1986) notes that the polis, phylei, and their component elements replicated the natural structure of the local deme—what could be considered a higher level of organization replicated the lowest level.


Decision-making among the members of the ecclesia was, more often than not, a noisy affair, with robust confrontations among diverse opinions being relatively common. Although those with specific knowledge offered their expertise on matters ranging from military to religious, that expert advice did not always carry the day. Ober (2006), for example, recounts Herodotus’s story of Themistocles proposing an expansion of the Athenian navy in the 5th century B.C. When Persia invaded Greece, the citizens were forced to make a decision: whether to flee their homes, attempt to defend their city-state on land, the result of which would likely end in defeat, or meet the invaders in battle at sea. Elders sought the advice of the Oracle at Delphi who, in characteristic fashion, provided an ambiguous, but apparently pessimistic, response. Ober notes:


In a hierarchical political order, there would never have been a public debate on the oracles. In a traditional republican Greek regime (e.g. Sparta), in which such issues were discussed in public, the authoritative opinion of elders, backed by religious experts, would prevail. But in democratic Athens the premise was that all citizens had the right to publicly express their views and that each knew something that might be important in deciding on the best policy. No plan could be adopted if it contradicted the knowledge and will of the majority of the Assembly. (Ober, 2006, n.p.)


Among these citizens were those who were intimately involved in provisioning the naval fleet, and in its operation, who could offer particular knowledge that recontextualized the Oracle’s prediction. The eventual plan – to engage the Persians in a naval battle – “rested on the conviction that even the poorest Athenians, the ones who would be rowing the warships, knew something important about how to defend the community” (Ober, 2006, n.p.). The ecclesia, that forum and process of participatory engagement, settled on the correct tactical decision in a manner consistent with being a primary-oral society. Hierarchical religious authority can be legitimately challenged by those who are physically present and directly engaged, based on how each individual constructs meaning from both personal and shared contexts—a communal, actively participatory experience.


The political decline of post-Periclean Athens is largely attributed to broadening the scope of Athenian political influence to incorporate poleis that did not share Athenian cultural grounds and traditions. More important, perhaps, was the fact that administration was being spread farther and wider over larger geographic areas, counter to the primary-oral tradition that grounded the Athenian system:


It was Alexander, and then the Romans, who would display more adequate procedures for the development and maintenance of large and diverse empires… Demagogy would have been disastrous for a system such as that of Athens, with its properties of individual participation in return for collective government. (Cummings & Brocklesby, 1993, p. 355)


The argument that Cummings and Brocklesby suggest to explain the decline of post-Periclean Athens, and the concomitant rise of Alexander and the Romans, exactly corresponds to that of the Toronto School. The environmental influences of phonetic literacy enable not only long-distance communication, but true delegation of authority by proxy and the creation of an efficient bureaucracy. McLuhan points out that,


an increase of power or speed in any kind of grouping of any components whatever is itself a disruption that causes a change of organization. … Such speed-up means much more control at much greater distances. Historically, it meant the formation of the Roman Empire and the disruption of the previous city-states of the Greek world. Before the use of papyrus and alphabet created the incentives for building fast, hard-surface roads, the walled town and the city-state were natural forms that could endure. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 90)


He goes on to observe that “the Greek city-states eventually disintegrated by the usual action of specialist trading and the separation of functions… The Roman cities began that way – as specialist operations of the central power. The Greek cities ended that way” (p. 97).




Read On: Phonetic Literacy, the Romans, and the Catholic Church


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