Laocracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 08 June 2010 08:33

Plato was no fan of democracy.  To govern well, he argued, one must be able to answer questions about the good, and only philosophers are capable of knowing the good because only philosophers have come out of the cave to see the Form of the Good.  Wise men should rule, wise men like Plato himself.

Few now trust Plato on this point.  Philosophers are (in our collective imagination) unkempt, spectacled skinny guys in tweed, too fragile to endure the tumble of modern politics and too detached to care.  But the essence of Plato’s vision has fired that same collective imagination for centuries.  For if we don’t want philosophical experts to rule us, politicians assure us that we want, and need, experts.

Aristotle was more sanguine about the possibilities of democracy.  Just as a potluck dinner (sumphoreta) can be better than any individual dish, and even better than a meal provided by a single host, so a potluck of citizens might make a better stew than a small group of experts.  “Each person,” Aristotle surmised, might “possess a constituent part of virtue and practical reason, and when they have come together, the multitude is like a single person.”  The “many-footed” and “many-handed” demos knew more together than any of its parts knew separately.

According to Josiah Ober’s 2008 Democracy and Knowledge, this capacity for effective use of dispersed knowledge was the genius of Athenian democracy.  In classical Greece, Athenian democracy was not, Ober argues, simply the “absolute sovereignty of the will of the majority” (Tocqueville), nor an ideal that enhanced the human dignity of citizens.  Rather, the essence of Greek democracy at its best was its ability to ensure that Athens would know what Athenians know.

Because democracy enabled Athens to aggregate, align, and codify knowledge, Athens competed effectively with oligarchies and despotisms that, on paper, looked far more efficient.  Drawing on Hayek, Ober argues that Athenian success was due to the “epistemic function of democratic institutions,” its efficient solution to the problem that Hayek considered the main problem of all social science – the “the use of knowledge in society.”  Democracy provided a means for pooling reserves of knowledge and skill from everyone who might know something useful.

Well, almost everyone.  The Athenian demos, after all, consisted of a fairly small slice of the Athenian population.  Slaves, freed slaves, women and metics were excluded from the deliberations of the various assemblies, no matter how skilled or knowledgeable they might be.  Aristotle thought that was perfectly just, since slaves lacked the natural endowments that would have made them suitable contributors to Athenian life.

And here is where the church comes in as the fulfillment of the aspirations of Athenian democracy, just as it is fulfills the hopes of Israel’s ekklesia.  Nowhere in the New Testament is the church identified as a demos.  That word is reserved for the people of Tyre and Sidon who hail Herod as a god (Acts 12:22) and Jews who rile up mobs against the apostles (Acts 17:5; 19:30, 33).  When New Testament writers use the word “people” (laos), they are most often referring to Israel (Matthew 2:4; Mark 7:6; Luke 1:10; Acts 2:47; Romans 11:1; etc.) and occasionally, by analogy, to the new people, the new Israel of the church (Titus 2:14; Hebrews 8:10; 13:12).

Several New Testament’s descriptions of the laos, however, highlight its connection with the Greek democratic ideal.  First-century churches certainly had rulers who ruled in the authority of Christ (Hebrews 13:17), but the body would flourish, Paul insisted, only when everyone contributed.  I daresay what would have most astonished an Athenian visitor to a Christian church would have been the democratic flavor of the assembly.  Here was a demos far more inclusive than anything Athens had dreamt of: Slaves, women, and freemen all assembled together, each, Paul says, with an essential Spiritual charisma to offer for the common good (1 Corinthians 14:26).  Every last one of them edified the body; every last one endowed with the Spirit of God with the prophetic power to communicate that Spirit to others (1 Corinthians 12:1-12; 14:20-25).

For the apostles, the laos was one of the signs that the kingdom had come.  Blessed are the poor, Jesus had said (Luke 6:20), and he also claimed that He had come to preach good news to the poor and excluded (Luke 4:18; 7:22).  As Segundo Galilea has explained, the kingdom is for the poor in the same way that a medical clinic in a remote Andean village is for the poor: “For the poor, more than for those of the village living in more comfortable circumstances, the clinic is the fulfillment of an ancient promise.  It is ‘good news.’  It is a great source of hope.  True, the clinic is not for them alone.  It is for rich and poor alike.  But its primary beneficiaries are the poor.”

When the well-born and rich receive blessings, it’s business as usual; but when the life of God flows out to the margins of the marginal, the kingdom has come.  For a first-century Gentile, it would be no surprise to see the educated, rich and well-born contributing to the formation of an upstart religion.  When slaves become bishops, when women receive the Spirit, when the shameful parts of the social body are given more abundant honor (1 Corinthians 12:20-26), then something dramatic and new has entered human history.

Rigid class divisions subverted the aims of Athenian democracy.  Useful knowledge and skills remained locked away in the minds and hands of slaves and metics, and never deployed for the benefit of public life in Athens.  Those resources, now released by the Spirit, became available in the church.  To be sure, the polis of the church is a counter-polity to both Athens and Jerusalem, but at the same time it completes both.

What Athenian democracy could not do, God did in the laocracy of the church.  What neither the law nor democracy could achieve has been fulfilled by the Spirit in the city of God.  The dreams of the demos were fulfilled in the laos.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 June 2010 10:49