In his The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia In Ancient Athens and Modern America, Eli Sagan maintains that: Athens…has given us the greatest gift imaginable: the ideal and reality of a democratic polity based on a complex and moral conception of citizenship.1

…the hidden, irrational underside of political life—the perversion of reason—is a fundamental subject of this work. [4]

One of the great insight[s] of psychoanalytic theory is the developmental view that the psyche, from infancy to adulthood, progresses in highly differentiated stages, that the course of a healthy, "normal" development is to pass successfully from one stage to another. Freud’s great insight was that the so-called sexual perversions in an adult are manifestations of a psyche arrested, or fixated, in a particular preadult stage of sexual evolution. [13]

Essential to the theoretical ground of this book is the concept that—as far as the relationship of the psyche and the world is concerned—there exists a crucial developmental sequence: (1) paranoia, (2) the paranoid position, and (3) overcoming the paranoid position. Clearly the sequence represents an advance in psychic maturity and health. As in all developmental psychological theory, the telos of development is a psyche reasonably free of pathology. [14]

If the movement from Archaic civilization (Sumer, Egypt) to Classical civilization (Greece, Israel) can be described as a step forward in social evolution, and not merely as a change from one kind of society to another, it should be possible to demonstrate that Classical civilizations were significantly less paranoid than those of the Archaic. So, too, with the development of authoritarian society to democratic society. It will be argued here that democratic society, even in the imperfect democracy we simultaneously enjoy and deplore, represents the least paranoid of any form of society yet seen. [15]

The quintessential overriding concern of the paranoid position is the question of control…. [16]

The paranoid never believes that even the most extreme measures taken against real and fantasized enemies are sufficient. Catastrophe is always imminent. [18]

The paranoid cannot abide tolerance. [20]

No democracy is possible unless a large group have the capacity to live without the defenses of authoritarianism, militarism, and dogmatic ideology.

Paranoia is the problem. The paranoid position is the defense. Democracy is a miracle, considering human psychological disabilities. [22]

Psychologically and historically, the fundamental forms for overcoming the paranoid position and establishing a democratic world view have been law and education. [24]

The disease, in the case of paranoia, is a panic-anxiety that one’s selfhood could be destroyed. It results from a sense of self so fragile, from a system of adequate defenses so brittle, that the slightest challenge results in a kind of psychic fibrillation….All paranoid mechanisms are implemented to obtain control over some force or some person who threatens psychic existence." [26]

The deep problematic within the paranoidia of dominance and greed is that they require a fantastical belief in omnipotence. They are insatiable and they ultimately prove self-destructive. [30]

Nothing illustrates more sharply the distinction between Athens and Rome than the aftermath of these crises in regard to the land policy for the small citizen-farmer. After the compromise settlement achieved by Solon, who did not redistribute the land, the cry was never again raised in Athens. Perhaps the problem of the individual peasant was permanently solved, or commercial and industrial interests and the needs of the large naval force ultimately provided urban jobs for displaced peasants, or the radical democracy gave the lower classes a sense of political empowerment and, therefore, the capacity to pursue economic goals through political means—about the true cause we can only speculate. In Rome, on the other hand, problems of land-poor citizens continued to plague its history. [45]

Solon helped transform Athens at this time of social crisis by insisting that virtue, rather than force, would have the most prominent part in social cohesion. [55]

Sagan cites Solon: "...obedience to the law shows forth all things in order and harmony and at the same time sets shackles on the unjust.…" [55] …[the psychological mechanism of splitting] represents a very primitive (that is, developmentally early) mode of psychic defense….splitting is the primary mechanism for people with borderline pathologies, whereas repression is the primary mode of defense for neurotics. The recourse to splitting represents a greater degree of psychopathology. [65]

The average democratic society thus represents a culture in moral conflict between ideal and reality. A good portion of its history consists of how it does, or does not, resolve that conflict. If the extension of democratic equality to all people involves the closing of the fissure produced by splitting, then it is not inappropriate to remark that the process of full democratization is one by which a society attains health. [65]

Despite the temporary failure of his compromise, Solon bequeathed to Athens a remarkably precious gift: the ideal conception and sometime reality that the state could be one polity, one community wherein people rationally and peacefully settle their conflicts. Far different was the conception of Plato, who, deliberately ignoring the whole history of Athens, commented on the situation of all city states in the fourth century: "For each of them is very many cities but not a city....There are two, in any case, warring with each other, one of the poor, the other of the rich."2 This might be true of almost all, if not all, other Greek cities, but Athens was the great exception. Democracy and only democracy made it whole. [70-71]

To make a commitment to citizenship, one must forswear the lust to dominate. This is a very difficult psychological maneuver, however, especially for those whose proclivity is to seek power within society.

Since it is eros which binds society together, And since eros must have an object, the transformation process from hierarchy to citizenship involves a transfer of love from the ruler or rulers…to one’s country. [77]

Even in the most radical democracy, the people reign, but they do not rule. Elites rule. Elites of birth, money, brains, or ability. Supreme sovereignty may lie with the demos, who hold the ultimate power to choose those who lead society, but the actual running of the state and the making of crucial decisions lies with a group of elite rulers. In most democracies, the people’s main role is to decide which group of elites should rule. [108]

…the basic premise of democratic life: the fundamental equality of all human beings. [135]

All prejudice originates in fear of the stranger….The greater the commitment to the paranoid position, the greater the fear of otherness, the more intense will prejudice and hatred become, the more violent and catastrophic the means used to "cleanse" society of the particular pollution. [139]

Ancient Greece and Israel brought profoundly different elements to this unique cultural phenomenon, but there was one view of the world which they shared and which set them off from the Archaic cultures that had preceded them. In the highest realms of thought and moral perception—represented in Israel by the prophets and in Greece by philosophy and democratic political practice—the concept developed that human nature could be morally transformed through education, culture, and religion. It is not a question whether or not human nature can be changed, since that is precluded by definition if one defines a thing’s nature as that which, in essence it is. It is a matter of declaring that human nature is such that human beings are capable of moral transformation, of becoming more just than they have been and of being able to create and establish a society manifesting a greater sense of justice than any society that went before. [143]

There is no important human ideal that is incapable of corruption….Ideology is the perversion of wisdom. No sooner had the ideal of a new man appeared on the scene than the perverted conception of a controlled society quickly followed. Totalitarianism is really too modern a word to describe accurately what was being proposed. Paranoid society engineering is much closer to the truth. [144]

When Cleisthenes instituted the democracy, he abolished the old tribal system of four kinship tribes and substituted a purely political system of ten "tribes" based on residence, not birth. Any dissolution of kinship forms of social coherence will provoke an anxiety of separation. The total paranoid control promised by all schemes of social engineering and by totalitarian societies are attempts to heal the terrible wounds caused by the destruction of kinship forms of social solidarity. [146]

Compared to tyranny, [a] democracy is a messy, inefficient, unpredictable, uncontrolled society. The vote of some ignorant, garlic-smelling, uneducated peasant may affect the whole course of one’s life—when the vote is for war, for instance. Could one imagine a situation of greater dependence upon others? For the person of oligarchic extremist temperament, this is the most horrifying situation imaginable. The resort to assassination and political terror may seem a small price to pay for the restoration of order. Other people’s freedom drives some people insane. Total control pretends to be the only existent antidote to that madness. [155]

The great moral problematic within democratic society arises from the unfortunate circumstance that the momentous development of sovereignty from the one to the few to the many does not guarantee the just nature of society. All sovereignty, no matter by whom exercised, is subject to perversion in the form of tyranny. [186]

The great moral, political, and human question becomes, what is it that makes a society dispense more or less justice? Aristotle’s response…emphasizes respect for the law over arbitrary power. The laws must be sovereign, not the demos. But this is an ambiguous answer for the laws are not of supernatural origin. They are made by the demos. It is true that in the trial of the generals after Arginusae the laws were trampled on by the temporary madness and arrogance of the people, but Socrates was executed without any violation of the law. [189]

In truth, we are left with the necessity of laying our hopes for a just society on a very fragile reed, the demos itself. It is not the most reassuring prospect. The Athenian demos, the most morally spirited of any in the ancient world, could behave at times like an arrogant, inconsistent, and frightened tyrant. [192]

We are back to the ultimate question of justice within society, especially in a democratic society. Isocrates’ view, and in the final analysis Thucydides’ as well, is that, assuming the existence of democratic governments, some will act wisely and justly and others foolishly and arrogantly. Circumstances (perhaps the winning or losing of a war or a plague), and the spirit or spiritedness of the people are decisive factors. The future holds the prospect of a certain number of democratic polities, some of which will be governed justly and others not. This analysis lacks, historical, developmental dimension because the Greek world and especially democracy were so young that no evolutionary analysis of democratic society was possible. Without such analysis, however, there is no answer to the problem of justice within society. Therefore Plato and Aristotle could never answer the question.

One may reject the historical evolutionary view, but to do so is necessarily to assume a pessimistic position. If all that the future holds, as Thucydides would have it, is more and more repetition of the past, then human history has no meaning and the problem of justice within society has no answer. If the human psyche lacks an evolutionary, developmental thrust to overcome the paranoid position; if the psyche does not strive toward a democratic polity as a matter of psychic health; if the history of democracy, especially since the rise of liberalism and the creation of the great democratic societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shows no developmental impulse toward a more and more mature and more and more inclusive society (women, the poorest people), then justice will always remain a matter of mere chance and we will never awaken from the nightmare which is history. [197-198]

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the capacity of the demos to play the tyrant than its through commitment to the imperialist policy of the Athenian Empire and its willingness to support the most violent measures to build and defend that hegemony. [199]

Genocide as a basic instrument of policy in intercity warfare was a fundamental norm of Greek society. [235]

The discussion of warfare, genocide, and slavery has inevitably raised the question of moral progress. The answer depends directly on the possibility of a transformation of instinct. To what degree, if any, are the aggressive drives capable of sublimation and transformation? [244]

My own position is clear. I have written four books attempting to establish that a theory of social and moral progress is a reasonable one. Twentieth-century democracy differs from Athenian democracy in three remarkably important ways, each with profound implications for the degree of the paranoid position within society and for the degree of justice within a necessarily ambivalent value system.

First, the abandonment of slavery means not only freedom for those who were, or were destined to become, slaves, but also freedom for the slave-owning class from the exercise of—and the incarceration within—a psychologically primitive mastery. [244-245]

The second crucial way on which twentieth-century democracy differs from that of Athens is in its inclusion of women. [245]

The discussion of the third mode of difference…is more conjectural. We have practically no data concerning child rearing in the ancient world, except for the widespread practice of infanticide amongst all social classes….

Slavery…must have a debilitating effect on children. Certain primitive modes of dealing with aggression and anxiety must be overcome and sublimated for a child to develop into a mature adult. Certain impulses toward, and beliefs in, omnipotence must be abandoned. In our culture the adult who believes he can—psychologically—own other people is pathological. In a slave society, children learn that one can live out that fantasy of omnipotence.

Lastly, the oppression of women must inevitably have a debilitating effect on child rearing. [246]

…giving up infanticide, abandoning slavery, and allowing equality for women must have an enormously positive effect on the quality of child rearing within a society. This will be reflected in a decrease in the paranoid positions in the politics of the state….A democratic society requires democratic child rearing. A nongenocidal democratic society requires nongenocidal child rearing. [247]

The concept of justice, in democratic society, is inexorably intertwined with the idea of equality…. [273]

Two fundamental inequalities…lead to the perversion of democratic ideals of equality.

First, there is money [272]

Second, people differ significantly in their ability, their ambition, their cunning, their capacity and willingness to dominate over others. [274]

These two fundamental inequalities, combining with the nature of organizations and their inevitable drive toward efficiency of operation, lead to the creation of a political elite that rules even where the demos retains sovereignty. [274]

Since the demise of the direct democracy of the Athenian Assembly there has been no demos that has both reigned and ruled. The most stable democratic society is an open one wherein there is considerable social mobility, so that capable and ambitious people without the advantages of birth or money can….arise into the elite. This ensures that they will not become revolutionaries to assuage their frustrated ambition, and raises the quality of leadership by securing the constant presence of fresh talent. [275]

Perceiving that the health and strength of a society may depend directly on the quality of its political elite, some thinkers and reformers have addressed themselves to the problem of creating the correct institutional framework for the education of this elite. Eric Havelock, who writes of the "liberal temper" in Greek society, considers one of the greatest achievements of Plato and Aristotle to be the insight that university education was vital to the health of a "liberal society." Ironically, these two thinkers, who were opposed to democracy, perceived the importance of creating an institution tat would make democratic society possible, that would train a responsible political elite to rule where the people reigned. Of Plato and Aristotle, Havelock writes:

Their genius had made a social discovery of immense importance….that a system of university education had now become socially indispensable for the progress of Western culture. For this they set themselves to devise the institutional forms, the curriculum, the techniques of instruction, and the necessary intellectual disciplines. [281-282] The enthronement of individualism buried the deep concern for the commonwealth and the commonwealth of the polis that had been second nature to any thinking person in the ancient democratic world. The loss of this deep commitment to community has caused some modern thinkers to exaggerate the virtue of the polis, ignoring its conflicts and profound contradictions. If the second stage of democracy—liberal, bourgeois, capitalist—is to be transformed into something more just, it will have to learn what was obvious to those who lived in the polis: great wealth is a problematic for democratic society—great poverty is a catastrophe. [289]

The tribal band as a paranoid defense is the great hindrance to the advance of universal ideas of justice, and only when it is overcome and transformed to a significant degree will an all-inclusive ideal of democracy be possible. It was a moral transformation of which Athens was incapable. [305-306]

The greatest anxiety that people…face is the dissolution of the self, the existence of which is problematic and cannot be taken for granted. [309]

Honor is inadequate as a moral guide because it is external to the soul; like its counterpart shame, it depends on the opinion of others. Aristotle pronounced it the greatest of external goods. Justice and morality require internalization, a conscience independent of the current values of society. [313]

One of the most powerful of ambiguities in the human condition arises when honor fuses with the tribal bond….Only wisdom can judge between a just and an unjust war; only wisdom can subject honor and glory to critique. [314]

…even wisdom, the highest good, is subject to perversion. Aristotle’s view that each basic form of society has its perverted form can be applied to other tripartite analyses. Do gain, honor, and wisdom have corrupt modes? What is the relationship between each ideal form and its perversion?….The overriding moral differentiation is whether sovereignty is exercised fro the common good or for narrow personal interest, the latter being the malignant or immoral form.

How do gain, honor, and wisdom fare in this analysis? The corruption of gain is greed; of honor, narcissism; of wisdom, ideology. Each debased form carries the fulfillment of the soul’s craving to excess, degrading a normal appetite into an addiction. The differentiation between the ideals and their perversions echoes Aristotle’s analysis of societal forms: is the pursuit undertaken for the sake of others, as well as for the self? For honor and wisdom, the answer may be clear, but gain also is almost always undertaken to provide for others…as well as for self. [316-317]

…ideology is the perversion of wisdom because perpetrators of ideological catastrophes insisted on annihilating millions in pursuit of the highest ends…. [317]

The word "perversion" originates in the psychology of sexuality, describing the pursuit of a corrupt or distorted sexual satisfaction. The broader implications in the concept are that, whereas authentic sexual experience can satisfy, perversions have an obsessive, compulsive character that ultimately makes true gratification impossible. A person may be driven, over an over again, to return to the perverse experience, but true satiation never results. Just so the pursuit of greed and grandiose narcissism can never satisfy. The void in the middle of the soul is never filled. Alienation and despair follow the repetitive and hollow experience. Political vulnerability results because such alienation and despair often drive some—even many—to seek escape from their "iron cage" through an ideological transformation of the world. History has demonstrated that when enough people choose the perverted political way out, democracy is destroyed and many millions of citizens along with it. [319]

The key to responsible democratic government is accountability. Without it, corruption reigns. The failure of a community to police its officers and to curb the natural amount of corruption and arrogance can only lead to degradation of a polity. [324]

Having declared in a famous pronouncement that "man is a political animal"—a phrase Barker renders more profoundly as "man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis,"—Aristotle remarks a few paragraphs later that, "there is therefore an imminent impulse in all men toward an association of this order. But the man who first constructed such an association, was none the less the greatest of benefactors. Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all." [329]

It is a fundamental theory of this book on Athenian democracy that the democratic impulse is "imminent in all humans." Those who first constructed a democratic society were "the greatest of benefactors" but it need not necessarily have happened, intrinsic though the impulse is in human nature. Aristotle knew of many men who did not live in a polis—barbarians and even some Greeks….The historically contingent nature of democratic society has influenced me to declare its first construction miraculous. [330]

Aristotle knew, as we are just beginning to rediscover, that education for justice, no matter how widely or narrowly justice may be defined, holds the polis together. [330]

Although overcoming the paranoid position is "imminent in all men," it takes a large dose of guidance and indoctrination to ensure the viability of the democratic spirit. The true telos of teaching in a democratic society is to enable people to live their political lives without exaggerated recourse to paranoid defenses. All discussion about the nature of educational curriculum—particularly intense these days—is an argument about means. The end of education in a free society is the creation of an environment in which the democratic spirit may thrive. Any morally valid changes in curriculum must serve that end. [332]

What can Athens teach us? A stable Republican society requires a simple, but enormously difficult, psychological maneuver: the renunciation of violence as a political means within the polis, the sublimation of primitive aggression into intense, nonviolent competition. What destroyed Republican societies was not the competition for power…but the ease with which political contests degenerated into tribal warfare. [359-360]

367 The pursuit of greed and domination is not rational, as indicated by the speed with which it becomes excessive. [367]



1 Eli Sagan, The Honey and the Hemlock: Democracy and Paranoia In Ancient Athens and Modern America (Princeton, Princeton U.P., 1991), p. 2.  Further citations are followed by the appropriate page number.   Back

2Plato’s Republic 422e.  Sagan cites from Alan Bloom’s translation (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1968).   Back

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