When it comes to credit, history is a consistently fickle patron. In 1980, statistician Joseph Stigler condensed this idea into his “Theory of Eponymity,” stating that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. For instance, neither the Pythagorean Theorem nor Pascal’s Triangle, two of mathematics’ fundamental principles, were novel creations by their namesakes. Babylonian tablets containing uses of the Pythagorean Theorem date back to 1000 B.C. Meanwhile, Pascal’s Triangle and its binomial coefficients had been known to mathematicians across India, China, and the Middle East millennia before the birth of Europe. Some would consider these examples to be the unjust superimposition of Western labels and culture onto pre-existing intellectual thought. Others might view it as unfortunate or even inevitable. Nevertheless,it is clear that certain names and practices shall be remembered by posterity, while others are destined to be footnotes in the annals of history.
The Greek city of Athens is widely considered to be the birthplace of Western civilization and democracy. Most English words associated with modern politics — including the words “politics” and “democracy” themselves — trace their etymology back to the Greek language. Works regarding the Greek and subsequent Roman states also dominate every list of seminal political theory. It is therefore easy to mischaracterize liberal democracy as an inherently Western ideal and an export that raised non-Western states from the irredeemable depths of imperialism or anarchy. However, contemporary research has uncovered significant evidence towards proto-democracy existing in civilizations far predating the Athenian polis. Different ancient societies and philosophies exhibited distinct shades of democratic values, including a system for choosing a leader, active civic engagement, protection of human rights, and equality under law. Not only does this dispel the contrived delineation between ancient Western and Eastern cultures, it generates renewed hope for democracy in all nations despite an alarming trend of global democratic deterioration.
The Athenian era indisputably had great developments in philosophy, mathematics, and literature. However, it had not monopolized intellectual curiosity, nor was it walled off in a cultural silo. During the Greek Empire’s infancy, civilizations were already flourishing across Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Indus Valley. The early Greeks came into contact with all of these groups, interacting extensively via travel and trade. Thales, the “Father of Greek Philosophy,” gained his education of mathematics in Egypt. As a result of Thales’ exposure to Egyptian culture during his educational pursuits, Greek historian Herodotus postulated that Greek religion developed as an offshoot of the Egyptian gods. The famed art of Greek sculpture and architecture is also said to be directly inspired by various near Eastern civilizations. This contradicts the narrative of Western cultural exceptionalism that conservative and alt-right groups have recently used to euphemize white supremacy, irrespective of the fact that Greco-Roman societies were surprisingly diverse and that the concept of race was virtually non-existent. Additionally, it should invalidate any attempts to evaluate other civilizations based on structural adjacency to rudimentary Athenian democracy, since societies throughout history have clearly been an amalgamation of different cultural influences and ideas.
Perhaps the most essential features of a true democratic environment are active civic participation and the equality of all citizens. Ideally, the definition of citizenship would extend to every member of a society. Ancient Greece did not consider slaves, foreigners, or women to be citizens and hence were wholly removed from all political processes. However, all those granted citizenship were afforded equal participation. Assemblies would be held periodically, where each citizen was invited to participate and could speak or vote simply by raising their hands. While Athens is the earliest documented democracy, many non-Western cultures managed to involve all their citizens in various political institutions through democratic and meritocratic elements. Indian Vedic scriptures from around 1500 B.C. are replete with examples of republics ruled by elected officials. Despite being a monarchy, Ancient Egypt provided equal legal rights to women and men, granting them equal footing in legal identity, property rights, economic autonomy, and divorce rights. Records suggest that at least seven Pharaohs were female, including famed rulers Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Hatshepsut. Slaves and foreigners also had legal and democratic rights and reasonable socioeconomic mobility. These foundational human rights are essential for true democracy but were considered radical to Western civilizations until relatively recently. The existence of democratic infrastructure should not be conflated with the presence of democratic ideals or human rights; each can exist without the other. That we do so today is a result of centuries of the intentional erasure and denigration of non-Western culture, and the undue association of the West with true humanitarianism.
Another essential feature of a democratic apparatus is a mechanism for citizens to freely choose their leaders and hold them accountable. In today’s democracies, this manifests itself in elections. However, the polis used elections only for major public offices. Minor administrative positions in the government were filled by a selection process known as sortition, which involved randomly drawing lots. The Athenians identified a major flaw with each of these individual methods of selection. As can be seen in modern democracies, elections with public majority votes result in protracted elections with misinformation and bitter smear campaigns ending in brutal Pyrrhic victories. Sortition would eliminate these issues and encourage political literacy and participation among all citizens, but raised additional drawbacks of potential incompetence in the government. Thus, they envisioned a hybrid system involving both methods and mutually mitigating some of the others’ flaws. Although elections and sortition are both innovative ideas, they are not necessarily novel ones. Many areas of Ancient India conducted elections with universal male suffrage and foreigners capable of naturalization. Regions in ancient Mesopotamia also elected their kings for fixed seven-year terms as early as 2300 B.C. There are even records of sortition being used for elections to village committees in southern India around 900 A.D. Clearly, it seems elections are not nearly as indigenously Western of a commodity as previously advertised.
The history of modern liberal democracy is as capricious as it has been short-lived. The past century has seen multiple global waves of democratization and subsequent authoritarianization. Currently, the world is deep in the latter’s throes, with dwindling avenues for redress. Still, the knowledge of democratic ideals in past civilizations from all cultures is cause for optimism. Therein lies the importance of giving credit where it is due and acknowledging democracy’s multicultural history. Shifting our perceptions of democracy from that of a Western social experiment to a ubiquitous social value renders it significantly more viable for survival. In all likelihood, global democratic infrastructure will prevail in another surge of re-democratization. If not, we can hope that future institutions retain the values of equality, freedom, and communal respect.