Home / History / Ancient democracy today – a rare video interview with Cornelius Castoriadis

Ancient democracy today – a rare video interview with Cornelius Castoriadis

“If the Greeks created something, it was freedom”
Cornelius Castoriadis, 1989

Chris Marker made a 13 episode documentary series called The owl’s legacy in 1989, on how ancient Greek civilization influences today’s culture. It includes interviews with the likes of Theo Angelopoulos, Melina Merkouri and Cornelius Castoriadis, among others. Recently, the complete, unedited interview with Castoriadis was made public, where in 80 minutes the Greek philosopher returns to the basics, on what democracy meant then and what it means now, and on how we should interpret the triumphs of antiquity to utilize them in modern society. In the documentary only a small portion of the interview was used.

Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) (photo)
Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) (photo)

The emergency of democracy, Castoriadis explains, meant the acquisition of power by the people, who finally take their future in their own hands. Now, a law cannot arise from some holy scripture or by an eccentricity of the ruler, but by the will of the people, who elect him in the here and now as the appropriate man; which means that after ten or twenty years they might deem him obsolete and change him for another one.

In this way, politics were born, that did not concern intrigues of personal interests revolving around an established rule of kings and priests, with the question: how do we organize a good, just society? With what institutions? This is what “politics” means to the Greeks. Since it is people who will live by law, it should be people who define them. One is not, for example, satisfied with a Truth having been given by the Pentateuch and with the fact that he or she can only introduce some dialectics through successive tomes of the Talmud, that must all agree with the original Logos. There is no such final Truth; it does not exist in the Party and it cannot be taught by the General Secretary.

Christianity replaced the concept of hubris with that of sin. Sin is the breaking of divine law: god said something, you did the opposite, and therefore you sinned and will be punished. In ancient Greece the gods did not give commands or made prohibitions. There were certainly limits one should not cross. But they were not predefined. One had to think for himself on the limits of freedom, respect and decency, and if he would trespass on them, he would have shown hubris and be punished. It was the “excess” that was dangerous, not disobedience.

Thus, politics were connected with philosophy. Because the beginning of philosophy is not the question “What does it mean to exist?” It is the question “What should I think?” And in order for freedom to exist, philosophy has to exist. One is free to think and doubt even himself. This freedom can be imprinted on artistic creation. It is not for a lack of sources that an archeologist will find it difficult to ascertain whether an Egyptian sculpture is of the 23rd of the 24th Pharaoh Dynasty. There is no personal style of the artist there, there is only artistic tradition, which changes very slowly. For the Greeks, the personal touch is obvious; no one would mistake a Homeric verse for Hesiod’s, or Archilochus with Sappho. In the content of the artistic work itself, the breadth of freedom is incredibly vast. For example, Archilochus was a mercenary and a poet and he writes somewhere: “I was in battle, we were about to lose, and I threw my shield to escape faster. No big deal, I could always buy another one” (this is Castoriadis’ impromptu rendition). To say something like that in a society that most of all respected military glory and to be celebrated with honors for poetic achievements…that was freedom.

From the interview
From the interview

The difference between direct and modern democracy is that, in ancient Greece, there was no representation. Naturally, even then, not all civilians decided on all matters, but they would elect among all the people the one who was an expert on a field. This person would not be given power, but the responsibility to do the relevant work (e.g. for building ships, the best in building ships would be elected).

There is no “state” for the ancients. The second part of the word “democracy” means “power”, not a separate body of people that rules the individual or converses with it. The “state” are the people, not a geographic region. It’s no accident that Aristotle’s work is called Constitution of the Athenians and not Constitution of Athens.

Today, on the contrary, there is an alienation from power. The “Moderns” pass their power to their representatives and release themselves of responsibility for 4 years until the next elections. During this time they become passive citizens; they are not obligated to participate actively in politics. And, in the elections, what is it that they chose? Usually one of two parties whose policies are defined by the previous term.

For the ancients there was no such alienation. The laws were their own laws, because they voted on them; and if I’m in the minority I have to accept the majority’s decision or else I am free to leave the city. And if these laws are broken by someone, it’s not the responsibility of a professional body of men to take action against him, but also each one’s personal responsibility; hence the right all men had to charge anyone of acting unjustly. Today, that the laws are not our laws, that we have been alienated from power, that the laws are enforced on us and oppress us, the notion of “betrayer” has taken hold and constitutes a great accusation. Today we avoid accusing one another because the laws are not our laws, but the laws of the others.

There is no point, of course, to try and bring back the direct form of democracy in the modern age, with millions of voters and the complexity of today’s activities, but we could be inspired by the idea of direct democracy and re-establish our relationship with the laws, with societal ties and power. We can find ways to organize democratic forms locally, in institutions like a business, that would not be alienating, where people could participate in the decision making process. There are examples of such modern endeavors, like the worker’s movement, labor councils and the Soviets before the total rule of the Bolshevik Party. The modern man mainly asks the state to guarantee his pleasures, and this is a basic difference between the ancients and the moderns. Today, the people will exercise true power only in convulsion, perhaps through a crises or a revolution.

The modern man deems politics to be a purely practical/technical affair, and, in so doing, proclaims his inability to partake in it. He thinks he cannot govern himself and assigns this rather ungracious activity to others. This is wrong because politics is a matter of opinion and not authority. For a people to render themselves to the “wisdom” of an authority means the transition to totalitarianism and fascism.

The Germans translated the word “polis” as “Der Staat” (“the state”) instead of “the city”. The Nazis, wanting to present themselves as holdovers of the ancient Greek glory, presented Pericles’ Epitaph as a fascist text. And indeed, if one replaces in this text the word “polis” with “state”, it becomes fascist by celebrating the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the state, while Pericles’ intention was to glorify the sacrifice for the sake of the Athenians, meaning the compatriots, the comrades.

“The Owl’s Legacy”, by Chris Marker, in 1989
“The Owl’s Legacy”, by Chris Marker, in 1989

The education that the state has an obligation to offer to the young citizen in order for him to become a good citizen, has to consist of teaching him how to govern and be governed; but not as an animal is governed by a human or as a human is governed by another human (like in a master-slave relationship) where the latter believes the former incapable of deciding for himself. One must be taught to be governed in the sense of obeying the laws that were voted by himself or the majority (and must therefore be respected by him); meaning as a free man.

You can watch the entire interview here:

Check Also

Use of myth in Plato’s Symposium

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life Symposium, …

Leave a Reply