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Persuasion and Cleisthenic Democracy

By about 500 B.C. Cleisthenes had succeeded in devising an Athenian democracy based on direct participation by as many adult male citizens as possible. That he could put such a system in place successfully in a time of turmoil and have it endure, as it did, means that he must have been building on pre-existing conditions favorable to democracy. Certainly, as an aristocrat looking for popular support, Cleisthenes had reason to invent the kind of system he thought ordinary people wanted. That he based his system on the demes, the great majority of which were country villages, suggests that some conditions favoring democracy may have stemmed from the traditions of village life. Possibly, the notion of wide-spread participation in government gained support from the custom village residents often have of dealing with each other on relatively egalitarian terms. That is, each man in a village is entitled to his say in running local affairs and must persuade, not compel, others of the wisdom of his recommendations. Since many aristocrats increasingly seem to have preferred to reside in the city, their ability to dominate discussion in the demes was reduced. In any case, the idea that persuasion1, rather than force or status, should constitute the mechanism for political decision-making in the emerging Athenian democracy fit well with the spirit of the intellectual changes which were taking place during the late Archaic Age. That is, the idea that people had to present plausible reasons for their recommendations corresponded to one of the period's new ways of thought. This development has proved one of the most influential legacies of Greek civilization.

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