A Classical Education

Inner Temple, one of the four inns of court, has arranged a day of lectures and panel discussions on Saturday about the Greek origins of democracy and “its past, present, and future vices and virtues”. The conference is very obviously the brainchild of Lord Justice Laws, Treasurer (effectively, chairman) of the inn this year and reflects his lifelong interest in the classics.

This is how Sir John Laws introduces the conference, called Democracy’s Illusions: Challenges to the Rule of Law?

Democracy and the Rule of Law: they are often seen as constitutional twins in harness, joint guarantors of a fair and free society.  However, these two ideas are not always in harmony.

Democracy can threaten the rule of law.  It can offer grave injury to unpopular minorities. It can encourage short-term populism in government.  But it is – or is it? – our only guarantee against much worse political ills: arbitrary, oppressive, tyrannous government.

In contrast to current times, democracy’s inventors, the Greeks, thought a great deal about its merits and demerits, perhaps because other systems of government seemed (at least) no less respectable. There are many obvious points about the difference between their democracy and ours, such as Athens’ limited and all male franchise as well as the ancient world’s acceptance of slavery: their democracy was by no means based on ideas of humanity’s universal equality or brotherhood.

However, we can follow Aristotle’s example of dispassionate enquiry: we can ask what democracy’s true values are; whether it is a means or an end in itself; where it fits best, and whether there are places where it does not fit at all.

As with any intellectual enterprise, we can assume nothing except the enquiry’s value, and therefore no question is off limits.

Sir John’s opening address will be followed by what we can expect to be a witty and pointed response by Dr Peter Jones, former senior lecturer in Classics in the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Here is his synopsis:

The Athenian Cleisthenes invented democracy in 508 BC. It was ended by Macedonians 180 years later. Intellectuals and governments have resiled in horror from it ever since. Peter Jones will describe the most developed form of its workings, stressing that the separation of powers is not a concept that makes democratic sense, and will end by musing on how a democracy would handle some of today’s problems. He will conclude that, in our system, democracy is indeed an illusion, and the law has nothing to do with it.

After lunch, there will be two panel discussions:  one on “race and religion” and the other on “the future”. Among those taking part is Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University. This is what he will be saying.

It has become a commonplace to speak of a crisis of democracy in Britain. But trends in Britain – towards lower turnout in elections, lower party membership, falling identification with political parties, and lack of trust in political leaders – are in fact common to many democracies. They indicate that the era of pure representative democracy, as it has been understood for much of the 20th century, is now coming to an end. Elected politicians are no longer accepted as the sole source of power and authority. Democracies must find a way to redistribute power away from the political professionals to the people.

There is a latent tension between the inherited political forms of modern democracies, and new ideological forces, or rather an old ideological force which has come, in nearly every advanced democracy, to be resurrected, namely liberal constitutionalism. The attempt to make our constitutional and political forms congruent with this new public philosophy is likely to prove one of the fundamental challenges of our time.

Sounds fascinating  — and just the sort of thing the inns should be doing.

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