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July 1-8, 2005

Democracy, Freedom, and Human Identity: Pericles’ Gift to the Age of Globalization

By Gregory R. Copley[1]

President of the International Strategic Studies Association, to the Conference on The Year of Pericles, Delphi, Greece: July 1-8, 2005.

Democracy is spoken of today more widely and more fervently than perhaps in any other time in history. But because we have become accustomed to the word, the concept itself has been left largely unexamined for so long that interpretations of its meaning vary vastly from culture to culture. So I would like to first take a step back, to touch upon the roots of democracy as a naturally-occurring phenomenon which has its basis within our genetic imperative toward social interaction and species survival.

Democracy — as we define it today — is a concept and ideal for social welfare which demands of every participant the exercise of free will in the conscious assignment and division of the rôles of governance over the individual and the collective society. It is, at its best, midway between the total assignment to an absolutist leadership the responsibility for the life of society and individuals, and the anomie of individuals bereft of responsibility for others. Democracy is a reflection of natural tendencies found throughout humanity; by naming it, the ancient Greeks gave it form.

Democracy represents mankind’s need for collective engagement to reproduce and nurture the perpetuation of the species, and for collective action to make that survival triumphant in works which protect and strengthen humanity. And yet it represents the reality of individuality within the species, and the need of the individual for both a personal and a group identity.

Some responsibilities, therefore, are assigned by individuals within the framework of democracy to collective institutions and to other individuals, and some responsibilities are retained within each individual. Each exercise of assignment contains within it specific functions and commitments; each exercise of free will and the assignment of that will, then, also has a price.

The ideal democracy is that in which the individual feels that he has not assigned away more of his rights than he wishes, nor assumed more than is tolerable of the burden for life within society. And given the unique nature of each individual, it is rare that a society can be in complete harmony as to what represents too much assignment, or too much individual responsibility.

Democratic societies, therefore, are in eternal movement and adjustments of assignments of responsibility. This must be their nature; anything less than constant movement and adjustment would imply a uniformity of thought which would further imply the loss of democracy and the imposition of standards by tacit or express force.

And given that all societies differ in their customs, desires, and logic patterns — which are governed by terrain, climate, and the relative ease or difficulty of human survival — it is natural that the structures and shape of democracy also differ from culture to culture, and from time to time.

Democracy, as practiced in conscious forms from the earliest times until today, reflects that the assignment of responsibilities from an individual to a group, or from individuals to other specific individuals — leaders — varies depending on the transitory needs of societal survival. For example, free will is more happily subordinated to autocratic leadership in times of challenge and conflict. And at all times, the varying nature of individuals reflects a greater or lesser need to assume or assign leadership.

It is this same natural urge toward organization — the fundamental democratic urge — which evolves a body of accepted custom, of moral and ethical codes within society; all of which generates common law. The enshrinement of historically-evolved common law into the codes of society is, therefore, a greater enshrinement of this democratic spirit than, for example, the imposition from above of the wisdom of individuals, such as we saw with the enactment in the French Empire of the Code Napoleon.

The natural fluidity, therefore, of swirling masses of humanity is the beauty of democracy. Ask not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Ask how six-billion individuals can dance in a choreographed and endlessly-moving gavotte. This is the dance which reflects the nature of humanity in search of structure.

The gift of Pericles, and of others within the Hellenist age of the city states, was that they became conscious of the ability and possible methodologies of mankind to choose between tyranny — either assigned or seized — and anomie: lawlessness. The gift was that Pericles and those of his age expressed that we know the reality that this choice had forms upon which all individuals could reflect and decide.

Human nature, human desires, and human needs arguably remain unchanged in their basic forms since the times of pre-history. The dimension of the human mind itself has not changed, and the wisdom and intellectual capabilities of the average modern human have also remained unchanged. Man runs but little faster than in the days before history; lifts scarce, if any, more weight; feels no more love, or more sorrow. And yet the human condition has changed, haltingly, and with violent surges and setbacks, over the millennia.

And this change, when it has been positive, has been due solely to the tools — both physical and intellectual — which have been built painstakingly, each better than the last, each tracing its origins to the first rock thrown, the first stick sharpened, and, most importantly, to the first words formed to provide the abstract representation of things and dreams of things. Progress toward structured societies and civilizations is the accretion or construction of building blocks of lessons.

All progress, then is fragile and reversible: if mankind forgets; if it loses its will toward enquiry; or if it destroys the framework of lessons and civilizational structures. Dark ages can once again rob mankind of progress, prosperity, and security, if minds turn from learning, and permit leaden authority or hysteria to sweep away the facility of individuals to enquire. As with the lessons of progress, this too is a lesson we have learned from history, and mankind has not yet recovered from the loss of momentum and civilizational foundations represented by the destroyed or misplaced manuscripts and learning from the times of Zarathustra, of ancient Hellenism, of the Library of Alexandria, or those of Rome. Humanity was robbed of hundreds of years of progress by the Dark Ages which resulted from the triumph of destructive societies over civilizations whose members had forgotten their responsibilities toward their own good governance and survival.

Had we been able to build on the pivotal lessons of Pericles in a consistent, unbroken line, it is probable that we could have seen such achievements of the mind as moveable type and widespread literacy in the Ninth Century CE, and supersonic flight and space travel in the 15th Century. Today, had mankind not, through lapses of human judgment, failed to observe the lessons of history, we could have achieved a greatness which remains still unimaginable to us.

And yet our human failings caused the lessons of Pericles and the great thinkers of Hellenism to be abandoned almost as soon as they were realized. Athens succumbed to corrupt government in the generation after Pericles died of plague; Athenian principles of democracy retreated when Hellenism succumbed to Macedonian absolutism in the Fourth Century BC. But the lessons of Pericles and Aristotle, of democracy-shy Plato, and of Demosthenes, still recalled in manuscripts and teachings, remained intact, if but partially applied, through the Roman conquest of Greece and the rise of Roman civilization. And progress in human society continued, albeit often without democracy, until the fall of the Western Roman Empire itself. With the rise of the Dark Ages, human societal achievement faltered and slowed, only fully recovering momentum with the major Renaissance of the 15th Century.[2] And even then, tyranny (monarchy and oligarchy) but reluctantly allowed a restoration of the freedoms needed by individuals to participate in their own destiny; that reluctance tempered by the reality that the free exercise of responsibility by individuals also contributed to the creativity, productivity and wealth of the leadership.

We have only to witness how China’s wealth has multiplied since tyranny has loosened its reins to allow the more-or-less free choice of individuals to express their responsibilities to themselves and their society. And how much more China’s wealth could grow if that rebalancing of assignments was allowed to structure itself into a more democratic framework.

It has been assumed that absolutist monarchical government represents a top-down form of societal administration while democracy represents a bottom-up form of government. Neither assumption is completely accurate; both reflect the aggregate of the assignment of responsibilities by the collective will of the people. At different times, or in different segments of society, there will be either a majority or a minority who will wish to assign all decisionmaking to a leader and virtually none at all to themselves. This balance changes with the level of security which a society feels. Not merely the security from external attack, or from pestilence and starvation. But the security which individuals within a society feel as to their own identity and sense of self-worth, expressed individually and collectively.

The achievement of identity security is at the core of the successful achievement of the middle or balanced road of social organization, democracy. This balance, which varies in form from society to society, is what unleashes confident creativity and productivity, and therefore human progress.

It can be argued that all forms of societal structuring entail the assignment of responsibility, whether that assignment from the individual — the ultimate repository of will — is voluntary or coerced. At one extreme, power is taken consciously in the name of society’s individual members by the force of an autocrat or an élite; at the other, it is seized from the individual by the collective hysteria of the mob. In all instances, however, the individual retains the capacity to willingly assign or consciously resist the coercive demands of others that they be allowed to govern in his name. But the exercise of individual will under such coercive circumstances requires courage and introspection. It is when society, at its most rational, understands that its most secure and productive future lies in the judicious balance of assigned responsibilities, that democracy is consciously enshrined in commonly-agreed laws and constitutions.

It is when insecurity or greed, each a short-term expression of ignorance (and a reflection of Plato’s definition of the “appetite” or desire aspect of societal personality), motivates individual and mob action through emotional appeal that laws or constitutions are trammeled, mis-used, or forgotten, and humanity rushes from the path of progress to the self-destructive path of lemmings.

We could again stumble from the path of progress, if the panic over change now evident in the upheavals of globalism and new social interactions causes individuals to consciously or unconsciously assign away or abandon their responsibilities to mass hysteria or to tyrannical leaders. There remain great portions of the world troubled by the responsibilities and uncertainties of progress and change, fearful of the burden of decisions required of free people to sustain an equitable and productive society. There remain, thus, people who would abolish the technologies which allow and encourage communications between societies and which preserve and spread the accumulated learning which stimulates creative and productive thinking and action.

It is fair, then, to say that in this regard the world today is faced with a single great schism: between those who favor learning, enquiry, and progress; and those who fear it, and would welcome its cessation. That is a choice between those who welcome the responsibilities of individuals within society, and those who are afraid of accepting those responsibilities.

Democracy, attuned to the cultural and survival requirements of each society, is the structure which sees the appropriate assignment of responsibilities to provide for security appropriate to the occasion, collective action appropriate to the task, and freedom appropriate to the individual’s need for creative stimulus and action to the benefit of self and society. The moment that this balance is changed and does not reflect the collective judgment of the society, then it becomes less beneficial, less productive, less flexible to meet changing challenges, and less geared toward the survival of the society.

How, then, is this balance and collective judgment assured? This was not part of the gift which Pericles fully imparted in his legacy. Indeed, even the delicate balance which Pericles achieved to bring about the successful governance of Athens in his own time did not long survive him, and was, in any event, shaped by the strength of persuasion of the individuals within the society, most notably Pericles himself. But by example, Pericles demonstrated that the individual will to lead is itself a vital ingredient of democracy, and within that will to lead, the willingness to demonstrate greatness through humility and restraint.

Pericles reportedly saw his restraint in leadership, and his refusal to embrace tyranny, as his greatest contribution to democratic governance. Winston Churchill’s refusal to embrace tyrannical powers, and his willingness to subordinate himself to the symbol of British union, the Crown, marked him as a champion of democracy. For this he was despised by Stalin, whose tendency lay toward the usurpation of the assigned will of the people. And yet it was Churchill’s vision of democracy which prevailed.

Former French President Georges Clemençeau understood the complexity and delicacy of society, and in his great study, in 1926, of Demosthenes, he noted: “... The country makes the citizen in the degree that it can establish him in harmonious groups, groups that will become all the finer as men become more intelligent.” And in the same study, when discussing leadership within the Hellenic city states, he noted: “Now and again in the cities — caldrons, full of the ideal and of the basely turbulent, to which all the sorcerers had brought their spells — a man would rise who showed an energy beyond his times, occasionally beyond himself, and who marked his city with the stamp of his passage.”

There is great emotion in the issue of survival and leadership. It is this emotion which is the spur of individual will toward leadership, and it is the moderation of this emotional will which allows the assignment of an individual’s rights and authority to the collective, or to other individuals, and which also allows the defining self-responsibility. But in societies where the collective emotionalism of the mob prevails, it is their total willing assignment of the rights and authority to the collective, or to authoritarian leaders, which is the hallmark of abnegation; of renunciation of individual value, and therefore renunciation of the survival of the individual’s bloodline within society.

A society can be productive and secure into the indefinite future only if there exists the conscious commitment and ability of individuals to fulfill their complex duty of assigning and self-imposing responsibilities. Indeed, what Pericles and the Athenian philosophical school gave to us was that single thing: consciousness. The gathering of humanity into collective societies is a function of nature, as is the emergence of leadership, and the assignment of rights and responsibilities for the survival, protection, and prosperity of the individual within the framework of society. But the building block which is the cornerstone of human development is the realization that by conscious reflection and determination, these natural human functions can be assigned proportion and balance.

Since the time of the Athenian city state, all human progress has been able to be measured by the extent to which the assignment of responsibilities has been in harmony, and it is this that we call democracy.

I have not spoken on how we are to achieve this harmony and this balance of assigned rights and responsibilities. Neither did Pericles define it in absolute terms; nor has it been defined as a universally viable form ever since. Indeed, the shape of democracy — the institutions and forms of leadership; the collective rights and obligations of society; the individual rights and duties of its members; and the forms of expressing their will — vary from society to society. Even in those societies in which the will of individuals is expressed and assigned in a collective ballot — an election — at pre-determined times, it is the unspoken, unwritten, and informal expression of will which is often more significant in determining the functions of leaders and citizens.

The power of oratory, which was the hallmark of Pericles and which he used sparingly, today shapes collective and individual wills as never before, but often in ways and in iconic shorthand which would have been incomprehensible in the age of Hellenistic formation. Oratory, like song, verse, and theater, helps form individual and collective wills by embedding messages in time and in tune with the pulse and rhythm of humanity.

And the fundamental authority of the individual will remains possible and of paramount significance today, as in the time of Pericles. Clarity of thought, singularity and prestige of image, and the marriage of the message with the target audience, all remain key to bringing the consciousness of the democratic process into effective action.

So the process of democracy remains much as it was in the time of Pericles. But the passage of time has alloyed perceptions of it in modern society. For the most part, we take democracy for granted as a mature and finally-defined form of governance, which it is not. We have, arguably, thought little on the meaning of the responsibilities of the individual and the collective within societal management since the great debates which shaped the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States of America. Before and since that time, we have largely allowed our modern democratic institutions to be modified, burdened, subtracted, and shoved by expedience, until they most often scarce resemble the lofty ideals of their formative structure.

We have, in many modern democracies, allowed lust for power to broaden the enfranchisement of the mass at the expense of the individual. And ultimately, mass is the enemy of identity, and identity is the core of individual will. And individual will, we must recall, is the foundation of the assignment of the duties which represent democracy.

Democracy, then, has become seen, and proclaimed, and waved as a banner with the name Excelsior! emblazoned fair upon it. But democracy is not this light pennant blowing scarlet in the wind; rather, it is the tidal surging of individuals in the mass of society, whose will is expressed through complex and changing communications and expression, as well as in the superficial simplisticism of ballots.

There is, as I have said, a movement in the world which is gathering momentum to end, once again, the primacy of democracy and the progress which it makes feasible for mankind. It is a momentum which is based upon mass, and upon that abnegation of individual worth and rights. Once before, as Romans refused to comprehend that survival depended upon the assignment and grasping of rights and duties, their civilization came to an end, and the world was engulfed by darkness which drove thinking and light into tiny pockets of embers, which reignited only centuries later.

Pericles and Athenian society gave us one message, one injunction: to think upon, and be conscious of, the many meanings, opportunities, and responsibilities of democracy. If we think upon it, we may see the process for all of its variable suitability to our various societies. And then we may act upon it with the confidence of free people, ensuring its survival, and with it the survival of human progress.     

[1] Gregory Copley is President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), based in Washington, DC. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications, and the Global Information System (GIS), a global intelligence service which provides strategic current intelligence to governments worldwide. He is a founding Director (and currently Acting Chief Executive) of Future Directions International (FDI), the Australian strategic research institution. Mr Copley is author of numerous books, and several thousand articles, papers, and lectures on strategic issues and history. His latest book, The Art of Victory, is to be published in 2005. His Washington-based institute has for more than three decades worked grand strategy issues, and he has advised a number of governments at head-of-state level. This address was originally made to the International Symposium on The Year of Pericles, sponsored by the European Cultural Centre of Delphi, Greece, on July 4, 2005.  He can be reached at email: or

[2] This is not to discount the significant achievements which occurred during the “Dark Ages”, including the introduction of the three-field agricultural system, which permitted the rise of cities; the development of English jurisprudence, the foundations of the modern scientific method laid by Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus; the creation of the longbow; and so on. The renaissances of the 8th Century and 12th Century paved the way for the pivotal revival of human progress in the 15th Century.