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Matthew A. Sears is professor of classics at the University of New Brunswick.

If you didn’t vote in your most recent election, the ancient Greeks had a word for you: idiotes.

Don’t be offended: It may be the word that gave us the modern derogatory term “idiot,” but the ancient Greeks meant it to refer to a private person who avoided politics. But while they didn’t use the word as we do today, to stigmatize perceived intellectual deficiencies, they certainly looked down on those who stayed out of public life. That didn’t just mean electoral politics, which the Greeks and especially the democratic Athenians thought was actually the least democratic part of the system – you were an idiotes if you weren’t involved in the day-to-day civic affairs of the city.

With disappointing voter turnout marking recent elections – particularly in Ontario, where a record-low 43 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in June’s election – it’s worth considering why the Greeks so prized political participation and how they encouraged it. But it’s also worth considering why ancient Athenians would see election turnout as only part of a much deeper problem in our democracy.

The most iconic praise of Athenian democracy came from the general Pericles, who delivered a funeral oration recorded in Thucydides’s History. After the death and hardship of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE, Pericles sought to remind those gathered about the value of the democracy for which Athenian soldiers had fought and died, a vital aspect of which was that all Athenians, no matter how busy they are with their own private matters and lives, are informed and take an interest in public affairs. “Only here do we consider someone who takes no part in public affairs to be not a person who minds his own business,” Pericles said, “but a person utterly useless.” Pericles doesn’t use the term idiotes here, but he gets pretty close to the modern usage in his disdain for the apolitical.

Athenian democracy was profoundly imperfect, of course: Misogyny was endemic, as was slavery and xenophobia. But it did set a worthy example in how its very engine was the mass participation of ordinary citizens. They understood that apathy is much more difficult to sustain if one is involved in public life, and that the decisions one makes after deliberating as part of a community tend to be more meaningful. In his book Courage in the Democratic Polis, University of Toronto professor Ryan Balot argued that virtues such as courage are more genuine if arrived at through more routine contemplation, as part of one’s commitment to civic life. On the other hand, he argues that the Athenians looked down on the Spartans as merely brave because they reflexively followed the dictates of shame and tradition.

Democracy in ancient Athens took a century and a half to develop, and only emerged after the threat of direct action on the part of the poor against the rich. In the early 500s BCE, with a narrow aristocracy holding power, wealth inequality surged, with the land concentrated into fewer hands while the rest of the population was forced to pay exorbitant rents just to have a chance at eking out a meagre living. As this debt spiralled out of control and the rich got richer – sound familiar? – the landless poor threatened to revolt. In fear for their lives, the rich appointed a lawmaker named Solon to mollify the situation, which he did by redistributing the land more fairly and giving a greater share of the population a voice in government. Full democracy took many more decades, but Solon planted the seed.

By the end of the century, two of Athenian democracy’s key tenets were that every citizen was expected to participate and even serve in office, and offices were filled by random lottery, rather than popular vote. If that seems outrageous, consider today’s political barriers, including the social and financial barriers to running for a seat, and the fact that so many recent elections have featured dynastic names such as Trudeau and Ford, Bush and Clinton. To ensure that even the poor could participate, Athens eventually instituted pay for sitting on juries and attending the assembly, too. But at the core of these changes was a necessary fact: For this system to work, every citizen had to be informed.

The people also needed to do this so that they could diligently guard their power, even outside of an election. Oligarchs occasionally wrested back control in ancient Greek history, and the people only re-established their rule by taking to the streets, or even to the battlefield. After one of these anti-democratic coups in 404 BCE, the restored government of the people went so far as to enact a law making it legal – virtually an obligation – to overthrow “tyrants” by violent means and to assist in the overthrowing.

If you think all this direct democracy could turn into mob rule, well, some of the American Founders actually agreed with you, including eventual president James Madison. Instead, the U.S. Constitution was designed to forge a republic on the model of ancient Rome, where layers of checks and balances keep more excitable elements in line. (This anti-populism is behind the electoral college and other seemingly anti-democratic head-scratchers in U.S. politics.)

But direct action was responsible for crucial developments in the direction of justice even in the Roman republic. The long-standing struggle between elite patricians and less elite plebeians led to several “secessions of the plebs,” in which people left the city and camped out on the Janiculum Hill in a sort of general strike until their demands were met. One of these secessions led to the Lex Hortensia, a law that made resolutions passed by the Plebeian Council binding on all Romans, including patricians. When checks and balances – and elite control of institutions – stood in the way of fairness, Romans literally voted with their feet.

From women’s suffrage to civil rights to truth and reconciliation, informed, direct participation and action at all levels of society are fundamental tools for the people to wield. So remember that democracy does not begin, and certainly does not end, at the ballot box. To think otherwise might make you an idiotes.

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