Legal Scholar Paul Gowder makes the case for studying Athenian democracy in order to understand modern political debates over law and politics.
Even though Athens isn’t really at the heart of our legal tradition, it is at the heart of our political tradition. The democratic self-understanding of the (male, native-born, not-enslaved) Athenians is remarkably similar to ours, not least because ours is in part directly traceable to theirs through the tosses and turns of intellectual history. And a lot of the other things they were concerned about were also concerns of ours. They, for example, were also concerned about keeping those with socioeconomic advantages from turning them into political advantages (although the worry ran less to campaign finance and more to coups). They, too, were worried about balancing popular sovereignty with good decision-making—a fun exercise is to read Plato together with, say, my friend Jason Brennan.
As VC blogger and law professor Ilya Somin puts it:
Ancient critics of Athenian democracy, such as Plato and Thucydides, argued that the state was dysfunctional because the citizens who ruled it through direct democracy were often too ignorant and irrational to make good decisions. For example, Thucydides claimed that Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition, which led to the fall of the Athenian Empire, because the ignorant citizens had no idea how large and populous the island of Sicily was, and thus were easily snookered by demagoguery in favor of the ill-advised high-risk venture.
For centuries, critics of democracy pointed to Athens as a prime example of why the ignorant masses should be barred from wielding political power, especially directly. These critiques of Athens had a major impact on the American Founding Fathers. They were a key factor leading them to include a number of anti-democratic features in our Constitution.
Hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy