The Cathedral Is Democracy

Leftism is simultaneously associated with the Cathedral, the apparatus of elite control of public opinion, and with democracy, which is supposed to involve non-elites having a substantial say in major decisions. It can be quite a lot of fun to watch how quickly leftists start condemning ballot initiatives or popular legislative proposals, genuine expression of the popular will, when these moves threaten leftist causes. This looks, walks, and quacks like hypocrisy—leftists viewing democracy more as a means than an end in itself.

There is, in fact, no hypocrisy involved. The Cathedral is democracy, and populism really is anti-democratic. Democracy has always been a tool for elites to rule over non-elites; popular rule is a chimera.

To see how this is so, let’s look back at the first democracy: Athens. As I discussed before, Greek city-states were initially ruled by aristocratic republics. These republics were controlled by a few noble families collectively known as the Eupatridae, “those born of good fathers.” The commoners were kept under the thumb of the Eupatridae through a system of debts and the laws protecting private property, as well as aristocratic control of the magistracies. However, many of the commoners were armed and so could demand reforms from the aristocrats. The Eupatridae preferred to reform slowly or not at all, but if a cunning and charismatic noble broke ranks, he could rally the populace and install himself as a tyrant.

The Athenians managed to avoid tyranny for a long time through a combination of aristocratic unity and partial reform. In 632 B.C., a man named Cylon tried to seize the tyranny but was defeated by aristocrats and the general populace. Ten years later, Dracon was elected archon and allowed to create a written constitution. Dracon granted formal citizenship to all landowners capable of furnishing arms and established an elected council officially open to commoners as well as nobles. Dracon also established a written law code, though its penalties were considered harsh. Much of what Dracon did was simply writing down and formalizing the practices of the earlier republic, and he effectively laid down an oligarchical constitution.

Dracon’s laws satisfied the commoners for a generation, but in 594 B.C. they elected Solon, a celebrated poet and successful general, as archon and charged him with further reforms. Solon granted most of the commoners’ demands: the main one he held back was redistribution of land. Solon’s principal innovation was to establish citizen classes based on wealth, abolishing the legal distinction between the Eupatridae and the commoners. He also expanded the franchise to include landless laborers, a class which included agricultural workers and town craftsmen. Solon’s constitution was later called democratic because of its similarity to the constitution of Cleisthenes, but no one called it that at the time.

Once again the reforms were satisfactory for roughly a generation. During this time, Athenian politics split not along class lines but geographic ones: the townsfolk led by Megacles vying with the farmers led by Lycurgus on the Attic plain. Peisistratus, a relative of Solon and noted general, assembled his own party of hillmen and seized power. He was quickly expelled but later agreed to marry Megacles’ daughter in exchange for his support and returned to Athens. However, Peisistratus and Megacles had a falling out, forcing Peisistratus to flee yet again. Peisistratus bided his time, marshaled his forces, and returned to power a third and final time after defeating the Athenian army at Marathon in 546 B.C.

Behind this straightforward political history hid families and networks of patronage. Cylon was the son-in-law of Theagnes, tyrant of Megara; part of the reason for his defeat was that the Athenians fiercely hated the Megarans and were not interested in effectively being ruled from Megara. Peisistratus rallied the hillmen to his cause through his own family connections, and the Peisistratids had friends in Athens until 490 B.C. when the Athenians defeated the Persians attempting to effect their return.

After the Peisistratids, the two most powerful families were the Alcmaeonidae and the Philaidae. The Megacles with whom Peisistratus dealt was of the Alcmaeonidae, and he was named for the archon who put down Cylon’s revolt. The Alcmaeonidae were extremely wealthy and well-regarded, but they suffered from a debilitating weakness when competing with their fellow aristocrats. When Megacles was fighting Cylon’s forces, he promised that men who had taken refuge in the temple of Athena would be allowed to leave unharmed; as soon as they were within his power, he had them put to death. This act of sacrilege polluted Megacles and his family, who were immediately exiled.

Though the Alcmaeonidae were allowed to return, the threat of repeated exile remained. This was the source of the falling out between Megacles and Peisistratus: aware of the Alcmaeonidae’s ancestral curse, Peisistratus decided to not have any children by Megacles’ daughter and so “he slept with her in a way not according to custom,” as Herodotus delicately puts it. This was a good move for Peisistratus considering that he was having enough trouble holding on to power and didn’t need his offspring to be polluted.

Despite Megacles’ conflict with Peisistratus, the Alcmaeonidae largely accommodated themselves to the Peisistratid tyranny. However, they were implicated in the murder of Hipparchus in 514 and exiled by Hippias. In order to bring about their return to Athens, the Alcmaeonidae bribed the priests at Delphi into inducing Sparta to overthrow the Peisistratids.

Under the leadership of Cleisthenes, the Alcmaeonidae vied with the other noble families led by Isagoras for power. Isagoras wanted to establish an oligarchy with Spartan backing; Cleisthenes realized that he could seize supreme power by appealing to the people. With tyranny out of fashion, he invented democracy. Isagoras invoked the Alcmaeonidae’s ancestral curse to thwart this move, and the Spartans also moved to oppose Cleisthenes, but the Athenian people were taken with the idea and resisted. The Spartans were defeated, Isagoras banished, and the Alcmaeonidae’s enemies massacred.

Cleisthenes’ main reforms to the Athenian constitution involved reconstituting the ten Athenian tribes to eliminate regional rivalries. He also instituted ostracism, a process that placed all prominent men under the same threat of exile as the Alcmaeonidae. Having a large franchise and many offices selected by lot also made it harder for rival families to accumulate power: the Alcmaeonidae could rely on their patronage network, while the other nobles had to compete with ambitious commoners. These same commoners would be allies of the Alcmaeonidae, who portrayed themselves as friends of the people. Democracy was thus the tyranny of a whole family rather than a single man.

The Alcmeaonidae ruled Athens unchallenged for about fifteen years, when Miltiades, leader of the Philaidae, came to Athens. Miltiades’ uncle (also named Miltiades) had been sponsored as tyrant of the Thracian Chersonese by Peisistratus, and this later Miltiades had taken over after his uncle and his brother had died. He had continued to rule as tyrant under the Persians and even participated in Darius’ campaign against the Scythians. However, in 499 B.C. he joined the Ionian Revolt and was forced to flee when Darius reestablished control. He came to Athens with poor prospects: a relative outsider and a former tyrant with ties to the Peisistratids.

What Miltiades brought to recommend him was money, extensive military experience, and a fervent opposition to Persia. The Alcmeaonidae had overestimated Athenian power and backed the Ionian revolt, angering the Persians. In 490 B.C., the Persians launched a punitive expedition against Athens with the secondary goal of restoring Hippias, who accompanied and advised the Persians. Miltiades’ qualities earned him a generalship and his familiarity with the Persians helped win the day in the second battle of Marathon. He later led an expedition against the Aegean islands captured by the Persians but died of an infected wound.

Miltiades’ brief time in Athens completely upset the balance of power in the city. For the first time since the democracy was founded there was serious opposition to the Alcmeaonidae. Cleisthenes was dead, and their new leader, Megacles (yes, another one), was accused of conspiring with the Persians and lost a great deal of influence. This meant that during the 480s B.C. no one held supreme power, giving outsiders the opportunity to seize it. Cleisthenes’ protégé Aristides formed an oligarchic party while the common-born genius Themistocles put together a democratic one. These parties constituted the two poles of Athenian politics for the rest of the century. The democrats generally held the upper hand—Themistocles had Aristides ostracized shortly before the Second Persian War—but the oligarchs had their moments of strength as well.

These two parties did not differ on ideology, at least not at first. They represented different economic and, despite Cleisthenes’ efforts, regional interests. The oligarchs were primarily aristocratic farmers, while the democrats drew their strength from the city. Further differences crystalized over time, but only well after the Persian Wars.

The two parties put their differences aside to fight the Persians, Themistocles winning the naval battle at Salamis, Aristides commanding the Athenian hoplites at Plataea. After the Persian retreat, both supported the creation of the Delian League. Indeed, it was Aristides who suggested allowing member cities to contribute money instead of ships, allowing Athens to build an enormous navy and convincing the allies to give up their defenses. When the League members objected to Athens’ domination of the League, the Athenians enforced their rule on their erstwhile allies. Both the oligarchs and the democrats were complicit in Athenian imperialism.

The democrats suffered a serious setback, however, in the aftermath of the sack of Athens. During this time the formal government effectively ceased to operate. This allowed the oligarchs to start building networks of patronage: with their wealth and personal relationships, they could help people seeking justice or otherwise in distress while the Athenian government was totally helpless. The court of the Areopagus, an ancient institution made up of former archons and which tried homicide cases, was the center of this oligarchic movement.

The oligarchic party also benefited greatly from the coming of age of Cimon, son of Miltiades. Cimon served as commander of the Delian League forces through most of the 470s and 460s. He brought to the table many of the same qualities that his father had possessed, especially wealth and military competence. His greatest victory was at the Eurymedon River in 466 B.C. There he led the Delian fleet to victory over the Persian armada and then staged and amphibious landing and routed the Persian land army as well. A peace treaty between the Delian League and the Persians soon followed. Cimon also had personal and family connections throughout the Aegean: his father had contacts in Ionia and his grandfather had been king of Thrace. These allowed him to manage the Delian League without being too overbearing—he could have his friends work through the established governments rather than creating a new imperial administration.

Cimon’s prestige was enormous on account of his victories, which, combined with the Areopagus’ patronage network, meant that Athens was an oligarchy in all but name. This was not how it was supposed to go. The Alcmeaonidae had to take a back seat while the Philaidae ruled their city. Though the Alcmeaonid leadership was in disarray, they could still work through the democratic party, and when Cimon showed weakness, they struck.

In 464 B.C., Laconia suffered a great earthquake which damaged much of Sparta and inspired many Messenian helots to revolt. Sparta called on its allies to help suppress the revolt, and at Cimon’s suggestion Athens sent a contingent. However, the Spartans were concerned that the Athenians would incite further rebellion and so sent Cimon home.

Ephialtes was the leader of the democrats at this time and he seized the opportunity created by Cimon’s loss of face. The Areopagus was his first target: Ephialtes indicted its members and stripped it of most of its powers. He then moved to ostracize Cimon, an effort which also succeeded. Ephialtes had more reforms in mind, but he was assassinated not long thereafter.

Pericles took control of the democratic party and finished Ephialtes’ work. Pericles lowered property requirements for office and instituted pay for public officials. He also restricted citizenship to men with two Athenian parents, cutting out the children of oligarchs with wives from among the allies. These measures undercut the oligarchs’ patronage network and assured the ascendancy of the democrats until 411 B.C.

In terms of foreign policy, the democrats’ ascension was a disaster. Where Cimon had supported friendly relations with Sparta, Ephialtes had claimed that the two states were natural enemies. Pericles and the democrats followed Ephialtes’ ideas and made several moves to antagonize the Spartans. Athens allied with Megara against Corinth, supported the revolting helots, and even threw in its lot with Argos, Sparta’s ancient enemy. The first Peloponnesian war followed promptly.

The democrats believed that Athens had the power to rule over much more of Greece; the oligarchs held that, while there was still room for small-scale gains, the Delian League represented Athens’ natural limits. This first, seesawing conflict with Sparta proved that the oligarchs were correct, and Athenian policy moderated from then on; only with the rise of Alcibiades in the 410s did the Athenians become as aggressive as they had been in the 450s and 440s.

Although vindicated in this one sphere, the oligarchs found themselves completely subordinated to the democratic party. Cimon returned from exile to negotiate a truce with Sparta but died leading an expedition against Cyprus. In 442, Cimon’s successor Thucydides (relation to the historian unknown) was also ostracized, marking the effective end of the oligarchs’ political power. They did not go away—Nicias formed a coalition with the oligarchs during the second Peloponnesian war, there was a short-lived oligarchic coup in 411, and the Thirty Tyrants were oligarchs—but the democrats held the upper hand. The final blow came in 399 B.C. with the execution of Socrates. Thereafter, there effectively was no oligarchic party.

We can draw a number of lessons about democracy from the politics of Athens. The first is a definition of democracy based on actual practice rather than theory: a state is a democracy if it has a strong electoral principle and a relatively large ruling class. When Cleisthenes founded the democracy, citizens constituted roughly fifty percent of the population of Athens. During the Classical period, this percentage declined to roughly one third as a result of both citizens dying in war and foreigners and slaves coming to Athens. This contrasted with oligarchic cities where the citizen population was closer to ten percent. “Rule by the people” didn’t actually mean rule by all of the people in a given territory, just by the ones included in the political system.

Another thing to note is that democracy involves patronage that goes outside of the formal structures of the state. When the Alcmaeonidae put the democracy in place, it was simply a tool for empowering their patronage network and weakening those of other noble families. Though the Philaidae struck back and the Alcmaeonidae were weakened by the Persian Wars, this network did not go away by any means. Indeed, both Pericles and Alcibiades belonged to the Alcmaeonidae through their mothers.

Thirdly, even in a firmly established democracy there will exist a loyal opposition that can occasionally seize power. The oligarchs of Athens were relatively efficient when it came to solving problems and this served them well in the 470s and 460s. However, the oligarchs did not change the constitution; the democrats had to do that in order to take back power. Only during and after the second Peloponnesian war did the oligarchs became militant, giving their opponents an excuse to crush them.

Populism is the appeal to the common people for political purposes; a populist argues that the existing political system does not adequately serve the needs and desires of non-elites and needs to be changed on that account. Peisistratus was a populist, rallying the hillmen to his banner. Cleisthenes was not:  with Hippias expelled, he supported the retention and strengthening of the underlying democratic system laid down by Solon against Isagoras’ proposed reform.

Within an established democracy, democratic politicians do not pander to the people. There already exist channels for addressing problems and concerns. In the early democracy at Athens, those channels were the Alcmaeonidae’s patronage system and the state apparatus that system allowed them to control. Individual proposals might have to be argued for, and individual politicians still had to compete with each other, but all of this was done within a kind of proto-Cathedral.

When Miltiades and Cimon challenged the Alcmeaonidae, they did so through populism, offering skills and connections that local Athenian politicians lacked. They and the Areopagus also built up their own alternative to the democratic cathedral by going outside the formal structures of Athenian government. Cimon was especially notable for allowing poor Athenians to take fruit from his orchards. The oligarchs brought efficiency and expertise and so managed to create a place for themselves where the original intention of the constitution was to disempower them. In the end, however, the democrats strengthened the state and destroyed or absorbed the oligarchs’ patronage systems, incorporating them into a new and stronger cathedral.

Turn now to the present-day Western world ruled over by the Cathedral. The relationship between the Cathedral and the Athenian democracy is not isomorphic, but there are striking similarities. Today, we have priests in the Academy, wealthy donors and foundations doling out patronage, the political machines of the major parties, demagogic orators posing as journalists, and the coercive apparatus of the state all conspiring to maintain their collective supremacy. Today, we also have the pervasive and destructive ideology of leftism.

Our first observation about democratic Athens—that there was a strong elective principle and a large ruling class—also applies to the Cathedral. The elective element is fairly obvious, and trumpeted at every opportunity. We in the West get to elect our leaders (many of them, at least), and this makes them accountable to the People, and so on and so forth. Democratic governments hold sway in all Cathedral-dominated states.

The Cathedral is also quite large. Taking the university system as the primary training ground for Cathedral members, forty-percent of the U.S. population is college educated; the rate is lower in most other Cathedral-controlled countries, but still above thirty-percent. Granting that not all college graduates are active participants in the Cathedral, this still makes the Cathedral roughly comparable in size the citizen population in fifth century Athens.

The patronage network outside the formal structures of the state is also present today—indeed, that is what makes the Cathedral the Cathedral instead of just the Government. There are countless think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups, news organization, and academic institutions who all support each other ideological and materially. The Cathedral operates in exactly the same fashion as the Alcmaeonidae and their competitors.

Finally, there are many people with interests opposed to the Cathedral who nonetheless participate in it. In the United States groups such as the Religious Right and talk radio listeners fall into this category. The Cathedral would love little more than to wipe these people from the face of existence, but they don’t seem to realize the Cathedral’s hostility and so don’t actively rebel against it. So long as they work within the system managed by the Cathedral, the Cathedral doesn’t devote too much energy to figuring out how to eliminate them.

We can thus see how the Cathedral, far from being a mere vehicle for hypocritical power-seeking, really does follow the democratic model. Someone who says, “I oppose the Cathedral but support democracy,” is terribly confused. The Cathedral is democracy, plain and simple; you cannot disentangle the two.

Populism, on the other hand, is a tactic or tool, even an outright trick designed to give a single person or small group of people power outside of Cathedral structures. If a populist later accommodates himself to the Cathedral, then democracy is secured and perhaps even strengthened if he brings new groups into the Cathedral fold. A populist who persists in operating outside the Cathedral, however, is a threat to democracy.

There are two main lessons to draw from the foregoing. The first is that appeal to the people does not necessarily go hand in hand with democracy. Peisistratus was and Putin is very popular with their respective peoples, but that does not make them democrats. We shouldn’t expect anything substantial to come from Donald Trump, but a single charismatic man or group of such men leading a popular movement may be the most effective challenge to the Cathedral.

The second lesson, one that cannot be repeated enough, is that the Cathedral is democracy. If you think the people at large should have some role in their government, that’s great, but jettison the word “democracy.” To support democracy is to support the Cathedral; to oppose the Cathedral is to oppose democracy. This is as much the case now as it was in Classical Athens.

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  1. Great article as always, with lots of in-depth research. I’ll have to trace out all these historical connections as it does go by as a blur with all the coups and semi-coups. The essential point shines through though. The Modern political system is certainly mirroring that of Athens (all be it with the added meta-cancer that is Leftism, Progressivism, Kaliism, whatever you want to call it). Good comparison between the oligarchs and the whipping class of today as well. They’re good for occasional beatings and so long as they don’t raise too much rancor, we won’t liquidate them. All the while of course, such groups are totally unaware this is how they are being played.

  2. “We shouldn’t expect anything substantial to come from Donald Trump, but a single charismatic man or group of such men leading a popular movement may be the most effective challenge to the Cathedral.” And “If you think the people at large should have some role in their government, that’s great, but jettison the word “democracy.”

    That a popular movement concept is being discussed within nRX is a pretty dire reflection on it’s nose dive into identitarianism. People at large should also have zero role in government, they have no place there. This piece implies that a “true” democracy with a different name is acceptable -it isn’t.

  3. Mark Christensen July 27, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Interesting exploration of the Athenian factions. I’m enjoying your articles for these history lessons.

    The big problem with defining Cathedral as democracy is this: you say “a state is a democracy if it has a strong electoral principle and a relatively large ruling class”. Relative to population, the Cathedral constitutes a tiny ruling class. In the Athenian democracy citizens were able to have their voices heard and have some impact in their decisions. Citizens in Western countries get to vote for a tiny segment of their leaders, and only a few of these actually have any power in the overall structure. If we wanted to look at the class which actually does any ruling, we’re taking a ratio of people at ABC agencies + various law-writing lobbies + elite universities + elite press and comparing it to gen pop. It’s imperfect because in Athens there was more overlap with a citizen having prominence and political power, but we have a much smaller class actually ruling.

    Unlike demotists, NRx doesn’t consider that an issue in itself. The problem is that it justifies itself based on the myth of democracy and preaches this gospel to the whole world at gunpoint. You distinguish pretty starkly between democrats and populists, but the history you outlined shows that every step in the direction of democracy had the populist justification. Basic Moldbug: Leftism is the quest to seize power, nothing more. The issue with democracy is, as you described, that the true power networks are not formalized (and can never be) and this disincentivizes sound government. This is also why a populist challenge to a nominally democratic ruling class fails to provide sound government in the long run even if it manages to replace the old informal networks with its own informal networks. Populists being a threat to democracy just means they’re a threat to the last generation’s populists. The tyrants seem to be effective insofar as they rise on a populist basis but then quickly establish themselves as dictatorial sovereigns and not democrats.

    1. Might it be said that the ‘will of the people’ given political power will drag a society leftward over time.

      However, for the Radical Progressive, this just isn’t fast enough. It is faster to have a pseudo democracy, with the culture being rapidly shunted along via terrible and corrupt leaders, hence the Supreme Court now essentially rules America and can overrule pretty much anything. Democratic processes on the ground can be held up, tangled in delayed referendums, recalls, and such. This is why the Constitution is such a trump card for the Left. The Constitution can ALWAYS be used to override the will of the people if it isn’t extreme enough at any given point in time. Conservatives get this ass-backwards. They think the Constitution prevents a Left wing tyranny via majority, but really it imposes Left wing tyranny against the majority in many cases.

      Any Liberal document can be used to justify any Liberal cause. It does not need to be specifically mentioned.

  4. Would you leverage the Internet? Which we have.

    You are leveraging the Internet with this writing.

    May I suggest you leverage the Jeffersonian Administrative system which we also have?

    The way the Jeffersonian system is actually structured [city, county, state, federal] explains a lot of why the Internet evolved in the United States the way it did by the way. In a Command State even France the Internet wouldn’t exist. A national network laid down by the National government would – that’s in fact what happened in France.

    [I am avoiding the icky, gross term Democracy and using Jeffersonian Administration so as not to hopelessly prejudice you against my case.]

    My case is work with what you’ve got and work with our natural order and not against it.

    Practical people will work with what they’ve got. The Jeffersonian system you will recall rose up organically in the early Republic to achieve Constitutional status by Jackson’s time but it wasn’t a social experiment. It was already there and indeed has been since the English Fyrd system – more than 12 centuries. It may be said of local and subsidiary self-government that it is our nature that we may banish for a time but she will return.

    You shouldn’t dismiss local self-governance even if elected. Obama for instance doesn’t for he considers local government enough of a challenge he’s arranged a terrorist campaign against local law enforcement. Notice Federal Law Enforcement – nor as yet State Law Enforcement – are targeted.

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