The Honey and the Hemlock

Athenian democracy was a paradoxical institution, arising from a city state that was small, even tiny, by modern standards, but from which emerged some of Western civilization’s most enduring monuments of both greatness and depravity. In the words of Plutarch, Athens produced men of surpassing excellence and villainy, just as “the country produces the most delicious honey and the most deadly hemlock.”

This paradox, and its contemporary ramifications, are the themes of Eli Sagan’s brilliant and insightful study of the relationship between democracy and paranoia—between a system of government that rests, ultimately, upon trust, and a psychological condition which thrives on suspicion and fear. Neither in ancient Athens nor in modern America have these two warring impulses been untangled, and only education for a democratic society and respect for the rule of law make possible the Athenian or American miracles.

Historians have long been troubled by the paradoxes of Athenian democracy, which gave the world such splendid examples and leaders as Pericles, yet was equally capable of incomprehensible actions, such as the judicial murder of Socrates. Was there some tragic flaw in the system?

No flaw in the system, Sagan maintains, just the simple fact that democracy rests on the fragile strengths of human beings. He wisely notes that it is people and the spirit of people, rather than political procedures and forms, which sustain free and democratic societies. His many fascinating examples are drawn mainly from Greek history, but their immediate, even chilling reference to contemporary America is unmistakable.

The prerequisites for a functioning democracy in ancient Athens still obtain in the modern world. As the former Soviet Union slouches towards some new form, and the United States begins another exercise in political renewal, THE HONEY AND THE HEMLOCK offers a timely meditation on what democracy, freedom, and civic responsibility truly mean.