Isonomia: Thoughts on equality

In his ground-breaking work, published in English only in 2017 under the title Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani convincingly shows that taking Athenian democracy as a model will never allow us to solve the problems modern democracy is facing. Being the composite of liberalism plus democracy, it is not able to resolve its basic contradiction, one between equality and freedom: “If one aims for freedom, inequalities arise. If one aims for equality, freedom is compromised. Liberal democracy cannot transcend this contradiction.” .[1]

 So instead of making constant references to Athenian democracy as the desired model of democracy in the 21st century, it is more important to recognize in Athens the very prototype of these problems.

While Athenian democracy sought to equalize people via the redistribution of wealth, it was at the same time rooted in the homogeneity of its members. Not only did it exclude heterogeneity, but it was realized by relying on the internal exploitation (of slaves and resident foreigners, the so called metic) and external exploitation of others (the colonization and subjugation of other poleis). At the same time, Athenian democracy was already inseparable from the sort of nationalism that resembles Benedict Anderson’s famous definition of the modern nation as “imagined community”.[2]

In order to fully understand the spectre of “illiberal democracy”, instead of turning to Athenian democracy, perhaps we should look to Ionian isonomia (ἰσονομία “equality of political rights, from the Greek isos, “equal”, and nomos, “law”), and to the philosophy of the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, who are still usually dismissed as those who were dealing only with “natural philosophy”. It is assumed that ethical and political questions were not something they were seriously thinking through and dealing with – a phase that, according to the traditional history of philosophy, only emerged with Socrates.

This however, according to Karatani, is a mistake. The origin of Greek political philosophy (and “democracy” with it) rather has to be seen from Ionia. And Socrates, by the way, wasn’t the first one to deal with ethical questions. His thought is rather to be seen as a “transition” from Pre-Socratic to Athenian philosophy, owing many of its ideas and values to the Ionian philosophers themselves.

But why was the political system of Ionia (called isonomia) a more equal and free system than the Athenian democracy? First of all, the Ionians did not place great importance on ties with their place of origin, which led to a culture free from deep attachment to the traditions of a tribal society that characterized the mainland. Instead of just belonging to the polis, the Ionians considered themselves as belonging to the cosmopolis. And it is precisely this kind of political philosophy that is already to be found in the Pre-Socratic Ionian philosophers. For instance, already for Democritus, true ethics cannot come from within the polis but rather only from the cosmopolis.

The cities of Ionia were formed by colonists, who did not bring with them the tradition of the clans. The settlers were freed from the bonds and restraints of kinship. As a result, what was restored in the poleis of Ionia was the nomadic existence that preceded tribal societies, that now took the form of foreign trade and manufacturing, but not only as a matter of exchanging goods but equally of knowledge and culture.

For instance, Thales, who is considered the first philosopher, worked as a civil engineer in Egypt, and many other philosophers of the so-called Pre-Socratic era were influenced either by Asia or Africa (Babylonian astronomy, mathematics and so on).

Unlike the Ionian isonomia, the greek polis was based on social strata that ascended from the household (oikos) to the clan (genos), from the brotherhood or kinship (phratry) to that of the tribe (phylai). Athens was no longer a clan society, but the tribal traditions were still alive and well. Even with the transformation of the people into a demos, this didn’t prompt the formation of the kind of polis which would be based on autonomous social contracts between individuals. On the contrary, even in the age of Pericles, often regarded as the zenith of Athens, citizenship was determined by kinship, and foreigners (people from the other poleis) were excluded. Moreover, Athenian direct democracy was directly dependent upon the ruling and plundering of the other poleis. It was precisely this imperialistic expansion that was the precondition for Athenian democracy which was also closely tied to the development of the slave system. At the same time, civil society in Athens was driven by a deep class conflict, namely, the majority of citizens were poor.

[1] Kojin Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, Duke University Press, 2017

[2] See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006.