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  • The History of a Word
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)

Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. By John Dunn. Atlantic, 2005. 246 pp.

Today "democracy" is the name that we give to the only form of government that enjoys widespread international legitimacy. Yet this word had its origins in ancient Greece, where it described a political order very different from what we call democracy in the twenty-first century. Moreover, when politically effective arguments for popular government began to emerge in the eighteenth century, they not only eschewed the democratic label but treated democracy as an archaic and inferior political form. How, then, did derivations of the Greek word demokratia subsequently come to win "the verbal competition for ultimate political commendation across the globe" (p. 15)?

This is the initial puzzle that Cambridge political theorist John Dunn poses and seeks to solve in Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, but his goals go far beyond the etymological or even the historical. For in examining the changing fortunes of the word, he hopes to illuminate what it stands for today, and thus to show why democracy in its contemporary form has proven so formidable a contender for political supremacy. Dunn brings to the task great learning and a lively mind, and his book offers a number of useful insights. His prose, if sometimes a bit convoluted, is jargon-free and often eloquent. Yet ultimately he has written a surprisingly idiosyncratic book that fails to convey a clear picture of the differences between ancient and modern democracy or a convincing account of the latter's rise to global dominance.

Dunn's relatively brief discussion of ancient democracy draws primarily [End Page 168] on the tribute to Athens in Pericles's funeral oration (as presented by Thucydides) and the critiques offered by Plato and Aristotle. Dunn affirms that in Athens democracy did, to a considerable extent, live up to its literal meaning—namely, that the people "hold power and exercise rule." And he contrasts this to the situation today, when such a claim "very much appears a thumping falsehood: a bare-faced lie" (p. 51).

In discussing the reemergence of the idea of popular government in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dunn touches upon the rare thinkers such as Spinoza and the Marquis D'Argenson who used the word "democracy" in a favorable way. But his main focus is on "democracy's second coming" amidst the struggles of the American and French revolutions. With regard to the American case, Dunn rightly emphasizes the fact that "democracy" served not as a rallying cry for America's Founders, but rather as a negative model. In the Federalist, James Madison famously distinguished a "republic," based on government by elected representatives, from a "pure democracy" on the ancient model. "Such democracies," Madison asserts, "have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

When Dunn turns his attention to the French Revolution, he first considers the thought of the Abbé Siey`es, a fierce opponent of aristocracy who favored a political order that "viewed and treated the human beings who made it up as equal bearers of rights, and organized itself to protect and benefit every one of them" (p. 104). Yet Siey`es too was an unabashed champion of representative government and regarded "democracy" as simply impractical in a nation the size of France.

This brings us to perhaps the major oddity of Dunn's account. The American and French revolutions, as their emblematic documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) make clear, invoked the interrelated principles of human equality and individual rights. Neither of these principles informed ancient democracy, which embraced slavery and offered little protection for the security or the rights of individuals. As his treatment of Siey`es reflects, Dunn cannot help taking note of this difference in passing, but he never addresses it in a systematic fashion. No doubt related to this reticence is his unwillingness to speak of liberalism or...


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pp. 168-172
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