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During the first half of the fifth century B.C., a transformation took place in political ideas and institutions among Greeks and Romans that was comparable in historical importance to the invention of the wheel or the discovery of the New World. The change reflected a new understanding of the world and its possibilities.
At its simplest, what happened was that several city-states, which from time out of mind had been governed by various undemocratic rulers, whether aristocrats, oligarchs, monarchs, or tyrants, were transformed into systems in which a substantial number of free, adult males were entitled as citizens to participate directly in governing. Out of this experience and the ideas associated with it came a new vision of a possible political system, one in which a sovereign people is not only entitled to govern itself but possesses all the resources and institutions necessary to do so. This vision remains at the core of modern democratic ideas and continues to shape democratic institutions and practices.
But modern democratic ideas and institutions consist of far more than this simple vision. And since the theory and practices of modern democracy have resulted not only from the legacy of popular government in ancient city-states but also from other historical experiences, both evolutionary and revolutionary, they are an amalgam of elements that do not fully cohere. As a result contemporary democratic theory and practice exhibit inconsistencies and contradictions that sometimes result in deep problems.
To help us understand how the amalgam we call "democracy" came about, I am going to describe four of its most important sources. In doing so, I shall also indicate some problems that will require attention in later chapters.
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