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Why is the West different from the rest?

By Ellen Goodman - posted Tuesday, 20 May 2008

In what follows I outline briefly the centuries-long, tortuous and often fortuitous route by which “democracy” became established in the Western world.

The word “democracy” is used as shorthand to denote not just elections but the whole package of concepts, institutions and rules which are included in modern governance of a country such as Australia. Similarly, the “West” is shorthand for all those states/countries which have a form of governance derived from a common or civil law tradition of which the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France and Australia are representative examples.

Where from came “democracy”?


It is often asserted that democracy arose from the ancient Greeks and from Periclean Athens in particular. This is not so. In the fourth century BCE after the trial and death of Socrates democratic rule was severely criticised by prominent Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Democracy, it was asserted, was rule by the mob. Thereafter, rule by popular franchise declined. It did not re-emerge in the West until relatively modern times.

The word “demos” does derive from Greek. It means “people”.

The Roman Republic had an unwritten but respected constitution. By convention this constitution was divided into a Senate, several legislative branches and an executive branch. The latter included the Tribunate which was charged with protection of the lives and property of ordinary people (the plebeians). Each governmental office was limited to a particular term: usually one year. Significantly, the Roman Republic incorporated notions of the separation of power as well as notions of “checks and balances” on power. It did not envisage the concept of judicial review.

The Republican ruling class was actively engaged in political and legal debate. Notions of republicanism, civil virtue and checks on the exercise of power were just some examples of topics that engaged Roman minds. It is not surprising that the usurpation of power by Caesar in 44 BCE, the decline of republicanism and Roman transformation into an Empire caused significant unrest.

At the end of the fifth century the Roman Empire disintegrated. City life declined and centralised authority ceased. Sovereignty became fragmented and dispersed. The empire had been divided into East and West for administrative and military purposes. Much of the heritage of the West disappeared although in the East it was continued in the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople.

The sole immediate beneficiary of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation was the Roman Catholic Church. Early controversies in the Church concerned the extent of papal authority. At stake was jurisdiction. Did the papacy have sole jurisdiction to govern over all Christendom?


Gelasius 1 (pope 492-496) wrote that “there are two powers by which this world is chiefly ruled - the pontifical and the regal”. Later popes did not follow the Gelasian formula. As centralised authority in the West continued to decline the papacy filled the vacuum. In the later Middle Ages the Papacy developed a theory of governance which incorporated Roman law particularly the concept that authority can derive from a principal source. Thus, according to The Dictatus Papae (1075) the Roman Pontiff alone is rightly to be called universal. Moreover, the Roman Pontiff according to this dictate had power to depose emperors.

In the late 11th and early 12th centuries Western society and law underwent fundamental change. Among other transformations was the re-emergence of cities, trade and commerce. As well there occurred what has been variously referred to as the Investiture Conflicts or the Papal Revolution. Very briefly what happened was as follows: secular rulers had appointed high officials of the church. The Papacy wanted to assert authority over all Christendom. Specifically, the papacy crossed swords with secular rulers over the question of appointments to bishoprics and abbeys. The Emperor, a secular authority, opposed the Papacy. This conflict raged between 1075 and 1122. The outcome of the struggle was that power of the Papacy was curtailed.

This conflict was resolved by the use of law. Thereafter there existed two Western sources of authority and two sources of law; one secular and the other ecclesiastical.

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About the Author

Ellen Goodman was a senior lecturer in the School of Law at Macquarie University and is the author of the book The Origins of the Western Legal Tradition (Federation Press 1995).

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