BMCR 1997.10.18

1997.10.18, Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists

, Athenian democracy : modern mythmakers and ancient theorists. Frank M. Covey, Jr. Loyola lectures in political analysis. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. x, 173 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780268006501 $26.95.

Study of Athenian democracy has received a boost in the last decade from the increasingly active exchange between classical historians and normative political theorists. Both sides have much to gain from such conversations. For ancient historians, political theory provides sophisticated theoretical tools with which to analyze and conceptualize Athenian democratic practice and ideology; for political theorists, ancient Athens provides an empirical example of a stable direct democracy against which abstract democratic theory can be tested. Athenian Democracy, the revised version of the Frank M. Covey, Jr., Lectures in Political Analysis delivered at Loyola University, is a spirited contribution to that cross-disciplinary dialogue. A political theorist, Saxonhouse (hereafter S.) wants to “learn from the ancient authors who experienced that practice [democracy]: the contradictions, the tensions, the possibilities, the benefits of that complex form of government” (ix). In particular, S. emphasizes the necessity of engaging the ancient authors on their own terms if we are to capture their theoretical significance for the modern world. Such an engagement will defamiliarize the beliefs and practices of contemporary democracy, enabling us thereby to acquire a richer theoretical perspective on our own politics. This is an admirable project, but, however stimulating, the book tends to downplay the ideological prejudices that shape ancient accounts of democracy. As a result, S. is only partially successful at coming to grips with the ancient authors’ own experiences of democracy. I return to these points later in the review.

In Chapter 1, “The Mythmakers,” S. aims to remove the “encrustations” left by the later tradition in order to focus directly on the issues posed by ancient sources themselves. This means exposing the ideologically-driven “myths” about democracy created in the last three centuries in England and America. Once we move beyond crass praise and blame of Athenian democracy, S. argues, we can “probe the core of the ancients’ interpretations of democracy” (29). S. recognizes that no genuine theorist of democracy has survived, but wants nevertheless to investigate the complexity of the ancients’ responses to democracy; to that end, she devotes a chapter apiece to Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. In Chapter 2, S. challenges the view that Herodotus constructed his text around the opposition between free Greeks and Eastern tyrants, arguing instead that Herodotus’ primary concern is the social and political “construction” of equality. Although Herodotus praises equality, he nonetheless educates his readers to see that equality poses problems for leadership; hence, S. concludes, Herodotus’ contribution to democratic theory lies in his presentation of politics as a set of rational choices made by men who begin from the premise of equality.

In the next three chapters, S. hopes to transcend what she sees as the simplistic belief that Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle are straightforwardly antidemocratic, in order to explore their individual philosophical responses to democracy. For S., Thucydides shows that democracy is the political regime characterized by deliberation and openness to change. In the Funeral Oration, Pericles “abstracts from [the Athenians’] bodies” in order to create an idealistic vision of a unified, unchanging Athens (61-71); for Thucydides, the political unity created by Pericles leads to “sterility and vanity” (61). By contrast, Diodotus, “the true democratic theorist from antiquity” (75), shows that the primary advantage of democracy is its ability to promote the free exchange of ideas and to change its decisions (72-79).

Chapter 4 attempts to move beyond seeing Plato as simply disdainful of democracy; it explores “why democracy is of interest to Socrates, what issues it raises for him, and how these help us to understand the relation between philosophy and politics” (90). S. argues that the Symposium‘s dramatic setting illustrates the democratic principles of freedom and openness to outsiders until Alcibiades appears, introducing tyranny to the democratic principles that had once governed relations between Plato’s symposiasts (91-98). Equally, the Republic“relies on democratic principles of engagement, equality, and communal decision-making” (102). The description of democracy found in Book 8 shows that democracy’s tolerance, if carried to an extreme, leads to tyranny. The final substantive chapter explores the reflections upon human nature, political stability, and justice in Aristotle’s analysis of democracy. S. discusses a variety of problems that arise from the conflict between Aristotle’s descriptive and normative uses of “nature,” and from the conflicts between his twin goals of promoting political stability in the real world and defining the political character of the best possible regime.

This is engaging material, and classicists will in all likelihood come away from this book having re-thought several widely held notions about how these texts engage with democracy. Nevertheless, the book faces problems at several levels. First, two superficial criticisms. Much of the material in the first chapter has already been well laid out by the classical historian Jennifer Roberts’Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, which offers a considerably fuller and wider-ranging treatment of later representations of Athenian democracy. 1 Since its publication in 1994, Roberts’ work has been the standard volume on post-classical assessments and ideological “uses” of Athenian democracy. Regrettably, S. was not aware of this work until a late stage in researching and writing her own chapter (147n.2). Second, S. too often argues against “straw men,” and peculiar ones at that. For example, those outside classics may get the impression that classicists have usually approached Athenian democracy through patently anachronistic lenses: “Thus, scholars are asking how sovereign were the people, to what degree did they or did they not participate, were they informed, were the voters representative, how were votes counted, were the courts a brake on or subject to the assembly, as if these were the questions the Athenians asked about their own political regime” (7). S. represents her book as correcting this trend by focusing on what the ancient authors themselves said about democracy. Classicists themselves, however, have often studied the ancients’ own perceptions of democracy. 2 Differently, and perhaps more importantly, historians are justified in not allowing ancient concerns alone to dictate their own questions. It is possible to ask valid, non-anachronistic questions that the ancients themselves never thought about; such questions can legitimately contribute to an overall project of understanding Athenian democracy.

Beyond this, however, S. has set up a questionable dichotomy between “modern mythmakers” and “ancient theorists” that reveals the lack of any clear theoretical conception of what constitutes “mythmaking.” Readers of Hayden White, Charles Martindale, and others will recognize that “mythmaking” is a highly problematic category. 3 These scholars have argued persuasively that all interpretations, however seemingly transparent, are historically contingent and are informed by pre-existing and usually implicit ideological beliefs. Read in this light, the author’s formulation of her task becomes problematic. S.’s explicit goal is to remove the “encrustations” of the later tradition, which prevent us from engaging directly with the complexities of Athenian democracy. To the extent that “myths” are created by the use of concepts that are themselves foreign to antiquity, the point is well taken. Our understanding of Athenian democracy must be based on concepts that can be meaningfully applied to the ancient context; and, with Saxonhouse, this seems to rule out terms such as “representation” or “popular sovereignty,” unless they are rigorously re-defined. 4 Similarly, it is useful to recognize that ideologically driven “myths”—for example, what E.M. Wood has called the “myth of the idle mob”—can improperly prejudice historians’ views of the past and can in turn hamper our understanding of democratic practice. 5

Upon reflection, however, it is clear that many modern ideological “myths” about Athenian democracy are themselves derived from precisely the ancient authors selected for review in this volume. Even if it were possible (as it is not) to remove every scrap of modern overlay, we would still be left with the ancients’ own ideological prejudices—in short, with their “myths.” S. gives short shrift, in my view, to the ancients’ own “myths” about democracy. In her clearest methodological statement, S. writes, “It will also be obvious that I am less interested in discovering an author’s political stance or attitude—for or against democracy-than I am in listening to what they have to say about the theoretical foundations of democracy” (150n.17). In another methodological passage, S. insists that the selected authors are not simply advocates or opponents of democracy, but that their views, which are more complex than has previously been thought, “let us understand the underlying principles and assumptions that we must confront as we defend and try to implement democratic principles in the modern world” (29). These are difficult, even impossible, distinctions to draw. Claims about the “foundations of democracy” will inevitably be informed by these authors’ own, often unabashedly antidemocratic, ideological perspectives. It is essential to identify and account for those perspectives in reading ancient texts; otherwise, the texts’ theoretical significance may indeed be obscured by failure to understand their contexts of production and their specific ideological aims. S.’s tendency to downplay the ancients’ own ideological perspectives (e.g. 29, 59-60, 86, 89-91, 118, 134, 141) leads to forced and counterintuitive interpretations that themselves might, in the author’s own terms, be considered “myths.”

One example of such an interpretation is S.’s reading of Plato’s Symposium. S. is aware that according to most scholars Plato is clearly antidemocratic, but she does not accept this view at face value. Now the Symposium is not the place one normally looks for democratic thinking, but S. proposes that the dramatic background of the dialogue illustrates democratic principles at work, such as freedom and openness. Of the Symposium S. writes, “It is a series of nested speeches in which we learn of an evening when drinking is replaced by discourse meant to be in praise of love—of a passion that is unharnessed, a passion that perhaps captures the freedom central to the democratic regime” (91). For many political theorists who concentrate on the ancient world, it has become almost standard to argue that Socratic dialectic exemplifies and depends upon the frank speech ( parrhesia) of democracy. 6 This is not a view to be taken lightly, especially since the “banquet” (usually as dais rather than symposion) as a cultural institution has been interpreted as exemplifying values such as isonomia, isegoria, and collective distribution “in the middle.”7 But can this view be supported by Plato’s Symposium ?

At least in fourth-century Athens, the symposium, as a paradigmatically aristocratic social gathering, was ideologically suspect to democrats because it seemed to threaten conventional democratic loyalties. True, symposiasts may speak freely and frankly with one another, but isn’t the same thing true of oligarchs who meet together behind closed doors? The freedom of speech enacted in the symposium is not specifically democratic free speech; on the contrary, the symposium’s exclusivity suggests precisely the opposite. On this point, however, S. argues that Agathon exhibits the democratic principle of openness by welcoming Socrates’ companion Aristodemus, despite his poverty and unattractiveness: “In the way in which democratic principles function at Agathon’s house, at least in the early part of the dialogue, all are welcomed. Distinctions between worthless and wise, superior and inferior, do not determine exclusion or inclusion” (93). The problem with S.’s reading is that Agathon specifically greets Aristodemus by saying, “If you came for anything else, put it off for the moment. I looked for you yesterday to invite you, but I couldn’t see you. But why haven’t you brought Socrates with you?” (174e). Aristodemus was invited all along; he is a friend, perhaps even a lover, of Socrates, and is explicitly a member of Agathon’s closed circle.

Although S. notes that the symposiasts use democratic language to describe their decision-making (95, citing 176e, 177d-e), this language merely calls attention by contrast to their obedience to experts. For example, the physician Eryximachus advises abstinence from drinking, and the group readily obeys. S. comments, “No compulsion is needed to restrain drinking, only self-interested obedience to one who knows” (95). That sounds very much like the familiar techne -analogy which Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and others habitually use in order to discredit Athenian democratic decision-making. Noting a similarity between this passage and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, S. writes, “In such a setting democracy is neither mob rule nor competition for power; it is the acceptance of the wisdom of men who know because it is in one’s own self-interest to do so” (94). But this is nothing like democracy as practiced, discussed, and experienced by Athenians, who based their decisions not on individual expertise, but on the wisdom of the collected mass of ordinary citizens. 8 By contrast, obedience to one who knows points directly to the elitist model of political decision-making promoted by antidemocrats like Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. Within the elitist paradigm sketched out in the Symposium, Socrates’ own speech is a crowning touch: as an expert on love, Socrates, Diotima’s pupil, creates a hierarchy of discourse within the dialogue that refutes earlier speakers and gives everyone the “truth” about love. A discursive hierarchy such as this suggests the partial and incomplete character of S.’s reading. Since it does not illuminate the antidemocratic features of the dialogue as well as the principles of openness and collective decision-making, S.’s interpretation itself creates a myth.

In S.’s own terms, a self-consciously and rigorously contextual reading of these authors necessitates viewing them as ideological “mythmakers,” rather than as “ancient theorists.” To put it differently, S. seems to view ancient texts as a mine for philosophical principles—equality, free speech, openness to revision—which can then be extracted, like gems, from their contexts and somehow connected with democracy, even if the texts in question do not make such connections or, worse, specifically militate against them. In the chapter on Herodotus, to take another example, S. briefly considers the famous “constitutional debate,” arguing that “the real contribution to democratic theory” is that this debate illustrates “the capacity of men who, beginning from an equality, are able to share in the process of political choice. That they decide to distribute it to one rather than the many is less important than their awareness that there is a choice to be made equally by those engaged in discussion” (53). This reading is strained: the equality of the seven conspirators is quite far removed from Athenian democratic equality, which is equality of the ordinary many, not the aristocratic few. True, democracy may have come about in part through the radical extension of equality from the few to the many, but the problem with S.’s interpretation is again one of context. It is hard to imagine that Herodotus’ fifth-century audience, whether Athenian or not, would have made such a connection as S. makes; certainly Herodotus’ text contains no traces of it. In Herodotus’ day, conspiracies of the few were not held to embody democratic principles of equality, and it seems questionable whether this is the best way to explore the “complexity” of the ancients’ responses to democracy. Might it not be more productive to compare what Herodotus himself explicitly says about democracy (e.g. 5.97, mentioned once on p.55) with the speeches of Otanes and Megabyzus, and with the rest of the narrative as a whole? That approach would help us see how Herodotus has shaped his account in accordance with his own attitudes toward democracy, or, in other words, how Herodotus is himself a “mythmaker” of democracy. More generally still, is Herodotus the best possible starting-point for a book on ancient “theorists” of democracy? Others, such as the “Old Oligarch,” or Plato’s Protagoras (the latter considered briefly by S. at pp. 8-9), may recommend themselves more strongly.

Despite the concerns noted above, this book is stimulating and useful. For one thing, S.’s lucid, engaging, and provocative discussion of Aristotle illustrates her obvious strengths as a political philosopher. S. seems most at home in treating an explicitly theoretical text like the Politics. She brings out very clearly the struggling, almost aporetic character of much of Aristotle’s theorizing and fully captures the tensions between Aristotle’s normative and descriptive uses of phusis. Aristotle, moreover, is the author whose ideological stances are most straightforwardly treated by S. Beyond its specific insights, though, S.’s contribution both forces classicists to think carefully about ingrained presuppositions and habits of reading and also provokes further reflection upon the timely question of what we can learn about our own democratic culture from studying ancient authors who analyzed democracy. Classicists have much to learn from S.’s specific reading, but also from engagement in debate with her over how to understand ancient democracy and its relationship to our own democratic aspirations, institutions, and commitments.

1. See also P. Vidal-Naquet, La Democratie grecque vue d’ailleurs (Paris, 1990), which is not listed in S.’s bibliography.

2. The bibliography on this subject is vast: see e.g. K. Raaflaub, “Contemporary Perceptions of Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens,”CM 40 (1989) 33-70; W.G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy 800-400 B.C. (New York and Toronto, 1966), 221-235; J.A.O. Larsen, “The Judgment of Antiquity on Democracy,”CP 49 (1954) 1-14.

3. See Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge, 1993), especially 18-23; Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, 1978).

4. The usefulness of such terminology is a subject of debate among ancient historians: see M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Assembly in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford, 1987); M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of the Law (Berkeley, 1986); J. Ober, “Review of Hansen, The Athenian Assembly in the Age of Demosthenes,”CP 84 (1989) 322-34; M.H. Hansen, “Demos, Ekklesia, and Dikasterion: A Reply to Martin Ostwald and Josiah Ober,”CM 40 (1989) 101-106.

5. E.M. Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London, 1988), Chapter 1.

6. E.g. S.S. Monoson, “Frank Speech, Democracy, and Philosophy: Plato’s Debt to a Democratic Strategy of Civic Discourse,” in J.P. Euben, J.R. Wallach, and J. Ober, eds., Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Ithaca, 1994), 172-97.

7. These arguments are best summarized in P. Schmitt-Pantel, “Sacrificial Meal and Symposion: Two Models of Civic Institutions in the Archaic City?” in O. Murray, ed., Sympotica (Oxford, 1990) 14-33 at 21-22.

8. J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton, 1989), 163-66.