BMCR 1999.05.20

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule

, Political dissent in democratic Athens : intellectual critics of popular rule. Martin classical lectures. New series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. xiv, 417 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780691001227. $35.00.

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens is a much expanded version of Ober’s Martin Classical Lectures delivered at Oberlin in 1994. Ober’s project is to place familiar texts in a new interpretive frame by showing that many major figures in classical Athenian literature belong to a century-long tradition formed by the shared desire to criticize popular rule in Athens without neglecting its strengths. Ober’s tradition begins with Ps.-Xenophon’s Athênaiôn politeia (“a strange little tract written by a clumsy genius,” 44), and ends with the Aristotelian treatise of the same name (Ober attributes this to a Ps.-Aristotle). Bracketed between these relatively obscure Athpols, Ober places in sequence Thucydides’ history, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, Plato’s Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and Republic, Isocrates’ Antidosis and Areopagiticus, and Aristotle’s Politics. He does not claim that these texts and authors formed anything like a face to face community of Athenian cultural critics, or even that there is strong intertextuality always at work here. His argument is that each of his texts is decisively shaped by the shared problem of how to criticize the curiously successful democracy. This is no small interpretive claim:

“How to criticize democracy” was a central problem for classical Athenian intellectuals. By the end of the fifth century, it seems to have become the central problem: I would suggest that after 404 BC, in order to be taken seriously as an Athenian intellectual, it was necessary to participate in the criticism of popular rule and to participate on the terms established by Athens’ “critical community.” If this is correct, then not only was democracy the definitive factor in Athenian political life and public discourse, but “democracy as a problem” became the definitive factor in Athenian intellectual life and literary discourse. (50-51)

And not only in Athenian life and discourse; Ober claims that “the Western tradition of formal political theorizing originated in the work of [this] informal, intellectual, and aristocratic community of Athenian readers and writers” (5).

The energy of this very energetic and ambitious book is supplied by a kind of dual contextualizing. On the one hand, Ober sees the texts as commentaries on the principles and practices of actually existing Athenian democracy; on the other, he sees their authors as “Athenian intellectuals” whose basic orientation is revealed via a comparison with the “New York intellectuals” of the mid-twentieth century:

A modern analogy might be sought in the contributors to a journal of political opinion. The journal Dissent was founded in 1954, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Stalin and the collapse of the “Old Left,” to provide a forum for staunchly antityrannical democratic-socialist “New York intellectuals”; the term “New York intellectuals” as shorthand for anti-Stalinist American leftists was coined by Irving Howe, the journal’s founder. (46, n. 63)

Just as the leftish New York intellectuals were troubled by American democracy but even more so by its communist enemies on the left, so the critique of Athenian democracy mounted by Ober’s “literate, dissident, and agonistic” (47) Athenian intellectuals on the right, as it were, is chastened by their horror of the far right in the wake of “the brief and brutal oligarchy of the Thirty” (5). Their task thus becomes to criticize the democracy from an aristocratic perspective without giving aid and comfort to friends of tyrannical oligarchy.

The final element in Ober’s interpretive framework is the controversial understanding of Athenian democracy set out in his Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton, 1989), to which Political Dissent is a sequel. In Mass and Elite Ober rejected two common modern views about Athenian politics in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, that it was a direct democracy and that it was an oligarchy concealed behind formally democratic institutions. On the basis of an examination of a fourth century law court speeches, he argued that the Athenian dêmos indirectly controlled their rulers by compelling them to speak and act in ways that served the popular sense of justice. Since the dêmos, as a largely coherent and unified class, was the sole judge of the contests among members of the ruling class in the law courts and the assembly, it had the power to enforce its will upon these rulers. In Athens, Ober claims, control over the terms of public discourse meant control over the city itself. The ability to speak persuasively was the greatest source of political power and the demotic audience had control over the meanings that made speech persuasive or not. Political Dissent presents Ober’s Athenian intellectuals attacking Ober’s Athenian democracy by bringing out the weaknesses and injustices the critics think flow from popular control over the language, and hence the substance, of democratic politics.

These three premises (that the core of Athenian democracy was democratic control over speech, that there was a previously unnoticed intellectual tradition whose central mission was to challenge this democracy, and that these critics preferred democracy with its flaws to the historical alternative) serve Ober as a point of departure for substantial chapters devoted to each of the members to his imagined critical community. While I am not persuaded that Ober’s framework deserves to become orthodoxy, the readings he develops from it are consistently invigorating and articulate. All three of his premises are open to debate. But it surely counts in their favor that they lead Ober to see some quite new and intriguing things in several much-studied texts. This is a book for all students of the literature and philosophy of classical Athens, not least because it supplies so many occasions for fruitful disagreement.

The book contains an introduction and seven chapters. The first chapter lays out the interpretive framework and establishes the Old Oligarch as the founder of a tradition essentially critical, yet never without some admiration for democracy. Ober toys at first with a modern distinction between “immanentist” and “rejectionist” critics, used to separate those calling for reform from those calling for complete revolution. He argues very plausibly that such a distinction does not fit his Greek texts, since one can find “immanentist” moments in the most “rejectionist” of Athenian critics (that is, Plato). As this resistance to an overly determining categorical frame suggests, Ober shows himself throughout to be an alert and sensitive close reader of these texts as well as a theoretically informed one.

Chapter 2 takes up Thucydides. On Ober’s account, Thucydides does not dissent from the democratic view of human nature as inevitably pursuing self-interest in an often unpredictable world. But Athenian democracy is an inherently unstable system due to its inability to understand the true relationship between speeches and deeds, and especially because of its mad confidence in the power of public speech to transform the real world to suit democratic desires. Thucydides’ story of the war records the clash between democratic illusions and harsh realities, ending with the failure of the Sicilian expedition and the Athenian stasis that follows that massive defeat: “The expedition, constructed out of false words and personal interests, crashes into the complex and harsh realities of war in the real world, and sinks. Fragile consensus, predicated on misleading speech, devolves into the terrible reality of the stasis described in book 8″ (117). That the democracy rose to power in the first place was due only to the fortuitous brilliance of Themistocles and Pericles, insightful leaders who managed to restrain for a while the intrinsic tendency of the dêmos to treat logoi as sufficient to control erga, but who were eventually and inevitably rejected by it. Because democracy, as government by competing public speeches, cannot tell the difference between true and false speeches, it will always crash into the matter of fact reality that lies beyond speech. Ober’s reading is considerably more nuanced than this summary of it allows, but he does make Thucydides more of a “positivist” fact-man, more prosaic than seems likely. Still, Ober does recognize that Thucydides’ ergon is itself a logos, and even a logos that suggests that complex meanings cannot be communicated except through logoi. But by making Thucydides the great critic of the regime of democratic speeches, Ober risks underestimating the extent to which Thucydides wishes to celebrate and memorialize the unique greatness of the democracy, both in triumph and in defeat.

The third chapter takes up Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, reading the comedy as expressing a critique not unlike Thucydides’, stressing a contradiction between democratic speech and democratic deed:

The citizens of the play learn that they really cannot have it both ways. When deeply cherished assumptions about nature collide with democratic political culture, something has got to give, and it is up to the male citizens to decide whether they will acknowledge limits on their political power to enact social realities, or admit that their social order, and the political order that was built upon it, was not as natural as they sometimes liked to pretend. (147)

Ober takes Aristophanes to be a less chilling critic than Thucydides, and a more believable one. Democracy indeed survived well into the fourth century, thus vindicating contra Thucydides what Ober takes to be Aristophanes’ faith in the educability of the Athenian dêmos assembled in the theater. This question of the educability of the dêmos, and hence the possibility of reforming the democracy, is at the center of Ober’s analysis of his next two critics, Plato and Isocrates.

By far the longest chapter in the book contains Ober’s account of four Platonic dialogues. The overall line of argument here is that Plato begins in the Apology and Crito with hopes that the relatively decent democracy that nonetheless killed Socrates could still be reformed “through meliorative provocation and criticism of popular ideology” (179). His account of these dialogues is more engaging than this bland conclusion suggests. Ober is a good reader, and not merely a theorist and historian, and like a good reader he is happy to point to things in the text that fail to support his hypothesis about its meaning: he is especially good on the astonishingly bad fit between Socrates and the opinions expressed by the Laws of Athens he claims to represent in the Crito. The Gorgias, for Ober, embodies a rejection of reform, teaching that democratic rhetoric inevitably corrupts those employing it, and showing Socrates withdrawing from active politics to the cultivation of individual souls. The Republic completes this escape from Athens, constructing a city in speech to serve as a refuge from the ineducable democracy. But, as Ober recognizes, this is all too neat; the Republic, even more than the other dialogues, seems open to a variety of possible responses, including political ones within democratic Athens. (For a brilliant and novel view of Plato and democracy in the dialogue, see Arlene W. Saxonhouse, “Democracy, Equality, and Eidê : A Radical View from Book 8 of Plato’s Republic,” American Political Science Review 92 (June, 1998), pp. 273-283). Having shown that any attempt to characterize Plato as either reformer or anti-political fails to encompass the complexity of his writing, Ober concludes that Plato must have been unable to reconcile his commitment to the cultivation of individual souls and his commitment to political reform. Ober’s conclusion assumes that Plato could have had no other question foremost in mind than whether democratic Athens could be saved, indicating the limits imposed by Ober’s framework even on a reader as resourceful and careful as Ober. Plato the philosopher, responding to Heraclitus and Parmenides as well as to the Old Oligarch, the tyranny of the Thirty, and the death of Socrates, is absent from these pages.

The discussion of Isocrates in Chapter 5 finds Ober on firmer and more familiar ground. Isocrates is a critic of Athenian democracy, but one who “takes for himself the role of a concerned member of both the democratic and the critical communities.” As a citizen, Isocrates proposes a program for reform to reconcile the democracy to its leading citizens without advocating the by now thoroughly discredited oligarchy (272). His acceptance of Athenian democracy is of a piece with his conflation of rhetoric and philosophy; he wants only to persuade the dêmos to recall “their former respect for the traditional aristocratic virtues of moral excellence, wealth, high birth, and age” (282). His primary addition to the agenda of Ober’s imagined community of critics is to urge re-thinking Athenian identity as part of a broader Hellenic framework.

Pan-hellenism links Isocrates to Ober’s analysis of Aristotle’s Politics in Chapter 6. Ober’s reading of this text contains his most provocative interpretive claims. Driven by his framing device of a community of “Athenian intellectuals,” Ober sees Aristotle not as a philosophical educator but as a would-be politician. Picking his way through the Politics, Ober reconstructs a program to save Athenian democracy by expanding it to Asia through imperial conquest of the sort Alexander was poised to bring about. New cities of leisured Greek philosopher-politicians supported by Asian slave labor would solve the problem of democracy once and for all, building upon “new polis-foundations that Macedonian imperial energies and military efficiency would soon make possible in Western Asia” (310). Ober recognizes the fragmentary textual basis in the Politics for his Aristotle-Imperialist, but argues that such a figure makes perfect sense if we remember that his “Athenian intellectuals” were no mere ivory-tower academics, but a contentious lot of brainy competitors eager to come up with the real-world solution for the problems of democratic Athens (350). Ober’s assertion about Aristotle’s intention in the Politics sets a useful problem even for a reader who finds it difficult to accept this interpretive either/or.

A final chapter takes up the Aristotelian Athpol. Ober thinks that the author was probably a student at the Lyceum rather than “Nature’s Secretary,” as Donne called Aristotle, but says that “the issue of authorship is not of paramount importance to the argument developed here” (352, n. 1). Presenting the text as giving a measured judgment of Athenian democracy and as exhibiting a “moderately pro-democratic stance” (360), Ober concludes that the Athpol signals the final reconciliation of democratic Athens and its intellectual critics. What explains this reconciliation? Ober thinks that the two sides had responded to each other in fruitful ways, the critics learning to live with democracy and democrats responding constructively to their critics. Ober hopes to develop his thoughts about the democratic response into a third volume to complete the trilogy on Athenian political discourse begun by Mass and Elite and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (369, n. 32).

No one will agree with every assertion in this long book, but it stands as an impressive achievement and a thoroughly invigorating read. As a writer, Ober is sometimes prolix but never obscure, and if his opinions are rarely in doubt, he is utterly scrupulous about indicating gaps in the textual evidence for them and in citing other scholars who see things differently. This is a theory-driven book, but the theory should enlighten even those who contest it. Questions could be raised about why Herodotus and the tragedians do not fit the mold of “Athenian intellectual,” and whether this tells us something about the limits of the usefulness of Ober’s framework as a guide to Greek political thought. A more serious problem concerns Ober’s identification of his evident preference for the manly life of political action over bookwormish theôria as an essentially Greek bias that must have been shared by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. His claim is that real Greeks could not have felt otherwise: “the metaphysical ontology of Plato’s Republic left the reader without a genuine politics to embrace, and this presented a serious problem. Intellectualism, no matter how passionate, could never quite manage to overcome the deeply ingrained Greek desire (whether that desire was cultural or, with Aristotle, natural) to experience the life of the engaged participant in the real world of a working political community” (367). To Ober’s assertion about deeply ingrained Greek desires, I imagine Plato’s Socrates replying: “And just what do you mean by your “real world,” O Best of Western Barbarians?”