BMCR 2006.02.09

Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going on Together

Josiah Ober, Athenian legacies : essays on the politics of going on together. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xiii, 273 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691120951 $29.95.

Josiah Ober’s latest book collects various essays written over the past decade, mostly within the last five years. They are a diverse group, focusing on problems of political theory but drawing widely on historical, philosophical, literary, artistic, and archaeological resources. Yet they successfully achieve at least “thin coherence” — to borrow Ober’s own label for the highly heterogeneous degree of social unity he attributes to Athens (70-72) — around the idea, from the volume’s subtitle, of “going on together.” From a variety of angles, Ober explores the ways in which Athens sought to overcome challenges and survive over time as a democratic community without suppressing individuality and freedom or insisting upon a unitary, overarching conception of the human good. These explorations are informed by the belief that such “going on together” is itself valuable. Ober describes this underlying normative commitment, reiterated often throughout the book, thus: “Going on together under (always imperfect) conditions of democracy and justice should be valued in much the same way that we value the more familiar political goods of liberty and equality. Going on together implies these political goods and like them it is a condition of human flourishing” (2).

Ober investigates this broad topic from a variety of angles. He suggests that the essays “explore several particular aspects of the general ‘diversity-coherence’ theme,” especially “the tensions intrinsic to boundaries, identities, knowledge, and persistence” (8). Without denying that these issues permeate the collection, I find it helpful to identify a somewhat different, and more concrete, quartet of problems that, to my mind, connect the various essays: (1) a community’s use of the past to sustain itself into the future; (2) the attempt to balance unity and diversity, coherence and individuality, or (as Ober puts it, 129) “thinking alike” and “thinking differently”; (3) civic education, especially through participation in political institutions; and (4) democracy’s claim to authority over its members. I shall explore each of these briefly before turning to some broader issues.

The problem of using the past to sustain a community into the future is especially prominent in the book’s third (“Historical Legacies: Moral Authority and the Usable Past”), fourth (“Culture, Thin Coherence, and the Persistence of Politics”), and tenth (“Tyrant-Killing as Therapeutic Conflict: A Political Debate in Images and Texts”) essays. Ober’s general argument is that, although appeals to the past can be used to suppress difference and impose a unitary social vision, they can also inspire us by calling to mind both our society’s noblest ideals — such as liberty, equality, and self-government — and the sacrifices our predecessors have made in their service, sacrifices we repay by dedicating ourselves anew to those ideals in the present. Ober illustrates this idea (in chapter three) with a discussion of Thucydides’ appeal, especially in the Funeral Oration, to the glory of Periclean Athens. He takes up the same theme in describing how the iconography of tyrannicide served as a kind of rallying cry for Athenian democrats (chapter ten). He also suggests, in a discussion (chapter four) of the decision by many Athenian metics and slaves to support the democratic resistance to the Thirty (90-91), that it may be society’s least advantaged who most require the maintenance over time of some level of political unity and social coherence. This argument merits careful reflection in an age when the upper-middle classes of prosperous Western societies have easy access to forms of global transportation and communication and readily adopt the habits and ways of mind of a cosmopolitan, transnational elite, while vast numbers of less fortunate people in those same societies and elsewhere continue to rely upon the traditional nation-state to sustain basic conditions of well-being.

The same argument also illustrates the second of the problems that unify the book, society’s need to balance unity and diversity. Access to the many goods and choices that social diversity makes possible is a blessing. But the factional division and outright civil conflict that so often threatened or overcame Athens and other Greek cities — a threat we see reflected in the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle — serve as a healthy reminder that “capacity to contest coherence and gain access to diversity are not the only good things that people might reasonably seek” and that “thin (yet resilient) cultural coherence may be valued because it allows people to go on together” (88, italics in original). Ober explores this theme further in the book’s fifth and seventh essays. In the former (“Quasi Rights: Participatory Citizenship and Negative Liberties”), he argues (against Fareed Zakaria1) that the preservation and defense of democratic institutions (unity) can over time lead to the development of “quasi rights,” proto-liberal protections of individual liberty and choice (diversity). In the latter (“Living Freely as a Slave of the Law: Why Socrates Lives in Athens”), a brief analysis of Socrates’ arguments in the Crito, Ober suggests that it was the Athenian commitment to individual liberty, as reflected in a highly procedural code of law (diversity), that made the city such a suitable home for the philosopher that he was willing to abide by its laws even unto death (unity). Athens successfully balanced unity and diversity by “offer[ing] its citizens a conjunction of freedom and the fulfillment of the citizen’s life” (169).

The problem of civic education animates the book’s second, fifth, and sixth essays. Civic education is the means by which a polity seeks to impart some set of basic ideas and values to each new generation of citizens. Civic education is a particularly thorny issue for a democracy, because the necessity of sustaining democratic values over time must be balanced against one of those very values, the flourishing of a variety of beliefs and ways of life. A democracy’s approach to civic education thus embodies its attempt to negotiate the tension between unity and diversity. Ober argues that Athens sought to reproduce democratic values over time primarily through the experience of widespread citizen participation in the institutions of democratic governance. He describes this system most fully in chapter two (“Classical Athenian Democracy and Democracy Today”), where he argues that governance through demes, tribes, Council, and Assembly helped create a polis-wide network of citizens who had in various ways and at various levels worked together managing public affairs. This network embodied the ideals of equality and self-governance and gave a large percentage of Athenian citizens experience with and a personal stake in the success of democratic institutions. These institutions taught citizens that their own participation in self-governance was itself the mechanism for protecting their liberty and equality — their “quasi rights” — against attempts by powerful individuals to dominate others (chapter five). Finally, the very success of such a system constituted a response to political and especially philosophical critics of democracy (Plato looms large in Ober’s account) who argued that good government required a more formal and extensive educational program that would restrict individual liberty to a far greater degree (chapter six, “The Athenian Debate Over Civic Education”).

The last of the four unifying themes I have identified, democracy’s claim to authority over its members, is less explicit but occurs with sufficient frequency to indicate a particular interest on Ober’s part. His suggestion, I think, is something like this: that by successfully balancing diversity and unity, by drawing on the past in a way that preserves citizens’ liberty, equality, and security in the present, and thus by enabling the community to “go on together,” democracy makes a justifiable claim to the ongoing allegiance of its members. Ober’s striking illustration of this idea, to which he recurs in the first (“Introduction: Climbing the Hill of Ares”), seventh, and tenth essays, is the Eukrates nomos, a law forbidding Areopagites from ascending the hill of Ares in order to perform their governmental functions should the democracy be overthrown, and permitting the legal execution, by any citizen, of one who did so. As Ober explicates it, the nomos, by claiming to govern behavior even after the democracy’s hypothetical overthrow, expresses forcefully the continuing claim to authority and obedience made by democratic law. Though Ober’s provocative discussions on this theme could usefully be developed further, he implies that democratic success at “going on together” justifies this claim to allegiance and also that citizen recognition of the claim in turn makes successful going on together more likely.

Only two essays cohere less effectively with the rest of the collection. Chapter eight (“Social Science History, Cultural History, and the Amnesty of 403 B.C.”) contrasts two methodological approaches to historical explanation, a social science, rational choice approach and a cultural history, anthropological approach (to speak broadly). But despite its reasonable conclusion that both approaches have something to offer, the essay’s promise of testing their relative merits through an examination of the Athenian Amnesty of 403 B.C. goes largely unfulfilled. Chapter nine (“Greek Horoi : Artifactual Texts and the Contingency of Meaning”) is a quite interesting discussion of the limits of our ability to decipher the social meaning of these physical boundary-markers, but its connection to the problems of the other essays remains rather vague.

The most interesting aspect of Ober’s book, in my view, is its impressive use of classical thought and history to shed light on difficult contemporary problems. Even to say this, however, is to raise an important methodological issue, one that lies somewhat outside my own area of expertise (political theory, rather than history), but that will be important to some readers. Ober is entirely straightforward about his desire to use the past as a means of illuminating the present. In his introduction, he speaks of ancient Athens’ becoming “valuable for us as modern history-making agents and for democratic theory building,” and claims, “Because it is concerned with diversity and conflict as well as solidarity, the study of Athenian politics can contribute, not only to discussions about democracy’s original potential, but also to democracy’s possible future” (1). Some readers are likely to be skeptical of attempts to make ancient democracy “valuable for us” and to worry that the attempt to address contemporary problems with examples from the distant past risks distorting historical experience by confronting it with an anachronistic set of questions. Ober is, however, careful in his claims and recognizes areas of scholarly disagreement. He is also forthright about his desire to derive current guidance from past wisdom. My own view is that, as long as an author is clear about his intentions, the proof of such an effort is in the pudding.

And in this case, Ober’s explorations are sufficiently stimulating to merit our consideration. He is right, I think, to suggest that ancient Athens was considerably more diverse than it is sometimes taken to be and that the Athenians, in this respect at least, resembled us more than we might initially think. Aristotle’s Politics, for instance, suggests that the key challenge faced by a constitutional order is to reconcile conflicting claims about justice. Similarly, Ober argues, in a point reminiscent of Bernard Yack’s study of Aristotle 2, that “the central point of much ancient Greek political theory and practice” is that politics must strive “to keep disputes, which invariably ar[i]se in the culturally diverse state, from escalating into full blown stasis.” This problem of “going on together” as a political community in the face of deep disagreement about the human good could not be more timely. For roughly a decade now we in the United States — readers elsewhere will forgive me for using the example I know best — have been bombarded with endless maps of “red America” and “blue America”; for even longer we have been engaged in a “culture war” that shows no sign of ending. The issues that divide us are profoundly important. To those divisions have been added new ones over the war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq.

Under such circumstances, Ober’s question about Athens has great meaning for us also: “How did the Athenians manage to go on together as an internally diverse and democratically governed community, one that sought (if never altogether successfully) to promote conditions of justice, in the face of so many circumstances that made going on so very difficult?” (2) We could restate this in terms of the fourth theme described above: How does a democracy sustain its claim to authority over its members across time? Ober’s answer is implicit in his various discussions of the other three themes: It does so by drawing on the legacy of the past to support democratic institutions in the present; by insisting that those institutions protect the equality and individual liberty of citizens; and by involving enough citizens in the actual working of democracy that they feel a stake in its success, experience the benefits that arise from it, and desire to pass those benefits on to future citizens.

Is this enough? If we are expecting concrete policy guidance, surely not — though it is one of the book’s ironies that, in its emphasis on democracy (and specifically in Ober’s disagreement with Zakaria in chapter five), its argument appears to support the Bush administration’s foreign policy strategy of promoting the spread of democracy abroad. But Ober’s argument is suggestive in other ways. In light of contemporary political circumstances, what is to my mind most helpful is the book’s description — especially in the third, fourth, and fifth chapters — of a politics that strives to be simultaneously conservative and progressive, that looks both to the past and to the future, that understands, indeed, that a real affection for and recognition of the noblest elements in a historical legacy is frequently a crucial prerequisite for reforming and improving that legacy. At the same time, Ober recognizes that an appreciation of our historical legacy and a desire to build upon it are likely to flourish only when ordinary men and women actually experience its benefits and see in concrete ways that it helps them lead lives of liberty and dignity.

It is another of the book’s ironies that in both these respects — his “conservative progressivism” and his recognition that real benefits are necessary to sustain such a perspective — Ober’s argument contains echoes of Burke. Ober at one point distinguishes his defense of “thin coherence” from Burke’s views, which he associates with a thicker, “comprehensive” view of tradition (51-2). And I certainly would not deny the difference in emphasis — Burke could never write, as Ober does, that democratic citizens should be “taught that revolution is among their most important legacies” (128). Nevertheless there is a kinship here with Burke the Whig, the critic of injustice in India and Ireland, who wrote that a “disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” We might imagine Burke and Ober as together carrying on the kind of democratic argument that Ober praises, thinking alike while thinking differently, working out their real differences of opinion within the framework of a shared commitment to “going on together.” That is an attractive image of politics, one that we today might do well to emulate. To those who point us towards examples of how it can be done, even in ancient Athens, we may be grateful.


1. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

2. Bernard Yack, The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.