BMCR 2007.08.13

Greek Political Thought

Ryan K. (Ryan Krieger) Balot, Greek political thought. Ancient cultures. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2006. xiii, 353 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 140510029X $33.95 (pb).

Balot’s (B.) Greek Political Thought aims to provide an “introductory guide” for undergraduate and graduate students to ancient Greek thinkers (broadly construed) from Homer through Epicurus who wrote in both systematic and unsystematic ways about life in the Greek polis (viii). B. notes that he has not tried to locate his arguments within current scholarly discussions (although he does include a 19 page bibliographic essay that provides an overview of Anglophone scholarship on Greek political thought). Nonetheless, he states that he hopes scholars will be able to recognize his take on scholarly arguments and appreciate what is distinctive in his approach, which combines normative and historical analysis. B. also characterizes his volume as distinctive in that it approaches Greek political thought through ethical thought, or what he calls “the perspective of ‘virtue politics'” (ix), a point I will consider at greater length below.

B.’s volume is organized into nine chapters: An introductory chapter and an epilogue reflect more generally on the nature of political thinking, as distinct from political theory, and the significance of ancient thought for modern readers. Placed between the introduction and the epilogue are seven chapters which divvy up ancient Greek authors on partially historical, partially thematic grounds. Thus, the second chapter on archaic Greek thought examines how the problem of distributive justice arises in the poems of Homer and Hesiod and then briefly considers the cases of Sparta and Athens through the fragments and poems of Tyrtaios and Solon. The third chapter seeks to characterize the nature of democratic political thinking generally, drawing upon 5 th and 4 th century sources such as the Attic orators, Herodotus, Plato’s depiction of Protagoras, and Athenian drama. Following upon the characterization of the main themes of democratic thinking, such as the notion of equality and a qualified notion of individual autonomy, the fourth chapter in turn articulates late 5th century critiques of democracy in the writings of the Old Oligarch, the sometimes anti-democratic depictions of Socrates in Plato and Xenophon, and sophists such as Thrasymachus and Antiphon. The fifth chapter focuses upon the Greek experience with imperialism, both in Herodotus’ and Xenophon’s reflections on the Persian empire and in the writings of Athenian authors such as Isocrates, Plato, and Euripides, who reflect on Athens’ predicament during and after the Peloponnesian wars. (Throughout these “middle chapters” B. adeptly uses Thucydides as a source both to depict and critique democratic practices.)

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 thus portray the image of a continuous dialogue or debate concerning the arguments for and against democracy against the canvas of Athens’ changing experiences in the 5th and 4th centuries. In chapters 6 and 7, B. both situates Plato and Aristotle (and to a lesser degree Isocrates) within this debate and provides chapter-length thematic analyses of Plato and Aristotle’s writings. B.’s analysis of Plato focuses on the Gorgias, the Republic, the Laws, and the Statesman whereas his analysis of Aristotle focuses on the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, and to a lesser degree the Rhetoric (although without sustained discussion of the Athenian Constitution). The eighth and final thematic chapter traces the development of Hellenistic political thought in the Rhetoric to Alexander and the schools of cynicism, stoicism, and Epicureanism.

Although B. in his Preface claims that “no introductory guide to ancient Greek political thought currently exists” (viii), in his bibliographic essay he acknowledges and praises the standard guides, such as Sinclair’s History of Greek Political Thought (1951), Barker’s Greek Political Theory (1918), and the magisterial Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (2000) edited by Christopher Rowe and Malcolm Schofield. Thus, B.’s claim to novelty seems to consist in the introductory nature of his guide. Presumably to help the introductory student who may not easily have access to the texts he cites, throughout each chapter B. sets off from the text (in darkened boxes) anywhere from 12 to 28 representative passages which illustrate or guide his analysis. (Within the text he also quotes numerous other passages, some as long as eight lines of text, although it was not always clear why some passages were set off from the text and other equally long or even longer passages were simply quoted in the text.) Since these set-off texts make up only 144 passages or approximately 20-25 pages of source material, B.’s volume would be well-paired with an anthology such as Gagarin and Woordruff’s Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists (1995).

B. also suggests that his volume breaks new ground by including for analysis texts of “political thought” in addition to those of “political theory”; by the former he means unsystematic reflection on τὰ πολιτικά (for instance, in orations and drama) in addition to more traditional systematic reflection like Plato’s Laws or Aristotle’s Politics (1-2, 7-9, 49-51). B.’s inclusion of such sources is to be commended, although I think he could have included even more “political thought” texts. Unsurprisingly, the chapter on archaic Greek thought draws heavily on poetic texts and the chapters on Plato, Aristotle, and Hellenistic thought tend towards “theory” texts. The chapters focusing on 5th and 4th century themes include 78 passages which are set off from the main text, only 5 of which are drawn from comedy, 5 from tragedy, and 4 from the Attic orators. (By comparison, of the 78 set-off passages, 19 are from Thucydides, 14 from Plato, 7 from Herodotus, and 5 from Demosthenes.) B. cites passages from “unsystematic” texts in addition to those set-off within the text, but they seemed in the minority. B. is also to be commended for including discussions of the challenges which Thucydides or the Attic orators present as sources, although I think it would have been advantageous to include a discussion of the nature of Athenian drama as a source and, more generally, the context of theater as a cultural, religious, and political institution in Athens. B.’s bibliographic essay seems to omit the subject of politics and Greek drama entirely.1

It is only fair to evaluate B.’s volume according to its professed aim as an introductory guide. B. has provided students with a carefully cleared path through several centuries of thought about Greek politics. Students will discern the dialectic which B. thinks underlies that path, namely, one which originates in archaic debates about distributive justice, develops through the democratic transformation of Athens in the 6th and 5th century, inspires anti-democratic opposition, and is transformed during and after the Athenian experience of empire and collapse. Additionally, B. provides students focusing on the two most central Greek political thinkers—Plato and Aristotle—with chapters which lay out major themes in their political works and the bibliographic essay provides ample guide for further undergraduate research. B. provides brief historical background about significant differences between ancient and modern thought, for instance concerning pluralism (11-12), politics and religion (25), the difference between ancient and modern democracy (51-53), and the notion of public and private spheres (53-9). B. seems less interested in exploring the structural differences between ancient and modern political institutions.2 For instance, although he explains basic facts which we know about the classical Greek polis (2), there is no discussion of its differences from the modern state or nation, which is a point that would seem especially relevant at the introductory level. B. at times also seems to under appreciate the extent to which modern institutions (such as the economy, civil society, trade unions, autonomous educational institutions, or trans-political religious institutions) were almost inconceivable to classical Greek thought, a point which raises problems for a volume that seeks not only to describe classical Greek political thought but also appropriate parts of it as a guide to modern problems.

Although I think B.’s guide would be useful for undergraduate students, I was less convinced of its value for graduate students. For more advanced students, one may concede (perhaps grudgingly) that Sinclair and Barker’s guides to Greek political thought are in need of supplementation, but such is certainly not the case with Rowe and Schofield’s Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, which is by far the most appropriate single-volume guide for the advanced study of Greek political thought and theory. Since B. self-consciously eschews engaging scholarly debate on the topics he examines (except for the occasional footnote), it is difficult to see how his guide would be suitable for graduate students in more specialized disciplines such as classics or ancient philosophy. Even at the undergraduate level, one may wish to supplement B’s volume. Since B.’s methodological approach does not provide overviews of individual thinkers (with the exception of the chapters on Aristotle and Plato), the student looking for an introductory synoptic overview of thinkers like Herodotus, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Isocrates or historical figures like Cleisthenes, Demosthenes, Pericles, or Alcibiades will need to turn elsewhere.

In an odd way, B.’s volume will paradoxically be most challenging (but not a little frustrating) to scholars in the field. One may quibble, of course, with the interpretation of individual passages here and there, but B’s more ambitious assertions about “virtue politics” seemed at best to be exhortations which an introductory audience will not fully appreciate and about which a scholarly audience will be rather suspicious, especially in light of the absence of argumentation or acknowledgement of the problems which scholars have raised concerning the appropriation of ancient Greek political thought. B’s “virtue politics” seems to consist in the claim that one can find in the Greek notion of “demokratia” (which B. literally characterizes as “people-power” at one point [48]) a “tertium quid” or “viam tertiam” (sic) between contemporary liberalism and communitarian thought (14, 62, 88, 301). The claim seems grounded principally in the assertion that classical democratic political thought (including, somewhat surprisingly, Aristotle) operated with a “thick” but “vague” notion of the human good which, while inconsistent with modern pluralism, nonetheless allows for an objective non-relative standard of civic virtue (11-12, 54-5, 61, 253). B.’s epilogue spells out what he thinks the ramifications of such a via tertia should be: a rejection of the liberal model of homo oeconomicus, an embrace of civic participation, and the institution of a social democratic welfare state required to make “substantial material, educational, environmental, and health-care provisions for all its citizens” (301). Indeed, although elsewhere B. acknowledges the problematic relationship between civic leisure and Greek slavery (253-54), he claims that in his demokratia all citizens “would have the leisure for [political] participation, because they would not be struggling to provide the everyday necessities of life for themselves and their families” (301). One cannot help but wonder if, absent self-working tools like the tripods of Hephaestus ( Pol I.4.1253b33-54a1), such a demokratia will be equally generous to its metics.

On one level, one may quibble over whether an Aristotelian or ancient “virtue politics” would even endorse such a view.3 But a more serious problem is the challenge which Benjamin Constant (and his modern followers such as Stephen Holmes) raised about the perilous mismatch of classical Greek political ideals and modern political institutions.4 Constant witnessed at first hand (and survived) the triumph of the antiquity-inspired “virtue politics” of Rousseau (and/or Robespierre) during the Terror of the French Revolution. Appropriate to an introductory guide, B. gestures towards some of the problems raised by Constant’s 1819 speech “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns,” and yet his two page treatment of Constant’s critique of modern appropriations of ancient thought left this scholar wondering what is B’s fully developed view of the subject (57-9). Constant’s critique consisted in the recognition of the anachronism of classical Greek political thought in relationship to the differentiated social and political institutions of modern society (including many of those closely related to the birth of homo oeconomius) and the dangerous ramifications of eliminating those institutions in the name of virtue. B.’s exhortation of virtue politics shows no recognition of the political dangers of such a proposal.

It is unfair to expect an introductory guide to provide a detailed defense of the modern appropriation of “ancient ‘virtue politics,'” but the virtuous image of B.’s exhortatory epilogue is in need of argumentation. In the bibliographic essay which follows the book, B. notes that full documentation of the contemporary (and historical) views advanced in Greek Political Thought would require another volume in its own right (304). Perhaps B. would consider writing something less lengthy than another book (although more philosophical than an epilogue) defending the contemporary normative relevance of “virtue politics” to his fellow scholars working in Greek political thought.


1. For a basic introduction to the topic, see D. Boedeker and K. Raaflaub, eds., Democracy, Empire, and the Arts of Fifth Century Athens (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

2. B. criticizes Finley’s Politics in the Ancient World (1983) for delimiting politics to “state structures” (5), but surely the expansion of the notion of “the political” does not obviate the need to study state-structures also.

3. Consider, for instance, the radically divergent “Aristotelian” notions of justice one finds in M. Nussbaum’s “Aristotelian Social Democracy” (in R. G. Douglas, R. G. Mara, and H. Richardson, eds., Liberalism and the Good, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990, pp. 203-52) and F. Miller’s “Aristotle on Property Rights” (in J. P. Anton and A. Preus, eds., Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, vol. IV: Aristotle’s Ethics, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 227-48).

4. See B. Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients compared with that of the Moderns,” in B. Fontana, ed. and trans., Constant: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 309-28) and S. Holmes, “Aristippus in and out of Athens,” American Political Science Review 73 (1979): 112-28.