BMCR 2011.01.05

Politics: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns

, Politics: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xxii, 168. ISBN 9780195380897 $24.95 (pb).

The difference – worse, the “quarrel” – between the ancients and the moderns is a hoary theme within political theory. The aim of Kostas Vlassopoulos’ book – and that of the Oxford series in “Ancients and Moderns” in which it appears – is, fortunately, not to reassert the distinctions highlighted by Constant or Berlin or Strauss. Instead, Vlassopoulos aims to demonstrate that ancient political thought and practice took multiple and competing forms and that modern invocations of ancient ideas and institutions track and refine these varieties. The book demonstrates the many ways in which ancient political ideas served as heuristics against which modern institutions could be critically evaluated and as models that modern reformers could emulate. Written in an accessible and engaging fashion, the book would surely spark classroom discussions even among undergraduate students in ancient thought, and it may be of interest to non-academics as well as to scholars beginning to explore the antecedents of modern concepts and institutions. As I shall suggest, however, the primary strength of this book—the effort to draw connections across time—occasionally generates some interpretive and analytical problems and leads to complicated and sometimes tendentious claims.

In chapter 1, “Who should rule?”, Vlassopoulos focuses attention on Greek forms of political rule and especially on constitutional change and cycles. The ambiguity within the Roman concept of the republic (as anti-monarchical, as popular or democratic, as representative) made it susceptible to deployment by modern revolutionaries and theorists in England, France, and America alike. Although democracy was a pejorative term during the revolutions, the rejection of aristocracy and the expansion of the suffrage generated the conditions for the recovery of its positive connotation as popular government and ultimately its status as the sole legitimate form of regime.

Vlassopoulos devotes chapter 2, “The exercise of power: liberty,” to the old question of the liberty of the ancients versus that of the moderns. For the Athenians, Vlassopoulos writes, freedom meant primarily the “absence of domination.” (Oddly, though the concept of non-domination is primarily associated with the work of Philip Pettit, he is cited only once, and in passing, at the end of the chapter.)1 (44) This democratic account is contrasted with that of Plato’s notion of freedom as “rational self-mastery,” and with the Roman conception, which takes on much of the democratic ideal without the commitment to equality among citizens in ruling. The major modern development of the concept of liberty, in the author’s view, was Hobbes’ “freedom from interference”; Rousseau, for instance, is held to link the modern language of the social contract with the ancient account of freedom as non-domination and Platonic self-mastery. In sum, the author suggests, modern liberal freedom entails an explicit rejection of the participatory dimension of ancient liberty and instead (though this is problematic, in the author’s view) prioritizes the distinction between public and private spheres and the protection of individual rights.

Vlassopoulos seeks in chapter 3, “Politics as activity: Participation, deliberation, conflict,” to draw connections among three distinct concepts: deliberation, participation, and conflict. How, for instance, did ancient Athens ensure robust deliberation and full participation among thousands of people at the Assembly without generating violent conflict? Two key solutions emerged in Athens, Sparta, and Rome: institutional checks on deliberation and participation, and the moral transformation of citizens to promote virtue. Moderns confront similar problems and attempt similar solutions, shifting the emphasis and changing the relationship among the three concepts. Some accept conflict and abandon the aim of moral transformation in favor of institutional checks (Machiavelli; the Federalists); others (e.g. Rousseau) view transformation as indispensable.

In chapter 4, “The ends of politics: The good life, a better world,” Vlassopoulos emphasizes the importance of political community to enable human flourishing and the debate over the potentially corrosive effects of private property on virtue. The key bequest of the ancients to the early moderns, the author suggests, is that “the problems that bedevil human communities are the result of intentional human action and can be identified as such; consequently, intentional human action can be used in order to fight these evils, achieve the good life, and create a better world.” (126) (One might note that this account is a bit surprising insofar as Machiavelli, whom the author credits with making the ancient legislators “a main staple of modern political reflections,” is famous for his view that the mark of a good ruler lies in his ability to tame fortuna through virtù.) Throughout the modern era, Vlassopoulos suggests, ancient models of radical reform, community of property, and human flourishing have reemerged, sometimes as source material and sometimes as an object of critique.

Though the author’s effort to resist isolating a central theme in each chapter displays an admirable degree of intellectual honesty, this effort does tend to generate conceptual muddiness. In chapter 1, because the author views the concepts of republic and of democracy as essentially contested (there is no vision that is “original” or “real,” in his words) (38), it is difficult to tell which are the most important differences between the ancient and modern uses of the terms. In this vein, the beginning of the “moderns” section of chapter 2 is marked by the following sentences:

We can summarise the above distinction of ancient discourses on freedom by noting the importance of certain themes: the conception of freedom as the opposite of slavery and tyranny; the link between individual and collective freedom; the relationship between freedom and the performance of obligations; the dialectic between liberty and empire; the connection between freedom and protection and agencies which are able to secure this protection; and, finally, the concept of freedom as self-mastery. All these themes played a significant role in modern debates and discussions.

Such inclusiveness, while saving Vlassopoulos from charges of neglect, tends to produce confusion. It makes it nearly impossible to discern which among these themes might have been the most important historically and even more challenging to determine which of those might be worth defending today.

The author’s laudable efforts to draw unexpected connections also sometimes lead to strained theoretical accounts. For instance, in seeking to challenge the standard (and, in my view, correct) view that a pivotal difference between ancient Athens and modern democracies is the absence of representation in the former, the author holds that the Council of 500 and popular courts, as “special bodies,” were in fact representative institutions. (A small point is that though the author cites the political theorist Bernard Manin in this discussion, he does not make it clear that he is rejecting Manin’s central claim, which is that representative government requires election.)2 What makes these institutions representative, according to Vlassopoulos? In the case of the people’s courts, the argument is extremely thin: the 6,000 potential jurors each year were chosen by lot, and the panels for each day were chosen by lot; thus the courts, simply because they comprise a subset of the citizenry, constituted representative institutions. (7) The Council of 500, in contrast, is representative insofar as “each of the 139 districts of Attica was represented in the council in proportion to its number of citizens,” (6) through councilors chosen by lot. Yet the fact that the councilors were geographically distributed in a particular fashion does not mean that they were representative in any more robust fashion: they were not deliberately chosen (i.e., not elected) by their community to serve as their agent, nor were they tasked with defending the preferences, interests, or will of their distinctive community. Thus while, according to Vlassopoulos, the assertion that the ancients did not have representation is “highly misleading,” his provocative position remains without real substance (6).

The weakest passages in the work are those in which Vlassopoulos attempts to draw insights from his analysis for contemporary politics and political theory. First, the argument in chapter 1 that the modern abandonment of Polybian accounts of cycling means that “we no longer have a way of looking at our political systems and understanding the ways in which they change, collapse, and reform; we no longer have a way of looking at democracies in a dynamic and not an essentialist way,” (38) suggests that the author has managed to miss a central focus of comparative political science in the past decades: the study of transitions to democracy and regime dynamics more generally.3 Though some of the explanations offered by political scientists are indeed “economic” (as the author implicitly laments), because economic development and performance do affect the durability of regimes, scholars certainly have not ignored the effect of institutional design on the survival of democracy (parliamentary vs. presidential systems, for one example).4 A second example is the author’s claim in chapter 2 that because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights abolished slavery, today we have “no condition to think of as the alternative of liberty.” (42) Would that human trafficking had in fact disappeared from the globe by fiat; regardless, since relationships of domination can indeed take forms other than slavery, as the author elsewhere acknowledges, unfortunately those also persist to help us conceptualize the condition of unfreedom. Third, the author veers into sheer polemic at the end of chapter 3 as he condemns the absence of accountability for George W. Bush and Tony Blair for their actions leading up to the Iraq War, lamenting the absence of the accountability mechanisms of the Athenians (116). This polemic might have been (barely) tolerable if any of these institutions, such as euthynai, were actually discussed.

Nonetheless, the author has done a good job of limning the variety of ways in which ancient thought has shaped the modern. More remarkably, he has done so while avoiding clichés, and for that he is to be commended.


1. Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

2. Manin, Bernard. The Principles of Representative Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

3. Within a vast literature: O’Donnell, Guillermo, and Philippe C. Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986; Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996; Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

4. Again, within a considerable literature: Przeworski, Adam, Michael E. Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.