The form of political organization that evolved in the polis of Athens over the course of the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B.C. is one of the best known, most frequently evoked, but least well-understood legacies of the Greco-Roman world. Read the first page
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Not to be MissedAug. 27 2005
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Josiah Ober's book is no longer new, but it is still as fresh as when it first came out, in the 1980's. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the way Athenian democracy worked, or how any democracy can work, for that matter. Ober focuses, not on the notorious periods of civic strife and oligarchic revolution, but on the working democracy, especially during the period of the great orators (4th century B.C.). The question, he implies, is not "why did the democracy break down," but "why did it work as well, and as long, as it did?" Ober finds the answer in "ideology," which for him is the symbolic language--of word, posture, gesture, and deed--that allowed the upper class ("elite") political leaders to communicate with an audience composed mostly of lower class citizens who might not be expected to be very sympathetic to them. My only quibble is that Ober may assume too lightly that things worked the same way in the 5th century (the "Age of Pericles"); but he does address himself to this question, and uses what little evidence there is to elucidate it (e.g. the various speeches preserved in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War; the plays of Aristophanes, etc.). Ober also does his best to draw parallels and conclusions that are relevant to modern political systems, especially "democracy" as it is practiced in the U.S. It's compelling reading--but before taking it on, you might want to bone up on your Greek history a little bit. Make sure you know who Demosthenes was, and his role in trying to help Athens figure out how to respond to the rising power of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great!
This is that rare scholarly work that successfully challenges a traditional body of learning. With this book, Ober unified a scholarly movement that had been somewhat inchoate and gave it an organized structure. It is not so much that everyone who works on the history of the Athenian democracy will agree with Ober but the way they discuss the issues, the way they frame the arguments will be structured by Ober's work.
As the previous reviewer stated, Ober believes that for several hundred years that the Athenian democracy was a successful and workable government. He believes that the citizens of Athens were able to transform the ideology of honor that had defined the elite in such a way that the citizens and the elites were able to mostly work together to govern their city. That ideology evolved and was refined such that the elites were still encouraged to compete against each other but in ways which made the mass of citizens the judges. The citizens were the ones who awarded the prizes and who gave the honors.
Being put into that position, the elite had to modify their attitudes toward the mass of citizens. The way that Ober argues that this occurred is altogether brilliant. He discusses how this occurred both in the courts and in the governing councils. He discusses how the elites learned to display and use their superior education, wealth and status to the advantage of the state and the masses. He discuss how the mass ideology encouraged the elites to channel their display and their rhetoric of superiority into acceptable form.
I cannot state what a revelation this book was to me. I have read many of the ancient historians and am well read in most of the ancient philosophical schools. In the follow up to this book, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, Ober goes on to argue that most of those philosophers and historians created a counter-ideology that confronted and tested the ideology of the masses. Historically, the counter-ideology is the one that won (if only by the accident of the survival of texts- never forget how little of the ancient literature we have or how lucky we are to have what we do).
Ober's thesis is that if you go back and look at the records, the speeches, the actions and the results that that counter-ideology needs to be balanced against the fact that the radical Athenian democracy was successful and creatively responded to the needs of the city both domestically and in their foreign policy.
I will put it more bluntly than I think Professor Ober would- At the origins of the Western tradition of political philosophy is a lie. The radical democracy of Athens is full of lessons for us in our present situation. I will also state that anyone who is knowledgeable in the ratification debates of our own Constitution will learn that much of the American political tradition had its origins in Athenian democracy.
1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Ugh. Ober.May 2 2014
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Josiah Ober is kind of a tool, who refuses to acknowledge the military having a role in ancient Greece, which is super ridiculous. Especially considering that the hoplite culture is what basically formed the polis culture. He isn't a very gifted writer either. But the book is informative.