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Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule [Paperback]

Josiah Ober

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Book Description

Dec 2 2001 Martin Classical Lectures

How and why did the Western tradition of political theorizing arise in Athens during the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C.? By interweaving intellectual history with political philosophy and literary analysis, Josiah Ober argues that the tradition originated in a high-stakes debate about democracy. Since elite Greek intellectuals tended to assume that ordinary men were incapable of ruling themselves, the longevity and resilience of Athenian popular rule presented a problem: how to explain the apparent success of a regime "irrationally" based on the inherent wisdom and practical efficacy of decisions made by non-elite citizens? The problem became acute after two oligarchic coups d' tat in the late fifth century B.C. The generosity and statesmanship that democrats showed after regaining political power contrasted starkly with the oligarchs' violence and corruption. Since it was no longer self-evident that "better men" meant "better government," critics of democracy sought new arguments to explain the relationship among politics, ethics, and morality.

Ober offers fresh readings of the political works of Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, by placing them in the context of a competitive community of dissident writers. These thinkers struggled against both democratic ideology and intellectual rivals to articulate the best and most influential criticism of popular rule. The competitive Athenian environment stimulated a century of brilliant literary and conceptual innovation. Through Ober's re-creation of an ancient intellectual milieu, early Western political thought emerges not just as a "footnote to Plato," but as a dissident commentary on the first Western democracy.

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"This book is first-rate: intelligent, judicious, original, a seamless performance, and on a fundamental topic. . . . [A] great achievement."--Robert W. Wallace, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

"[An] impressive new book . . . rich in detail and suggestive in interpretation. . . . There is passion in [Ober's] account of democracy and sympathy in his portrayal of individual critics."--Mary Margaret McCabe, Times Literary Supplement

"Ober commendably explores texts vital for understanding ancient democracy in a presentation well designed to encourage dialogue."--Thomas J. Figueira, American Historical Review

"It would be difficult to overstate the scope and magnitude of Ober's erudition as displayed in this book. It is epic in its sweep."--V. Bradley Lewis, Review of Politics

About the Author

Josiah Ober is the David Magie Class of 1897 Professor of Classics and a member for the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include The Athenian Revolution, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, and Dxmokratia (edited with Charles Hedrick). All three books are available from Princeton.

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First Sentence
And as for the fact that the Athenians have chosen the kind of political regime (politeia) that they have, I do not speak well of them(ouk epaino) on that account inasmuch as in making their choice they have chosen to have lowly scoundrels (poneroi) fare better than the excellent elite (chrestoi). Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Did the mob know what it was doing all along? Well, duh. Of course. Oct. 20 2013
By greg taylor - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have long thought that the history of western philosophy could be written as a history of the intellectual fear of the mob, the hoi polloi, the Great Unwashed, the mechanic, the people. You get the idea. Note that I am not just saying the history of western political philosophy but of philosophy as a whole.
I came to a reading of this book hoping for some insight into my supposition. What I found was not only that but I found myself in the middle of a much larger and more interesting intellectual project.
Political Dissent in Democratic Athens was published in 1998 as the second volume of a trilogy that started with Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens back in 1989 and concluded with Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens in 2008. So what we the readers are presented with is a scholarly project that lasted about thirty years and which seems almost revolutionary in its methodologies and conclusions. For JO wants us to take the mob seriously.

Let's talk about the volume under review. In this volume, JO posits the existence of a tradition of intellectual opposition to the Athenian democracy and its democratic leaders. He has chosen the works of eight authors of that tradition to focus on: Ps.-Xenophon's Political Regime of the Athenians, Thucydides' History of the Peloponessian War, Aristophanes' Ecclesianzusae, Plato's Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and The Republic, Isocrates' Antidosis and Areopagiticus, Aristotles' Politics and the Political Regime of the Athenians by Ps.-Aristotle.
Obviously, it is better to have read most of these works but JO has the craft of lucid clarity and the gift of conveying his passion for these works.
JO is arguing that these writers formed part of a self-conscious tradition. He wants to demonstrate that these works carried on a debate among themselves vying for a sort of critical supremacy among each other. These authors not only critiqued the working of the democracy and the worthiness of the people themselves but did so with each other.
In the course of doing so, they created the fundamental rhetorical and argumentative tropes that would serve to argue against democracy up until the 19th century.
Ober brings to bear a large and varied methodological battery to use the analyze that tradition. He makes use of J.L. Austin, Sandy Petrey, Quentin Skinner, of economics, sociology, literary theory as well as other approaches.
It is a heady brew, one that consistently results in insightful readings of the above classic texts and of their political and historical contexts.
One of the most interesting results of his study is his contention that Athenian democracy was more successful in dealing with internal and external issues than it is normally credited as being. This was a political society that valued free speech by an unusually large (by no means universal) number of its members and in doing so created a form of social epistemology of great power. It is a fascinating thesis and JO marshals an extraordinary variety of evidence for it.
I have only one very small complaint about this book, one that borders on the petty. JO is a good writer, even an excellent one at times. However, he has an occasional weakness for what I call the scholastic malaprop- the use of a rare and odd word in the place of a common one with no refinement of meaning. Instead of "desired" we have to read "desiderated", etc. Stop it, JO, just stop it. The mob knows what it is doing with the choice of words as well.
But I descend into a rant.
All in all, this is an excellent and important work. One that may well be part of a sea-change in classical studies. I recommend the trilogy (I think). The Amazon reviews of the other two works are encouraging. But this volume stands alone as a work worth reading for any student of philosophy or of the ancient Greeks.

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