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.