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Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People Paperback – Oct 1 2009
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From the Back Cover
First, the book is meant to be a contribution to Greek history: an attempt to explain the social roots and internal functioning of the political system of an ancient city-state. I hope that many of those who consider the history and culture of fifth-and fourth-century Athens intrinsically interesting, as I do, will find this study valuable in formulating or reformulating their own assessments of classical Greece.
About the Author
Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include "Democracy and Knowledge", "Political Dissent in Democratic Athens", "The Athenian Revolution", and "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens" (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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