First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea

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Americans have an unwavering faith in democracy and are ever eager to import it to nations around the world. But how democratic is our own "democracy"? If you can vote, if the majority rules, if you have elected representatives--does this automatically mean that you have a democracy? In this eye-opening look at an ideal that we all take for granted, classical scholar Paul Woodruff offers some surprising answers to these questions.
Drawing on classical literature, philosophy, and history--with many intriguing passages from Sophocles, Aesop, and Plato, among others--Woodruff immerses us in the world of ancient Athens to uncover how the democratic impulse first came to life. The heart of the book isolates seven conditions that are the sine qua non of democracy: freedom from tyranny , harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education. He concludes that a true democracy must be willing to invite everyone to join in government. It must respect the rule of law so strongly that even the government is not above the law. True democracy must be mature enough to accept changes that come from the people. And it must be willing to pay the price of education for thoughtful citizenship. If we learn anything from the story of Athens, Woodruff concludes, it should be this--never lose sight of the ideals of democracy. This compact, eloquent book illuminates these ideals and lights the way as we struggle to keep democracy alive at home and around the world.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Paul Woodruff takes us to where democracy began--as a beautiful idea--and brings us all the way to the present moment of peril and the challenge we face to fulfil the dream."--Bill Moyers

"Paul Woodruff writes with eloquence and plain truth across 2500 years of history, from Athens to America, in pursuit of the most powerful, most beautiful, and most elusive idea ever devised by Man: the idea of democracy."--William Broyles Jr., author of Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace, and screenwriter of Cast Away and Apollo 13

"This book is a masterpiece. It's a heartfelt story of the birth, life and death of real democracy in ancient Athens and, by implication, its country cousin in America. Woodruff distills the essence of authentic democracy and conveys that to us through a compelling narration. He subtly compares how modern American democracy has collapsed, as did Athens, because of imperial overreach and betrayal of democratic ideals by ambitious elites. He correctly concludes, with a fervent hope, that America's future salvation lies in finding a way to be true to Athens at its best." --Ted Becker, Alumni Professor of Political Science, Auburn University

"This elegant essay from a distinguished classicist raises fundamental questions relevant to our contemporary political life through the prism of the Athenian democracy. The reader may disagree with Woodruff's policy prescriptions--I do, myself--but one must admire the insights and erudition of the analysis. It is a beautiful book."--Philip C. Bobbitt, author of The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History

Kirkus Reviews
A treatise on the roots of democracy, mixed with a few prescriptions for what the author believes to be ailing US politics today. Woodruff (Philosophy/Univ. of Texas, Austin; Reverence, 2001) catalogues the crucial factors that allowed Athens to develop a thriving democracy from around 500 to 300 BC. Most of those factors involve the state treating equally everyone designated as a citizen, while each citizen, whether rich or poor, tended to be educated and culturally homogenous enough to agree on decisions about how he wanted the state to behave. Much of this nuts-and-bolts history offers a fascinating lesson in civics. Legislation and important decisions in Athens were made by the first 6,000 men who showed up on a hill where the assembly traditionally met, but the topics discussed there first had to be vetted by a ruling council that was democratic because its members were determined by lottery. The system usually curbed mob rule, but sometimes the majority acted as a tyrant, forcing through such poor decisions as the failed invasion of Syracuse in Sicily. The system also checked, but was constantly dogged by, class warfare. Aristocrats often plotted to end a government that gave poor citizens as many rights as they had. The author subtly compares Athens to the United States, the implication being that current officials regularly undermine American democracy. Like the US, Athens was an influential state that sometimes had to act tyrannically to protect its far-flung interests abroad. Unlike the US, however, Athenian citizens had more of a hand in making day-to-day political decisions, rather than ceding decision-making to elected officials who received a majority of votes every fewyears. Some of these critical comparisons are too subtle; readers occasionally may wish Woodruff would simply spit out his charges. He's more explicit at the book's conclusion, laying out reforms he feels would bring the US in line with the ancients' democracy. An enlightening reminder of lofty-and, alas, elusive-ideals.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195304541
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/16/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 961,740
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Woodruff is Darrel K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the popular book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction : democracy and its doubles 3
2 The life and death of democracy 21
3 Freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant) 61
4 Harmony 81
5 The rule of law (Nomos) 109
6 Natural equality 127
7 Citizen wisdom 145
8 Reasoning without knowledge 171
9 Education (Paideia) 191
10 Afterword : are Americans ready for democracy? 211
Guide to the Peloponnesian War 263
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