Athenian Legacies Essays on the Politics of Going On Together
By Josiah Ober Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-691-13394-2
Chapter One INTRODUCTION: CLIMBING THE HILL OF ARES
THIS COLLECTION OF ESSAYS on Athenian political culture is a sequel to my previous collection, The Athenian Revolution (1996), in a very specific sense: Those earlier essays centered on democracy's revolutionary origins; these concern what must come after a revolution if the diverse members of a political community are to go on together. Both the energies inherent in revolutionary moments and the techniques of collective "going on" must be taken into account by any theory of democracy that claims to take history and culture seriously. Both revolution and going on are historical and cultural processes. While I take the human propensity to culture making as a natural endowment, particular cultures are the products of history, and history is made by willful agents. Political culture includes the values, structures, and practices of a community, along with the evolving social and political identities from which it is constituted. Ancient Athens becomes more valuable for us as modern history-making agents and for democratic theory building when we recognize it as a particular, historically unique polis with a distinctive political culture-rather than categorizing it, generically, as "the polis." Historical Athens was much more diverseand much more conflicted than the generic and idealized polis often imagined by political theorists (from Aristotle to Arendt and beyond). Because it is concerned with diversity and conflict as well as solidarity, the study of Athenian politics can contribute, not only to discussions about democracy's original potential, but also to democracy's possible future.
The approach to Athens offered here rejects backwards-looking "polis nostalgia." It seeks to specify what is admirable in Athenian political culture, while never forgetting the evils permitted and promoted by the structural injustices of Athenian slavery, imperialism, and exclusion of women from active citizenship. The Athenian failure to generalize access to the freedom, equality, and security characteristic of participatory citizenship was a profound moral failure. But acknowledging that failure of moral imagination need not, in and of itself, lead to a general indictment of the values and practices typical of Athenian democratic self-governance. A historically disciplined account of politics that addresses normative concerns should allow the experience of an ancient city-state to interrogate and challenge, rather than simply to reify our modern intuitions about the possibilities of political life. The practice of democracy in Athens is in some ways different from all contemporary versions of democracy (e.g., parliamentary, constitutional, deliberative, strong). But after all, it makes little sense to ask modern readers to grapple with Greek antiquity unless doing so will yield understandings not readily available in more familiar places.
GOING ON TOGETHER
At the heart of each of these essays is the attempt solve a mystery. How did the Athenians manage to go on together as an internally diverse and democratically governed community, one that sought (if never altogether successfully) to promote conditions of justice, in the face of so many circumstances that made going on so very difficult? We can sharpen that question by personalizing it: Why did Socrates choose to live in the city of Athens and obey its laws, despite his belief that other places were better governed (see chapter 7)? Why did Athenian resident foreigners and slaves risk their lives in joining the pro-democracy uprising against an oligarchic government in 404 B.C. (see chapter 8)? Why did so many Athenians choose to subordinate their individual and sectarian group interests in favor of working to maintain a community, even though that meant living and working with persons and groups who were very different from themselves?
The "going-on-together" question thus has descriptive and analytical dimensions, but it is also has normative force: Going on together under (always imperfect) conditions of democracy and justice should be valued in much the same way that we value the more familiar political goods of liberty and equality. Going on together implies these political goods and like them it is a condition of human flourishing. To pose the historical question of how going on together was possible for the Athenians, without assuming that "false consciousness" provides an easy answer, is to assert the moral equality and capacity for agency of people who were constrained in their choices (even the juridically unfree). It denies that "plurality" and "diversity" are distinctively modern political concerns. It acknowledges humans as political animals who will truly flourish only in sustainable communities, but regards every human community as an artifact of historical circumstances. Moreover, it supposes that socially experienced difference among people is produced in large part by revisable human judgments and willful actions. Unless we are willing to regard cultural differences as objective "facts of nature," we have no warrant for simply assuming, a priori, that Athens was in fact more culturally homogeneous than a modern nation-state. If going on together is intrinsically valuable, then we should also value the processes by which the Athenians achieved that choiceworthy end and did so without resorting to forms of homogeneity that denied the value of personal freedom and without confusing equality with sameness.
The Athenians chose to go on together, chose it as something of value, in the face of experienced difference and periodic conflict. That choice was not foreordained: In the course of classical Greek history many poleis degenerated into a sustained civil strife that ran roughshod over written law and social convention, and ultimately extinguished the possibility of a sustained civic community: Thucydides (3.70-85) sketches a famously harrowing portrait of the dissolution of the once-great polis of Corcyra, and notes grimly that this was only one example of a pattern of collapse that affected many communities. The historical record bears him out; in the century following the Corcyrean civil war catastrophic intrapolis conflict was a frequent occurrence in the Greek world. For Thucydides' younger contemporary, Plato, and for Plato's student, Aristotle, the problem of political conflict within the city was the central problem of Greek political theory.
In the Republic Plato employs the conflicted polis as a way to address the problems of moral psychology: His use of the polis as a model of the human soul means that solving the problem of justice, by instituting a proper system of civic education and thereby ending conflict in the city, entails an end to troublesome internal conflict within the soul of the individual. Although modern democratic theory necessarily approaches the question of "politics as soulcraft" quite differently, Plato's central insight-linking the political life of the community to the moral-political psychology of individuals-remains extremely powerful. In hopes of making Plato's insight relevant to democracy, the second half of this introductory essay looks at some of the political choices made by a particular Athenian individual in the course of a lifelong civic education.
The answers to the problem of civic conflict offered by Greek philosophers centered on eliminating the very possibility of strife by carefully managing diversity within the community at large, and by eliminating diversity within the the body of active, participatory citizens. The solutions (notably Callipolis of Plato's Republic and the "polis of our prayers" of Aristotle's Politics) focused variously on reifying and naturalizing social and psychological differences (Plato's gold- silver- bronze- and iron-souled classes in the Republic; Aristotle's notorious theory of natural slavery) and on strong forms of civic education that intentionally left no room for resistance to the dominant culture or the development of alternative personal identities. Arlene Saxonhouse has rightly pointed to the "fear of diversity" that underlay these radical theoretical solutions to the problem of conflict.
It is tempting to extrapolate from these philosophical responses to the imagined threat of intracommunity strife by Athens-based writers to the historical response of the Athenian polis to the actual fact of conflict. Yet that temptation must be resisted because the historical Athenian response was actually substantially different. While determined to find and celebrate commonalities among Athenians (some, like "autochthony," were exclusivist, exclusionary, and expressly fictive), the polis also frankly acknowledged that the umbrella term "Athenian" covered a highly diverse range of social identities. Although it is certainly true that the polis publicly promoted an ideology of "proper Athenianness" (e.g., in the "All Athens" Panathenaic Festival) and periodically presented its members with an idealized conception of the Athenian past (e.g., in the ritualized funeral orations over the war dead), it is also clear that these expressions of ideological coherence were countered by frank acknowledgments of diversity and conflict-notably in Athenian drama, legal process, and religious ritual. The Athenians were historically familiar with internecine strife (see chapters 3, 8, 10). Yet time and again they managed to pull themselves out of the degenerative cycle of retributive violence that shattered Corcyra and so many other classical Greek poleis. They did so, not by retreating from the challenges of change and difference into a fantasy of sameness and changelessness, but by finding democratic means by which to meet political challenges. It is in exploring those means that contemporary theorists may learn something of value from the Athenian experience of politics.
These essays were written in a millennium-spanning decade, 1995-2004. Some of my earlier work on Athenian political practice was written in the previous half-decade, 1989-1994, a historical moment of boundless democratic optimism. Democracy was the catchword of that era, and celebrating democracy's Athenian origins suited the festive atmosphere of the time. But it was not entirely clear, in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, why political theorists should bother to learn much about ancient history in building their models of democracy. At a moment sometimes proclaimed the "end of history," the modern world seemed to be doing very well with the models readily at hand.
Since 1994 history has resumed with a vengeance. We survey a world in which the question, What conditions might allow the members of a deeply divided community to go on together under something approximating conditions of justice? is posed with increasing urgency. And we are more than ever aware that the failure to answer that question entails profound human suffering. Under such circumstances nondemocratic approaches to politics, posing as solutions that are realistic in that they put good ends (constitutional order) ahead of fallible means (democratic process), may come to seem increasingly attractive (see chapter 5). I believe that people who promote such approaches are wrong, but they rightly point to the need to think more seriously about democracy's costs. This book's "imagined ideal reader" has been sobered by the limited applicability of the standard models of democracy to the challenges of group identity and violent conflict, yet remains willing to believe that an always-imperfect democracy might ultimately be preferable to even the most benevolent autocracy. For such a reader, learning something of Athenian political history may seem worth the effort.
Each of these essays draws attention, from different angles, to tensions within the Athenian democratic political community and within Athenian political identities. And each essay suggests that these tensions were in a strong sense productive rather than destructive: The solution to the mystery of going on together is not to be sought, I argue, in construing Athenian democracy as a neutral space in which tensions arising from diversity and inequality are finally resolved. Rather the solution lies in recognizing in democracy a sophisticated means for transforming into productivity the potential divisiveness arising from diversity. That transformation is effected through an ongoing discursive acknowledgment of difference, and through a willingness to make and carry out public decisions in the face of unresolved tensions. As Danielle Allen reminds us, at any given moment in history the processes of what I am calling "democracy as diversity management" will require sacrifices by some people, and these processes necessarily leave certain individuals and groups in a position of loss and disappointment. But, by the same token, the democratic process holds out the promise that the ledger will be balanced over time and that today's losers will be tomorrow's winners. A careful historical account of democratic politics should be able to answer the essential question of how well that promise was kept. This may not yet be the most familiar way of looking at democracy and political culture, but it can explain a lot about politics in classical Athens and, I would argue, about the still unrealized potential of modern political life.
Contemporary democratic theory, in its dominant communitarian and liberal versions, is, of course, very concerned with identities, difference, and tension arising from pluralism within political communities (understood primarily as nation-states). In modern political theory there is a tendency to emphasize two primary sites of tension: between the state and the individual as "rights-holder," and between the state and groups within it that lay claim to special rights or recognition (see chapter 4). The persistence of state-individual and state-group tensions may be regarded as inevitable, but it is not ordinarily regarded as productive. The challenge of democratic politics is thus typically understood as finding ways to enable the state to achieve public purposes without doing undue damage to individuals or groups and distributing public goods as fairly as possible among them. The appropriate way of dealing with tensions between the state's purposes and its constituent groups and individuals is addressed variously in communitarian and liberal accounts. In the communitarian story the state is responsible for promoting civic values and the common good; democracy is the means by which the reified will of a fundamentally homogeneous citizenry is publicly expressed. In the standard liberal account, the state is responsible for maintaining the rule of law and for fair distribution of valued resources. Democracy ensures that individuals have the opportunity to define and express their own wants, but democracy is possible only because the rule of law provides a secure place (inaccessible to majoritarian pressure) for expertise and thereby prevents selfish group interests from devolving into competitive interest-based majoritarianism.
Much of the energy of recent political theorizing has been generated by attempts to accommodate individual and group identities, and to find a way past the reductive "either-or" choice of regarding either the good of the individual, of groups, or of the community at large as the indispensable starting point of politics. Proponents of deliberative democracy seek to replace the conception of democratic decision making as a zero-sum contest among interests with a conception of decision making as a cooperative reciprocity-based process of seeking the best answer. Neorepublican accounts attempt to replace Benjamin Constant's and Isaiah Berlin's negative conception of liberty as noninterference with a more positively inflected conception of liberty as noncoercion. Various postmodernist approaches to political theorizing seek to take into account the ways in which the identities of individuals and groups have been constructed by historically contingent (and hence contestable and revisable) relationships of power. Each of these approaches seems to me promising, yet none can yet be regarded as definitive. And so there remains room for other models of democratic politics to be considered as complementary alternatives-including a model based in part on the political culture of classical Athens.
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