Printer Friendly


Josiah Ober: Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. xv, 417. $35.00.)

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens constitutes the second work in a projected trilogy that began with Ober's very influential Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (1989) and is to conclude with a study of Athenian legal oratory as political theory. The entire project bids fair to become one of the most important interpretations of the experience of Greek democracy in several generations. Like one of his most notable predecessors, George Grote, Ober takes into view both the institutions and practices of Athenian democracy and the evaluation of the democracy by Greek political thinkers, most of whom must be counted as severe critics. It is this latter subject that is treated in Political Dissent.

Ober's project cannot but take on even greater scope since the Greek thinkers he treats here have also provided Western political philosophy not only with its point of departure, but with an entire conceptual vocabulary and set of problems that is still subject to debate today, if by a much more diverse collection of rivals. Ober's thesis is that "the Western tradition of formal political theorizing originated in the work of an informal, intellectual, and aristocratic community of Athenian readers and writers," who, disillusioned with the practical failures of the political opponents of democracy, "set themselves the arduous task of reinventing political dissent" (p. 5). Political philosophy, then, has its origins in the frustrations of a disinherited political elite that turned away from political practice but never completely abandoned the hope for a restoration, leading them down the path of speculative political theory (pp. 28-29).

Ober's account proceeds chronologically and begins with an interpretation of the pseudo-Xenophontic (or Old Oligarch's) Regime of the Athenians as a setting of the stage for the work of the "critical community" in Athens (pp. 41-51). What is crucial about this work is that while it supplies a menu of criticisms of Athenian democracy that becomes canonical among many later critics, it also acknowledges that democracy is reasonably stable and effective and issues in an aporetic conclusion that emphasizes both the defects of democratic practice and the judgment that nothing can be done to reform or overthrow it (p. 25). There is no action recommended, and the critical logos is not able to find realization in any ergon.

This tension between word and deed is a leitmotif of Ober's book, especially in the chapter on Thucydides. The historian of the Peloponnesian War shared the Old Oligarch's distrust of democracy, although he saw that it could be more tolerable when the people were led by reasonable men. Athenian political decisions were made in the popular assembly on the basis of speeches delivered by self-selected participants. The assemblymen had no special education, so their deliberation was informed by the products of popular culture (mostly poetry) and the speakers, who may have been wise like Pericles or venal like Kleon. Under the circumstances Thucydides did not see the longterm prospects for this system as good absent a more scientific inquiry into political history as a basis for more informed public deliberation (pp. 58. 78). When the decisive moment came, the Athenians, as Ober reads Thucydides, thought they could vote into being the reality promised by Alcibiades's grandiose scheme for the invasion of Sicily, a nd Nicias's strategy of deceiving them into reconsidering the plan only guaranteed the disaster (118). What Thucydides is unable to explain, Ober concludes, is how, following their defeat, the restored democracy was able to survive in relative stability until the coming of Macedonian hegemony in 322.

Aristophanes posed the problem of the relationship between nature and convention while also holding up to humorous contemplation the relationship of word and deed in his postwar comedy, Ecclesiazusae (The Assemblywomen) by imagining a situation in which women dressed as men vote to extend citizenship to all women in the assembly. The play shows a confrontation between the idea that political order is grounded in nature with the democratic proposition that the people should control the "constitution of political meanings" (p. 147). In doing this Ober does not think Aristophanes was so much stating his opposition to democracy as exposing the "ideological underpinnings of democratic knowledge" (p. 153) in a way that comedy was particularly well-suited to do.

Ober's longest chapter treats Plato and offers interpretations of the Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and Republic. He accepts the conventional view of the chronology of the dialogues and treats the Apology and Crito as early works that present an "ethics of social criticism" that places on the critic an obligation to critique society openly and try to improve it by teaching (pp. 160, 184-85). The Gorgias indicates a modification of this "preliminary stopgap" (p. 189) by showing that the sort of teaching recommended earlier is ineffective in the face of the "ideological hegemony" of the demos that is immune to philosophy (pp. 190, 211). The futility of Socratic politics, then, leads to the construction of an alternative: the "foundationalist political, moral, and metaphysical project of the Republic" (pp. 191, 215, 252, 321, 367). Even in his rejection of democratic politics, however, Plato shows his indebtedness to it since Kallipolis is a "city in speech" mirroring the speech of the assembly that issues in the cr eation of democratic knowledge.

After an account of Isocrates's Antidosis and Areopagiticus as presentations of his own brand of rhetoric that could reconcile democracy and the virtuous leadership, Ober treats Aristotle's Politics and the Regime of the Athenians, possibly composed by Aristotle but more likely by a later member of the Lyceum. Aristotle's account is more detached since he was not an Athenian himself and he wrote during the twilight of the independent polls. Ober views his proposal for a moderated democracy based on restricted citizenship and natural slavery as likely intended to furnish a model for a Greek colonization of Asia Minor under Macedonian patronage (pp. 34049). With his advocacy of elite participation in moderate democratic politics, the author of the Regime of the Athenians brings the story to a conclusion and a kind of resolution.

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, and Ober's discussions of Thucydides and Aristophanes are particularly illuminating. Nevertheless, treating all of these writers as members of a "critical community" concerned with the shortcomings of democracy seems to run the risk of obscuring important aspects of each. This is most important in the case of Plato. There are two puzzling things about Ober's account. First, given the book's focus on the context of Athenian democratic practice, that is the context of real politics, it is difficult to understand why Ober concentrates on the Republic and not on the Laws. The Laws is explicitly concerned with "law and regime" and its dramatic context is thoroughly practical. Moreover, the main speaker is an Athenian who spends a good bit of the first three books criticizing Sparta, the inspiration of much of Athens' oligarchic faction. While democracy is criticized as well in the Laws, Plato looks less like simply a critic of Athenian democracy. Plato' s nuanced view seems particularly relevant here. Indeed, it is difficult in light of the Laws to see Plato as a sympathizer with the most virulent political critics of Athenian democracy. His criticism comes from another quarter.

This leads to the second and related puzzling aspect of Ober's discussion of Plato. What Ober treats as Plato's criticism of democratic politics looks more like criticism of political life as such. This is also more clear from the perspective of the Laws (consider especially 644de, 753ab, 803b-804c), though it seems equally clear in the Republic. The famous cave of the seventh book does not represent any particular regime, but all regimes. Even in Kallipolis the philosophers must be compelled to enter it. The democratic cave was of particular moment to Plato since he was an Athenian, but he is also critical of the other regimes in the eighth and ninth books of the Republic, and the simply best regime described by Socrates in speech is a practical impossibility. While it is true, as Ober notes, that Socrates insists it is not impossible simply, the more one examines Kallipolis in relation to the standard of justice it is said to instantiate, the more problematic it becomes. This suggests the larger problem be hind these two puzzles: Ober interprets Plato as a critic of democracy, as a kind of reactionary. There is ample warrant for this in one sense since he is clearly a critic of popular rule, though he is also a harsh critic of oligarchy, tyranny, and the Spartan-style regime he calls timocracy. To understand the true ground of Plato's political criticism, then, one cannot simply look to what he opposes, but must look to what he affirms, which is not the politics of any of the conventional regimes, but rather of philosophy and the mixed regime advocated in the Laws and Seventh Letter. It would seem to be the perspective of philosophy that animates the political criticism of both Socrates (Republic 486a, 517cd, 521a-b, 619d-e) and the Athenian stranger (Laws 804b) and--if we can trust the dialogues--Plato. Ober has treated philosophy as a political position and, while there may be a political perspective characteristic of philosophy, it is only part of a much larger whole. Is it not safest to read the part in lig ht of the whole?

Having concentrated here on what seems questionable about one part of Ober's sweeping account, I thus run the risk of doing what I just warned against. It would be unfair and unwise to conclude without noting again how much of value there is in the whole of this book and how much one can learn from it.

V. BRADLEY LEWIS is Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy in the Catholic University of America.
COPYRIGHT 2000 University of Notre Dame
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lewis, V. Bradley
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters