03 January 2010

Book: Political Dissent in Democratic Athens

In 1998, Princeton University Press published Josiah Ober's study "Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule":


Publisher's description: "How and why did the Western tradition of political theorizing arise in Athens during the late fifth and fourth centuries B.C.? By interweaving intellectual history with political philosophy and literary analysis, Josiah Ober argues that the tradition originated in a high-stakes debate about democracy. Since elite Greek intellectuals tended to assume that ordinary men were incapable of ruling themselves, the longevity and resilience of Athenian popular rule presented a problem: how to explain the apparent success of a regime 'irrationally' based on the inherent wisdom and practical efficacy of decisions made by non-elite citizens? The problem became acute after two oligarchic coups d' tat [sic] in the late fifth century B.C. The generosity and statesmanship that democrats showed after regaining political power contrasted starkly with the oligarchs' violence and corruption. Since it was no longer self-evident that 'better men' meant 'better government,' critics of democracy sought new arguments to explain the relationship among politics, ethics, and morality.

"Ober offers fresh readings of the political works of Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, by placing them in the context of a competitive community of dissident writers. These thinkers struggled against both democratic ideology and intellectual rivals to articulate the best and most influential criticism of popular rule. The competitive Athenian environment stimulated a century of brilliant literary and conceptual innovation. Through Ober's re-creation of an ancient intellectual milieu, early Western political thought emerges not just as a 'footnote to Plato,' but as a dissident commentary on the first Western democracy."

Reviews: "Making sound political decisions requires hard thinking. Most people do not want to think very hard, and some lack the capacity to do so. Many make decisions on the basis of narrow self-interest, and most lack vision. Given that this is so, it is not surprising that Athenian democracy has come in for a good deal of criticism. What is striking about this criticism, however, is its origins in the writings of Athens' own intellectuals. [...] [T]he obvious contrast between the bloodthirstiness of the Thirty [Tyrants] and the restraint shown by the restored democracy, [Ober] contends, mandated that analysis of democracy and its flaws become increasingly sophisticated [...]." (Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, "American Journal of Philology")

"This book is first-rate: intelligent, judicious, original, a seamless performance, and on a fundamental topic. ... [A] great achievement." (Robert W. Wallace, "The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science")

"[An] impressive new book ... rich in detail and suggestive in interpretation. ... There is passion in [Ober's] account of democracy and sympathy in his portrayal of individual critics." (Mary Margaret McCabe, "Times Literary Supplement")

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including table of contents):


Josiah Ober is Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. At the time of writing this book, he was on the faculty of Princeton University.

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