Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule

Princeton University Press
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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 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.

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About the author

Josiah Ober is the David Magie Professor of Ancient History in the Department of Classics at Princeton University. His books include The Athenian Revolution, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, and Demokratia (edited with Charles Hedrick). All three books are available from Princeton.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Nov 28, 2011
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Pages
440
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ISBN
9781400822713
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Ancient / General
History / Ancient / Greece
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. Democracy and Knowledge is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security.

Combining a history of Athens with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice developed by economists and political scientists, Josiah Ober examines Athenian democracy's unique contribution to the ancient Greek city-state's remarkable success, and demonstrates the valuable lessons Athenian political practices hold for us today. He argues that the key to Athens's success lay in how the city-state managed and organized the aggregation and distribution of knowledge among its citizens. Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs. He explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information makes democracy stumble. Democratic participation and deliberation consume state resources and social energy. Yet as Ober shows, the benefits of a well-designed democracy far outweigh its costs.


Understanding how democracy can lead to prosperity and security is among the most pressing political challenges of modern times. Democracy and Knowledge reveals how ancient Greek politics can help us transcend the democratic dilemmas that confront the world today.

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