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.
A close reading of the speeches exposes both egalitarian and elitist elements in Athenian popular ideology. Ober demonstrates that the vocabulary of public speech constituted a democratic discourse that allowed the Athenians to resolve contradictions between the ideal of political equality and the reality of social inequality. His radical reevaluation of leadership and political power in classical Athens restores key elements of the social and ideological context of the first western democracy.
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.