Roman copy of a bust of Aristotle, 384-322 BC
"Representation in Ancient Greek Democracy."
Although modern ‘representative’ democracy is conventionally distinguished from its ‘direct’ ancient Greek counterpart, the language of representation appears in many scholarly accounts of ancient Greek democratic institutions. This article explains systematically why that language is apt. Nearly all ancient Greek political actors were portrayed by ancient authors as acting on behalf of and in the interests of others. The difference between ancient and modern democracy is not the use of political representation but ancient democrats’ preference for synecdochical representation over the metaphorical and sub-divisional forms that predominate today, as well as the accountability measures that they applied to all (and only) metaphorical representatives.
"Deliberation in Ancient Greek Assemblies.” Classical Philology 115 (2020): 486-522. doi: 10.1086/709197
When an ancient Greek dēmos (“people,” “assembly”) deliberated, what did it do? On one view, it engaged in a form of public conversation along the lines theorized by contemporary deliberative democrats; on another, a small number of active citizens debated before a much larger, more passive audience. Both accounts represent deliberation as an external, speech-centered activity rather than an internal, thought-centered one. The democratic ideal, it is suggested, was at least occasional participation in public speech. This article questions that interpretation. A study of βουλεύομαι, “deliberate,” and related terms from Homer to Aristotle reveals three models of deliberation: internal, dialogical, and another that I call “audience,” in which a deliberating audience came to a decision after hearing advice. Assembly deliberation was almost always represented as audience deliberation. The dēmos, or listening mass, deliberated (ἐβουλεύετο), that is came to a decision about an action in its power, while those who spoke before it advised (συνεβούλευσε). Citizens did not fall short of a democratic ideal when they did not speak publicly. To the contrary, the dēmos was expected to exercise its authority through internal reflection, culminating in a vote.
"Deliberation and Discussion in Classical Athens.” Journal of Political Philosophy. Online publication April 15, 2020. doi: 10.1111/jopp.12215.
Deliberative democracy has often been associated with classical Athens, yet how far and where such activity appeared in the classical Athenian political system is open to question. This article explores the character of the deliberation and/or discussion that took place in five Athenian political arenas: courts, assembly, council, local assemblies, and street. It finds that in democratic Athens, discussion and deliberation (in the core Greek sense of “coming to a decision”) were inversely related. The most decisive arenas (assembly, courts) were the least discursive, in the sense of being least marked by the exchange of reasons admired by many contemporary theorists, while the most discursive arenas (street, perhaps local assemblies, perhaps council) were the least decisive. This finding makes sense. Mass democracy relies ultimately on the vote, not on back-and-forth discussion. Yet does not follow that discussion was unimportant to Athenian democracy. Indeed, it seems very likely (though impossible to prove or to disprove) that the decision-making powers of ordinary citizens in the assembly and courts prompted increased discussion of political issues outside those bodies, and that such “everyday talk” affected votes.
"The Dēmos in Dēmokratia.” Classical Quarterly 69 (2019): 42-61. Online publication September 20, 2019. doi:10.1017/S0009838819000636.
Dēmokratia is widely glossed 'rule by the people' where 'people' (dēmos) is defined as 'entire citizenry'. Yet from Homer to Aeschylus, dēmos indicated not the whole citizenry but a part: those who wielded political power through their participation in a collective agent—in the first instance, an assembly—as opposed to those who enjoyed political influence as individuals. Dēmokratia signalled that supreme power had passed to this group, away from the leading men who had previously held sway. The implications for our conceptualization of democracy are profound.
"Plato and Athenian Justice.” History of Political Thought 36 (2015): 611-42.
Plato’s interest in the concept of justice is pronounced and familiar. So too is his antagonism towards classical Athenian democracy. This paper connects the two by locating Plato’s transcendental conceptualization of justice as a direct response to the inter-subjective construction of justice in Athens’ democratic courts. The paper comprises four sections. The first identifies Athens’ popular courts as Plato’s primary institutional target when criticizing democracy. The second examines the difference between the concepts to dikaion and dikaiosynē and considers the special importance of this distinction in Plato’s Republic. The third examines how to dikaion was decided in the popular courts in Athens, and the fourth casts Plato’s treatment of this concept as an intervention against the conceptualization of what is right suggested by these practices. I draw special attention to an affinity between Plato’s approach and the alternative Athenian conception of right advanced in its homicide courts, in which context the gods were thought to be especially interested. I suggest that Plato’s distinctive contribution to the theorization of justice can be understood as an attempt to extend the conception of to dikaion advanced in Athens’ homicide courts to cover the field of right in general—with significant consequences for the history of political thought.
"Aristotle’s Denial of Deliberation about Ends.” Polis 30 (2013): 228-50.
Although Aristotle stated that we do not deliberate about ends, it is widely agreed that he did not mean it. Eager to save him from implying that ends are irrational, scholars have argued that he did recognise deliberation about the specification of ends. This claim misunderstands Aristotle’s conceptions of both deliberation and ends. Deliberation is not the whole of reasoning: it is a subcategory concerning only practical matters within our power. Not deliberating about something thus does not preclude other forms of reflection on it, such as that involved in specification. Yet on Aristotle’s view, our ends are not in our power. They are generated not by individual choice but by nature, which in the case of human beings includes roles for both language and politics. Ends are thus beyond individual deliberation, though not beyond reason. This is no minor point. The claim that human beings can act rationally depends upon it.
"Aristotle on the Virtue of the Multitude.” Political Theory 41 (2013): 175-202. doi: 10.1177/0090591712470423.
It is widely believed that one argument advanced by Aristotle in favor of the political authority of the multitude is that large groups can make better decisions by pooling their knowledge than individuals or small groups can make alone. This is supported by two analogies, one apparently involving a “potluck dinner” and the other aesthetic judgment. This article suggests that that interpretation of Aristotle’s argument is implausible given the historical context and several features of the text. It argues that Aristotle’s support for the rule of the multitude rested not on their superior knowledge but rather on his belief that the virtue of individuals can be aggregated and even amplified when they act collectively. This significantly alters our understanding of Aristotle’s political thought and presents a powerful alternative to the epistemic defenses of mass political activity popular today.
"Were the Ancient Greeks Epistemic Democrats?” In The Discovery of the Fact ed. Clifford Ando and William Sullivan (University of Michigan Press, 2020), 9-38.
Epistemic defences of democracy are typically advanced on philosophical grounds, but the ancient Greeks are said to provide historical support. This chapter challenges that claim. It argues, first, that the ancient evidence does not suggest that the ancient Greeks stressed the role of knowledge in decision-making, the crux of the epistemic view. Next, it examines the distinction between knowledge (epistēmē), understood as information that exists independently of our will, and judgment (gnomē or krisis), understood as a view produced by and inextricably linked to particular willing agents, and shows that the ancient Greeks consistently conceived of political decision-making in terms of the latter rather than the former. Finally, taking Athens’ relations with the Melians and the rise of Macedon as examples of significant political problems, it suggests that the ancient Greek view shows a better grasp of the inherently creative character of political action.
"The Popular Courts in Athenian Democracy.” (R&R, Journal of Politics).
Accounts of Athenian democracy often emphasize the composition, procedures, and functions of the assembly: openness to all citizens, the right of each citizen to speak publicly, and the power of ordinary citizens to decide policy. Yet a series of legal reforms that enhanced the powers of judges at the end of the fifth century BC suggests that the Athenians perceived their popular courts as their most “demotic” institution, that is, the institution most likely to support the interests of ordinary citizens against the political elite and thus most crucial to democracy. Key features of the courts, such as greater numbers of poorer and older citizens, random selection, restrictions on speech, the secret ballot, and the power of ordinary citizens to decide justice, were more important to the idea and practice of democracy in Athens than has been recognized, with significant implications for understanding its differences from democracy today.
"The Kratos in Dēmokratia.” (under review)
What did—and did not—kratos imply in the classical democratic context? Focusing on the Aristotelian Athēnaiōn Politeia (Constitution of the Athenians), this article establishes the meaning of kratos by exploring its difference from three proximate “power” terms: archē (often translated “rule” or “government”), kuros (“authority” or “sovereignty”), and dēmagōgia (“demagoguery” or more neutrally “dēmos-leading”). The results of this comparative lexical analysis are twofold. First, in contrast to Ober (2008, 2017), it is argued that kratos implied the prevailing power of one party over another, in this case that of the collective dêmos over those who played individual roles in the political community, such as office-holders (archas) and political leaders (dēmagōgoi). Second, the studies of kratos, kuros, archē and dēmagōgia presented here suggest a typology of political power that may illuminate not only ancient but also modern democratic politics. Kratos, archē, kuros and dēmagōgia represent four distinct forms of power: dominance, magistracy, authority, and leadership. In Athens, final authority belonged to those who dominated physically, i.e. the mass of ordinary citizens, while magistracy and leadership belonged to individual and thus physically weaker parties. To the extent that, in modern democracies, office-holders and political leaders are typically physically supreme, through their control of military and police power, the Athenian case highlights a severe weakness in democracy today: the dēmos’s lack of kratos over its political elite.
Essays and Reviews
"Mini-publics and mass meetings: an ancient Greek perspective on open democracy." Journal of Deliberative Democracy, 2021
My response to Hélène Landemore's exciting new book Open Democracy: Reinventing Democracy for the 21st Century (Princeton, 2020). Based on comments given at the APSA meeting in September 2020. Now to be included in a co-authored article featuring Jane Mansbridge, Josh Cohen, Hélène Landemore and others.
"Review of Democracy and Goodness: A Historicist Political Theory by John Wallach" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).” Perspectives on Politics 18 (2020): 249-250. Online publication February 17, 2020. doi: 10.1017/S1537592719004791.
“Liberal Ends, Democratic Means? A Response to Josiah Ober's Demopolis.” Polis 36 (2019): 516-23. Online publication October 14, 2019. doi: 10.1163/20512996-12340248.
"Democracy and Decay.” In Decadence and Decay ed. Kurt Almqvist and Mattias Hessérus (Stockholm: Bokförlaget Stolpe, 2019), 103-115.
"Aristotle, Athens and Beyond.” Review of Andrew Lintott, Aristotle’s Political Philosophy in its Historical Context: A new translation and commentary on Politics books 5 and 6 (London: Routledge, 2018). Classical Review 69 (2018): 63-65. doi: 10.1017/S0009840X18002275.
Rethinking Athenian Democracy. Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, 2013.
Conventional accounts of classical Athenian democracy represent the assembly as the primary democratic institution in the Athenian political system. This looks reasonable in the light of modern democracy, which has typically developed through the democratization of legislative assemblies. Yet it conflicts with the evidence at our disposal. Our ancient sources suggest that the most significant and distinctively democratic institution in Athens was the courts, where decisions were made by large panels of randomly selected ordinary citizens with no possibility of appeal. This dissertation reinterprets Athenian democracy as “dikastic democracy” (from the Greek dikastēs, “judge”), deﬁned as a mode of government in which ordinary citizens rule principally through their control of the administration of justice. It begins by casting doubt on two major planks in the modern interpretation of Athenian democracy: first, that it rested on a conception of the “wisdom of the multitude” akin to that advanced by epistemic democrats today, and second that it was “deliberative,” meaning that mass discussion of political matters played a defining role. The first plank rests largely on an argument made by Aristotle in support of mass political participation, which I show has been comprehensively misunderstood. The second rests on the interpretation of the verb bouleuomai as indicating speech, but I suggest that it meant internal reflection in both the courts and the assembly. The third chapter begins the constructive part of the project by comparing the assembly and courts as instruments of democracy in Athens, and the fourth shows how a focus on the courts reveals the deep political dimensions of Plato’s work, which in turn suggests one reason why modern democratic ideology and practice have moved so far from the Athenians’ on this score. Throughout, the dissertation combines textual, philological and conceptual analysis with attention to institutional detail and the wider historical context. The resulting account makes a strong case for the relevance of classical Athens today, both as a source of potentially useful procedural mechanisms and as the point of origin of some of the philosophical presuppositions on which the modern conception of democracy and its limits depends.
“Marx, Hayek and the Relationship between Capitalism and Freedom.” University of Cambridge M.Phil dissertation, 2005.
A critique of the claim that capitalism maximizes individual freedom, taking Friedrich Hayek and Karl Marx as providing the best arguments that can be made for and against that claim.
"Not Talking but Thinking and Voting: Democratic Deliberation in Classical Athens.”
Presented at the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Colloquium, March 3, 2017. I later turned this paper into two articles: "Deliberation and Discussion in Classical Athens" (Journal of Political Philosophy, online pub. 2020) and "Deliberation in Ancient Greek Assemblies" (Classical Philology 2020). However, since this version has been cited a few times, I archive it here.
Classical Athenian democracy is often described as deliberative, implying that discussion by the dēmos played an important political role. But of the three Greek verbs associated with deliberation, only one, bouleuomai, denoted an action performed by the dēmos, and in mass political contexts it suggested not discussion but internal decision-making communicated by voting. While speech was crucial to democratic politics, it was oratorical rather than dialogical and performed by rhētores, ‘orators’ or ‘politicians’, who by the very act of speaking were conceived as casting themselves outside the deliberating dēmos. With respect to public speech, classical Athenian democracy had more in common with modern democratic politics than is usually recognized. This similarity makes it more, not less, useful as a model today.
"The Democratic Significance of the Athenian Courts.”
This paper was written for publication in William O’Reilly, ed., Decline: Decadence, Decay and Decline in History and Society (Central European University Press, intended pub. 2017). A fully updated and revised version is now available under the title "The Popular Courts in Athenian Democracy," which I hope to publish elsewhere. However, since this version has been cited a few times, I archive it here.
“Marx, Engels and the French Revolution.”
Presented at the Association for Political Theory annual conference, Wesleyan University, Middleton CT, October 11, 2008.
Marx’s and Engels’ commitment to democracy is often doubted. This article argues that support for democratic political processes was integral to the political tradition with which they identified themselves: broadly speaking, that of support for the French Revolution, and more specifically, for the kind of democratic communism advocated during the Revolution by Gracchus Babeuf and his followers. The Babeuvistes aimed primarily at the reinstitution of the democratic Constitution of 1793, and expected any future communist society to be run on wholly democratic lines; Marx and Engels held similar beliefs.
Karl Marx and his daughter Jenny in 1869. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde