Deconstructing the Ancients/Moderns Trope in Historical Reception

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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Notably since Thomas Hobbes, canonically with Benjamin Constant, and conventionally amid Nietzschean, Popperian, Straussian, Arendtian, liberal (sc. Madison, Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Vlastos, Hansen), republican (sc. Skinner), political (sc. Finley), and sociological (sc. Ober) readings of ancient texts, contemporary scholarship on the ancients often has employed some version of the dichotomous ancient/modern or ancient/contemporary contrast as a template for explaining, understanding, and interpretively appropriating ancient texts and political practices – particularly those of ancient Greek philosophy and democracy (although Roman ideas and practices also have been invoked). In particular, this has been done to argue for some conception of political ethics and democracy. I argue that this rhetorical trope, often using Athens and Europe/America as synecdoches for antiquity and modernity, has generated narrow and distorted views of ancient texts and political practices, on the one hand, and their contemporary relevance, on the other – views that misinterpret the theoretical significance of historical phenomena and misread the potential lessons of ancient authorities. Instead, texts and practices should be read either with more qualifications or more fully against a historical dynamic of critical philosophy and political power – including its ethical, cultural, institutional, and governing elements – that is not framed by this dichotomy.

Deconstructing the Ancients/Moderns Trope in Historical Reception

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought




Friedrich Nietzsche‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’ in Untimely Meditationstrans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993 [1874]) p. 60.


See A. Owen Aldridge‘Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century’ in Dictionary of the History of IdeasVol. 1 ed. Philip Weiner (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1973) pp. 76-87 and Joseph M. Levine The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1991). Temple’s Essay had several editions the last published in 1704. He died in 1699. In any event it’s worth noting that the oed finds the emergence of frequent usages of ‘ancient’ in the seventeenth century when it not only meant ‘old’ and ‘from many years ago’ but also ‘venerable’ and ‘dignified’.


See most fulsomely Josiah OberAthenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going On Together (Princeton: Princeton University Press2005). See the kindred but more Weberian approach of M.I. Finley’s Democracy Ancient and Modern – revised edition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1985).


Leo StraussNatural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1953). See his What Is Political Philosophy? and other studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1959) and The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1964).


See Kyriakos N. DemetriouGeorge Grote on Plato and Athenian Democracy: A Study in Classical Reception (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang1999). Interesting this prosaic invocation of ancient Greece was paralleled by its poetic invocation by Grote’s contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both were viewed in England as political radicals. (Grote was born two years later than Shelley in 1794 and died almost fifty years later in 1871.)


FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern pp. ix-xi.


FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern pp. 3-37.


FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern pp. 76-109.


FinleyDemocracy Ancient and Modern pp. 110-41. In this vein one ought to recall that Professor was hounded out of the u. s. in 1952 at the outset of the McCarthy witchhunts. He was forced out of his professorial post at Rutgers University for his leftist sympathies but was found to be good enough to become Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University.


HansenThe Tradition oif Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters2005). Reviewed by me in Polis 23 No. 2 (2006) pp. 426-31 from which these comments were adapted.


See Josiah OberMass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric Ideology and the Power of the People (Princeton: Princeton University Press1989). Ober explicitly formulated a contrast between himself and Hansen as that between emphases on ideology or institutions in the character of Athenian democracy. See ‘The Nature of Ancient Democracy’ first published in 1989 and republished in The Athenian Revolution: Essays on Ancient Greek Democracy and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1996) pp. 107-22. This collection evidences the abiding importance of his like/dislike relationship to the work the historical sociologist Robert Michels and his affinity for the use of ‘models’ and the interaction of history and political theory as that between practical events political rhetoric and ‘normative theory’. See The Athenian Revolution pp. 3-5.


Josiah OberPolitical Dissent in Democratic Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press1998).


See Michael WalzerThe Company of Critics: social criticism and political committment in the twentieth century (New York: Basic Books1988).

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