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.
Despite often being condemned for having a paradigmatically unrealistic or dangerous conception of power, Plato expends much effort in constructing his distinctive conception of power. In the wake of Socrates’ trial and execution, Plato writes (in Gorgias and Republic I) about conventional (Polus’, Polemarchus’), elitist (Callicles’), and radically unethical (Thrasymachus’) conceptions of power only to ‘refute’ them on behalf of a favoured conception of power allied with justice. Are his arguments as pathetic or wrong-headed as many theorists make them out to be – from Machiavelli to contemporary political realists, from ‘political’ critics of Plato ranging from Popper to Arendt? And if not, has our understanding of power been impoverished? This question has been surprisingly unasked, and it is one I address by asking Plato and his critics: What are the dialectical moves Plato makes in refuting Socrates’s opponents and constructing his own conception of legitimate (i.e., just) power? Exactly how does he interweave his conception of power with a kind of ethics? How does it compare to recent conceptions of political realism and the power-politics/ethics relationship – e.g., after Marx and Foucault? While addressing these questions I also attend to the issue of Plato’s historicity: to what extent do the limits of his language and world affect our reading of Plato and his political critics? Ultimately, I argue that and how Plato’s conception of power and its political dimensions realistically have much to teach us that we have not learned.
This article interprets demokratia and arete as dynamically related terms of political thought in ancient Greek culture, from Homeric times to the end of the classical era. It does so selectively, identifying three stages in which this relationship is developed: (1) from the Homeric to archaic eras; (2) fifth-century Athenian democracy, in which demokratia and arete are posed as complementary terms; and (3) the fourth century era in which philosophers used virtue to critique democracy. Relying mostly on evidence from writers who have become benchmarks in the history of Western political thought, the argument emphasizes the inherently political dimension of arete during this period of ancient Greek culture. Noting different ways in which arete is related to political power in general and democracy in particular, it also illustrates the manner in which arete is neither philosophically pristine nor merely an instrument of practical power. The effect of the research contradicts traditional and recent readings of democracy and virtue as inherently antagonistic. The aim of the article is to identify ancient Greek contributions to understanding the potential, contingencies and dangers of the relationship between democracy (as a form of power) and virtue (as a form of ethics) — one which may benefit both democracy and virtue.
The notion of ‘democracy’ as found in ancient Athens and the work of ancient Greek political theorists has crucially functioned as a critical, distant mirror for major authors of twentieth-century political thought — starting importantly with Ernest Barker but continuing along diverse paths in the works of Karl Popper, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt in the wake ofWorld War II, as well as for recent theorists of democracy who have read Athenian practices and critical discourses against the grain of contemporary philosophy, politics, and culture. In all of them, images of ‘democracy’ in ancient Greek political theory operate simultaneously as historical discoveries, theoretical constructions, and rhetorical supplements for critical renditions of the political realm. As such, they evidence the slippery centrality of ideas of democracy in ancient Greek political thought for the necessary, problematic, and divergent efforts of recent political theorists to justify their ideas as historically rooted, philosophically true, and politically relevant.
From the days of Plato's Academy, academic life and discourse have operated in tension with political life, and often the political life of democracy. Since World War II, this tension has been read as essentially antagonistic. In this survey of the relationship of the original and subsequent incarnations of the Academy to ancient Athens, republican Rome, and the Florentine city-state, it becomes clear that the tension was, in fact, potentially as much of an asset to democracy as an assault upon it—even as the tension forever remained real. Readings of Plato and vers ions of the Academy become antagonistic to civic life only when their intellectual posture takes refuge in metaphysical doctrines or political ideologies that bear only marginal connections to the effective argument of Plato's dialogues or the initial political postures of Academic life.
From the days of Plato’s Academy, academic life and discourse have operated in tension with political life, and often the political life of democracy. Since World War II, this tension has been read as essentially antagonistic. In this survey of the relationship of the original and subsequent incarnations of the Academy to ancient Athens, republican Rome, and the Florentine city-state, it becomes clear that the tension was, in fact, potentially as much of an asset to democracy as an assault upon it—even as the tension forever remained real. Readings of Plato and versions of the Academy become antagonistic to civic life only when their intellectual posture takes refuge in metaphysical doctrines or political ideologies that bear only marginal connections to the effective argument of Plato’s dialogues or the initial political postures of Academic life.