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Josh Ober on Ancient Athenian Democracy

Josiah Ober holds the Constantine Mitsotakis Chair in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He divides his time and academic appointment between the Departments of Classics and Political Science, and has a courtesy appointment in Philosophy. He writes and teaches courses on various topics conjoining Greek history, classical philosophy, and political theory and practice. His […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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Again, the show is called entitled opinions.
And you've heard me ask it before.
Is everyone entitled to an opinion?
But you've never actually got me to answer that question, have you?
At most, I've declared that everyone is entitled to my opinion,
as well as to the opinions of my guests.
Today I'll go further though, and say if you're a fan of this show,
then yes, you're definitely entitled to your opinions.
If you hate the show and think it's for elitist intellectual snobs,
well, there's no problem then is there.
You're probably not listening anyway.
And besides, no one's saying that you don't have the right to wallow in the mire.
That's one of the inalienable rights of this great nation of ours after all,
to wallow in the mire, and we do plenty of it.
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All you friends of entitled opinions, a word of warning for us today,
beware of intellectuals.
And that means you, since I'm assuming we're mostly a community of intellectuals here,
the thing about intellectuals is that we tend to think we know better than other people,
that we are more entitled to our opinions than they are.
Indeed, we often believe that while other people have mere opinions,
we have something more substantive, call it knowledge, or certifiable truth.
It's difficult for an intellectual not to be an elitist,
no matter how much he or she may posture as a populist.
Whether of the right or of the left, the intellectual tends to condescend to the ordinary person,
especially when it comes to matters political.
We should be wary of this, not because it's presumptuous of us,
but because the intellectual is frequently misguided when it comes to his or her opinions about public affairs.
History revealed after the fact a profoundly blind was a whole generation or two of otherwise brilliant European intellectuals
who became diehard communists, touting the so-called iron laws of history
and presuming to know better than the people themselves, what was best for the people.
In a matter of months, the invasion of Iraq showed how astoundingly stupid
were the pincoted neo-conservatives who hatched the rationale for war in their think tanks.
The truth is, my friends, that when it comes to political matters and issues of governance,
the intellectual does not know better than the so-called masses.
And the fact that we like to think we do makes it almost certain that we are self-deceived.
Now, if we're talking about Dante's divine comedy,
my opinions on that topic are eminently entitled in a way that maybe yours or not,
because I wrote a PhD thesis on Dante, I made the divine comedy one of my areas of expertise.
Likewise, my guest today, Josh Ober, is especially entitled to his opinions about ancient Athenian democracy,
for he has a thorough knowledge of that topic and has written several books on it.
But governance, or self-governance, is not a matter of expertise or specialized knowledge.
On the contrary, it's about making decisions and the absence of knowledge.
As the classic scholar Paul Woodruff puts it in his new book First Democracy, I quote,
"Any government is government by ignorance. No one knows what the future will bring. No one knows whether a war we might wage
will make us safer or put us in more danger. No one knows, but luckily knowledge is not everything."
Even without knowledge, we can use methods of decision-making that are likely to lead to a good result.
The ability to make good decisions without knowledge was called "Eo Bulilla" by the ancient Greeks,
good judgment, end of quote.
Let me throw out an opinion here, a Democrat in the full Greek sense of the word believes that the ordinary citizen is capable of good judgment,
and believes furthermore that the common wisdom of the citizenry, by which I mean their collective opinions on matters of public interest,
is the best foundation for good governance.
When it comes to governance, we are strictly in the realm of opinions of Doksa rather than of knowledge or epistamé.
If you are a Democrat, you believe there is greater political wisdom in the deliberated opinions of the many than in the esoteric knowledge of the few.
That the judgment of the people, the demos, is more reliable than the proclamations of the sofals or wise man.
Democracy properly speaking appeals to the opinions of the citizenry as the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding what's right for the police.
Anyone who does not trust the people as a whole to have a more reasoned and judicious political opinion than the expert, the intellectual, or the professional politician is not a true Democrat.
It's not easy to be a Democrat. We are socially programmed to believe that daddy knows best, and that politics is like other kinds of specialized knowledge, where the expert is better equipped to judge than the rest of us.
It's hard to believe in citizen wisdom in those moments when it gives way to mob folly, as it did on more than one occasion in ancient democratic Athens.
When Plato saw his fellow Athenians condemn Socrates to death on charges of impiety and corruption of youth, he despaired of democracy and set out to radically distinguish the order of truth from the order of opinion, and he sought to re-found politics on the former rather than the latter.
Thank goodness he did so only in theory and not in practice. Not many of us would want to live in Plato's ideal republic, I suspect.
And millions of people in the 20th and 21st centuries have had to live under regimes where the leaders presumed to know better what is best for everyone else.
I will take citizen wisdom in all this fallibility over the noble lie. Be it the noble lie of Plato's ideal republic, or of statins reign of the proletariat, or even of corporate globalism, which reduces us all to passive, a political consumers.
I mentioned that I have with me in the studio Josh Ober, who is a historian of ancient Greece and one of the world's leading scholars of Greek democracy.
Professor Ober left Princeton to join the departments of classics and political science here at Stanford, this past fall, is the author of several seminal books on ancient Athens, and we're going to talk to him today about Greek democracy, what kind of system it was, what its strengths and weaknesses were, the ways in which it was both similar to and the
different from our so-called American democracy. And above all we're going to talk to him about famous Greek intellectuals, who for one reason or another were critical of, and in some cases hostile to the whole idea of democracy.
Josh, welcome to entitled opinions.
Great to be here Robert, thank you. How do you like Stanford so far if I can ask that to start with?
It's actually terrific. I came here in part because I felt it was time for me to make a change, but in part because I thought that it was might be possible to do different kinds of work here than I had been doing at Princeton to actually talk with people across domains, across domains of knowledge, across the humanities and the social sciences, and to my delight that actually turns out to be true.
And here's one instance of that I hope. Absolutely.
Yeah. So we have a lot to cover in the next hour, Josh, about the concept of democracy, its origins in ancient Greece and Athens.
So why don't we just start by if you could give us a brief sort of account of the rise of Greek democracy and what kind of system was it that we call democracy?
Yeah, we have to think yourself back into a world of the ancient Greek city states, which you have whole number about a thousand by 600 BC city states, small citizen centered, mostly republics, some of them ruled by monarchs, many of them ruled by very small, tightly held oligarchies.
For the most part, the citizen population would not be over a few thousand, the total population of the territory, a few tens of thousands.
The city states were fiercely competitive with one another, sometimes allied in leagues with one another, but constantly struggled for domination, for influence. Athens, the one we know best, the most democratic, one of the largest and certainly one of the most successful of these city states, was also.
So the most democratic, or at least we know most about its democracy, it was famous as a radically democratic state.
And so one of the big questions one might want to ask is why does a democracy succeed?
How can a democracy succeed in a genuinely competitive environment when you've got a lot of other kinds of states ruled by tyrants, by narrow oligarchies and so on,
competing for the same resources, the same influence, Athens did extraordinarily well, and one of the things I've been interested in trying to figure out is why was that the case? Where did democracy come from then? How did it develop over time?
Ultimately, why did it prove to be capable of adapting to different environments in a way that other kind of Greek regimes simply did not?
Did the power of Athens as a city state rise, that rise to power coincide with the rise of democracy or was there prehistory to it?
Herodotus, the so-called father of history, writing in the middle of the fifth century BC, makes me real point about this.
He says that before the Athenians were liberated from their tyrants, they had tyrannical form of government before that.
He said Athens was actually not a standout state, it wasn't living up to its potential. After the Athenians were liberated, after the foundation of democracy, they became preeminent.
Herodotus was really interested in why this might be the case. The term that he uses for Athenian democracy in this famous passage is Isegorria, that is a quality and respect to public speech.
I think that Herodotus sets a kind of a puzzle for his readers, says that Athens became great when they got a quality and respect to public speech.
I think the reader is supposed to ask, how could that be? Why would a quality of public speech actually be correlated with a sudden rise to world or Greek world's prominence?
What is the answer to that? I think speech, the right to public speech, it's not only Herodotus, but I think others like us, I Socrates and others have insisted that that's the very foundation of democracy.
Does that mean that it's the right of the citizen to stand up in public assemblies and express his or her opinion?
That's right. That's really very much what it does mean. The citizens of Athens were political equals in various ways. They had equal standing in terms of voting, they had equal rights to serve on juries.
But probably most important for the Athenians, they had equal right to express themselves in speech, both informal citizen assemblies, but also day to day on the streets, even all possible for a public action.
Let me ask, is that Herodotus is right? That was the source of Athenian power.
Would that mean that it's because by allowing all the citizens free speech that the collective deliberation when it came to matters of public policy would be wiser as a result of what I called in my monologue or lead in the so-called citizen wisdom?
Or was it for some other reason that citizens were happier or felt like they were more worthy and respected?
Sure, there's lots of reasons that you might suppose that democracy would make people more engaged with one another, perhaps more motivated to work to preserve the regime.
But I think that one of the key issues is actually that in a democracy, there is the potential for the aggregation for the coming together of very diverse forms of understanding, diverse knowledge, if you will, to pick up on your term.
It's not however the kind of formal knowledge that Plato was interested in, it's a kind of ordinary knowledge, knowledge about processes, knowledge about people, knowledge about particularities of situations, knowledge about what's happening in a particular region, in a particular part of the world, knowledge of how to make shoes or how to row a boat.
All of these kinds of knowledge can be aggregated if those who possess that knowledge have the freedom and have the willingness to express what they know in public to one another, and if you have institutions that are rightly designed so that all of that potential knowledge gets put together in the right sort of way to answer the problem that you need to answer in a timely way.
However, the shoemaker's knowledge about how to make shoes is not what the kind of knowledge that he would bring to bear in public assembly when he would stand up to speak or offer an opinion about a matter of public policy.
It would be his ducks, his opinion rather than his specialized knowledge.
That's right, the shoemaker might at some point bring in some specialized knowledge about shoes, but it's a little hard to think about how often that would be relevant.
What Plato says in one of the really interesting comments that he makes on how the Athenians do business, and this is in response to the sophis protagonist.
Protagorous has been making claims for the special kind of knowledge that the sophis has.
Plato says, or Plato's Socrates says, that when we Athenians gather together in assembly, we refuse to listen to anybody who isn't actually knowledgeable about the particular matter that we're discussing.
The examples that he uses are building ships for the Navy, or building walls for the city, that in those cases he says, will only listen to naval experts or architects.
And anybody who gets up who isn't an expert in that field gets immediately hounded off the speaker's assembly of the platform of the assembly, so that the point is that free speech or equal speech among the citizenry didn't mean that anyone could talk about that.
And anyone could talk about anything in any assembly for as long as they wished. What it meant is that you would be listened to when you had something that was a value.
Now, I've understood reading you on democracy that the system in Athens was extremely suspicious of if not paranoid of the drift towards tyranny, and that there was a very specific mechanisms put into place in order to assure that the wealthy.
And that therefore there were systems, it's unlike America, we'll talk about America later in the program, but they use, for example, the lots, they would draw lots for certain for juries, for example, and the public assembly, and that therefore, citizens of all classes had a more or less equal chance to be part of the world.
To be part of the representative bodies of deliberation. Is that correct?
Yeah, that is one of the things that's striking, and I think especially when we think about modern history about Athens, is that while the citizens were political equals, there was no attempt to enforce economic equality.
And this was a known concept in the Greek world. The Spartans made quite successful by creating a kind of strict economic equality, or at least in principle creating economic equality across a body of warriors.
The Athenians don't try to do anything like this, so that Athens remains really very divided between a wealthy elite, people who were much more highly educated, controlled, considerably greater resources, and a massive citizens ranging from what we'd call kind of middling citizens down to people who are really quite poor.
They were equal when they stood up to speak, they were equal officially in their votes, but they really had very different resources to bring to bear.
Some of the Athenian institutions are exactly, as you say, meant to cut across those kind of established and continuing class divisions by making it possible to have a genuinely significant role in the government by being chosen by lottery.
But the jurors and magistrates with considerable responsibility for funds, for example, were chosen by lot.
Yeah. Well, in your view, how could a job did the democratic system do of avoiding or attenuating this kind of perpetual class warfare then between the rich and the not rich?
Absolutely. This is a constant problem for Greek city states. Greek city states are fiercely competitive between city state to city state.
They also are very frequently beset by interest state conflicts.
So Plato famously says that every Greek city was actually two cities, the rich and the poor, locked in eternal conflict.
In Athens, that conflict was certainly known, it was recognized, but the conflict was very seldom overt and hostile because the system of democracy actually gave elite citizens considerable space for expressing themselves for in fact taking on roles of leadership, of influence, for being big-time contributors to the public good.
While not giving them a monopoly on actual political power, the secret, I think, if there is a secret, it's a Athenian democracy, is that the elite in fact did have a role to play.
The many had a role to play, individuals had roles to play, and institutions had roles to play, whereas in no case did the one side of the equation get wildly or at least for long get wildly out of lines so that the elite were able to play their role, the masses able to play their role, individuals and institutions alike?
I think one lesson we should draw from the example of ancient Athens is how crucially important is the right to be heard in some kind of public sphere.
I'm hanah Arrentian enough to believe that one of the great aspirations and one of the great defining features of the human condition, when it's left to its own freedom, is to appear in the public sphere
and have one's voice heard. One could dispense with a lot of wealth if one is accorded that right, I think.
Absolutely, and I think that if you look at the origins of democracy in Athens, one thing that emerges very strongly is that the emergence of democracy is the emergence of a
group of citizens that understands itself to be a united community onto the stage of history, visible as an actual actor in history, as a vocal and present actor in history.
I think this is very Arrentian, the very moment of the beginning of democracy at the end of the sixth century is an Arrentian moment, it's revolutionary, it's remarkable, I think it's one of the great ruptures in all of human history.
And I came across a quote from this text, very well known to you by Socrates and the anti-Dosis.
Is that, if I pronounce it? And it is this we usually say. Very Arrentian, let me read it back to you, you know it well.
Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts.
And generally speaking there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.
And this idea about the power of speech to found cities and to conduct the affairs that that is the very currency of democracy.
Yes absolutely, I think that was in the right to vote. Well I guess they're correlated.
No they are correlated but I think you're exactly right to point this out. We tend to now think that democracy means majority rule and majority rule through a decision process that is defined by voting doesn't require any speech at all.
So when the utterly silent you can be virtually invisible, you can vote now by absentee ballot as increasingly encouraged to do.
And yet I think that misses a great deal about the reality of democratic politics, at least the reality is the Athenian's thought of it.
Because for them precisely this that to be a participant in the democratic process was to be present and visible to in fact actually express your opinion with speech or at least potentially do it.
To give an articulate sort of speech the kind that I Socrates thought was appropriate especially for his students.
Or to join in the roar of the crowd against some idiocy that a politician dared to burble on about when he was up there on the speakers platform taking up your precious time as a citizen.
All of these were really part of what it was to be a citizen and this is exactly what Hannah Arendt was talking about.
And of course in our time I'm tempted to ask this question but I know it's going to take us in a different direction so I'll just throw it out there as an intubation that perhaps we're undergoing in our own society some kind of transformation where I'm not a fan of the web and internet and all these blogs and some.
But there is a way in which the speech of the ordinary citizens being heard through the new media in our own so-called democracy in a way that just our was not the case just when we have the right to vote for elected representatives.
I think something along the side is really possible one of the things that's really interesting to think about and it's very hard to specify and get.
As precise as one would like as a scholar about but you look at the explosion of democracy in Athens and a few other city states.
It is correlated with the emergence of alphabetic writing fairly shortly before in the Greek world.
Look at the explosion of Republican participatory forms of democracy in the modern world is correlated with or follows upon the development of printing presses.
I think that we're at this moment of a similarly huge breakout in terms of the potential for communications through new media.
I think the alphabet, the printing press, the use of electronic media today may really be similarly gigantic moments in terms of how human beings can share what's in their heads.
I think that if each of these other two great leaps forward in terms of communication technology had big impacts on the possibility of new forms of politics.
There's reason to imagine that this one will too exactly what those new forms of politics will be.
I really don't know.
It's hard to predict. It will turn out to be a big advance or it could be played with a monster of the mob where it's all dissonance rather than a new form of harmony or sublimated form of harmony.
Josh, you wrote a highly acclaimed book called Political Descent in Democratic Athens intellectual critics of popular rule.
I think it came out in '98 or '99, Prince of the University Press.
Very interesting, you take six figures in Greek, Athenian history.
At least four of them are highly important among the greatest intellectuals and philosophers of a bunch of Greece,
who, each of whom was in his own way a critic of democracy.
You have, for example, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, the pseudo-Erosautilism column.
I saw critics as another one.
We can't go through all of these thinkers and their particular reason for being suspicious or critical of democracy,
First, how did this idea come to you and why this particular configuration of thinkers?
This was an attempt really to answer a question that I'd posed to myself, this whole book was an attempt to answer myself.
I'd written a book before this called "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens" that ended up with a conclusion that democracy worked in Athens because of the intellectual or,
let's say, the discursive hegemony of the ordinary people, because the citizen masses really had control of the space of discourse.
That the elite certainly were allowed to speak, had an important role to play, but they played by the rules that were established by the many.
The question that this conclusion posed, I thought, was, is this kind of hegemonic discourse of the many simply another form of popular tyranny?
Is this simply shutting down? Is it the kind of nightmarish suppression of originality, innovation, potential, that critics of democracy, modern critics of democracy,
brought forward? Well, I thought the only way to test that is actually ask, is democracy related to not only popular hegemony, but is it also related to the development of critique?
That demanded that I think about criticism, about critique, about the possibilities for critique.
So I set myself to task of actually trying to rethink what democratic critique was in Athens, and the more I got engaged with it, the more interesting this project became, because it began to dawn on me that I was talking about not just, or I should be talking about not just individual critics like Plato, well-known to be a critic of democracy,
or Aristophanes, well-known to be a comic critic. But rather, I was talking about, or I should be talking about, an intellectual community, a community of critical intellectuals who were engaged in a common project of trying to respond to, and in fact becoming very effective, that responding to democracy, they were challenging each other, competing with one of the most important things.
I'm competing with one another for the best answer to the question, what's wrong with this democracy? Since it seems after all to be doing fairly well, generating a lot of power and wealth and so on and so forth, what's wrong with it, what might be brought about in its place? Is it possible to imagine bringing something about in its place?
The final conclusion I came to is that this very vibrant critical community was inter-really related to the democratic community, and that ultimately, if to think about discourse is not only to think about demonic or popular hegemony, it's also to think about elite critique.
I agree with that. You don't have someone like Plato, or Socrates, who could be such a persuasive critic of democracy in a context which is not democratic. You can't see him coming out of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, for example.
In fact, I had a decision to make about my lead-in about whether I would do what I did or whether I would talk about geography and why political science departments don't have geography as part of their discipline or why we don't have a geography department here at Sanford where.
If you look at Athens, geographically speaking, it's mountainous, it has valleys, it has islands, it's all these discrete little pockets of independence that naturally is a natural geographical foundation for the city-state phenomenon that was Athens.
As opposed to a place like Egypt where you have a Nile and a valley where a central authority can impose itself to radically over the others.
So, democracy's foundation in a certain kind of geography, I think, then becomes subsequently the foundational foundation for a certain kind of critical thinking that we associate with Western philosophy, for sure, but also history and so forth.
I think that's a very important point that democracy which now famously, a march of sin has called a universal value, right?
That we're all in some ways, Democrats, or we want to be democratic. It's very hard in the modern world to forth rightly assert the value of oligarchy.
And so it's easy for us in a world in which democracy has become, in many ways, universalized as an aspiration at any rate, to imagine that democracy was always universally just there or would have immediately popped out, but for the oppressive tyrannical activity of, say, a Pharaoh or some such.
But I think that actually the conditions of democracy, the conditions for the emergence of democracy are fairly specialized and it really is a, it requires a certain set of historical contingencies, historical accidents.
I think that the emergence of democracy, as I suggested, this revolutionary moment of the late 6th century seems to be one of the great rupture moments of human history, because it suddenly opens out this whole new space.
It brings into being a demo, as a collective actor, a historical actor.
And once that's happened, you can't get the genie back in the bottle. It's possible to look at this and either be terrified by it or impressed by it, to imitate it.
It becomes something that is potentially spread very widely, but it didn't need to have it.
It wasn't going to happen, I think, except for certain contingency, which in contingencies, which include these geographical contingencies that you alluded to.
I want to ask you about Socrates for a moment there, because he was clearly a man of the people.
He's represented as such, we don't know directly, we know through the written evidence, and he conducted his conversations with his fellow Athenians in the public sphere, the Agua famously.
And he was also someone who thought that Greek education should undergo a transformation away from the authority, maybe of myth or Homer, to a more analytic, logos-based rather than mythos-based foundation.
And education, by day, there's such a crucial concept in ancient Athens and for Greek democracy.
Before we talk about Socrates, is it the case that the majority of the Greek citizens who could speak publicly were actually very poorly educated?
By Plato's standards, by Aristotle's standards, by really the standards of all of these critics of democracy, the Athenian democracy did a disastrous job at educating its citizens.
Not only were probably most of them only marginally literate, we don't know the actual percentage of literate citizens, but certainly it's nothing like modern levels.
But they weren't educated in what Plato and Aristotle and so on thought they should be educated in that moral education.
They were allowed to go about their lives, picking up wisdom here and there, grazing like sacred cows, as Plato says in one lovely metaphor.
So I think that that's exactly right. One of the questions that we need to ask is, are these critics correct to say about the democratic city gave no real education, no chance of education to its citizens?
They don't give if the city didn't give a formal education, either in reading and writing and arithmetic or more relevant by civic values and moral values, then how were the citizens educated?
What I would say is they're really educated by working the machine of the democracy itself, the potential for the citizen to engage in active participation, to be an actual user of participant, a move, a move forward of his community was a way in which he could learn a great deal about how to engage in the society.
How about how politics worked, about who he really was?
Would you agree that Greek theater drama was a very important source of education for the people of Athens, where they would go to the theater regularly, and there at least they would get some kind of civic education or education regarding what are the founding values of a democracy?
Through the moral lessons that were enacted on the stage, the Greek theater, that this served as a great public schooling for the people.
Clearly, theater was really important in the education of the Athenians.
Democracy very self-consciously pays for these massive theatrical performances.
You have to keep in mind that the theater of Dionysus is at least in its later, we can trace it archaeologically, they can hold about 17,000 people.
These are mass audiences. Certainly a lot of Athenian male citizens, very certainly foreigners joining them.
The question of whether women are there is up in the air, but at any rate a lot of people seeing these performances is paid for by the state.
What are they watching? They're not just watching the Simpsons.
They're not watching the Simpsons, or maybe the Simpsons may be as close as we get to what they're seeing with the Aristophanes, but they're not watching 24.
They're not watching things that are just shoot them up.
What they're really watching is real challenges to the complacency that can emerge in a democracy.
They're watching Aristophanes say, "You citizens are not living up to your genuine responsibilities.
You're getting selfish, greedy, much too happy about your own position in the world.
You're not taking seriously the kind of things that are true democratic citizen, or true democratic citizen body, a damnos, would have to take seriously."
This is all being done in the form of comedy, but it's really sharply critical comedy.
You're seeing tragedies in which you see Medea killing her children because she's so fantastically angry at the betrayal of her husband.
For a real, androcentric society like this, that's pretty heavy to take on.
The education that you get as a citizen in the theater, that the state pays for you to get in the theater, is really quite remarkable.
This goes on year by year.
There are major festivals.
You're watching dozens of these tragedies and comedies over the course of a citizen's lifetime.
It really was a very powerful thing.
It's not surprising that Plato who wanted to really control what people were going to learn, what the citizens of his ideal republic would learn.
The bands theater doesn't think it's very, very dangerous because people have to learn for themselves.
They are confronted with genuinely difficult situations for which there aren't any obvious and clear and hierarchically established kind of solutions.
Those plays that have come down to us were still reading them all these centuries later.
In fact, I think the vast majority of them have been lost to us.
We have no idea how many other kinds of dramas were being exposed to.
There are hundreds and hundreds of things over the course produced and presented in the theater of Dionysus in the course of the democratic period of time.
I'm a democratic period of which we just have a handful.
But as you say, I'm still absolutely riveting.
I'm teaching them this term.
Josh, I'm sure a lot of our listeners imagined that America is democracy, more or less along the Greek or Athenian lines.
But maybe it's worth reminding us that America is founded really as a republic and not as a democracy.
And that some of the founders and federalists were especially wary and paranoid about what they call democracy because of the history of Athens.
And I can read you a quote, for example, from Madison, from the federalists 55, where he says,
"In all very numerous assemblies of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to rest this septor from reason.
Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian citizen would still have been a mob."
So do you think that America was founded on a healthy or unhealthy fear of real democracy?
Well, I think that the founders were right to be worried that if they didn't get the institutions well designed,
that just simply having the majority rule is going to be a recipe for at least potential serious failure.
And they couldn't afford to fail.
It was a difficult time, it was a competitive time in the late 18th century.
So I think that to simply say that any kind of democracy is just fine and reasonably safe from real catastrophe, safe from the danger of encroaching on individual liberties is false.
But the Athenian democracy is really a very special form of even ancient democracy. Other ancient democracies didn't do as well.
But what was it that scared someone like Madison about it?
But scared Madison was the stories he'd read by critics of democracy, both Plato and the contemporary critics,
but especially people after that time who had focused on all of the things that they thought were bad on the execution of Socrates,
only mistakes during the Peloponnesian war had completely ignored or willfully ignored because they didn't like the idea that there would be actually a world in which the elite were not absolutely dominant.
It willfully ignored what was good about democracy, the successes that Athens had had, so that when Madison and Hughes contemporaries came to try to design a democracy, they had a very one-sided brief.
They were looking at a record that really emphasized all the things that can and may go wrong with democracy and had much less available to them than we do today that shows us how the democracy was much more complex, much more self-regulated, indeed much more balanced set of institutions and practices.
The ancient critics of democracy portrayed it to be.
I believe that one of the primary virtues of a republican or democracy or any form of government is not how much it does to empower the majority, but what it does to safeguard the rights of minorities.
I think the American Constitution is very sensitive to the rights of minorities not to be trampled on by the will of the majority, where there are any safeguards in Athenian democracy regarding the rights of minorities.
What the Athenians are becoming increasingly aware of over the course of their democratic history is that they actually have to put some breaks on the power of the assembled citizenry to do whatever they want at a given moment.
They become aware that demagogues can mislead, that the passions of the moment can lead to really awful decisions.
What they do is create an institutional distinction between a constitutional law and the particular policies that are made at a given moment.
That permanent constitutional law had built into it protections against the willful misuse of popular power to be directed against a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.
Although they don't have the same direct concern for minority rights that are so centrally important to us, the sense that you have to actually protect individual rights.
And that you can't have the majority going out using its power arbitrarily, for example, to strip property from those who might have it when the majority might want it.
If you start using your power arbitrarily, you'll quickly end in a catastrophe, and they basically learn in various ways how to bind their own hands, how to at least build in delays such that the whole community can review and reconsider its actions before those actions actually take place and actually might tell.
Well, finally, Josh, because the hour has gone so quickly, do you believe that there's still something essential that we have to learn to our benefit from the ancient Greek model?
Yeah, I think absolutely, to me, the sort of takeaway to all of this is that we need to break past the conception of democracy simply as majority rule or the will of the majority, and we have to break towards a conception of democracy as the capacity of a
a demo of a community of people who have chosen to be a people who have bound themselves together to be a people, the capacity of a people to accomplish things in the world and to accomplish things in the world in part because of their diversity.
Because of the diversity of what they know, because of the diversity of their experiences, through bringing together that diverse experiences, those diverse sensibilities, those diverse understandings about how the world works into a unity into a oneness, a demo.
There is the possibility then of people actually accomplishing things in the world, so the extent to which we can reconnect with the idea of democracy as collective capacity, I think we will have learned something of real value for man.
Well, that's great. Thanks a lot for joining us. We've been talking with Josh Ober, professor of classics and political science here at Stanford.
I'd like to invite our listeners to tune in next week. In two weeks from now, we're going to have a program on Hannah Arendt who was mentioned a couple of times in this conversation. A philosopher of the 20th century and we're going to learn more about her, so stay tuned. Thanks a lot again, Josh, and we'll have you back in the future. I hope.
I'll look forward to it, Robert.