P.J. RHODES, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology. London: Duckworth, 2003. Pp. 142. ISBN 0-7156-3220-5. STG £10.99 (Pb).
Review by Chris Gaynor
This book belongs to the series Duckworth Classical Essays. If the remaining books in the series equal the present one in content and exposition, then it will be a great aid to students of, and researchers in, the Classics. The title of the book is an apt description of its contents. But these are even more explicitly expounded in the Preface:
?This book examines the ways in which Athenian democracy has been perceived and studied, over the centuries and particularly in recent times, and argues that, although total objectivity and disengagement are never and never have been possible, scholars who aspire to objectivity and disengagement are likely to do better history, and also to be more useful to our own world, than those who rejoice in their subjectivity and in their engagement with our world.?
This statement sets the agenda for the main bulk of the book.
The opening chapter, entitled ?History?, attempts to provide a general interpretation of what history is. It ranges from Aristotle to post-modernism. It deals mainly with history as ?written history? and traces the development of the conception of history as an exact science, as expounded by L. Von Ranke, to the relativism of post-modernist approaches. It also focuses on the varying approaches of different authors to their subject-matter some concentrating on factual detail and others trying to discover underlying patterns to human events. Social and political movements have also influenced historical understanding (e.g. Marxism and feminism), but Rhodes insists that, although such ideologies and relativism will necessarily influence us as historians, we must forever do justice to the factual aspect of our material. Otherwise, ?we cease being historians?.
The second chapter, entitled ?Democracy?, deals with the development of democracy in ancient Greece, particularly in Athens. Rhodes convincingly claims that the term demokratia came into being with the reforms of Ephialtes in the 460s. He then goes on to examine the political structure and functioning of the Hellenic democracies and contrasts them with the oligarchies, or ?rule of the few?, of the same period. He does not overlook their shortcomings, judged by modern standards, and acknowledges the exclusion of slaves, ?metics? and women from the political arena. As Rhodes points out, since we have more information in that area, our study of Greek democracy focuses mainly on Athens. We have, after all, more inscriptions, and that product of the school of Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution.
Chapter 3, ?Democracy: Good or Bad??, sees Rhodes pursuing his declared programme in a diachronic manner, discussing the ?attitudes to ancient democracy? down through the ages, particularly in terms of how ?they were conditioned by the circumstances of the people?. In medieval times democracy was not ?the flavour of the day?; in the early-modern era the attitude towards it was generally hostile. While moves were made towards democracy in the Swiss Federation and seventeenth-century England, they were not inspired by ancient democracy. The Founding Fathers of the U.S.A, while not deriving their views from ancient sources, did however utilise them as a source-material for political knowledge. They were, however, not too enthusiastic about direct democracy, being largely inspired by Roman Republicanism. As Rhodes points out, interest in Athenian democracy re-emerges with the French philosophers of the late eighteenth century, but the French Revolution largely drew its inspiration, as had the American, from the Roman Republic. In Britain conservatives, such as the historian Mitford, reacting to contemporary political developments abroad, were critical of Athenian democracy, and even admirers of it, such as Paine, felt that representative democracy was more suited to modern conditions. A counter-current was, however, developing, and even in the eighteenth century, in Germany, Winckelmann, a great admirer of Athenian art and consequently of its democracy, eulogised the Athenian model, as did Macauley in the nineteenth in Britain, reacting to Mitford?s criticism. The chapter ends with Grote, the first scholarly historian of Greece, and his conviction that the study of ancient democracy helps us to confront ?the problems of our own world?.
In Chapter 4, ?Democracy: Fashions in Scholarship?, Rhodes, maintaining the diachronic mode, discusses the interaction between scholarship and ancient democracy from the nineteenth century onwards: how German scholars set their focus on the institutional antiquities of ancient states, regarding this type of research as more or less an exact science. This did not stop them, however, from at times expressing critical opinions, often hostile to Athenian democracy, and in this we can discern some of the ancestry of the Nazi preference for the Spartans. Rhodes recounts how, while Staatskunde-type scholarship continued into the twentieth century, writers tended more towards a critical discussion of the nature and principles of ancient democracy, often highlighting its faults, condemning some and making excuses for others, e.g Ehrenberg?s description of the condemnation of ancient slavery as a ?Pharasaic practice?, while at the same time criticising the people?s courts in Athens; and C. Meier?s admission that metics, slaves and women were excluded from participation, allied with the claim that to condemn this in accordance with modern values would be ahistorical. A similar type of factual and institutional scholarship came into fashion in France about this time, which again often employed critical judgement, and in the twentieth century these judgements were often influenced by Fascism and Communism. Analogously in British scholarship a ?how did it work? approach arose, with an increasingly critical assessment of the merits and defects of ancient democracy. This continued into the 1980s when the focus of scholarship was directed towards studying the role of sub-units such as the demes, etc. But, as Rhodes attests, writers such as Ober have claimed that, due to the nature of the evidence and the ideological inclinations of the author, the ?how did it work? approach is incapable of objectivity and should not be regarded as a proper model of scholarship; Hansen, on the other hand, maintains that, given the structure of the Athenian state, the study of its institutions is fundamental to an understanding of how Athenian democracy worked.
In the next section, ?Politics and Politicians?, Rhodes discusses the move from Staatsaltertümer to the study of actual politics and individual politicians, as instanced by J.K. Davies? Athenian Propertied Families 600-300. This is followed by ?Exploitation?, which takes on the subject of criticisms over the last two hundred years of various aspects of Athenian democracy, ranging from conservative criticism of the empowering of lower-class men to liberal criticism of ?adult males? exploiting the excluded, i.e. slaves, women and other members of the Athenian Empire. Rhodes discusses how the abolition of slavery in the western world, along with the inrtoduction of universal suffrage and the demise of overseas empires, have conditioned attitudes towards these aspects of the Athenian state, so that criticism of them has gained a general validity, although scholars continue to try to justify such defects, claiming that all such criticism is guilty of being anachronistic.
In Chapter 5, ?Athenian Democracy and Us?, Rhodes looks at the inter-relationship between contemporary academic writers, particularly in North America, and Athenian democracy. These writers, he believes, are engaged in the justification of the study of ancient democracy in the face of a modern rejection of ?dead white males and their writings?. Consequently they tend to write populist books to meet the demands of publishers and public, rather than those of academics. Even then they have become increasingly uncomfortable with the shortcomings of Athens? ?dead male democracy?, with its treatment of ?non-citizens both inside the city and in its empire?. Of late there has been a kind of response to this universally critical attitude, with McGregor, for instance, claiming that the Athenian Empire was generally altruistic and benefited its subjects; with Cargill contending that the Second Empire kept its ?virtuous foundation-promises?; and N.F. Jones arguing that sub-groups in Athens (such as demes, tribes, etc.) provided an opportunity for involvement to outsiders excluded from the major political political institutions. As Rhodes points out, modern scholars have become increasingly concerned with the relevance of Athenian democracy, particularly since the 2,500th anniversary of Cleisthenes? reforms (508/7) in 1993/4. Ober?s rejection of the Staatskunde tradition associated with Hansen, for instance, wishes to make the Athenian democracy look both explicable in its own terms and an accessible tool for political analysis and action for those who are, or would be, citizens of democratic states.
This attitude is echoed by a number of the writers of recent years treated by Rhodes: there is a general concern with Athens? relevance for contemporary political thought, with its provision of material for political science and ideology, either in its similarity with, or divergence from our present democratic practices and principles. The chapter concludes with Ober?s assessment of Athenian democracy as a role-model: while it did not live up to Aristotle?s standards for the best possible polis (it did not exclude working-men from citizenship, for instance), it does correspond to the ?well-ordered society? of a J. Rawls, which attempts to ground satisfactory provision for all its members in an agreed concept of justice and a ?difference principle? to mitigate inequalities by favouring the disadvantaged. Even then, as Ober observes, the whole community of people living in Athens did not benefit from the system.
Chapter 6, ?How to Study Athenian Democracy?, attempts to draw some guidelines for scholarship from a survey of modern approaches. In the first section, ?Making the Past Meaningful?, he discusses how ?the student?s own political views?, or his initial opinion on the relevance of ancient democracy, tends to colour his study of the same. This leads Rhodes to describe how modern scholarship was first inspired by the quest for ?scientific objectivity?, then by Marxist ideology, before finally ending up in ?the babel of post-modernism?. In response Rhodes evaluates the relative merits of the focus and approach of several scholars, a section which concentrates on the work of Hansen and Ober, who may be described as being at opposite ends of the spectrum, with Hansen concentrating on the nature of political institutions and Ober searching the field of sociopolitical activity for patterns which will make sense to the readers and have heuristic value for them. As Rhodes sees it, both approaches have their merits and dangers: Hansen can often use the evidence in too mechanical a way, and Ober, having his agenda of interpretation, can distort the evidence. This is followed by a section, entitled ?Drama as Democratic Performance?, which focuses on the recent surge in scholarship dealing with drama as a political discourse, more or less the artistic and performative counterpart of civic rhetoric. As Rhodes recognises, this runs counter to Aristotle?s interpretation of drama as an apolitical activity. While he welcomes the new departure, Rhodes argues that the emphasis on democracy, in particular, rather than on the polis, in general, is misconceived.
?Grinding Axes? deals with the subject of authors coming to their study in a spirit of reaction to modern political writings or with a preconceived agenda to put into effect; Ober again provides an example, with a recent book of his, in its effort to make Athenian constitutional history relevant, clearly misinterpreting Herodotus? account of the reforms of Cleisthenes, by claiming that it was the demos, on its own, and not the leadership of Cleisthenes, that brought about the revolution. This leads to a discussion of a series of contemporary authors in whom he sees evidence of a ?present day agenda?: e.g. Euben tries, without success in Rhodes? view, to make Plato more of a democrat than he is usually perceived to be; Rahe has argued that the Greek polis, with its homonoia, could serve as a model for the modern U.S., which lacks social cohesion; and Hanson, inspired by Herodotus? claim that it was isegorie, equality of speech, that made Athens so prominent in war, claims that the West because of the values it has cherished has become invincible. Rhodes, however, remains far from convinced that it is the glories of democracy that provide the explanation of 2,500 years of world history. Rhodes gives his own studied opinion by way of conclusion. While he stresses that study of ancient Athenian democracy is ?enlightening? and that it stimulates thinking about our contemporary situation, he is not in favour of the direct use of history to teach us ?direct moral and political lessons?, and holds, moreover, that our approach to the subject should tend towards the ?objective end of the spectrum?.
In all, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology is a comprehensive survey of the topic, although I cannot help but feel that something should have been said about the relationship of democracy to rhetoric, a burgeoning area of research, particularly in the U.S. His critical assessments, being of an Aristotelian mean-directed nature, are by and large convincing, but might seem out of step with a ?post-modern age?. The notes are informative and its bibliography extensive. It should serve as a useful introduction for incipient scholars and a useful reference-book for the more advanced.