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We must, of course, recognize that the Athenian democratic order practiced—and celebrated—gender inequality, xenophobia, imperialism, and slavery. But doing so does not require us to deny that the idea and practice of democracy was an invention of the Greek polis. It was at this historical moment that there emerged both the idea that all citizens, regardless of differences of wealth, birth, talents, trade, or profession, should be political equals and a stable set of practices that effectively placed power in the hands of the common nonelite mass of citizens.

Despite its many shortcomings, it is the case that, as Geoffrey de Ste. Croix stressed, democracy is the brilliant achievement of the Greek polis: the Greek polis … had to build it up from the very bottom; … had both to devise the necessary institutions and to construct an appropriate ideology. This book has two parts. Part One examines aspects of Athenian democratic thought, focusing on the structure of the Athenian democratic imaginary wishful self-image.

Plato's Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosophy

Part Two turns to the interpretation of the dialogues of Plato. In Part One, I employ an approach to Athenian democratic thought that builds on a growing literature in classics and political theory that considers Athenian political life fluidly to reach beyond the functioning of specific traditional political institutions. For example, I draw on the extensive work on such topics as the civic context of Athenian drama, the civic ideals that animate festival events and ritual practices unique to Athens City Dionysia, funeral oration , the meanings of the myths that pervade Athenian political discourse, the character and reach of the power of the ordinary people in the Athenian polis, the gendered nature of Athenian political life, and the political dimension of Athenian erotic life.

These chapters contribute to the literature on Athenian politics from the vantage point of political theory. The strategy of reading Plato I develop in Part Two builds upon five strands of recent Plato scholarship.

This work demonstrates that the dialogic form has deep philosophic import. It is not simply a clever way to express a doctrine that could have been more easily stated in systematic exposition, but a mode of writing that allows Plato to craft for the reader the unusual experience of philosophic inquiry and dramatize both its departures from and attachments to Athenian traditions. Third, the few historical studies of Plato that exist have demonstrated that he was deeply engaged with the politics of his city. The fourth strand of recent work with which this study stands in conversation are the several efforts to consider the complexities of the relationship between Socrates and Athenian democracy.


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The fifth and final strand of recent scholarship on Plato I engage is the work by Arlene Saxonhouse and J. In my view, Plato decidedly does not assume the posture of an enemy of democratic Athens and does not sustain a thoroughgoing betrayal of the Socratic ideal of committed criticism. But his works deliver just that, a critique.

S. Sara Monoson, Plato's Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the Practice of Philosophy

He denounces majority rule, Assembly debate, equality, and the celebration of living as you like, for example, as disturbing, deeply flawed practices that systematically misdirect citizens to make error upon error regarding what they should consider admirable as well as how they can lead a good life. He indeed resists what Josiah Ober has termed the democratic hegemony of his time by bringing into question the basic assumptions on which democratic knowledge rested; he questioned the validity of mass wisdom as a basis for judgment, the efficacy of public rhetoric as a prelude to decision making.

Before turning to the analysis of sources in the individual chapters, I must note with dismay the stubborn endurance of the view of Plato as a proto-totalitarian thinker. They also erect impediments to the serious investigation of his assessment of the moral significance of democratic forms of power.

Since others have, to my mind, thoroughly discredited this approach, I do not take it on explicitly in these pages.

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Perhaps paradoxically, I both agree and disagree with the tradition of reading Plato as an antipolitical thinker. For example, while clearly taking pleasure in the rough-and-tumble of politics in their material lives, the Athenians did not embrace the messiness of democratic politics in their civic self-image. At the level of the imaginary, they spurned discord and ambition, and embraced instead harmony, responsibility, reciprocity, and respect for good arguments.

At the level of the imaginary, for instance, the democracy perpetrated the fiction that the view of a majority even of only one constitutes the considered view of the whole. This is what the formulaic expression of Assembly decisions suggests It seems best to the demos that …. That is, it is indeed likely that Plato also draws upon elements of local aristocratic discourse, a discourse hostile to democracy in the specific sense of being the language of unreconciled foes eager for specific constitutional changes. For example, the language of metals Plato uses to articulate appropriate hierarchies or divisions in the Republic is not dreamt up but has a long history in elite discourse.

I begin with an examination of aspects of the Athenian civic self-image.


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Accordingly, the concepts of freedom and equality do not organize my account, though they are central to the Athenian democratic imaginary and Plato has much to say about them. Much good work already exists on these features of Athenian thought. Chapters One through Four explore various accounts of how these ideals were enacted or represented.

Chapter One examines the patriotic story of the historical founding of Athenian democracy that the Athenians told and retold on numerous occasions for generations, that is, the tale of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Chapter Four examines the Athenian practice of theater-going as a stage for the performance of democratic citizenship.

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Part Two demonstrates that reading Plato in this context raises new questions about the relationship of his thought to the practice of democracy at Athens. In Chapter Seven I demonstrate that in the Menexenus , Plato takes on the Athenian tendency to venerate the memory of Pericles, and in so doing explores the links between philosophic practice and a uniquely Athenian democratic form of civic speech at which Pericles is reputed to have excelled—public funeral oratory.

In Chapter Eight I show that in both the Republic and the Laws , Plato models his depiction of philosophic practice on the experience of the intellectual labors of the ordinary theater-going public on the occasion of the City Dionysia, a grand civic festival occasion.

No doubt his antidemocratic attitude is a product of various complex factors, but what should interest us here is the philosophical ground for his condemnation of democracy" R. Cross and A. Critics are roughly of three kinds: those fundamentally opposed to democracy because, like Plato, they believe that while it may be possible it is inherently undesirable … Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics [New Haven: Yale University Press, ], p.

He writes that although Plato is a "bitter critic of Periclean democracy … he can also do justice to its better side even in the Republic " p. Also see L. Foxhall and A.

Rethinking Athenian Democracy

Lewis, eds. Koumoulides, ed. Ehrenberg, Origins of Democracy, Historia 1 : —48; M. Princeton: Princeton University Press, , pp. He stresses that in Athens democratic ideology so dominated the political landscape that formal democratic theory was otiose p. On democratic thought in contrast to systematic theorizing of the period, see Kurt A.

See The Athenian Revolution , p. Thucydides develops a critique of this typically Athenian, expansive way of conceiving the scope of collective activities that can properly be considered political.

His account of the war employs a narrower conception of the boundaries of the political. Indeed, his text is one of the first to identify political activity exclusively with governing and military matters. Wolin, J. On the nature of democracy at Athens, see Ober, who argues that Athenians sustained rule by the people because the ordinary citizen … was a participant in maintaining a political culture and a value system that constituted him the political equal of his elite neighbor The Athenian Revolution , p.

On the manner in which the ordinary citizen wielded power and the nature of the democratic hegemony at Athens, see Ober, Mass and Elite , and the useful summary in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule Princeton: Princeton University Press, , p. Dialogos 1 : 48— Also on the philosophical import of the dialogic form, see Charles Griswold, ed.

Monoson S. In this book, Sara Monoson challenges the longstanding and widely held view that Plato is a virulent opponent of all things democratic. She does not, however, offer in its place the equally mistaken idea that he is somehow a partisan of democracy. Instead, she argues that we should attend more closely to Plato's suggestion that democracy is horrifying and exciting, and she seeks to explain why he found it morally and politically intriguing. Monoson focuses on Plato's engagement with democracy as he knew it: a cluster of cultural practices that reach into private and public life, as well as a set of governing institutions.

She proposes that while Plato charts tensions between the claims of democratic legitimacy and philosophical truth, he also exhibits a striking attraction to four practices central to Athenian democratic politics: intense antityrantism, frank speaking, public funeral oratory, and theater-going.

By juxtaposing detailed examination of these aspects of Athenian democracy with analysis of the figurative language, dramatic structure, and arguments of the dialogues, she shows that Plato systematically links democratic ideals and activities to philosophic labor. Monoson finds that Plato's political thought exposes intimate connections between Athenian democratic politics and the practice of philosophy. Situating Plato's political thought in the context of the Athenian democratic imaginary, Monoson develops a new, textured way of thinking of the relationship between Plato's thought and the politics of his city.