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Rhetoric Society of America

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule by Josiah Ober Review by: Eugene Garver Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 92-97 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886187 . Accessed: 17/10/2013 16:01
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with the final chapteron Aristotle. Perhapsit is best to let the readerwrite the ghost chapters, to fill in the narrative,but an epilogue could have made the narrativeexplicit. It would also have broughtto the forefrontcertainquestions thatareperhapsbettersaved for anothervolume or thatperhapsneed morecareful definition in this one: What, after all, is "theory"in the context of ancient for the whole of antiquity? anachronistic rhetoric? Is the notion of disciplinarity Does the method of philological and etymological mining provide sufficient historical data out of which to reconstructhistory? Dale Sullivan Departmentof Humanities Michigan TechnologicalUniversity Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. [e know aboutAtheniandemocracyfrom the testimony of contemporary W, writerssuch as Ps.-Xenophon, Plato,Isocrates, Thucydides,Aristophanes, democracyas unstable,vulnerableto demaandAristotle.These authorsportray and gogues, prone to move from a rulein the name of freedomto expropriation, likely to overreachby dissolving the distinctionsbetween men and women, citizens and slaves, and even humansand animals.From this perspective, democracy was mob rule, rule of the ignorantand the poor, vulnerableto sophists and theirparvenuclients. Josiah Ober invites us to reconsiderthese criticismsof democracyin light of the fact that these charges were all false. Those he calls "intellectualcritics of popularrule"had to face andrespondto the fact thatAtheniandemocracyactually was successful. It was stable and self-moderating.The famous theoretical claim in Aristotle's Politics that the many can make political decisions better than any individual because, as in the judgment of a work of art, each rightly judges a piece and they all somehow add up was not a theoreticalclaim afterall but an observationaboutAthenianpractice that somehow worked. Our understanding of these authors must change when seen against the backgroundof of these authorsas intellectualcritics of the democraticsuccess. Reintepretation success of democracymakes Ober'sbook an accountof Atheniandemocracyfor our time. Not until Spinoza did anyonedeclare democracyto be the most naturalform of government, and he did so on the basis of naturalrights. Ober notes that Athenian democracy was not groundedin naturalrights. "The ordinarypeople of Athens were free, political equal, and secure (as a body of citizens and as individuals), because, by their own actions, they had come to realize that they could be so, and because they were willing, in word and deed, to defend these

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pragmaticconditionsof existenceagainstinternaland externalthreats" (35). Democracythenhad no need of theoryand so what Obercalls "democratic knowledge"hadno roomfor the Sophists'distinction of natureandcustom,Thucydides' distinctionbetweenwords and brutefacts, or Plato'sdistinctionbetween opinion andknowledge. Criticismsof democracy, whichbecamethe genresof historyand philosophy, reliedon suchdistinctions to undermine theautonomy andautochthony of democracy. "Ifone claimedto be anintellectual-a practitioner of philosophiaone mustalso be criticalof the ruleof the people"(252). Correlatively, democracy was anti-theoretical. It was not ideologicallygenerated. It wasjust somethingthat the people did for themselves.Intellectual activity was by its natureanti-democratic. Suchis Ober'sexcitingthesis. In successivechapters,Oberlooks at Ps.-Xenophon,Thucydides, Aristophanes (Ecclesiazusae), Plato (Apology, Crito, Gorgias, and Republic), Isocrates (AntidosisandAreopagiticus),andAristotle (Politics), to show how these elite critics' workswere one half of a dialogue with democracy.In this review I want to look at a few of Ober's observations,especially those of special interest to readers of the Rhetoric Society Quarterly,to show what happens to familiar texts when read against this background. Thucydides' account of democracy in war is crucial for Ober's story. Thucydidesdraws a strong distinctionbetween the speeches and beliefs of the citizens and leaders in the Assembly and the reality of militarydeeds, or, more precisely, a strongmethodologicaldistinctionbetween how speeches and deeds are treatedby the historian. Ober points to some of the developments of the logos/ergondistinctionin otherauthors as a way of attackingthe self-sufficiency of democraticknowledge, makingthe words/deeds distinctionsomething of a theme runningthroughthe book. Thereis one point in the Rhetoric,which Ober does not cite, where Aristotle deploys a similar distinctionto distinguishrhetoric from political science, just the distinction that Ober's "democraticknowledge" elides: "Inproportionas anyoneendeavoursto makeof dialectic or rhetoric, not what they are, faculties, but sciences, to that extent he will, without knowing it, destroytheirreal nature,in thus alteringtheircharacter, by crossing over into thedomainof sciences, whose subjectsarecertaindefinitethings (tinon pragmat6n), not merely words (logoi)" (I.4.1359bl3-17). The Rhetoric's distinction between the rhetoricalfaculty and political science or knowledge is an importantchallenge to Ober's argument,and it would be interestingto see how he would treatit. As it is, the logos/ergondistinctiondominatesOber's account of Thucydides' criticism of democracy-the chapteris called "public speech and brute fact"-and appearsto some extent in the chapterson Aristophanes and Plato-in radicallymodifiedformin Plato, since logoi arenot subordinated to erga, but erga to logoi-and is mostly absentfromhis discussions of Isocrates and Aristotle. WhatObercalls democraticknowledge,Platocalls flattery. Like manypeople, Ober reads the sequence, Apology, Crito, Gorgias, Republicas a development,

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this time a developmentin the criticismof democracy. In the Apology Socrates claims that, concerningthe accusationsof Meletus,he cannotreceive a fair hearObershowshow Socrates sownby his "oldaccusers." ing becauseof theprejudices transformstraditionalforensic topoi. "Socratesasks the jurorsto learn by individual investigationthat the generalopinion of the mass of citizens (hoi polloi) was false. He seeks, in effect, to establisha conversational,dialectical relationship among the jurorsthatprivileges individualknowledge and rejects the general knowledge of the many as a mass" (169). Such privileging of individual knowledge is in one way a criticismof democracy,since in democracythe many constitutethemselves as a collective agent who acts and knows. In anotherway, it is a reconstitutionof democracyin termsof individualfreedom and individual judgment. Much of the subsequenthistoryof democracyhas been played out on just the issue of whetherindividualknowledge is the basis or the corrosive acid of democraticcitizenship. Something similarhappensin the Crito. Socrates "claims that a citizen must always ignore the opinionof the manybut must always obey the laws. Logically, therefore,the law must be somethingdifferentfrom the opinion of the many ... but to assertthe completeindependenceof the law frompopularopinion in early Athens was chimerical"(186). Thus the topos of the rule of law fourth-century vs. the rule of men, which otherwiseidentifies democracywith the rule of men, becomes a topos for argumentwithin democracy.Ober notes that "what seems notoriouslyleft out of the contractthatthe Laws of the Critopress upon Socrates is the benefit he had received from the freedomof the democraticpolis and its tolerance(even celebration) of diversityamongits citizens"(244). unprecedented The argumentof the laws is so general that it would demand obedience to all governments,while Socrates'encounterwithAthens should insteadconcern obligations generatedby the peculiar interactionbetween Socratic behavior and Atheniandemocracy. The Gorgias shows the impossibility,or close to it, of Socrates'participating in political affairsin anyrecognizableform:one has to choose between two ways of life-Callicles' flatteringthe polis or Socrates' silence in public. It also shows that Callicles is himself defeatedby democraticknowledge as much as Socrates is. The demos dictates the terms on which the would-be demagogue can persuade. The ideological hegemony of the demos "is not threatenedby the education in the techniquesof public addressofferedto aspiringpoliticians by professional rhetoricians.Indeed, demotic hegemony is strengthenedby a rhetorical trainingthat preparesambitiousmen for menial service ratherthan for engagement in critical resistance,battle, and therapy"(190). Although Ober does not make the point, the power of democraticknowledgeappearsin Callicles' attempt to get to the natural facts outsidethe conventionalbeliefs of the many.His physis/ nomos distinction is itself a conventional distinction, and the idea of natural epideixis (praiseandblame being rootedoutsidediscoursein nature)is a contradiction. Socrates shows how democraticknowledgecan defeat the Thucydidean distinctionbetween logoi and erga.

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In theApology, how Socratescould have become good without growing up in a good polis is unexplained,but it isn't a problem either since no attentionis drawnto it. There is simply no narrativeleading up to the oracle's declaration that Socrates is the wisest of men. In the Gorgias individual wisdom is impossible and thereforeSocratesis trulyignorantand thereforenot good. If he cannot be effective, he is to thatdegree not good, and his effectiveness dependsin part on the community in which he thinks and acts. In the Gorgias Socrates' knowledge of his own ignorancefrom the Apology becomes a freedom fromthe "ideological constraintsthat bound Callicles." But being a gadfly is no longer good enough:"As long as he remainsthe 'only' masterof the political techne as long as his attemptsat therapeutic persuasionnecessarily remaininfelicitous because of the establishedideological context of the polis-there can be no real political practice"(213). There is one hint in the treatment of the Republic that the sequence Apology, Crito,Gorgias,Republic,is not inevitable."Socratesseems to have moved away from the ethics of criticism he had defended when arguing with Callicles in favor of the inherent virtuousnessof his own ongoing struggle with the citizenry"(218). If so, then maybe the movement is in the other direction, thatthe Republic,at least in Book I, lies with the Apology and Crito in seeing Socrates as the loyal democraticopposition,making democracyinto its own better self, while the Gorgias gives up such hopes. Thus, Socratesis looking not to replace democraticknowledge with a betterkind of expertise suggested by the "theory of ideas,"the rule of philosophers andthe ontologicaldistinctionbetween knowledge and opinion. Socrates shows what true democraticknowledge looks like by saying to Callicles thatif they concur,then the result must be true (487a). But that is not Ober's story.For him, the ideal state of the Republic in effect reverses the Socraticproblem.Where the earlierdialogues tried to find a place for Socrates in a democracy,the Republic shows that there is no place for democracywithin a polis regulatedby real knowledge, not democraticknowledge. Unified souls in a unifiedpolis "eliminatethe raison d'e'treof democraticpublic practices,the distinctionbetweenpolitical and social equalities"(230). Thereis no place for Socratesthereeither,as he comes to findhis own sortof autochthony in an immortal soul and knowledge of the forms, while the state has its own myth of autochthony. Isocrates,unlike Plato,wantsto save ratherthandestroydemocracy.Isocrates wantsto save democracyfromitself by makingthe rule of the eloquent andwise a partof democracyratherthanan oligarchic intrusion.Ober's assumptionthat to be an intellectualis to argueagainstdemocracyilluminatesIsocrateandiscursive practices. For example: "Truedicanic rhetoric (or even seamless dicanic fiction) offered limited opportunitiesfor engaging in extended 'high culture' polemics, whereasordinary epideicticnecessarilyignoredthe demotic audience. It was only by inventinga new, hybridgenre thatIsocratescould depict himself who as a brave,beleagueredcitizen of both Athens and Hellas, the hero-martyr

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stood in the metaphoricalmiddle of the battle and at the syntacticcenter of the antithesis-dealing out telling blows to the ignorantjealousies of hoi polloi on the one hand,while dispatchinghis pettifoggingfellow intellectualson the other" (259). Similarly,in the Areopagiticushe makes the Areopagusthe "linchpinof the ancestraldemocracy"(282). If he can be persuasive,he will radicallychange demos was concerned with dethe nature of democracy. "The fourth-century ployingpoliticalequalityto guarantee thatthe effects of social inequalities among citizens remainedlimited. In Isocrates'vision, the political orderof ancientAthens had rested upon the demos' acceptanceof profound social inequalities as completely legitimate"(283). Ober'sanalysiscan even explainwhy "Isocrates' attemptsat criticaldiscourseinevitablyseem thinto modernreaders.... He had no stimulus to develop truly original political ideas because he had no stake (indeed, quite the opposite) in challenging the speech-centeredlogic of Athenian democracy"(288). Apartfrom books 7 and 8, Obersees Aristotle'sstrategyin the Politics as one of convertingradicalinto immanentcriticism."Aristotle... developed a capacious definitionof democracy... .in partbecause doing so mightmake the practical political reformer'sjob that much easier. Defining a broad spectrum of as 'democracy'allowed what might be regardedas sociopolitical arrangements revolutionarychanges to be subsumedunderthe rubricof internalconstitutional adjustments" (338). I would makehis point slightlydifferently. (I not only would but have in "Politics III and the Incompleteness of the Normative,"Ancient Philosophy, 18 (1998): 381-416.) Only with partialconceptions,such as corrupt democracies,is a constitutionone form as opposed to others,and only then is it one form among others. The principleof democracyco-exists, in a good state, with the principlesof polity, oligarchyand aristocracy. I wonder, too, whetherAristotle's democracyis not so differentfrom democraticpractice as Ober describes it to raise furtherproblemsthat Oberdoes not consider.Aristotle's democracyis no more governmentby discussion than any other form of government. In the Rhetoric he says that laws should decide as much as possible, leaving for decision in assembliesandcourtsonly those things the laws cannotdetermine.Democraciesruledby law have no more discussion and public debate than oligarchies ruled by law, and democracieswithout law have no more discussion than oligarchies withoutlaw. Whogets to speak is of course more inclusive underdemocracy,but the place of discussion and deliberation in rule is the same. The argumentfor democracy is in terms of better judgments emerging from collective discussion,but democracyas Aristotledescribes it is as governed by the political science of the legislatoras is any good polis. The key distinctionis between governmentsof laws and governmentsof men, not between democracy and otherforms of rule. Ober sees each of his authorsas engaged in a dialogue with democracy,and also with other critics in "competitivestrugglesfor primacywithin the critical community"(250). He acknowledges that only Isocratesis explicit about such

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competitive ambitions.I do not find it a very productivehypothesis to assume that all these writers are trying to find a niche within a critical debate. It leads, among other things, to the far too frequentreadings of Aristotle which simply assume that his corpusis a response to Plato. In thatcase, one of the drawbacks of such an assumptionis thatit occludes the few times when Aristotle explicitly formulateshis own theses throughcontrastto or refutationof Plato.The relation of Aristotle to Plato apart,these various writings may well all enter into dialogue with democracy,butthe diversityof ways in which they do so is lost in the assumptionthat they all see themselves "as existing within and contendingwith a matrix of critical voices" (250). The development of the genres of history, philosophyandAristophanic comediesas ways of responding to democracyseems to me a richer way of depictingthese voices than as simple competitorsfor an audience. Ober thinks that Aristotle succeeded in "transcend[ing] the environmentof democraticAthens, the establishedconcernsof Athens'criticalcommunity,and the dichotomy between immanent and rejectionist criticism." He also thinks that his success in establishingAristotelianpolitical science had as a cost the of Atheniandemocobscuring of "therhetoricaland ideological underpinnings racy and the motivations of earlier Greek political writing critical of democracy"(350). One of the mainpurposesof this book, one on which Obersucceeds brilliantly, is "to recuperateboth a specifically Athenian democraticpolitical experience and a 'pre-Aristotelian' way of thinkingcritically aboutdemocratic politics in a specifically Atheniancontext"(350-1). Ober'sdiscussionof "democratic knowledge"makesme wonderabout"democratic ignorance."There are "facts"that are invisible to a democracy,unavailable for persuasionandjudgment.Some of them we today call privacy.But the rejection of esotericism in the name of equality is an assertion of democratic ignorance. The resistanceto professional rhetoricin the name of equality,the bar on written speeches and on professionalrepresentation, these are forms of democraticignorance.One example thatObercites is the democraticignorance of social inequalityandancestrythroughthe myth of autochthony, an ignorance exposed by the Socratic myth of autochthony.That is a mode of democratic ignorance with obvious parallels today. We might think about the things that cannot be mentioned, let alone deliberatedabout, in our democracy: whether there are connections between race and crime, or what to make of the different values we put on humanlife in asbestos clean-ups, seat-belts on school buses, reductions of infant mortality,or the legality of sports utility vehicles. I cite democraticignoranceas merely one suggestionfor extendingthe rich andstimulating readings Oberhas given us of Atheniandemocracyand its critics. Eugene Garver Regents Professor of Philosophy Saint John's University

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