Monday, February 15, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ryan K. Balot (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Literature and Culture. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xxviii, 659. ISBN 9781405151436. $199.99.
Reviewed by Angela Kühr, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The companion intends to be not less than a "comprehensive vision of classical political thought" (1), which brings together disciplines of political science, classics, philosophy, and history. It aims at introducing the uninitiated and at challenging professionals by asking new questions. What is more, it subscribes to an educational goal: to make ancient political thought meaningful to us, and to open us to novel political possibilities in our own world.

Reading the passionately written introduction by the editor Ryan K. Balot ("Rethinking the History of Greek and Roman Political Thought"), you might doubt how such a volume could ever hit these targets, how it could find the balance between anachronism and meaningless antiquarianism. The topical approach instead of a chronological or author-centred one is a first step to get there, to reach what is understood as the genuine contribution of this companion in contrast to former surveys, these having failed "to reappropriate ancient political thought within the framework of contemporary political thought and life" (16). Ancient political thought is understood in a wide sense, considered from many perspectives, and in many contexts. It covers every kind of political idea and ideology emerging from diverse genres of evidence. Though every epoch of ancient political thought shall be taken into account, from the earliest Greek poets to early Christian thinkers, the canonical philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, are seen as the "centre of gravity" (17).

Subsequent to the introduction, Dean Hammer continues the "Broad View" of Part I: in "What is Politics in the Ancient World?" he presents different modern approaches to ancient politics. Whether they concentrate on institutions, social or prosopographical questions, whether they follow Marxian, Weberian or poststructural perspectives, or whether they conceptualize politics as cultural performance, none of them can explain ancient politics on its own, Hammer concludes, by relying on a body metaphor: "We come full circle in the contribution of different approaches to politics: bodies in motion must ultimately have backbones" (34). This statement could be taken as a motto for Part I, which really presents a "Broad View": a kaleidoscope of contributions difficult to subsume under a common heading, but creating a colourful picture of the various ways of questioning, and of the wider contexts correlated to ancient political thought.

By investigating outside influences on Greek political thought, Kurt A. Raaflaub, in "Early Greek Political Thought in Its Mediterranean Context," opens a field of research which has almost been neglected so far. Taking in mind complex situations of cultural transfer and interaction, he stresses the importance of distinguishing between external models and internal adaptations. According to him, the preliminary results point to the impact of e.g. Near Eastern legal thought, but also to genuine Greek discoveries: mainly the idea of freedom, but probably the idea of equality as well. Departing from Aristotle's definition of the polis, P. J. Rhodes, in "Civic Ideology and Citizenship," describes the chronological development of "civic ideology": the various contexts of citizenship in a world of multiple Greek communities, their confrontation with Roman conditions and their integration into the growing empire. Josiah Ober, in "Public Action and Rational Choice in Classical Greek Political Theory," studies ancient Greek answers to the question how democratic communities can act despite the selfishness of human beings, or how rationality and incentives come together in public action.

By comparing Athenian to Roman conditions, Craige B. Champion, in "Imperial Ideologies, Citizenship Myths, and Legal Disputes in Classical Athens and Republican Rome," gets insights into contemporary citizen identities: "the contrast of Athenian exclusivity and Roman inclusiveness could hardly be more salient than in the context of contemporary tensions between the splintering isolationism of renascent, substate nationalisms and xenophobic ethnic militias on the one hand, and on the other hand technological, demographic, financial, and entrepreneurial forces of integrative globalization" (98). In "Gendered Politics, or the Self-Praise of Andres Agathoi," Giulia Sissa stresses the masculine character of politics and finishes by appealing for the change of illiberal contemporary gender constellations. Robin Osborne, in "The Religious Contexts of Ancient Political Thought," departs from the fundamental difference between modern and ancient conceptions of religion and faces two main questions: first, the impact of theology on political practice and theory, and second, the impact of worship organization on politics and political thought. Though conditions changed, mainly with the rise of Christianity, he makes emphasis on the general interdependence between religion and political theory: "Philosophical ('natural') religion gave little or no purchase on the political world. Christianity, for all that it was built on an inversion of conventional values, respected, as it reflected, the political world. As we move from considering the gods of the city to considering the City of God, the theological and cultic construction of the world remains a most important context within which to view political thought" (130).

Part II, "Democracies and Republics," focuses on central political concepts and constitutional questions. Peter Liddel, with "Democracy Ancient and Modern," opens the section by confronting the practices and values of ancient and modern democracies. Paul Cartledge and Matt Edge, in "Rights, Individuals, and Communities in Ancient Greece," contradict the anachronistic conviction that ancient Athens had no concept of individual, subjective rights. In contrast to modern notions of liberty and equality, the ancient concepts were negative ones: "The idea is not to give political freedom to all so that they may interfere with, and dictate the contents of, the lives of others, but to prevent others from doing that to you" (154). Correspondingly, Robert W. Wallace, in "Personal Freedom in Greek Democracies, Republican Rome, and Modern Liberal States," juxtaposes different concepts and contexts of 'eleutheria,' 'libertas,' and 'freedom.' By concentrating on Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, David E. Hahm, in "The Mixed Constitution in Greek Thought," treats the mixed constitution as "one of antiquity's most productive contributions to western political thought" (178). How Roman realities differed from Greek ones, Malcolm Schofield demonstrates by his contribution on "Republican Virtues" as does W. Jeffrey Tatum, who provides an introduction into the debate on "Roman Democracy" and concludes that the dynamism of Roman Republican constituencies resists any categorization.

"The Virtues and Vices of One-Man Rule" are the topics of Part III, which are treated with reference to the periods of Archaic and Classical Greece, Hellenism, and the Roman empire. After departing from the historical background of one-man rule in Ancient Greece, Sara Forsdyke, in "The Uses and Abuses of Tyranny," focuses on the discourses on tyranny between the archaic period and the late fourth century. Arthur M. Eckstein, in "Hellenistic Monarchy in Theory and Practice," deals with the question of how Hellenistic Monarchy, as opposed to the ideal of the classical Greek city-state, was theoretically legitimated, and how the kings corresponded to the required ideal of men employing their immense power to the benefit of all. According to the author, their legitimacy remained unstable; stability and peace eventually came with the pax Romana -- under the Roman emperors. As Carlos F. Noreña demonstrates in "The Ethics of Autocracy in the Roman World," once the political order of the Roman empire had been established, the situation neither favoured major debates on constitutional change nor advances in the field of political theory. But the omnipresent discourse on virtues and vices promulgated an ethics of autocracy, which no emperor could deny.

In Part IV, "The Passions of Ancient Politics," the authors concentrate on political psychology. While Giulia Sissa, in "Political Animals: Pathetic Animals," departs from the notion that certain emotions, a "pathetic apparatus," correspond to specific forms of government, Paul W. Ludwig, in "Anger, Eros, and Other Political Passions in Ancient Greek Thought," puts emphasis on affections related to honour, shame, awe, eros, anger and civic friendship. In contrast to these scholars, who mainly stick to Greek examples, Robert A. Kaster ("Some Passionate Performances in Late Republican Rome") offers a close reading of Cicero passages to understand the impact of passions on political performances in Late Republican Rome.

Part V centres round "The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle." By interpreting Plato's five dialogues on "The trial and death of Socrates," Debra Nails examines Plato's account of the events as philosophy's founding myth. Rachana Kamtekar, in "The Politics of Plato's Socrates," discusses the Socratic criticism of democracy as rule by the ignorant, resulting in the corruption of the citizens. Instead of approving hierarchical orders, according to Kamtekar, Socrates aims at transforming ruling from privilege to profession, spelling out a new concept of sovereignty. Arlene W. Saxonhouse opts for reading each of the Platonic dialogues on its own instead of constructing a strict Platonic political theory, a methodological claim she realizes by juxtaposing two dialogues: "Freedom, Tyranny, and the Political Man: Plato's Republic and Gorgias, a Study in Contrasts." Zena Hitz, in "Plato on Sovereignty of Law," and Timothy Chappell, in "'Naturalism' in Aristotle's Political Philosophy," stress the otherness of ancient Greek political thought. Hitz, for example, puts emphasis on the contrast between modern liberal conceptions praising the rule of law as controlling the use of political power and the Platonic rule of law as worse alternative to the rule of political expertise. Though tracing back to Platonic origins, the Platonic concept of the rule of law as an imposed order does not conform to modern ideas of autonomy and individual rights, Hitz concludes. Exploring the dependence between ethics and politics in Aristotle ("The Ethics of Aristotle's Politics"), on the one hand, David J. Depew subscribes to a basic difference between ancient and modern concepts of freedom. On the other hand, he points out that we share the ideal of creating institutions and practices which enable men to develop their capacities in the highest possible way, that ethics should foster good politics. The author recommends a close reading of Aristotle to understand in which way the formally universal norms of our own political and ethical conceptions depend on a specific cultural frame as well.

Part VI, "Constructing Political Narrative," is dedicated to the interdependences between narrative genres and corresponding ideas of politics, especially educational implications. Charles W. Hedrick, Jr, in "Imitating Virtue and Avoiding Vice: Ethical Functions of Biography, History, and Philosophy," observes the omnipresence of Aristotelian ideas about virtue based in action both in Greek and Roman narratives of the past. He opposes modern convictions of ethical norms as corresponding to specific cultural frames not only to the universalizing tendencies of Christian faith, but also to Greek discussions of virtue referring to human nature, which can be seen as a universal concept as well. Though Greek drama should not be understood as having intended direct political action, John Gibert, in "Greek Drama and Political Thought," appreciates Greek drama as one major source for ancient Greek political thought. In "Character in Politics" Philip A. Stadter asks how character affects politics and demonstrates that ancient writers hoped to influence character development of statesmen by educating their community, by giving them examples of past leaders to train, to warn, and to inspire better leaders to come.

The "Antipolitics" of Part VII are to be understood as oppositions to the common conviction that either the Greek polis or the res publica demanded political engagement as the expected way of life. David Konstan shows that "Cosmopolitan Traditions" can be traced back to the fourth century B.C. and existed throughout antiquity. In the Greek world, they could be perceived as rejection of allegiance to any polis or as commitment to society beyond the confines of a single city-state. In the Roman empire, the tension between local differences and claims to universal hegemony facilitated the reflection on the homogeneity of mankind. But human solidarity transcending the bounds of the state, the author concludes, remained visionary. Eric Brown, in "False Idles: The Politics of the 'Quiet Life'," discusses the philosophical ideal of "quiet life" not only as opposition to the dominant ideology demanding engagement in political affairs, but as integral to new forms of politics transcending the confines of the polis, questions of actual concern: "When we are asking about what politics is, who does or should engage in politics, and how they should do so, these challenges matter" (498). Like Brown, Todd Breyfogle, in "Citizenship and Signs: Rethinking Augustine on the Two Cities," also reads the Augustine dual citizenship between earthly and heavenly, temporal and eternal, civil and ecclesial antipodes as challenges to the modern world: "In Augustine we find these perennial tensions -- good and evil, the divine and the human, the symbols that inform the character of our regard for one another in politically constituted society. The terms of our pilgrim status may have changed, but the fundamental, irresolvable tensions still remain as we await the theoretical analysis of a new, if very different, St Augustine" (523).

In accordance with the volume's general intention to revitalize the reception of ancient political thought in many ways, Part VIII presents two contexts of "Receptions" where ancient political thought became meaningful to inhabitants of a later word: while Christopher Nadon goes through traditions of "Republicanism: Ancient, Medieval, and Beyond," Catherine H. Zuckert writes about "Twentieth Century Revivals of Ancient Political Thought: Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss."

In sum, the reviewer subscribes to the editor's hope turning it into certainty: "the essays in the present volume indicate just how rich, complex, and diverse the Greek and Roman understanding of civic virtue and deliberative prudence could be. (...) the present collection will provide an interpretative and philosophical basis for supplementing and enriching recent efforts, for challenging contemporary orthodoxies, and for stimulating further reflection upon the political possibilities of virtue politics in modernity" (13). Of course, the companion is the result of current approaches and perspectives; within a generation, the focus on the topics might change. At the moment, the interplay of the sections presented certainly is state-of-the-art, inspiring students and scholars alike. What is more, the volume not only adds thirty-four articles, but really forms a unity, as different as the contributions are: an interdisciplinary achievement in its best sense. Considering the complexity of the topic and the diversity of forces to be integrated, you cannot praise enough what the editor has done. His passionately formulated introduction corresponds to the whole product as Balot managed to bind every author to his programme without depriving them of their personal style. To make ancient political thought meaningful to us is the omnipresent imperative of the volume. Instead of presenting simple educational recipes for how to act, the otherness of ancient thought is respected everywhere. How to continue questioning ancient thought, and how to apply certain cognitions to our own world? The companion is no catechism, but a profound reference work challenging new interpretations by many generations to come.

Table of contents

Part I The Broad View (pp. 1-130)

1 Introduction: Rethinking the History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (Ryan K. Balot)

2 What is Politics in the Ancient World? (Dean Hammer)

3 Early Greek Political Thought in Its Mediterranean Context (Kurt A. Raaflaub)

4 Civic Ideology and Citizenship (P. J. Rhodes)

5 Public Action and Rational Choice in Classical Greek Political Theory (Josiah Ober)

6 Imperial Ideologies, Citizenship Myths, and Legal Disputes in Classical Athens and Republican Rome (Craige B. Champion)

7 Gendered Politics, or the Self-Praise of Andres Agathoi (Giulia Sissa)

8 The Religious Contexts of Ancient Political Thought (Robin Osborne)

Part II Democracies and Republics (pp. 131-227)

9 Democracy Ancient and Modern (Peter Liddel)

10 "Rights," Individuals, and Communities in Ancient Greece (Paul Cartledge and Matt Edge)

11 Personal Freedom in Greek Democracies, Republican Rome, and Modern Liberal States (Robert W. Wallace)

12 The Mixed Constitution in Greek Thought (David E. Hahm)

13 Republican Virtues (Malcolm Schofield)

14 Roman Democracy? (W. Jeffrey Tatum)

Part III The Virtues and Vices of One-Man Rule (pp. 229-279)

15 The Uses and Abuses of Tyranny (Sara Forsdyke)

16 Hellenistic Monarchy in Theory and Practice (Arthur M. Eckstein)

17 The Ethics of Autocracy in the Roman World (Carlos F. Noreña)

Part IV The Passions of Ancient Politics (pp. 281-320)

18 Political Animals: Pathetic Animals (Giulia Sissa)

19 Anger, Eros, and Other Political Passions in Ancient Greek Thought (Paul W. Ludwig)

20 Some Passionate Performances in Late Republican Rome (Robert A. Kaster)

Part V The Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (pp. 321-418)

21 The Trial and Death of Socrates (Debra Nails)

22 The Politics of Plato's Socrates (Rachana Kamtekar)

23 Freedom, Tyranny, and the Political Man: Plato's Republic and Gorgias, a

Study in Contrasts (Arlene W. Saxonhouse)

24 Plato on Sovereignty of Law (Zena Hitz)

25 "Naturalism" in Aristotle's Political Philosophy (Timothy Chappell)

26 The Ethics of Aristotle's Politics (David J. Depew)

Part VI Constructing Political Narrative (pp. 419-470)

27 Imitating Virtue and Avoiding Vice: Ethical Functions of Biography, History, and Philosophy (Charles W. Hedrick, Jr)

28 Greek Drama and Political Thought (John Gibert)

29 Character in Politics (Philip A. Stadter)

Part VII Antipolitics (pp. 471-526)

30 Cosmopolitan Traditions (David Konstan)

31 False Idles: The Politics of the "Quiet Life" (Eric Brown)

32 Citizenship and Signs: Rethinking Augustine on the Two Cities (Todd Breyfogle)

Part VIII Receptions (pp. 527-556)

33 Republicanism: Ancient, Medieval, and Beyond (Christopher Nadon)

34 Twentieth Century Revivals of Ancient Political Thought: Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss (Catherine H. Zuckert)


Index of Subjects

Index Locorum

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