Thursday, April 26, 2012


M. H. Hansen (ed.), Démocratie athénienne — démocratie moderne: tradition et influences: neuf exposés suivis de discussions: Vandoeuvres-Genève 24-28 août 2009. Entretiens sur l'Antiquité Classique 56. Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 2010. Pp. xxxviii, 417. ISBN 9782600007566. $108.00.

Reviewed by Robert W. Wallace, Northwestern University (

Version at BMCR home site

For these nine comparative essays Mogens Hansen has convened some of Greek democracy's old masters, together with voices from other fields. While different interests and expertise can make collections of commissioned papers something of a mixed bag, diversity here aims to be a virtue. The book is full of riches, while sometimes reflecting a common difficulty in comparative studies, that few scholars are expert in two different fields. Also, it is not very evident that these essays were revised in the light of other essays in the book or the discussions that follow, although structural or organizational reasons may account for this. Despite difficulties, Démocratie athénienne— démocratie moderne was a valuable project.

Reflecting long engagement with democracy, Hansen's superb Introduction begins with global, panhistorical perspectives, limiting democracies to Greece from 600 [nb] to 146 BC and the western world from AD 1800. He outlines the histories of Greek and modern democracies, discusses questions and problems involved in comparing them, and considers how far Athens' democracy inspired later democratic governments. No one anywhere can match Hansen's expertise in comparative democracies.

In the volume's first essay, "Democracy ancient and modern: divided power," Pasquale Pasquino, Professor of Politics at NYU and no Greek history "specialist" (44), compares controls over laws or decrees in Athens' 4th- century constitution with modern European controls. He begins (1-12) with general comments on democracies ancient and modern. He then surveys some features of Athens' 4th-century constitution derived from Hansen's publications (some statements might confuse: e.g., "the boulê had no monopoly of the agenda setting" of the ekklêsia [16]; "properly speaking the governing body in Athens was ... later on the dikasteria" [16 n. 48]; pace 22, most Greek historians would accept that the ekklêsia "retained most of the political power" in the democracy). Pasquino's main thesis is that in the late fifth century the Athenians instituted procedures allowing the dikastêria, "better" and "wiser" than assemblies (22), to reverse assembly decisions through the graphê paranomôn and the graphê nomon mê epitêdeion theinai, "dividing power" because of "the pathologies" of 5th-century "radical democracy" (26). He lists four such "pathologies" (27), e.g. that "the important political decisions, monopolized by the ekklêsia, were often arrived at too quickly." Pasquino's interpretations are not problem-free. The new competencies of the dikastêria and nomothetai were not to "control public decisions at Athens" (21) but to void decrees or laws that contradicted existing laws, a far more limited matter. Most assembly decrees were not challenged, none of its other "important political decisions" were challenged, and as Lanni argues (this vol.), preserving the democracy was in fact a key issue for Athens' nomothetai. Pasquino's "pathologies" are defended only by reference to democracy's critics such as Plato and Aristotle. But we cannot take their word for it. Comments especially by Oswyn Murray and Hansen, compelling here as throughout the volume, raise critical objections, for example that Pasquino repeats Aristotle's notion that Athens' democracy was government by only "a part of the polis, actually the aporoi" (4). Such prejudicial concepts cannot substitute for understanding the Athenians' complex identities and ideologies. The final pages on contemporary constitutional controls reflect Pasquino's area of expertise and (as Murray says, 41) make interesting reading.

Part I of Christian Mann's "Politische Partizipation und die Vorstellung des Menschen als Zoon Politikon" discusses the meaning of man as "political animal" in Aristotle's Politics. Part II discusses the people's role in Greek government from Homer on, and especially in 4th-century Athens. Mann concludes that Aristotle did not base his idea of man as political animal on popular participation in Athenian democratic government, as Bengtson had suggested. Part III critiques the West's response to democracy since the 18th century; the reaction against modern representative governments by Jürgen Habermas (deliberative democracy) and Benjamin Barber ("strong" participatory democracy); the democratizing power of the internet; and Sandel's and Pocock's misunderstanding of zoon politikon to imply political participation. Mann closes with general reflections on the differences between ancient direct and modern representative democracy. In the following discussion, Hansen offers important, partly contrasting reflections on Aristotle's zoon politikon.

Karen Piepenbrink, "Bürgerrecht in der griechischen Polis und im modernen Staat," compares Attic with modern citizenship laws (and practices) in Europe and North America. Typical examples are that Athens' citizenship grants were usually honorary and rare, while in Europe and North America they are common and a matter of law; and that ancient metics were obligated to fight in the military, while modern non-citizens are not. This elegant general essay does not seek to advance new interpretations of citizenship laws, and it concentrates on rules, not examples or how things actually work. Among several final conclusions, the reluctance to grant citizenship characterizes nations not states and is cultural more than political.

In "Modern perceptions of ancient realities from Montesquieu to Mill," Oswyn Murray argues that contrary to recent scholars and their 19th-century forebears (in particular Grote), already 18th-century British students of Greece had championed Athenian democracy rather than Sparta. In fine English prose, Murray discusses at length (145-54) "the earliest serious full-length history of Greece by one of the most original of eighteenth-century historians, the long-forgotten Irishman John Gast" (145), quoting remarkable passages from that writer. He also discusses the work and career of Bulwer-Lytton, on whom he has written previously (e.g., Métis 2005). Confirming the perils of comparative history, he asserts that "the chief interest of the American founding fathers was the preservation of property and the continuation of slavery" (158). To the contrary, the colonists protested what they considered unconstitutional taxes, but their property was never in danger. The Declaration of Independence includes among men's "inalienable rights … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," replacing Locke's "life, liberty, and property," and thereby consciously downplaying the government's role in protecting property. If on slavery the founders were complicated or hypocritical, the Declaration of Independence specifies that the colonies wanted to end the slave trade. But England forced that commerce to continue (compare British slavery in the Caribbean, oppression in south Asia by the East India Company, and peonage in Ireland). The founders' chief interest lay in getting rid of hated English rule.

Cynthia Farrar's "Taking our chances with the ancient Athenians" discusses the lot, rotation, and self-selection (ho boulomenos) in an essay that is long (e.g., 169-76 discuss aspects of Athens' constitution where the lot was not used), but excellent on her topic. Allotted positions, including offices, juries and their subsection the nomothetai, were impersonal, equal, and accessible to all. The lot, rotation, and boards reduced the risks (including corruption and constituency relationships) of empowering individuals in a system that depended on equality. Following Aristotle, rotation promoted reciprocity and limited entrenchment: each individual, soon to rotate out, was to look after others' interests, as they would look after his (188). (But cf. Hansen 223-5: was not rotation especially against monopolizing power?) The Athenians did not make participation mandatory, because voluntarism by ho boulomenos was a democratic challenge to the elite (192) and filtered for competence and interest. Farrar's arguments sometimes seem excessively logical: Athenian democracy need not always have been consistent. However, she asks and answers many good questions. One caution: the US primary system for choosing presidential candidates shows that too often dimwits self-select and volunteer to participate (see also Lanni, 231). The second part of Farrar's essay (197-216) discusses modern analyses of, attempts to use, and other possible ways to use, random selection in order to obtain representative cross-sections of a population. Reflecting the quality of this essay, the discussion is outstanding.

Adriaan Lanni's "Judicial review and the Athenian 'Constitution'" ably discusses the graphê paranomôn and graphê nomon mê epitêdeion theinai, not least as pertaining to questions of "the rule of law." Lanni concludes that when a jury accepted or overturned a law or decree passed by or proposed to the Assembly, legal questions mostly pertained to protecting provisions of Athens' democratic constitution. However, just as in ordinary Athenian courts (240), the jury was free to disregard questions of legality in favor of what they preferred or thought more expedient. Lanni ends by arguing that the Athenian system of reviewing legislation was more bicameralist than a US-style judicial review and was therefore better (and more democratic), especially by eliminating the power of a few unelected judges to overturn the majority's will. It might be objected that while US judges can overturn the will of the legislature, 501 Athenian judges had the power to overturn the Assembly's will and on more than strictly legal grounds. This essay is only minimally comparative (here Hansen's comments are important). Although specialized, it will be important for Greek legal historians.

Eric Robinson's "Greek democracies and the debate over democratic peace" learnedly surveys the state of the question whether democracies wage war against each other. He accepts "democratic peace" for modern times, but not for ancient Greece. He therefore proposes that Greece might control proposed explanations for modern democratic peace. That is, if x factor is present in modern democracies but absent from Greek democracies, its value as an explanation for modern democratic peace is enhanced. This suggestion illuminates some hypotheses, but may ignore cultural variables. Do modern democratic leaders hesitate to mobilize against other democracies because their political survival is at risk and democracies mobilize more completely? Robinson doubts this explanation for the modern phenomenon because Greek leaders were equally subject to punishments for failure. However, might the Greeks have been happier to fight, or to die fighting, or feared death less? Also, it may be significant that war was mostly a good in antiquity. Other questions arise, e.g. whether Athens' democracy went to Sicily intending to attack democratic Syracuse. Various sources indicate that Perikles provoked the Peloponnesian War which neither the Athenians nor the Spartans wanted to fight.

Hansen's "Ancient democratic eleutheria and modern liberal democrats' conception of freedom" clarifies Isaiah Berlin's theses on liberty, then Benjamin Constant's (with similar views of recent "political scientists"), and then the principal Greek sources. He concludes that on public and private freedoms (ruling in turn; living as one likes), for Greek democracies Constant "got it right." A final section critiques Paul Rahe's challenge to Hansen's 1989 Was Athens a democracy? Except on Rahe, Hansen has written on these themes before (see his n. 1). The current essay is a lucid, ever-learned presentation of Hansen's views on freedom. The discussion is also good.

In his Introduction Hansen noted Pauline Schmitt Pantel's reluctance to undertake the final topic, democracies and religion, a reluctance she confirms (355-56). In "Démocratie athénienne, démocratie moderne: le rapport à la religion," Schmitt Pantel's main arguments are that religion, while often enmeshed with the polis, had little to do with democracy, and that in different modern democracies questions about religion differ, comparing the French ban on certain types of Islamic veil in certain places (laïcité) with Barack Obama's Cairo speech defending the veil as consistent with US religious freedoms. She ends with a discussion of Tocqueville on religion in France and early 19th-century USA. Learned and intelligent, this essay usefully discusses important French scholarship, while offering fairly minor examples linking Attic religion and democracy. More positive results could have resulted, for example by following up Hansen's and Murray's comments on sortition and the gods, and Sokrates' trial for impiety, which through Plato's Apology is widely construed in the US as a defense of religious freedom against an oppressive state.

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