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Wed, 25 Jul 2007 14:46:18 -0500
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Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going On Together. By JOSIAH 
OBER. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii + 273. Cloth, 
$29.95. ISBN 0–691–12095–1.

Order this text for $13.57 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

Print Version (Projected): CJ 103.1: 101–3

Ober offers this collection of previously published essays as a “sequel” to 
his Athenian Revolution (Princeton, 1996). Moving beyond the origins of the 
Athenian democracy to discuss its maintenance, he examines how the 
Athenians could “go on together” after devastating foreign invasions and 
civil wars. For Ober, Athens was less homogenous than it is usually 
depicted to be, and can therefore serve as a useful comparandum for modern 
democratic theory. Although the essays are wide-ranging, he seeks 
throughout to show how the Athenians managed the “centrifugal push towards 
social diversity” and the “centripetal pull towards political coherence” 
(p. 7) as he considers questions concerning the group and the individual, 
theory and practice, continuity and change. Rather than regard the tensions 
arising from the diversity-coherence conflict as a destructive force that 
needed to be neutralized for the democracy to carry on, he suggests that 
the Athenians channeled them in productive ways.

In Chapter Two, Ober criticizes the modern propensity to analyze the 
Athenian democracy in terms of institutions with an emphasis on 
constitutional history as distorting, and uses the Council of 500 as a test 
case to show the advantages of a cultural approach. Arguing that Athenian 
citizenship is best understood as a form of “social knowledge” that 
promotes team-work (p. 33), he presents the council as a “master network” 
(p. 37) that seamlessly integrates the center and periphery through a 
combination of artificial and natural units (the tribe and the deme). 
Although Athens was not a face-to-face community, the organization of the 
council and the distribution of the demes within the tribes networked the 
citizens so that there were only a few “degrees of separation” between any 
two Athenians (p. 41). Next, Ober draws on Thucydides to show how the past 
may be used as a positive moral lesson in a heterogeneous society to 
establish moral authority. The social meaning of any historical event, 
however, is at best ambiguous, and a community that is divided will 
invariably ascribe divisive meanings to the past.

Chapters Four and Five respond to political theorists who advocate 
cosmopolitanism and constitutional liberalism, respectively, over 
democracy. In reply to the cosmopolitanists, Ober notes the dangers of 
globalism and the benefits of the nation-state for the non-elite. The 
constitutional liberalists, by contrast, separate liberalism from 
democracy, arguing that liberalism does not depend on democracy, and that 
democracy is desirable only to the extent it protects individual rights. 
Given the ease with which rights can be legally restricted even within a 
society with a well-defined constitution (as contemporary events have 
shown), this trust in non-democratic governments to promote liberal values 
is overly optimistic. To be sure, democracies do not always adhere to their 
ideals, but non-democratic governments are even less likely to restrain 

Ober is less convincing in his efforts to show that the Athenian democracy 
extended “quasi-rights” to non-citizens. In theory, the hubris law 
protected slaves, but an Athenian was probably never prosecuted for (let 
alone convicted of) hubris against a slave. While Pseudo-Xenophon 
notoriously claims that slaves were protected from the attacks of 
passers-by, it is also the case that one litigant accused his opponents of 
having sent a young Athenian into his fields to pick flowers so that he 
would attack the boy on the assumption that he was a slave and thus 
inadvertently become guilty of hubris against a citizen (D. 53.16). 
Needless to say, slaves were vulnerable daily to random violence at the 
hands of their masters.

Chapter Six is a particularly valuable discussion of Athenian civic 
education, which Ober sums up as a balancing act between “thinking alike” 
and “thinking differently” (p. 129). On the one hand, the Athenians needed 
to agree on a core set of co-operative values (freedom, equality and 
security) promoted in public discourse through the daily business of their 
political institutions. On the other hand, they avoided developing a formal 
educational system so as not to stifle the expression of heterogeneous 
viewpoints necessary for effective deliberation. In addition, Ober 
persuasively argues for an implicit dialogue between the democracy and its 
critics. Although elite criticism was restricted to the private arena 
because of the democratic control of public discourse, it was indirectly 
and partially responsible for political reforms and thus played a pivotal 
role in strengthening the democracy.

In Chapter Seven, Ober shows how Socrates’ statement in the Apology that he 
would not adhere to a hypothetical law that outlawed philosophizing does 
not contradict his assertion in the Crito that he was obligated to obey the 
laws. Since the hypothetical law would be in conflict with the pre-existing 
law on impiety, Socrates had the legal responsibility to continue 
philosophizing so as not to disobey the impiety law. The next two chapters 
are more open-ended. Chapter Eight originated as a response paper in a 
panel at the 2001 APA meeting using models from social science history and 
culture history to explain the Amnesty of 403 BCE. Ober goes through the 
strengths and weaknesses of each approach, but avoids siding with either 
group. In Chapter Nine, he draws on speech-act theory to warn against 
over-interpretation of Greek horoi.

In his final chapter, Ober explores the iconography of the Athenian 
democracy, starting with the statues of the tyrannicides and ending with 
the relief on the stele of the Eukrates nomos that shows the crowning of 
Demos. Whereas the statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton emphasize 
action—transition from tyranny to democracy—the relief depicts democracy as 
a “state of being” that can only be momentarily interrupted by tyranny (pp. 
216–19, 223–5). Between the two stands the Dexileus relief, illustrating 
the co-opting of democratic imagery for aristocratic display and the 
tension between democratic and aristocratic values within Athenian civic 
space (pp. 237–46).

In sum, these essays are impressive for their breadth and depth. Ober 
focuses on key questions concerning unity and stasis while engaging in 
political theory, and persuasively shows how ancient Athens offers a useful 
comparison in modern attempts to reinvigorate democracy. He makes a 
compelling case to explain how the Athenians were able to continue on not 
in spite, but because of their differences.

University of Florida, Gainesville

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