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Silence and Democracy

Athenian Politics in Thucydides' History

John G. Zumbrunnen

Publication Year: 2008

The role of elites vis-à-vis the mass public in the construction and successful functioning of democracy has long been of central interest to political theorists. In Silence and Democracy, John Zumbrunnen explores this theme in Thucydides’ famous history of the Peloponnesian War as a way of focusing our thoughts about this relationship in our own modern democracy. In Periclean Athens, according to Thucydides, “what was in name a democracy became in actuality rule by the first man.” This political transformation of Athenian political life raises the question of how to interpret the silence of the demos. Zumbrunnen distinguishes the “silence of contending voices” from the “collective silence of the demos,” and finds the latter the more difficult and intriguing problem. It is in the complex interplay of silence, speech, and action that Zumbrunnen teases out the meaning of democracy for Thucydides in both its domestic and international dimensions and shows how we may benefit from the Thucydidean text in thinking about the ways in which the silence of ordinary citizens can enable the domineering machinations of political elites in America and elsewhere today.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Front Cover

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This book has its deepest roots in a short paper I wrote for Mary Dietz’s seminar in ancient political thought at the University of Minnesota. Something of the spirit of that paper, which I titled “In Defense of Nicias,” still survives in these pages. And so I first thank Mary for nurturing my interest in Thucydides and for sharing her wisdom for many years now. Thanks,...

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pp. 1-25

Reflecting on the life and career of the great Athenian politician Pericles, Thucydides tells us that during his ascendancy in Athens, “what was in name a democracy [logo¯ men de¯mokratia] became in actuality rule by the first man [tou tro¯pou andros arche¯ ]” (2.65).1 How ought we to understand...

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1. Athenian Stasis and the Quiet of the Mob

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pp. 26-44

Before turning more directly to democratic politics in Thucydides’ Athens, I consider in this opening chapter Thucydides’ accounts of stasis, first at Corcyra and then at Athens. As I noted in the Introduction, Thucydides in both cases deploys the language of stasis to describe oligarchic movements against established democracies.1 In this sense, his understanding...

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2. The Silence of Hoi Athenaioi: Two Modes of Athenian Action in the History

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pp. 45-70

Many times before now, I have felt that a democracy is incapable of ruling others, and more than ever during your present change of heart on the Mitylenians. So Cleon, according to Thucydides the “most violent” but also the most infuential Athenian in the years after the death of the great Pericles, launches his “volcanic tirade against the democratic practice of full discus-...

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3. Deliberative Action and Athenian “Character”

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pp. 71-94

But not on this occasion alone, but on many others as well, the Lacedaemonians proved the most convenient of all people for the Athenians to be at war with. For as the farthest from them in character (tropos)—the one people being quick, the other slow; the one enterprising, the other timid—they were obliging in general and particularly in the case of a naval power. The Syracusans demonstrated this; for because they were the most similar...

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4. The Silence of the Demos and the Challenges of Political Judgment: On the “Decline” of Athenian Politics

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pp. 125-156

But it is right to expect us the speakers ... to take a somewhat longer view than you whose attention is brief, especially since we are accountable when we give advice while you are. Other than what we learn from his brief appearance in the History, we know little of this Diodotus. His name means something like “the gift ...

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5. Justice and Empire: Athenian Silence and the Representation of Athens Abroad

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pp. 157-180

To this point I have for the most part focused my reading of Athenian democratic politics in the History on the interactions of Athenians in the assembly. The last two chapters in particular have centered on what I in Chapter 2 called the “deliberative mode” of Athenian action. Consideration of that mode of action centers our attention on the struggle of elites...

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6. Athenian Silence and the Fate of Plataea

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pp. 181-191

In the summer of the fifth year of the Peloponnesian War, the remaining inhabitants of the small Boeotian city of Plataea, at the end of a lengthy siege and after the heroic escape of a number of their fellows, give themselves over to the mercy of the Peloponnesian allies. Though they allow the captives a lengthy speech, the five Spartans who subsequently sit in judg-...

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Conclusion: Thucydides for Democrats?

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pp. 181-191

Thucydides’ description of his work as a “possession for all time” and his assertion that the future will in some sense resemble the past (1.22) have long tempted readers to find more or less direct parallels between the History and their own time. In these concluding pages, I succumb to this temptation, briefly considering what the reading of the History I have offered...


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pp. 192-198


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pp. 198-200

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271053202
E-ISBN-10: 0271053208
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271033587
Print-ISBN-10: 0271033584

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2008