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  • The Road from Athens
  • Clifford Orwin (bio)
Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993 edited by John Dunn. Cambridge University Press, 1992. 290 pp.

This collection of essays commemorates the 2500th anniversary of Kleisthenes' democratic reforms at Athens. The typical chapter surveys the career of democracy in this or that period or region. The authors write in the brisk style appropriate to those who must cover much ground in few words. Mindful of the needs of the general reader, they try to provide all essential facts as well as an interpretation of them. The challenge is to avoid foundering under the sheer weight of data. (The prize in this regard belongs to Charles S. Maier for his "Democracy Since the French Revolution," an elegant sweep through 20 tumultuous decades.) In addition to treatments of past epochs, the book offers compelling analyses by Neil Harding of "The Marxist-Leninist Detour," by Neal Ascherson of its East European aftermath, and by Sunil Khilnani of democracy in India. Each of the essays calls out to be treated on its own terms: sadly, no reviewer is likely to command either the space or the competence to do justice to all of them.

Of three chapters on Greek democracy, the most challenging is that of Cynthia Farrar, "Ancient Greek Political Theory as a Response to Democracy." Tracing the whole course of "political theory" from the tragedians onward, she offers an implicit defense of democracy against its ancient critics, notably Plato and Aristotle. Her rich argument, which defies brief summary, powerfully conveys the uniquely engaging and exhilarating character of Greek democracy, and offers a lucid account of the distinctiveness of the political. Yet she never rebuts the insight [End Page 140] that while this democracy claimed to achieve the good of all, it in fact resembled all other regimes in entrenching the rule of some over others. She emphasizes that Athenian democracy purported to reconcile the good of the city as a whole with the whole good of each citizen, a proud and ambitious claim exposed to many difficulties. The question is whether Plato and Aristotle's critiques of democracy did not arise from more profound reflection on these difficulties than any offered by democracy's advocates.

There is also the question of whether Plato and Aristotle, whatever their reservations about democracy, were as opposed to it in practice as Farrar takes them to have been. She follows most scholars in overlooking the conscious utopianism or irony of their alleged solutions to the political problem ("solutions" that she perceptively describes as demanding the abolition of politics). Because she ignores the philosophers' indications that this is neither possible nor desirable, she pays less attention than she might have to their analyses of actual political life (including actual democracy). She fails to convey their Churchillian acceptance of moderate democracy as the worst practical alternative save for all the others. She is almost silent about Aristotle's advocacy of "polity," a version of majority rule that he presents as the best generally practicable regime. Lastly, while she rightly stresses the skepticism of these philosophers concerning the claims of democracy to define the best regime, she fails to note that they recognized it to be the regime most tolerant of philosophy itself. If, however, there is much in Farrar's chapter that I find contestable, it deserves praise (and, even better, study) for its provocative treatments of a wide range of thinkers, its subtle defense of ancient democracy, and its sophisticated reflections on the gap which separates that regime from its modern counterpart.

The early modern period is treated by Quentin Skinner ("The Italian City Republics") and David Wootton ("The Levellers"), who pave the way for Gordon Wood and Bianca Maria Fontana on the American and French revolutions, respectively. Skinner argues that the greatest contribution of the Italian communes was to the dissemination of a lofty notion of the ends of communal life. He fails to note that the semblance of a return to Roman models held a highly specific appeal for men emerging from the Middle Ages—that of the bracing this-worldliness of pagan Rome. By the same token, Skinner abstracts from what is most significant...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 140-144
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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