- Comic Democracies: From Ancient Athens to the American Republic by Angus Fletcher
Modern democracy is a complex and contested idea. We can view it as a system of government that loosely describes most of the institutions of politics in the West, or we can view it as a way of life defined by the pursuit of freedom and equality. Both views may, in our moment, be under assault by various forms of demagoguery. We, in the West, seem to agree that whatever our view of democracy happens to be, its origins are in ancient Athens, and that the idea itself may need some revitalization in order to continue to meet the demands of our ever-changing sociopolitical landscape. Angus Fletcher's Comic Democracies is both a look back at the historical origins of thinking about democracy and a set of suggestions for how we might best cultivate and improve our current democratic practices. This book begins with the contention that the origin of democracy is tied to the origin of comedy and that these ties require us to ask why the two developed together and what contemporary uses might be made of the connection between the two. To begin to develop a narrative that will answer those two questions, Fletcher makes a careful distinction between ancient and modern democracy that informs the argument of the book. He claims that modern democracy is "more principled" in its attempts to actively promote human rights and freedoms, while ancient democracy is "more pragmatic" in its attempts to alleviate hunger, poverty, and misery (3). In order, therefore, to promote modern democracy, we can borrow some of the ancient pragmatic techniques embodied in comedy to address some of the issues of our current predicament. [End Page 328]
To develop the distinction between ancient and modern democracy, Fletcher describes a "liberal-electoral model" that originates in Enlightenment philosophy yet seems incapable of effectively responding to the current setbacks that have plagued so-called "free-market liberal democracy" (4). In response to the limitations of this liberal model, Fletcher argues that old comedies can "actively support" the growth of democracy through examples of the ways in which "pluralist, problem-based, and empirical approaches" (8) to decision making and public life have succeeded. Ancient democracy was empirical in that it was inductive and used a "feedback-driven logic," pragmatic in that it was driven by the search for practical responses to material problems, and pluralist in that it actively changed course and engaged multiple alternatives whenever situations demanded. The characteristics of pluralism, pragmatism, and empiricism were the underlying values of comedy as well. Fletcher covers a catalogue of authors that contain an "eclectic variety of comic practices for encouraging flexible, cooperative, and inclusive societies. These practices thus provided an effective (if unintentional) resource for cultivating demokratia" (13) and a "crudely empirical way of measuring" (13) the success of comedy to promote democracy.
The first chapter offers a thoughtful reading of Aristophanes and the support that his trilogy offered to "the less perfect and more pragmatic dynamics of Athenian populism" (26). One of the ways in which Frogs, for example, helped the development of ancient democracy was by acknowledging and demonstrating the ways in which the citizens of Athens and the gods themselves were "ludicrous" and thus these plays showed us that we ought to "recognize that every authority has its limits" (26). Fletcher goes on to claim that "[t]he best that could be said about any political course was that […] it answered the crises of the times, making it wise to hold onto alternatives that might prove their worth tomorrow" (28). The plays also equate Athenian civic problems with hunger, indigestion, and sexual pain, which meant that Aristophanes focused the attention of his audience on material concerns. The whole movement of the plays, therefore, was to turn people's attention to the practical logic of worldly problem solving. From the perspective of this trilogy, democracy is not the search for the universal ideal of freedom, but is instead the "discovery that diversity is...