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Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice

by josiah ober
cambridge, 222 pages, $24.90

Liberal democracy is a modern synthesis. Liberalism—a respect for human or natural rights; limits on the scope and power of public authority; state neutrality on fundamental questions of, for example, religion and the ultimate human good—emerged as a practical détente after exhausting religious strife. It evolved from constitutional traditions respecting private property and individual rights, it arose from religious teachings about human dignity, and it sprang from the mind of Kant. In any case, it is thoroughly modern. Democracy—rule by the people—has triumphed in modernity, but it is an ancient concept whose most outstanding early exemplar was the city-state of Athens.

Liberalism and democracy are seen by many as forming an indissoluble bond, but that link has been challenged in recent years—and not just by the election of You Know Who. In a 2014 address at Băile Tuşnad, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán stated that the “Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” The fact that Orbán, like many leaders perceived as illiberal, enjoys broad democratic support has led many to conclude that we must choose between democracy and liberalism, and that liberalism should certainly win out.

In this moment of liberal angst, Josiah Ober wants to reassess the value of democracy, unalloyed with liberalism. A classicist at Stanford, he is perhaps the leading authority on ancient Athenian democracy, its institutions and ideologies. Over the last three decades, he has been an insistent champion for the importance and accomplishment of ancient democracy. Though he is a liberal democrat, he believes that democracy deserves respect and loyalty in itself, and not just insofar as it is married to liberalism. At least as a thought experiment, he is willing to countenance state religion and sharp distinctions between citizens and noncitizens. He hopes to show what is uniquely valuable about democracy, whether fused to liberal values or not.

Ober is both a historian and a political theorist, and it matters to his theory what really happened in the past. Nearly three thousand years ago, as societies on both sides of the Aegean Sea emerged from a “dark age,” strange things began to stir. The rough and rocky terrain deterred the formation of especially large states. The hard land made difficult the accumulation of wealth, preventing the formation of a dominant aristocracy. The weapons of the day rewarded large-scale mobilization on the battlefield. A highly unusual marriage system had somehow developed that did not tolerate the inegalitarian practice of polygamy. In short, everything about the physical and cultural ecology seemed to foster small-scale, relatively egalitarian, cooperative political communities. Along the way, amid fierce competition, some of these communities went in a radical direction toward citizen equality and participatory politics. None of these polities was more successful, or loquacious, than Athens. (Though, it bears remembering, there were at least fifty much more obscure city-states that were democracies at one time or another, as the work of Eric Robinson has established.)

Ancient Athenian democracy, while radical in ideology and practice, was distinctly not liberal. There were no fundamental rights, no doctrines about the inherent dignity of all humans. The privileges of political participation were restricted to free male citizens. There were slaves in abundance. There were nativist tendencies that would make the most ardent member of Golden Dawn blush. There was an established state religion. In short, this was democracy before liberalism. The fact that democracy at its outset was so flatly illiberal shows that the modern synthesis of liberalism and democracy is not inevitable or necessary.

Ancient Athens has usually been held up as an example of why democracy unchecked by the restraints of liberalism is dangerous: See what they did to Socrates? But Ober thinks that dismissal too hasty. Democracy requires and promotes equality, freedom, and “civic dignity.” The value of equality among citizens was and is at the core of democracy, marking it out from other kinds of political regimes. Freedom was and remains integral to the practice of genuine democracy: The deliberation and decision-making inherent in democracy require freedom of thought and expression. Finally, and most originally, democracy promotes something Ober calls “civic dignity,” a recognition of the worthiness of fellow citizens. As he notes, the ancient Athenians did not use this language (in fact, it was the Stoics and Christians who started using the terms dignitas and ἀξίωμα). But the Athenians did have norms concerning honor and hubris that encouraged citizens in the democracy to treat one another with respect and not to abuse or infantilize their fellow citizens. For Ober, these democratic goods have real-world implications. Even the citizens of illiberal, sectarian regimes in the world today would be better off under democracy than under autocracy.

Democratic citizenship has “costs,” including the time and effort of discharging duties like informed voting, public service, jury duty, and so on. These costs are worth it, Ober argues, because they are offset not just by gains in security and prosperity but also by the unique benefits of democratic participation. Ober follows Aristotle in recognizing that humans have inherent capacities of sociability, rationality, and communication; these capacities, he thinks, are uniquely exercised through democratic participation. It is satisfying to be able to participate in the public affairs of the community, and no other regime can offer this form of happiness. But the very complexity of public affairs challenges the practice of popular rule. Ober is thoughtful here, devoting great attention to both the need for expertise in a modern society and the real tensions between bureaucratic elites and robust democracy. Whether or not he is able to provide a satisfying resolution of these tensions, the ink he devotes to the problem is obviously telling: We live in a moment when experts are distrustful of the demos, and the demos is equally distrustful of its experts.

The book’s subtitle is an obvious nod to Quentin Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism, another effort to understand the modern synthesis better by breaking it down with the solvent of historical analysis. Ober makes an impressively careful, almost mathematical argument for the advantages of democracy. But attachment to any regime is rarely a matter of cold calculation. It is revealing that Ober makes great efforts to reconcile Hobbes and Aristotle. He wants the strategically self-interested individuals of Hobbes’s state of nature, with just enough sociability from Aristotle to make them decent. As a result, the inhabitants of Ober’s ideal democratic state have the psychosocial profile of a John Rawls. The system of civic education he proposes has all the blood and color of Jeremy Bentham: The purpose of education is to train one’s reason, not affections, so as to be able to adapt in the light of the latest social science research. The duties of democratic citizenship sound almost equal to the burdens of faculty governance—serving on committees and so forth. This is not exactly the same as holding one’s ground against a fusillade of Persian arrows.

Ober’s thought experiment is valuable and stimulating, but it left me wondering, “What would Pericles think?” Ober prizes political equality, freedom, and respect for one’s fellow citizens—the same themes held up in Pericles’s funeral oration, the finest expression we have of the values of Athenian democracy. But the Athenian leader recognized that a polis consists of something more. He said, “in this land of ours there have always been the same people living from generation to generation up till now, and they, by their courage and their virtues, have handed it on to us a free country” (Rex Warner translation). Rational consent is not enough to hold together a nation. “What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard.” Ancestors, courage, love . . . What we might ask is how the ancient Athenians channeled the animal spirits of human politics into a willingness to sacrifice for the collective good of so rationally worthy a regime. Liberal states depend on loyalties, affections, and commitments that transcend our strategic self-interest. Democratic ones do, too.

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and provost at the University of Oklahoma.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our May 2018 issue.

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