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Democracy and the Common Good in Ancient Greek Political Thought

George E. Koronaios: View of the Athenian agora from the Areopagus
Wednesday, November 30, 2022, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

Why did ancient Greek intellectuals in the fourth century BCE think that democracy was unsuitable for realising the common good? And how does desirable citizen behaviour differ from the citizen behaviour that ancient theorists perceived as characteristic of democracies? This talk will set out to answer these questions by looking at the “democratic way of life” — the specific way of life that ancient intellectuals such as Plato and Theopompus of Chios believed to be characteristic of democratic constitutions. From the modern, 21st-century perspective of representative democracy, what usually emerges as distinctive of ancient democracies is broad citizen participation and citizens’ direct involvement in the governing of their city. This talk argues, however, that ancient intellectuals sketch a very different picture: to their mind, the “freedom” (eleutheria) on which democratic constitutions and democratic citizens prided themselves (and which is often highlighted in moderns studies of ancient democracy) was de facto license and anarchy, with citizens wasting their time and money on “useless” pursuits — pursuits that did not contribute to the sustaining of the community and to realising the common good. The paradox of democracy, from the perspective of these ancient theorists, is that the freedom typical of democratic regimes leads to disengagement from the political community and to a lack of political involvement.

Image: George E. Koronaios: View of the Athenian agora from the Areopagus. Wikimedia commons CCBY-SA 4.0