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A Socratic Perspective on the Nature of Human Evil
Ober investigates this broad topic from a variety of angles. He suggests that the essays "explore several particular aspects of the general 'diversity-coherence' theme," especially "the tensions intrinsic to boundaries, identities, knowledge, and persistence" (8). Without denying that these issues permeate the collection, I find it helpful to identify a somewhat different, and more concrete, quartet of problems that, to my mind, connect the various essays: (1) a community's use of the past to sustain itself into the future; (2) the attempt to balance unity and diversity, coherence and individuality, or (as Ober puts it, 129) "thinking alike" and "thinking differently"; (3) civic education, especially through participation in political institutions; and (4) democracy's claim to authority over its members. I shall explore each of these briefly before turning to some broader issues.
It is another of the book's ironies that in both these respects -- his "conservative progressivism" and his recognition that real benefits are necessary to sustain such a perspective -- Ober's argument contains echoes of Burke. Ober at one point distinguishes his defense of "thin coherence" from Burke's views, which he associates with a thicker, "comprehensive" view of tradition (51-2). And I certainly would not deny the difference in emphasis -- Burke could never write, as Ober does, that democratic citizens should be "taught that revolution is among their most important legacies" (128). Nevertheless there is a kinship here with Burke the Whig, the critic of injustice in India and Ireland, who wrote that a "disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman." We might imagine Burke and Ober as together carrying on the kind of democratic argument that Ober praises, thinking alike while thinking differently, working out their real differences of opinion within the framework of a shared commitment to "going on together." That is an attractive image of politics, one that we today might do well to emulate. To those who point us towards examples of how it can be done, even in ancient Athens, we may be grateful.
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The problem of civic education animates the book's second, fifth, and sixth essays. Civic education is the means by which a polity seeks to impart some set of basic ideas and values to each new generation of citizens. Civic education is a particularly thorny issue for a democracy, because the necessity of sustaining democratic values over time must be balanced against one of those very values, the flourishing of a variety of beliefs and ways of life. A democracy's approach to civic education thus embodies its attempt to negotiate the tension between unity and diversity. Ober argues that Athens sought to reproduce democratic values over time primarily through the experience of widespread citizen participation in the institutions of democratic governance. He describes this system most fully in chapter two ("Classical Athenian Democracy and Democracy Today"), where he argues that governance through demes, tribes, Council, and Assembly helped create a polis-wide network of citizens who had in various ways and at various levels worked together managing public affairs. This network embodied the ideals of equality and self-governance and gave a large percentage of Athenian citizens experience with and a personal stake in the success of democratic institutions. These institutions taught citizens that their own participation in self-governance was itself the mechanism for protecting their liberty and equality -- their "quasi rights" -- against attempts by powerful individuals to dominate others (chapter five). Finally, the very success of such a system constituted a response to political and especially philosophical critics of democracy (Plato looms large in Ober's account) who argued that good government required a more formal and extensive educational program that would restrict individual liberty to a far greater degree (chapter six, "The Athenian Debate Over Civic Education").
Plutarch also madeimportant contributions to political philosophy in the many essayscollected in his volumes of Moralia.Plutarch was a committed but in some ways revisionist Platonist.
The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides …
Josiah Ober's latest book collects various essays written over the past decade, mostly within the last five years. They are a diverse group, focusing on problems of political theory but drawing widely on historical, philosophical, literary, artistic, and archaeological resources. Yet they successfully achieve at least "thin coherence" -- to borrow Ober's own label for the highly heterogeneous degree of social unity he attributes to Athens (70-72) -- around the idea, from the volume's subtitle, of "going on together." From a variety of angles, Ober explores the ways in which Athens sought to overcome challenges and survive over time as a democratic community without suppressing individuality and freedom or insisting upon a unitary, overarching conception of the human good. These explorations are informed by the belief that such "going on together" is itself valuable. Ober describes this underlying normative commitment, reiterated often throughout the book, thus: "Going on together under (always imperfect) conditions of democracy and justice should be valued in much the same way that we value the more familiar political goods of liberty and equality. Going on together implies these political goods and like them it is a condition of human flourishing" (2).
The problem of using the past to sustain a community into the future is especially prominent in the book's third ("Historical Legacies: Moral Authority and the Usable Past"), fourth ("Culture, Thin Coherence, and the Persistence of Politics"), and tenth ("Tyrant-Killing as Therapeutic Conflict: A Political Debate in Images and Texts") essays. Ober's general argument is that, although appeals to the past can be used to suppress difference and impose a unitary social vision, they can also inspire us by calling to mind both our society's noblest ideals -- such as liberty, equality, and self-government -- and the sacrifices our predecessors have made in their service, sacrifices we repay by dedicating ourselves anew to those ideals in the present. Ober illustrates this idea (in chapter three) with a discussion of Thucydides' appeal, especially in the Funeral Oration, to the glory of Periclean Athens. He takes up the same theme in describing how the iconography of tyrannicide served as a kind of rallying cry for Athenian democrats (chapter ten). He also suggests, in a discussion (chapter four) of the decision by many Athenian metics and slaves to support the democratic resistance to the Thirty (90-91), that it may be society's least advantaged who most require the maintenance over time of some level of political unity and social coherence. This argument merits careful reflection in an age when the upper-middle classes of prosperous Western societies have easy access to forms of global transportation and communication and readily adopt the habits and ways of mind of a cosmopolitan, transnational elite, while vast numbers of less fortunate people in those same societies and elsewhere continue to rely upon the traditional nation-state to sustain basic conditions of well-being.
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Vlastos (ed.) Plato: a collection of critical essays, II:Ethics, Politics, and Philosophy of Art and Religion (New York:Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp.
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