Rethinking Athenian Democracy

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Rethinking Athenian Democracy

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Title: Rethinking Athenian Democracy
Author: Cammack, Daniela Louise
Citation: Cammack, Daniela Louise. 2013. Rethinking Athenian Democracy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Conventional accounts of classical Athenian democracy represent the assembly as the primary democratic institution in the Athenian political system. This looks reasonable in the light of modern democracy, which has typically developed through the democratization of legislative assemblies. Yet it conflicts with the evidence at our disposal. Our ancient sources suggest that the most significant and distinctively democratic institution in Athens was the courts, where decisions were made by large panels of randomly selected ordinary citizens with no possibility of appeal. This dissertation reinterprets Athenian democracy as “dikastic democracy” (from the Greek dikastēs, “judge”), defined as a mode of government in which ordinary citizens rule principally through their control of the administration of justice. It begins by casting doubt on two major planks in the modern interpretation of Athenian democracy: first, that it rested on a conception of the “wisdom of the multitude” akin to that advanced by epistemic democrats today, and second that it was “deliberative,” meaning that mass discussion of political matters played a defining role. The first plank rests largely on an argument made by Aristotle in support of mass political participation, which I show has been comprehensively misunderstood. The second rests on the interpretation of the verb “bouleuomai” as indicating speech, but I suggest that it meant internal reflection in both the courts and the assembly. The third chapter begins the constructive part of the project by comparing the assembly and courts as instruments of democracy in Athens, and the fourth shows how a focus on the courts reveals the deep political dimensions of Plato’s work, which in turn suggests one reason why modern democratic ideology and practice have moved so far from the Athenians’ on this score. Throughout, the dissertation combines textual, philological and conceptual analysis with attention to institutional detail and the wider historical context. The resulting account makes a strong case for the relevance of classical Athens today, both as a source of potentially useful procedural mechanisms and as the point of origin of some of the philosophical presuppositions on which the modern conception of democracy and its limits depends.
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