Reasoning with the Greeks

Josiah Ober
22 February 2019

Danielle Charette and Robert Stone sat down this week with Josiah Ober, the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor of classics and political science at Stanford University. They discussed Professor Ober’s latest book, Demopolis (Cambridge, 2017), and what we might learn by revisiting the ancients’ conceptions of democracy and rationality.



Danielle Charette: In recent work, you’ve urged scholars to go back to ancient Athens but to remember how different Athens was from our current conception of democracy. What does the Athenian model offer?


Josiah Ober: My basic take on Athens is that it provides us with the best evidence we have for a fully-worked out democracy that is not a liberal democracy. There were certainly elements of what one might consider “liberalism” manifest in Athens, including elements of political equality and what we now consider to be free speech. But Athens wasn’t a liberal society. There weren’t the Kantian features that sit in the background of contemporary liberalism. Athens allows us to run an experiment: What would democracy have looked like if people didn’t have the same commitments that contemporary liberals have? People in Athens simply didn’t think in terms of human rights being a central feature of democracy, though it’s not as if Athenians identified human rights and rejected them. Athens wasn’t not an illiberal democracy; it just wasn’t a liberal democracy.


DC: It’s almost as if you’re urging us to get out from the Tocquevillian shadow and our contemporary worry about majoritarianism, or what Tocqueville calls the “tyranny of the majority.”


JO: Athens is very useful because you can ask: does a democracy without liberalism quickly fall into Tocquevillian, majoritarian tyranny? Is it a matter of a willful majority imposing its will whenever it chooses, in a tyrannical way, on a series of minorities? We actually have the experiment, and it lasted a long time.


The answer for some people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was that Athens demonstrated all the terrifying things of a majority that goes wrong. James Madison famously said that, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” There was a lot of worry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that Athens exemplified what will happen in a democracy and, therefore, that you need a number of special features to control it.


But then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the work of historians like George Grote, author of A History of Greece, and theorists like John Stuart Mill (a great friend of Grote), people got a better sense of what actually happened in Athens. Scholarship advanced, in terms of understanding not only the fifth century BCE but also the fourth century, post-Peloponnesian War era. And it became clearer that Athens wasn’t just a story of mob action and majority tyranny. Various famous incidents—for example, the trial of the Arginusae generals—were not the norm of Athenian behavior. Furthermore, it is now increasingly clear that there were very substantial changes in the structure of democracy over time. After the crisis of the late fifth century, the Athenians created certain internal, law-respecting limits on their own authority for making policy or law in the ordinary meetings of the Assembly. They found ways to bind their own hands, basically. It became a much more law-respecting form of democracy.


It wasn’t done by creating a full-bore, eighteenth-century-style balance of powers doctrine, but it has some of those features. We now know a lot more about Athens than the worried folks of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And therefore, Athens becomes a much more useful model, as a long-running, domanial experiment of a democracy before the addition of liberalism. Given how much we do know, it makes eminent sense to bring that knowledge back to the world of political theory and not just leave it to highly technical studies in Greek history. It seems to me that this knowledge gives us a more optimistic sense of how a democracy can be self-regulating and recognize the need for limitations—something like what we would call “constitutionality”— without the apparatus of liberalism. It still leaves out a lot of things I would like to have in any community I live in, but it doesn’t simply fall into the worries that the Tocquevillian might have in mind.


Robert Stone: I wanted to follow up on the liberal/illiberal distinction, since it’s very topical these days. In your latest book, Demopolis, you separate “basic democracy” from liberal commitments and come up with an understanding of democracy that’s less normatively-laden by liberal conceptions. Is this understanding of democracy a particularly pertinent topic right now? And do you see a danger that this model could get misused by illiberal democrats?


JO: There’s always that danger that your text will be misused. In the Phaedrus, Socrates worried about this from the very get-go. Every time a text exists in writing it gets away from its author, and so it could be misused for agendas that I might regard as, frankly, vicious. But it would be wrong to restrain or censor my work in this area. These questions are especially important to ask in an age when we’re recognizing we can’thave everything. The ideal of a “strong-liberal” theory (as in John Rawls’ model) and a strong form of democracy (understood as collective self-government by citizens) is very hard to put together into a working system, under conditions of uncertainty and potential internal and external conflicts. It’s important for those who care about both democracy and liberalism to understand that it’s difficult.


The idea that democracy and liberalism are an easy package, which go naturally together and are readily exportable, has led to some of the catastrophes of twentieth and twenty-first century American foreign policy. The notion of some neo-conservatives seems to have been that democracy and liberalism could be readily implanted in other countries, as soon as they got rid of the bad people currently running things. The idea seems to have been: We could present people with this nice package: here’s a constitution, and everyone feels good because you see these happy pictures of people with purple thumbs voting. Then, we sit back, and when it doesn’t work, we say these people must be tribal, or one thing and another. But liberal democracy is a really hard package to put together and sustain! And we ought to recognize this. At various points, there are going to be trade-offs between what contemporary liberals would imagine as “rights” and what contemporary democrats consider “self-government”. At some points, rights and self-government cannot both be self-maximized. I think they can be optimized, but you don’t get to maximize on both of those values simultaneously. There are trade-offs. That’s not a catastrophe, just the world we live in. It’s not a reason for despair.


DC: This focus on realism and the acknowledgment of trade-offs seems connected to your interest in rational choice and game theory. You’re unique among classicists in having taken up rational choice analysis. People tend to think of John Stuart Mill’s homo oeconomicus and utility-maximizing as a modern innovation. Is there anything unique about rational choice in the ancient world?


JO: This is my current project, and it’s been a lot of fun. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon may represent Plato thinking in the guise of a rational choice theorist, or a sophist who was able to make the best possible rational choice argument. And, of course, there’s Thucydides. But there’s a difference between those sorts of thinkers and, say, John von Neumann, or any contemporary game theorist. One obvious difference is that Greeks didn’t do the right sort of math; they didn’t show an interest in expressing problems of choice in algebraic form. There was a lot of sophisticated math done in the Greek world, so it’s not impossible that someone back then was connecting Thucydidean thinking and international affairs through mathematical expression, but we don’t have any surviving evidence of that.


There is something lost in trying to do choice theory without algebra, but, arguably, something is gained: the Greeks are not limited in the ways choice theorists are limited. Mathematically, it’s hard to model games with multiple players. The Greeks might not have anything to teach a contemporary game theorist in terms of formalization, but they allow us to say that there may be some advantages to thinking about how choice, preference and belief work out, in terms of generalizable conditions about human behavior. The Greeks may add some complexity to the story because they were not bound by algebra.


RS: It sounds as if the hope for your model is that it works both ways?


JO: Yes, on the one hand, it offers a pre-history to contemporary choice theory. It answers the worry that game theory and choice theory are simply ways of thinking that are unique to modernity and that could only emerge under the conditions of, say, advanced capitalism or nuclear threat, to take the conditions under which game theory emerged in the twentieth century. But these aren’t the only conditions under which it ever could emerge.


It’s quite right to say Athens is different than modernity, but, on the other hand, I want to push back against hard historicism, which says every historical epic and its way of thinking is unique to its time. If I can show that Plato or Thucydides had the capacity to think in ways that are meaningful to how a contemporary choice theorist thinks, I’ve shown that the way the choice theorist thinks is not unique to the time and place. That’s worth saying, in and of itself. But the other idea is that we could learn something about what’s going on in the Greek texts, through some methods and models that allow us to think with the Greeks. Plato seems to have been working toward the same kinds of problems that I can understand through a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. I can’t get inside Plato’s head or be one of his students, but the game might provide me with a model to better understand what the ancients were thinking. Then, I can return to contemporary models of rationality and think about what we’re now up to, having thought through the problem with the help of the Greeks.


One of the really important things that one sees quickly when dealing with the Greeks is that they were both very interested in the role of rationality in individuals’ and communities’ choice-making and very interested in the limits of rationality. The big question, then, is: when you see non-rational behavior, is it really irrational behavior? Or do we see agents who are, in some fundamental sense, rational, but who are coming up against the limits of their own potential for dealing with the world rationally? These were worries that concerned the Greeks and which concern us today. The Greeks employed the capacity to think in rational terms, and yet they realized that there are always limits to the domain of reason.


DC: Do you see yourself decoupling rationalism from contemporary economics, in the same way that you try to uncouple liberalism and democracy?


JO: Yes, that’s exactly right. Rational choice often gets a bad name because it’s thought to be a way of doing things that is uniquely associated with contemporary economic behavior, or a way of talking about human beings acting in market relations. I try to avoid language that is strongly associated with contemporary economics, which goes back to John Stuart Mill and the earlier utilitarians. Economists love to talk about utility and various preference-ordering by measuring the amount of utility, according to a pseudo-currency called “utiles,” which then quickly becomes dollars. There’s this tendency to bring everything back to a materialist calculus. Whereas, the way the Greeks think about this, material goods are only part of what people are going for. For the ancient eudemonist philosophers, and also for many ordinary Greeks, just chasing after material goods was regarded as a mistake.


The eudemonists had both a good understanding and a critique of exchange. There are lots of reasons to think that, by the time of the Plato and Aristotle, the Greek world had developed very sophisticated forms of economic exchange and markets. They didn’t have full-blown twentieth-century capitalism, but they had a sophisticated market-based economy that allowed for economic growth over time and an increase in welfare that was (reasonably) widely-distributed. But the market was recognized as threatening other kinds of relationships. One of the questions that emerges in Greek philosophical thought—and perhaps in the non-philosophical background thinking of ordinary Greeks—is whether the success of material growth threatens to undermine other kinds of valued relationships. For example, when Aristotle writes on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, he asks, is it harder and harder, in a world of material exchange, to have a “virtue-friendship”, as opposed to a “use-friendship”? Does it become hard for me to have a relationship with another person, based on mutual admiration, trust or love, that’s free of the conceptions of strategic behavior and material gain? These worries, which may seem very contemporary, about whether or not the success of twentieth-century capitalism infects or degrades the possibility of other values, were there for the Greeks, as well.


Once you understand how people are behaving rationally, you can see more clearly that people are not simply behaving wickedly or choosing injustice. They’re actually choosing strategically. And yet the externalities of that behavior—to use an economic term—may turn out to be negative and degrade other kinds of relationships.


RS: Have classicists or economists been more receptive to this approach?


JO: For my more recent work on economic change over time, in The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, the economists may have been more cheerful than the classicists. The project was about tracing and explaining economic growth, roughly the Archaic period to the late Classical period. This excited the economists, though some classicists were quite grumpy—not, interestingly enough, based on the textual or archeological evidence—but because they didn’t like the conclusion. Some classicists may have felt that I was sullying the pristine world of the Greeks, who are sometimes imagined as being simpler and living in a world without markets. I made Greece seem to have some of the less-attractive features of modernity.


Obviously, I’d prefer it if classicists and economists alike welcomed this work with open arms (and minds). But one of the basic principles I stick by is that tenure ought to be a reason to take risks. Senior scholars ought to push the boundaries of our fields, and we ought to be ready to take our lumps if and when others find fault with our conclusions.



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