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What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship Hardcover – November 29, 2004

3.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"It is the purpose of this book to present and foster criticism of modern democracy," Samons declares in the first line of this contrarian political history, which argues that Americans suffer from a "national delusion" when it comes to democracy. He diagnoses numerous symptoms of the delusion, from a misconceived, almost religious obsession with the vote to a tendency towards demagoguery amongst elected officials and the loss of "moral principles" as a guide for politics. But though Samons sets out to make what could be a thrilling and infuriating critique of our revered political system, he spends almost all of his time rewriting the history of ancient Athens. Since Samons works as an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, it makes sense that he would analyze Athenian democracy in order to "offer bracing positive and negative lessons for modern citizens." In his chapter on elections and voting, he sketches a fascinating portrait of Pericles as a leader willing to challenge popular will—a startling contrast to modern political leadership. Subsequent chapters on public finance, foreign policy and national defense have a more tenuous connection to the book’s stated aim, however. Samons does present a clear and cogent narrative of how increases in Athens’s public wealth strengthened its democratic participation, which then fueled its imperialism and later its disastrous retreat from defense spending. But when Samons turns abruptly from this complex history to a direct comparison of Athenian and American democracy, the effect is both jarring and unsatisfying. The book offers plenty of insight for readers interested in Athenian history, but the provocative, perhaps brilliant, critique of modern American democracy promised at its outset gets lost along the way.
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"In this marvelously unfashionable book, Samons debunks much of what passes in the current-day academy as scholarship on classical Athens.... In the process, he casts light on the perspicacity of America's founding fathers and on the unthinking populism that threatens in our own day to ruin their legacy." - Paul A. Rahe, author of Republics Ancient and Modern "This is unlike any recent work I know of. It offers a challenging, often refreshing, and what will certainly be a controversial assessment of classical Athenian democracy and its significance to modern America. Samons is willing to tread where few other classicists are willing to go in print." - James Sickinger, author of Public Records and Archives in Classical Athens; "Samons's lively and challenging account of ancient Athens raises important questions about democracy, ancient and modern. It will surely arouse keen interest and debate." - Donald Kagan, author of The Peloponnesian War; "Samons presents a penetrating analysis of ancient Athenian democracy's dark sides. Whether or not we agree with his critique and conclusions, this book is not merely thought-provoking: it is annoyingly discomforting." - Kurt A. Raaflaub, Brown University"

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition (1st printing) edition (November 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520236602
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520236608
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,976,707 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Collin Garbarino VINE VOICE on July 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Loren Samons's What's Wrong with Democracy? shatters the common misconceptions that Americans hold regarding democracy in general and Athenian democracy in particular. Samons traces the history of Athenian democracy from its foundations during the Peisistratid tyranny to its dissolution by the Macedonians. Along the way, he asserts that it was not democracy itself which made Athens great but that Athens was greatest when the citizens felt the obligations of citizenship. He encourages Americans to stop worshipping democracy as an end unto itself, claiming that the practice of viewing democracy as an unalloyed good actually threatens society.

In What's Wrong with Democracy? Samons catalogues the various actions taken by the Athenian democracy which would make the modern democrat uncomfortable. Democracies are not supposed to be aggressors in war. Democracies are not supposed to extort money from other states. Democracies are not supposed to execute a city's population en masse. Democracies are not supposed to kill philosophers. Thus Samons shows that democracy in and of itself is not a moral good. It must be founded on some moral values. He claims that America is in dire straights because it lacks fundamental values to support its democratic form of government. For all their mistakes, according to Samons, the Athenians maintained a value structure to guide them during much of their democracy.

Samons's argument regarding the Athenians' foundational values is fairly nuanced. In some passages he seems to be condemning the hawkish democracy for subjugating other city-states and provoking Sparta. Democracy, therefore, is at best morally neutral since the demos can abuse it so.
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"What's Wrong with Democracy" is in part a succinct and lively account of Athenian political culture and public policy in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as well as a critique of Democracy as a form of government both in antiquity and in the modern day. In the first aspect, I consider the book quite successful - Samons delivers a well-organised account of Athenian public institutions and what he considers their failures in effective policy, even if on occasion he doesn't seem to make a distinction between what was ineffective or counter-productive policy and that which is distasteful to modern sensibilities (eg the Athenian treatment of the Melians) but was arguably effective, and his treatment of key figures such as Pericles can appear a bit one-dimensional. From this point of view, I would recommend this as a good historical account that could be read, enjoyed, and found interesting with limited background reading or knowledge.

As a critique of democracy I find "What's Wrong with Democracy" more limited and less convincing, and when attempting to draw parallels between democratic practice in the context of Athenian cultural mores and today fails to take account of modern institutions and developments intended to allow for separation of powers and to (hopefully) curb excesses. While I have some sympathy with Samons' argument that democratic institutions and practice should be considered at best a 'means to an end' for governing a civil society with an appropriate balance of individual rights and collective responsibilities, arguments of this nature are made more comprehensively in works such as
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Samons brings us to the painful realization the genuine democracy is an unsustainable aberration in human history, which has been dominated by oligarchy, a far wiser and stronger form of governance.

Using the demise of Athens as an example, Samons reveals democracy's fatal flaws. In a nutshell, the inmates cannot be trusted to run the asylum. In the end they will bankrupt society by paying themselves with public treasure that they are unwilling to fund through taxes, and exempt themselves from military service rendering their state defenseless.

America is well down this road to ruin. To survive, it seems evident we will have to practice de facto oligarchy to survive, as the US has to various extents in its history. If we move toward greater de facto democracy (as opposed to the illusion thereof, a useful tool to placate the masses), we will perish as Athens did.

While it may make sense for us to promulgate the weak form of government that is democracy among our enemies to undercut their strength, it will become difficult to do so if we ourselves abandon it.
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"What's wrong with democracy" is a book which argues against democracy, using Athens (especially under Pericles) as a negative example.

Are we to believe the author, democracy leads to overspending, imperialism and war. No less!

This line of argument is, of course, difficult to take seriously. What about dictatorships? Don't they lead to overspending, imperialism and war? What about the Roman Empire? What about the Macedonians: Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Cleopatra? Weren't they into overspending, imperialism and war? Please note that the Macedonians never went through a democratic phase. They were always oligarchic or autocratic. The argument that the Roman Empire happened because of the democracy of the Roman Republic, cannot be used here. And what about the overspending and wars of the "constitutional" monarchies in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods?

The author doesn't seem to want an outright "dictatorship", however. But what on earth does he want? An oligarchy with strong civic spirit? Something like Sparta, perhaps? Sparta also waged wars of conquest. Or like Carthage? They, too, waged wars of aggression and conquest. Hannibal, anyone? What about the plans of the oligarchic slave states in the American South to expand at the expense of American Indians, Mexicans and Cubans? Oligarchies are no better than autocracies in these regards. Or democracies, for that matter.

Loren Samons attacks "diversity" in contemporary America. But a strong civic spirit isn't incompatible with diversity, since the citizens can agree to be united on some issues and diverse on others. The State of Israel is an example of such a nation. Besides, what kind of diversity is the author attacking, anyway?
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