- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 5, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199837457
- ISBN-13: 978-0199837458
- Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.3 x 6.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #708,294 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Democracy: A Life 1st Edition
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"A compact but rich education in classics and democracy, from a leading expert who delights in his subject... No library should be without this wonderful book, in which Cartledge has abundantly shared his love and knowledge of ancient Greece with us."-Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"The huge value of Cartledge's book is the reminder that 2016 is merely a way-stop on a very long journey indeed."-Tom Holland, The Guardian
"Thanks to Cartledge, Athenian democracy feels more vital than it has done for decades. It is a belter of a book."-Peter Thonemann, Books of the Year 2016, Times Literary Supplement
"Paul Cartledge subtitles his new study Democracy (Oxford) A Life, and was right to do so.... The clarity and zest with which he pursues his Snark-like quarry, the breadth and variety of his reading, and his cheerful persistence against odds (matching that of his subject) combine to make this an unexpectedly enjoyable page-turner."-Peter Green, Books of the Year 2016, Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge. He is an honorary citizen of modern Sparta and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor awarded by the President of Greece. His previous books include The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1997, 2002), The Spartans (Random House, 2004), Alexander the Great (Random House, 2005), Thermopylae (Random House, 2007), Ancient Greece (OUP, 2009), and After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (OUP, 2013).
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First, the overwhelming positives: The book renders a vivid picture of the nature of "democracy" in some of the "citizen-states" (see p. 15) of Ancient Hellenistic Greece, although it primarily focuses upon the Athenians because the evidentiary record for Athens is the deepest - particularly for the years 350-322 BCE (p. 105).
"Democracy" it turns out is a remarkably plastic label, in fact so protean that it may serve as only a vague description of a political system in operation in Ancient Greece (or today, for that matter). Political systems in Ancient Greece varied as both internal and external forces buffeted the "citizen-states." As the author points out, the Athenians experienced four distinct "democratic" regimes (p. 185) between the fading years of Archaic Greece (c. 500 BCE) and Macedonian domination (c. 330 BCE). The "democratic" regimes varied by who was considered a citizen and what responsibilities they could exercise (voting, jury duty, office holding, etc.). 'Democracy: A Life' is at its best when focused upon this complicated history.
The political system a "citizen-state" adopted was influenced by internal forces (who could control power) and external forces such as shifting alliances between "citizen-states," as well as threats from Persia or Macedonia. "Dynamism" might best describe the Ancient Greek political experience as "citizen-states" could, diachronically, range from a form of democracy, to an oligarchy, or to a tyranny, and back again (classification may reflect one's perspective … one person's democracy may be another person's oligarchy, and it all might be tyranny to a slave).
Along the way there are interesting sidebars related to the exposition of "democracy" on subjects like ostracism and the trial of Socrates, as well as references to Greek literature (Aristophanes seems to be a favorite). Illustrations (including the obligatory photograph of 'ostraca') and maps are helpful and well-executed.
Cartledge, whose academic pedigree appears to be sterling, maintains a professional perspective throughout the book, recognizing the limitations of labels (Archaic Greece v. Classical Greece was a transition not easily demarcated) and often presents alternative interpretations of the record proposed by others. He admits to the inevitable skewed expression of written history when he writes, "Objectivity may be a noble dream, but it is a dream all the same" (p. 13). The lack of smugness is appreciated and refreshing.
Second, the caveat: If the book had ended after chapter 14, with an appropriate conclusion summarizing the Ancient Hellenistic Greek experience with "democracy" it would rate five stars. Unfortunately, in his brief (and suggested in the book's title) Cartledge includes the aim of "tracking" democratic thought post-Ancient Greece (i.e., Imperial Rome, European Middle Ages and Renaissance, England, America, and France). This is a tall order, of course, and the book makes what seems like a half-hearted attempt to come to grips with the complete arc of "democracy" (see James T. Kloppenberg's Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought for an excellent effort). The result is a sense of disappointment. One can imagine that chapters 15-20 were an afterthought intended to make the book more appealing to a general reader (perhaps tacked-on a result of an editorial suggestion?).
Read this book and enjoy this book … it is a fascinating read and perhaps a necessary read. "Democracy" is still under development (or more aptly, dynamic change) and the consequences to all of us will depend upon how that change is managed.
Cartledge writes, "In the year 2000, 120 out of the 192 members of the United Nations were labelled as democracies" (p. 305), but the nature of those democracies range widely and our own "democracy" shifts and sways under the burden of various pressures. Outcomes are neither assured nor obvious. We may nostalgically link our "democracy" to the miraculous and noble antecedents of the Ancient Greeks, but we should also see in those antecedents a cautionary tale.
For Tocqueville (who obtains only one brief mention in 'Democracy'), "democracy" was a means to an end: human greatness. He wrote not just of the version of "democracy" he found in America (c. 1830), but of his reservations for its future as well. It could indeed foster human greatness or it could privilege other outcomes. It may be wise to remember his words, "Placed in the middle of a rapid river, we obstinately fix our eyes on some debris we still perceive on the bank we have left, while the current carries us away and takes us back toward the abyss." That's a caveat of a different order.
Direct democracy died out early-on in the Hellenistic period and arguably has never really come back in its Athenian form. The closest thing we may have to it today might be our jury system where citizens are selected by lot to render verdicts in law courts. Otherwise it's more a case of representative republican-form of government. Democracy didn't have a very good reputation for a couple of millennia - being viewed as "mobocracy." Even the US founding fathers looked more to the Roman Republic and Principate for inspiration than Athenian democracy. That's why we have a Senate and a Capitol, not a Boule and an Agora. (And Cartledge argues that at no time was the Roman Republic a democracy.)
As a side note, through much of my life I have tended to view Plato and Aristotle as more or less twin pillars of ancient philosophy; co-equals in wisdom and importance. Although he does not say so directly, from Cartledge's book I get the impression that he views Aristotle as the towering genius and commanding presence of the ancient age.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the book falls down in its desire to bring the "story of democracy" up through to the present day. It is simply too tall an order for the author in a book of this kind. Better to have just reviewed democracy in ancient Greece. For one thing, in his discussion of more modern forms of government I don't believe he once makes mention of the instrument of the public referendum which is certainly a close relative of direct democracy and has arguably caused some mischief in recent years.