Flourishing in the Democratic City

An examination of aretē and eudaimonia in ancient Athenian democracy offers a sophisticated alternative to the ideologies characteristic of contemporary liberal democracy.


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Flourishing in the Democratic City

Plato's allegory of the Cave presents readers with a disturbing image of prisoners chained for life in a shadowy, damp underworld. Denizens of the Cave—that is, Socrates insists, all of us— have been incarcerated since childhood. We are forced to look straight ahead, without moving our arms or legs, without turning our necks. We inhabit the distorted world of prevailing opinion, manipulated by puppeteers. We clamour about truth without recognizing how completely our horizons have been limited. We are conformists; indeed, knowing nothing else, we have no choice but to conform to the dominant opinions of our culture. The only possible antidote is philosophical education, an ascent that inspires us both to recognize our limitations and to open ourselves to other possible worlds. That Plato's allegory captures the essentials of our present condition is a disagreeable, if perhaps surprising, truth. Plato's own Cave-dwellers, in fact, were always surprised to learn that other possible worlds exist, even if only in the imagination.

Toward the end of the Republic , Socrates emphasizes that thinking philosophically about other possible worlds is the highest of human activities. This is so, even or especially if our speculative enterprise bears no immediate political fruit. Socrates was engaged in the project of philosophical understanding, not political transformation. To make this clear, the idealistic Glaucon asks, at the end, whether Socrates' imaginary philosophers would participate in politics. Socrates responds that it makes no difference whether his Callipolis will ever exist. Socrates' intention was not to ignite a revolution; rather, it was to make his interlocutors think more deeply, in the belief that the cardinal task of philosophy is to interpret and understand the world.

My argument is that classical Greek antiquity—and, in particular, democratic Athens—offers us a sophisticated alternative to the ideologies characteristic of our contemporary liberal democracies. Our prevailing opinions about freedom, justice, and the good life represent narrow and radically foreshortened answers to fundamental, persistent questions. In particular, contemporary theorists and citizens labour under today's dominant and unexamined presuppositions about human "happiness" and "virtue." It is possible, however, to enlarge our understanding of the eternal problems and possibilities of politics by travelling backwards in time to democratic Athens. Athens challenges us to rethink our understanding of "happiness" and "virtue." Athens' challenge, however, should not make us nostalgic; no return to the ancient polis is possible or desirable. Instead, confronting the ancient Athenian example will enlarge our awareness of the basic questions and help us appreciate our place within a wide spectrum of possibilities. This will enable us to see with greater clarity what gains or losses our choices have involved.

"Virtue," "Happiness," and Ancient Greek Alterity

For all its claims to internal diversity, European modernity is characterized by its unforgiving rejection of the two chief pillars of classical Greek political thought— aretē , or "human excellence," and eudaimonia , or "human flourishing." These words have traditionally been mistranslated as "virtue" and "happiness." The English word "virtue," appropriately enough, calls forth ideals of self-discipline and correct social behaviour. But "virtue" fails to capture certain salient, and critically important, characteristics of the ancient Greek concept aretē . To archaic and classical Greeks, aretē referred to excellence in carrying out the specific, differentiated function ( ergon ) inherent in the nature of an individual or thing. Distinctively human excellence was understood as the active self-development of our natural capacities of character and intellect. There was no question of why anyone would want to be excellent; the "live" question was always why excellent individuals would seek the common good. Ancient Greeks tended to approach this question by arguing that human beings were naturally sociable. As a result, the perfection of human nature implied, without remainder, a passionate commitment to justice, generosity, courage, and civic friendship.

"Happiness," on the other hand, implies the realization of a subjective, agent-relative conception of goodness. "Happiness," so construed, was not unknown to classical Greeks; rather, they regarded it as the product of an ethically suspect, if unacknowledged, adherence to the Protagorean homomensura doctrine. Individual opinion or desire, not human nature or the natural order, is the measure of all things. Nowadays, subjective appraisals of contentment and well-being are ever more frequently studied by social scientists—most explicitly, perhaps, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Happiness Studies , which "is devoted to scientific understanding of subjective well-being." Yet "happiness" falls short compared to the more demanding notion of eudaimonia . Eudaimonia refers to "human flourishing" in the widest possible ethical, psychological, aesthetic, and emotional senses. Classical accounts of eudaimonia strove to provide models of human perfection that were adequate to our human potentialities. Unlike subjective models of "happiness," the classical Greek understanding emphasized civic education and self-criticism; ethical, psychological, and intellectual growth; and the realization of an ordered perfection of our cognitive, emotional, and social capacities, over the course of one's life as a whole.

By rendering aretē and eudaimonia as "virtue" and "happiness," we have fossilized modern assumptions in the very language of our translations. Such misappropriations conspire to foreclose alternatives to modernity's highly distinctive principles. This reduction of classical thought is manifest in recent scholarship on classical antiquity. Rather than resuscitating the hard and confrontational edges of ancient theory or practice, scholars too often tame the ancients, by interpreting them according to our own foreshortened categories.The rebarbative Aristotle, for example, is now known as an early theorist of "rights." [1] In fact, not only did Aristotle "prioritize the good over the right," he emphatically refused even to consider "rights" as a category appropriate for political association. Alternatively, for other theorists, Aristotle reignites the optimistic hopes of social democracy both in European modernity and in developing countries. In fact, however, Aristotle viewed human excellence as "rare, noble, and laudable." His hostility to democracy, his suspicion of freedom as a natural good, and his emphasis on aristocratic paideia make him an unlikely candidate for vindicating democratic ideals.[2]

Ancient Athenian democrats, meanwhile, are said to have constructed a theory and practice of "political obligation." [3] In fact, however, ancient Greeks did not have or need a theory of political obligation. This concept makes sense only in political theories that know human beings in a pre-political state of nature, from which they emerge by obligating themselves to a centralized and abstract Leviathan.[4] Athenian democrats and philosophers alike agreed, to the contrary, that human beings were born into families and cities which constituted their ethos . To them, the elements of the social contract tradition—individual rights, states of nature, and consensual government—were unknown. The ancient Athenians pursued human excellence and human flourishing. To do so effectively, they thought through the austere demands of human goodness altogether, without assuming aprioristically any particular account of the human individual. Whether citizens or theorists, the ancient Greeks steadfastly refuse to be domesticated by modern categories of interpretation or appropriation.

Modernity's Barbarization of the Ancient Greeks

These categories themselves came to sight within particular, contingent historical circumstances.[5] The most important early modern theorists found that the moralizing ancient tradition led to political instability; accordingly, in generating our categories, they rejected the ancients with energy and hostility. Already in Chapters 15–18 of The Prince , Machiavelli brought forward influential reasons to dispense with classical aretē . He emphatically attacked justice, generosity, and other classical ideals as the naive and delusory hopes of unworldly Augustinians and Thomists. In their place, Machiavelli exalted virtú —the efficacious power to satisfy political ambition, to acquire wealth, and to carry out imperialistic projects without any qualms or respect ( senza alcuna rispetto , as Machiavelli often said).[6] Even in his Discourses on Livy , Machiavelli only superficially espoused republican citizenship: his "princes of the republic" exploited religious ideology and patriotic rhetoric in order to project imperial power without limit. In banishing classical "soul-craft," Machiavelli abandoned the goal of realizing human perfection in accordance with standards implicit in the natural order. Rather, taking the goals of power, status, and wealth as psychological "givens," Machiavelli theorized politics as the instrumental or technical art of achieving what one already wants. Hence, his disciples found no need to criticize, explore, or enlarge those pre-existing desires and ambitions.

Basing themselves on Machiavellian foundations, the early moderns—even the unlikeliest of bedfellows, such as Hobbes and Kant—agreed in abandoning eudaimonia and aretē under the banner of human freedom. Hobbes "liberated" his contemporaries from any interest in the summum bonum for the sake of a happiness, or "felicity," that he envisaged as "continuall successe in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continuall prospering" ( Leviathan 6.58). And, even though scholars have occasionally interpreted Hobbes as a theorist of "civic virtue," Hobbes himself was deeply suspicious of the obscure agendas and passions that motivated virtue-talk, not to mention the rhetorical slipperiness of traditional conceptions of virtue (e.g. Leviathan 4.24). Even when he spoke of the virtues, Hobbes reconstituted them as complexes of self-interested calculation and passionate desire or fear. They were never governed by classical prudence and admired for their own sake. As the introductory chapters of Leviathan illustrate, Hobbes' political project depended on a radical "debunking" of classical aretē and eudaimonia ; this led to his transformation, beyond recognition, of classical rationality, prudence, judgment, deliberation, and will.

Kant, on the other hand, saw in classical eudaimonism an egoistic and heteronomous failure to respect moral duty for its own sake, a moral childishness that proved overly susceptible not only to natural passions, but also to social competitiveness and arrogance.As Allen Wood describes Kant's view, "The point of being happy is to feed our insatiable amourpropre by seeing our state as one from which we may look down on other people, regarding them as our inferiors." [7] Thus an agent's pursuit of happiness unconstrained by moral duty constitutes an attack not only on the equal moral worth of other human beings, but also on the agent's own dignity, insofar as he fails to respect the categorical imperative for its own sake. Hence, whether we refer to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, or others, the moderns have always rejected classical eudaimonism on ethical and political (let alone metaphysical) grounds. These architects of the modern consciousness have been dangerously successful in closing off access to the highly developed alternatives presented by classical antiquity.

One sign of the early moderns' success is that the presently dominant models of liberal democracy are deeply suspicious of both aretē and eudaimonia . For all their differences, the Rortian, Rawlsian, and Habermasian accounts all emphasize state neutrality. For reasons of principle, their ideals of public discourse exclude attention to ethos and questions of human goodness. According to the standard rationale, respect for reasonable pluralism demands that the public sphere be kept safe from intrusions of a substantive, ethical variety. Narrow questions of justice or right, legal proceduralism, and the virtues of civility and toleration are accordingly granted primacy. Thus, whatever their differences, both Rawls and Habermas approach the public sphere in a generically similar way, "hankering," as Richard Bernstein has said of Habermas, "after a purified discourse theory which is not tainted by any substantial-ethical commitments" (1998:304). Or, as Rawls has argued, civility requires that democratic citizens exclude from the public sphere any "comprehensive doctrines" of truth or right, including beliefs about human excellence and human flourishing. Ideally, citizens should offer reasons to one another strictly on the basis of "the political conception of justice they regard as the most reasonable" (1999:135).[8]

This entrenched consensus conflicts with democratic ideals of free discussion and openness to new ideas. Paradoxically, our reigning consensus has, despite itself, constituted an ethos and a powerful, if largely unacknowledged, vision of human goodness. Our ethos is that of maximizing individual choice. We define the good with reference to market capitalism. Both Richard Rorty and Aladair MacIntyre would agree with this description. As Tocqueville said over 150 years ago, "The public … has a singular power among democratic peoples, the very idea of which aristocratic nations could not conceive. It does not persuade one of its beliefs, it imposes them and makes them penetrate souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on the intellect of each" ( Democracy in America , II-2, p. 409, trans. Mansfield and Winthrop). We find ourselves beholden to fixed and determinate visions of human goodness advanced by "reasonable" contemporaries of good will. But our options are ever dwindling. Perhaps we have abdicated the responsibility and opportunity to know ourselves.

If we wish to enlarge our narrow horizons, a first step is to recuperate the hard-edged, ancient Greek concepts of aretē and eudaimonia . It's thought-provoking to imagine these terms incorporated within our bloodless moral vocabulary. Even imagining that near-impossibility will lead us to question ourselves in radical ways, because the theoretical traditions of modernity have barbarized the ancient Greeks. And yet the ancient Greeks were not barbarous.They would have been shocked and dismayed to find themselves ranged within what Richard Rorty has called "the dark." [9] Yet so it happens: the ancient Greeks have become the barbarian "Others" with whom Rawls's "reasonable" and enlightened self-legislators need not, indeed cannot, have any meaningful conversations. This barbarization of the ancient Greek "Other" has had the effect of impoverishing our political understanding and limiting the full and complete growth of the very freedoms and enlightenment we cherish.

Time-Travel to Ancient Athens

In questioning this unreasonable barbarization, most scholars have turned to Aristotle rather than Athenian democracy.[10] This is fair enough; after all, Hobbes pointedly rejected Aristotle, in particular, because Aristotle's thick descriptions of ethical life, political participation, and rhetorical speech constituted a grave threat to Hobbes's political project. Yet there are two ways in which examining democratic aretē and eudaimonia prove to be more useful for those inclined to rethink liberal and democratic norms. First, the Athenians combined their ideas of human excellence and human flourishing with a distinctive emphasis on freedom. By contrast, Aristotle, like most classical philosophers, was critical of democracy precisely because of its valorization of freedom, however construed. The philosophical tendency to ridicule democratic freedom—see Plato's Republic , Book 8, on the self-confounding shallowness of "free" democratic life—could never resonate with us. Yet the question of how best to relate freedom to human excellence remains lively and urgent today.[11]

Second, the Athenians present a thick social world of narratives, institutions, and social rituals—in other words, a full-bodied democratic culture of aretē and eudaimonia . When Aristotle exploits cultural resources to further his ethics and politics, he is inevitably drawn to the fertile Athenian example—which often proves to be more powerful than his own cultural reflections. The Athenian democracy constituted a culture and a regime of active self-examination and inquiry into human goodness. The Athenians' inquiries led them to develop a distinctively democratic vision of aretē and eudaimonia . Their efforts to embed traditional notions of excellence within their prevailing democratic ethos meant that they could explain to themselves, as we often cannot, precisely which human goods were internal to their specifically democratic practices, and why.[12] The Athenians' articulate sense of these goods gave them a political and intellectual confidence that we lack.

Democratic Flourishing: The Periclean Outlook

Classical Greek thinkers, statesmen, and citizens alike agreed that the cardinal task of politics was to enable citizens to live well. They emphasized the human good, the summum bonum , or eudaimonia —as opposed to Hobbes's emphasis on avoiding the summum malum . Eudaimonia is best known today in its Aristotelian incarnation, where it refers to the "human flourishing" constituted by the active cultivation and exercise of excellences of character and intellect, over the course of a life understood as a single, coherent unity. Building on this Aristotelian conception, contemporary (mostly neo-Aristotelian) philosophers employ "eudaimonism" as a term of art to refer to the idea that human beings flourish through exercising and perfecting their worthwhile natural capacities for theoretical speculation, practical judgment, and virtuous action motivated by developed dispositions of character. But can distinctively democratic ideals, expressions, and practices of aretē and eudaimonia be found in classical Athens?

The answer to this question is yes. Two clarifications, however, need to be entered immediately. First, it would have been possible for the Athenians to accept traditional notions of aretē and to argue that their democracy was superior in producing quantitatively more virtue than other political regimes. This is precisely what they did not do. Instead, they argued that democracy developed a distinctive conception of human excellence, either by revising the elements of traditional conceptions, or adding new elements and de-emphasizing others. Second, the Athenians could have argued that their virtues were useful for producing the goods (e.g. wealth and power) that everyone already admired. They could have taken an instrumental view of their excellences of character and intellect. This, too, is something they did not do. Although they appreciated the "external" goods to which their developed qualities gave rise, the Athenians emphasized the intrinsic goodness and attractiveness of their individual lives and their political regime. The Athenians developed conceptions of nobility ( to kalon ) such that the active exercise of political aretē was intrinsically desirable and admirable, whatever the consequences (even in the limit cases of military defeat or death).

Pericles' funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides, will orient us to the democratic ideal. The precise status of this oration is a hotly contested topic within classical studies. In my view, the oration represents Thucydides' effort to indicate what was best about democratic Athens and its ideals, while also hinting at the ways in which democratic Athens failed to live up to those ideals in practice. We should not, however, assume that the speech provides unmediated access to the vox populi , without referring to other, less controversial democratic texts.[13]

Pericles' chief goal is to explain why the city of Athens is worthy of admiration. Athenians love nobility with restraint; they love wisdom without any softening of character; they care for both the city and their private lives; they are outstandingly brave in that they undertake bold action, not unreflectively, but only after adequate public reflection on the ends of courage. And, Pericles concludes, "Again we are opposite to most men in matters of excellence ( aretē ): we win our friends by doing them favours, rather than by accepting favours from them … We alone confer benefits on others not after calculating the profit, but fearlessly and in the confidence of our freedom" (2.40, trans. Woodruff, adapted). These excellences of the city are matched by those of each individual. According to Pericles, every Athenian "presents himself as a self-sufficient individual, disposed to the widest possible diversity of actions, with every grace and great versatility" (2.41, trans. Woodruff). In Pericles' conception, at least, democratic excellence consists in the novel unification or "hybridization" of apparently antithetical attributes, with the result that democratic citizens are uniquely sophisticated, flexible, and capable both of enjoying their lives and meeting the challenges of adversity.

Most important for us is Pericles' assertion that democracy creates a novel conception of human excellence. "Democratic friendship," for example, is generous and open, rather than instrumental or strategic; it is based on distinctively democratic practices of social trust, free discussion, and mutual support for courageous action. Democratic individuals, moreover, are adept at integrating "opposites": they are self-sufficient lovers of wisdom and beauty, yet they are also strong and manly in deliberation and action. This flexibility results from democratic openness to new ideals and behaviours, which transforms the quality of the Athenians' courage and self-respect. Pericles argues without squeamishness that democracy is superior to other regimes in generating the excellences of character and intellect, because of its politeia and its political ethos . Democracy is that regime which cultivates political prudence through free and open deliberation, while also offering its citizens novel opportunities for self-development and civic engagement. Pericles' speech implies that, because of their habits of self-examination and their practices of mutual accountability, democrats recognize the intrinsic dignity of their excellences and pursue them for their own sakes.

The single example of courage will make these points more specific. Pericles' focus on courage was understandable in a time of war and during a ritual of commemoration; his focus does not speak to any special pugnacity or hyper-masculinity. Athenian courage was superior to that of others, he says, because it was an outgrowth of the Athenians' practical deliberations about the worth and demands of courageous action within their lives as a whole. Athenian courage was not driven by fear or shame or rote discipline; rather, it was motivated by the Athenians' appreciation that their eudaimonia and freedom depended on courageous action and judgment of just the appropriate sort. Pericles' emphasis on courage ramifies outward into his presentation of the Athenians' other excellences of character. As he declares, for example, the Athenians act generously and openly because they are free from anxieties about future reciprocity or about the consequences of their behaviour abroad. They are fearlessly generous. Taken together, these ideas constitute a chain of reasoning designed to show that democracy is superior to other constitutions in making a good life possible for its citizens, through best enabling them to exercise intrinsically worthwhile natural capacities. This chain of reasoning is cemented in Pericles' emphasis on the admirable qualities of individual citizens. The Athenian citizen, in Pericles' image, embodies human excellence to the highest possible degree, and thus flourishes in a way that would be possible only within the democratic city.

Athenian Commemoration as Eudaimonistic Practice

The same nexus of ideas can be found throughout the democratic sources, in particular within the epitaphic tradition. The epitaphic tradition presents us with the most fertile resources of reflection upon the flourishing of Athenians qua democratic citizens. These speeches of commemoration can be interpreted as "eudaimonistic practice," in that they raise to consciousness, for democratic citizens ancient and modern, the potential links between nurturing the excellence of democratic citizens and living full and complete lives characterized by human flourishing.

Take, for example, Demosthenes' examination of Athenian nobility in his own speech commemorating the Athenians who fell at the Battle of Chaeronea ( 338 BC). Demosthenes argued that Athenian practices of citizenship enabled these men to sacrifice their lives knowingly and courageously for the sake of their ideals. Endowed with natures capable of unusual nobility, they furthered their ethical development through education within the city, through habituation to noble standards, and through conceiving the aspiration to live up to the essential principles of the democratic regime (Demosthenes 60.27). These men were ethically serious and sound ( spoudaioi ), he says, "not least because of the form of our regime" ( dia tēn politeian , Demosthenes 60.25). Whereas "narrow oligarchies" ( hai … dia tōn oligōn dunasteiai , 60.25) inculcate fear among citizens, democracy instils an admirable sense of shame ( aischunēn ) in all Athenian citizens. This sense of shame was not a primitive mechanism of ideological control. To the contrary, the Athenian sense of shame was a sophisticated link between the individual and the collectivity, with its shared democratic ideals. The Athenians' rich, complex, and deliberative shame operated as a well-informed internal monitor that alerted individuals to the prospect of losing self-respect, or of doing or even being something that they had contempt for.

According to Demosthenes, this internal monitor was awakened by the citizens' free speech and dedication to the honest portrayal and assessment of citizen behaviour. These benefits of a free and open culture were not available in narrow oligarchies, he argues, because in those regimes public speech is distorted by the arbitrary favouritism of the ruling class. Thus, in general terms, democracy is more productive of excellence in character and intellect than other regimes, because democratic free speech creates a climate of honesty and public accountability. Moreover, by contrast with the heroic or oligarchic conceptions of civic education and ethical standards, democracy proposes to cultivate admirable qualities by dispersing accountability throughout the citizenry. Instead of demanding that the individual create himself, all alone, through adherence to individualistic heroic exempla , democracy socializes the burdens of living accountably. Consequently, democracy makes citizens freer and more experimental because they allow themselves to make mistakes in the expectation that they will, if necessary, receive correction from their supportive, if vigilant, community. Democrats were free from aristocratic "perfectionism" even as they perfected themselves in excellences that had once been reserved for aristocrats.

Lysias' funeral oration (probably c. 390 BC) furthered this mode of democratic self- understanding by arguing that democratic political life helped to perfect the Athenians' worthwhile and essential ethical capacities.[14] For the sake of civic education among the living, Lysias' speech exalted the fallen citizen-soldiers as admirable exemplars of nobility. Lysias recalled events and aspirations from the Athenian past not simply for ideological or chauvinistic reasons, but rather in order to formulate the elements of a distinctively democratic account of nobility. As Lysias himself says, the fallen soldiers were men worthy of emulation ( zēlōtoi : they are "to be emulated" not "envied," as in the Loeb; cf. 26) because "they were first trained in the excellences of their ancestors, and then in manhood they preserved that ancient fame intact and displayed their own excellence ( aretē ) (69, tr. Lamb; cf. 2.50-53). Lysias' speech exemplifies the Athenians' practices of eudaimonism because it makes explicit three essential elements of Athenian aretē and eudaimonia . First, the orator emphasizes the intrinsic dignity and worth of aretē ; second, he proposes that the activities and products of aretē constitute the Athenians' eudaimonia ; third, he contends that the democratic regime ( politeia )—that is, its way of life, its distribution of power, and its ethical ideals—educate the Athenians to develop and perfect their inborn capacities for excellence.

Consider, for example, Lysias' discussion of the friendship and generosity shown by the Athenians toward the sons of Heracles (11–16). Having fled the tyrannical Eurystheus, Heracles' sons found the other Greeks too afraid to help them; though ashamed of themselves, the other Greeks failed to respect their own standards of nobility, justice, and hospitality. They doomed themselves to a life that lacked self-respect. The Athenians, by contrast, carried into effect the democratic generosity exalted by Pericles. Out of respect for Heracles, they protected his sons at significant risk to themselves. They "deemed it worthy ( ēxioun ; not "preferred," as the Loeb translates) to fight with justice on behalf of the weaker" (12). They made a shared, collective judgment that living up to their own ideals was better not only for Heracles' sons, but also for themselves. This was no simple preference, as translators often suggest, but rather a well-informed judgment based on democratic deliberation. Uniting courage with generosity and prudence, the Athenians overcame their fears of imminent threats and "maintained the same judgment ( gnōmēn ) as before, though they had received no particular benefit at the father's hands, and could not tell what manner of men the sons would grow to be" (13, trans. Lamb, adapted).

As all the orators agreed, the Athenians strove to live with self-respect—or, as they often formulated the point, they strove to live in ways they found worthy of themselves. Their democratic deliberation was no felicific calculus, but rather a determined judgment of the elements and practices conducive to, if not constitutive of, eudaimonia . They aspired to live lives adequate to the human potentiality for goodness, if not greatness. Without any hopes for reciprocity in the future, the Athenians freely and courageously risked their lives in order to behave commensurately with their own demanding ideals of nobility. By contrast with the other Greeks, the Athenians could wholeheartedly endorse their own behaviour. The good life—presented here as a life of self-respect won through imitating and elaborating the virtues of Greece's foremost civilizing hero, Heracles—was possible for them because they possessed and exercised the wisdom to act in ways that were worthy of themselves and adequate to our human essence.

After making these essential points about the character of Athenian deliberation and generosity, Lysias stressed that the Athenians developed their noble attributes because of their city's regime of civic education. To be sure, Lysias emphasized the Athenians' inborn capacity to attain excellence, which he represented, in accordance with the Athenians' national narratives, as a feature of Athenian autochthony. Yet, having done justice to this national myth, he developed a substantial account of the regime's capacity to develop the natural capabilities of all Athenian citizens: "For they supposed that it was the task of wild beasts to be ruled over by one another by force, but that it belonged to human beings to define justice by law, to persuade by reasoned speech, and to serve these purposes in action, governed by the law and instructed by reasoned speech" (19, trans. Balot). In order to cultivate their capacities properly, the Athenians deliberately established a regime of laws, incentives, persuasive speech, and (at the limit) just punishments. Even apart from the consequences of these institutional features, the Athenians' political practices, in themselves, enabled them to perfect their ability to dispense justice, to deliberate prudently, and to behave in thoughtful, mutually intelligible, and ethically coherent ways. Such were the goods internal to the Athenians' political practices.

The funeral orations persistently return to the theme of perfecting nature by means of the Athenians' democratic educational regime. Demosthenes contends, for example, that the fallen heroes displayed their innate nobility on the battlefield only after receiving a noble education within the city (Demosthenes 60.16–17). Likewise, Hyperides reminded his audience "how as children [the fallen soldiers] were trained and reared in strict self-discipline"; "none of us," he argued, "is unaware that our aim in training children is to convert them into valiant men; and that men who have proved their exceptional courage in war were well brought up in childhood needs no stressing" (Hyperides 6.8, trans. Burtt). In each case, the heroic Athenian dead had achieved a standard of excellence, having been trained within the city's educational regime to realize their natural promise. The speakers intended their audiences to emulate the dead soldiers in life and in death—that is, to internalize their example of human excellence, by comprehending it within a concrete, emotionally replete narrative. The funeral oration constituted a eudaimonistic practice because the audience was exhorted not only to emulate the fallen heroes, but also to understand in a fully articulate way precisely why their lives and deaths had been admirable.

In short, Lysias' projected audience learned through his narratives and analysis that the active exercise of noble and admirable qualities was its own reward, was intrinsically meritorious and worthwhile. They came to see that attaining human excellence within their lives as a whole, as a unity, constituted their full growth and flourishing. These admirable accomplishments were made possible, as Lysias' oration demonstrated, only through democratic institutions, practices, and modalities of civic education. This is not to make the unrealistic claim that Athenians did not find satisfaction in the external products of their military and political success. To the contrary, Lysias argues that their extrinsic benefits were made truly advantageous because they were conferred in the right spirit and for the right reasons (2.70). Even so, in Lysias' representation, the Athenian heroes "thought that everything was of less account than nobility and excellence" (2.71); accordingly, they willingly (even if paradoxically) abandoned their own lives, because their circumstances and their own deliberately wrought self-understanding demanded as much, even up to the limit of leaving their families bereft. Their heroic final act implied, as only such an awesome act of devotion can imply, the deep paradox that the external products for the sake of which they acted, i.e. the well-being of the city and their families, were somehow less important to them than the realization, in action, of their dedication to human excellence.

This ideal establishes an extraordinarily demanding standard for the achievement of admirable human conduct. Yet Lysias pursues this already ambitious standard to its utmost limit. He insists that the Athenian soldiers would never have acted shamefully, and thus risked losing self-respect, even if the city's safety had depended on it. They would intentionally have risked the city if somehow the demands of nobility should have required it. The good life made possible by the democratic polis is simply not worth having, not even possible, unless it is also the life of nobility or excellence.

In the most famous passage from his most famous speech, On the Crown , Demosthenes elaborated upon the paradoxes of courage and self-sacrifice in precisely this way: "As he [ Aeschines] lays so much stress on results, let me venture on a paradox. If it seems extravagant, I beg that you will not be surprised …" (18.199, trans. Vince and Vince). He asks his audience to imagine that they had known in advance that Athens would lose the battle of Chaeronea and would thus, once and for all, come under the power of Philip of Macedon (18.199). Demosthenes says that, despite the protests Aeschines would have made, even then the city could not have avoided going to war, out of a sense of honour, patriotic dedication, and concern for the future standing of the city (18.199–200). He invites the audience to consider how Athens could have "returned the gaze of visitors" to the city, if Philip had won and Athens had not fought on behalf of Greek freedom (18.201, trans. Vince and Vince). Athens could only have survived with shame if the citizens had stood on the sidelines. In the past, Athenians had never accepted material rewards and ignobly self-regarding safety from imperial powers such as Persia; they had always considered such choices to be intolerable and inconsistent with both their nature and their national character (18.203). The Athenian ancestors had always striven for honour, primacy, and glory. They rejected "servile security" and "deemed worthy" only the prospect of living freely or dying (18.204–205).

Democratic formulations of eudaimonia established a rigorous, though not impossible, standard of human attainment. Demosthenes' account of Athens' decision to fight Philip illustrates that the Athenians were, in their own self-understanding, and as the product of a long and thoughtful discursive history, ready to sacrifice the material well-being of the city for the sake of nobility. This "self-sacrifice" was not seen to be detrimental , however, to the properly understood interests of Athenian "selves." On the contrary, acting nobly was recognized to be the only way for the "self" to live well, that is, to live with well-founded self-respect or pride. The Athenians maintained demanding ideals of excellence and flourishing, based on the city's long-term narratives with which they self-consciously and deliberately identified themselves. The Athenians had reflected upon what was best in their traditions and had come to identify with distinctively democratic standards of excellence for sound reasons and in well-informed ways.

Conclusion: The Hard Edges of Aretē and Eudaimonia

Our brief consideration of Athenian oratory suggests that Athenian citizens internalized, both cognitively and emotionally, distinctively democratic models of excellence through participating in the political rituals of the city, above all the public funeral. By fostering these democratic excellences as intrinsically worthwhile ends of human action, the democratic city enabled its citizens to flourish as human beings more fully, they plausibly claimed, than other cities. To adapt Aristotle's language to our purposes, the Athenians had less interest in "mere life" than in meeting the demanding standards of eudaimonia and aretē as they understood them—and, barring that, they committed themselves to abandoning their political community altogether.

"Virtue" and "happiness" fail to do justice to the severity and rigour of Athenian notions of excellence and flourishing. Ancient Athens exemplifies the possibility that democratic freedom and equality can be rendered compatible with thick and demanding standards of excellence and flourishing espoused at the centre of the public square. In light of our own prevailing assumptions about state neutrality, civility, and toleration, it is especially helpful to entertain such examples. What could it mean not only to tolerate or celebrate our "postmodern bourgeois liberalism," as Richard Rorty calls it, but also to engage in serious and sustained debate with our fellow citizens over the goods that we promote through politics? Is it impossible to entertain, in company with the Athenians, the possibility of communicating across the boundaries of pluralism so as to engage in the prototypical activities of citizenship—the activities, that is, of political deliberation and judgment about human goodness? At least the Athenian democrats will remind us, if nothing else, that political activity carries with it internal or intrinsic goods such as those of prudent judgment, civic friendship, ethical education, and the willing acceptance of responsibility for ourselves.

Yet democratic Athens offers us no blueprints for political action. We cannot re-live the ancient Athenian experience, nor should we want to. Nostalgia for the ancient past is as harmful as Arendtian "polis envy" (to borrow Michael Walzer's phrase). Instead, our time-travel to democratic Athens represents a thought-experiment. By reconsidering the ancient Athenian example, we grasp more adequately the limitations of our own prevailing horizons. We come to see, I think, that our own categories and preconceptions constitute decisive, if narrow or one-sided, answers to fundamental and perennial questions. Through their own uncompromising pursuit of eudaimonia and aretē as political goals, the democratic Athenians force us to interrogate our own assumptions. Not all the interesting political questions have been adequately or definitively answered.


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Note 1
See, for example, Miller 1995.

Note 2
See Frank 2005 and Nussbaum 1990.

Note 3
See Liddel 2007 and, with reference to Aristotelian theory, Rosler 2005.

Note 4
For discussion of this point, see Mansfield 1971.

Note 5
One of the weaknesses of liberal democratic theory, in fact, is its failure to account, within the predominantly ahistorical vocabulary of "rights," for its own emergence amidst specific controversies and disagreements: see Williams 2005.

Note 6
My account of Machiavelli is indebted to Strauss 1958, Mansfield 1996 and 1979, and Orwin 1978.

Note 7
Wood 2000.

Note 8
Among many other works, see Rawls 1999; Habermas 1993; Rorty 1990; Bernstein 1998, with Habermas's reply.

Note 9
For discussion of what Rorty calls "the dark," see Mara 2008:198.

Note 10
Among others, see the excellent contributions of Salkever 2002 and 1990.

Note 11
I have explored related questions in Balot 2009.

Note 12
In evoking the idea of “goods internal to practices,” I allude to MacIntyre 1984.

Note 13
On these historiographic points, and their significance or insignificance for our uses of Pericles’ oration, see Balot 2006.

Note 14
This discussion of Lysias' funeral oration is a revised and abbreviated version of one section of Balot (forthcoming).