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Deconstructing the Ancients/Moderns Trope in Historical Reception

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

Notably since Thomas Hobbes, canonically with Benjamin Constant, and conventionally amid Nietzschean, Popperian, Straussian, Arendtian, liberal (sc. Madison, Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Vlastos, Hansen), republican (sc. Skinner), political (sc. Finley), and sociological (sc. Ober) readings of ancient texts, contemporary scholarship on the ancients often has employed some version of the dichotomous ancient/modern or ancient/contemporary contrast as a template for explaining, understanding, and interpretively appropriating ancient texts and political practices – particularly those of ancient Greek philosophy and democracy (although Roman ideas and practices also have been invoked). In particular, this has been done to argue for some conception of political ethics and democracy. I argue that this rhetorical trope, often using Athens and Europe/America as synecdoches for antiquity and modernity, has generated narrow and distorted views of ancient texts and political practices, on the one hand, and their contemporary relevance, on the other – views that misinterpret the theoretical significance of historical phenomena and misread the potential lessons of ancient authorities. Instead, texts and practices should be read either with more qualifications or more fully against a historical dynamic of critical philosophy and political power – including its ethical, cultural, institutional, and governing elements – that is not framed by this dichotomy.

Affiliations: 1: Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY 695 Park Avenue, New York, ny 10065USA


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