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Ancient Greek Tragedy Speaks to Democracy Theory

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

This essay initially distinguishes Athenian democracy from what I call ‘hyphenated-democracies’, each of which adds a conceptual framework developed in early modern Europe to the language of democracy: representative-democracy, liberal-democracy, constitutional-democracy, republican-democracy. These hyphenated-democracies emphasize the restraints placed on the power of political authorities. In contrast, Athenian democracy with the people ruling over themselves rested on the fundamental principle of equality rather than the limitations placed on that rule. However, equality as the defining normative principle of democracy raises its own problems, namely: How do we – of limited vision – identify who is equal, and what injustices attend the criteria used to establish who is equal? Consideration of several ancient tragedies illustrates how the Athenian playwrights explored these questions and how they identified the challenges faced by those who understand democracy as grounded on egalitarian principles.

Affiliations: 1: University of Michigan Ann Arbor, miUSA


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