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Criticism Ancient and Modern. Observations on the Critical Tradition of Athenian Democracy

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

This essay considers the tradition of criticism against Athenian democracy, in both ancient and modern times. Often this critical tradition has been seen to adduce greater interest than the very democratic experience from which it arose; in this it has been aided, in part, by the asserted absence of an ancient theory of democracy. Yet there are significant traces of a democratic theory in the ancient sources, which ought to serve both as a theoretical and ideological riposte to the critics. Some of the modern objections to classical Athenian democracy take up the argument of the ancient critics and display an anti-democratic orientation (German scholarship between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). Others, however, are motivated by a certain sensibility, grown out of liberalism and the legal state, as well as the emancipation of women and the abolition of slavery. Nevertheless, these objections are sometimes lacking in historical perspective. If we reassess Athenian democracy, it may yet be seen to constitute a useful point of reference, at a time when the current model of democracy finds its legitimacy questioned.2


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