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Demokratia and Arete in Ancient Greek Political Thought

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image of Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought

This article interprets demokratia and arete as dynamically related terms of political thought in ancient Greek culture, from Homeric times to the end of the classical era. It does so selectively, identifying three stages in which this relationship is developed: (1) from the Homeric to archaic eras; (2) fifth-century Athenian democracy, in which demokratia and arete are posed as complementary terms; and (3) the fourth century era in which philosophers used virtue to critique democracy. Relying mostly on evidence from writers who have become benchmarks in the history of Western political thought, the argument emphasizes the inherently political dimension of arete during this period of ancient Greek culture. Noting different ways in which arete is related to political power in general and democracy in particular, it also illustrates the manner in which arete is neither philosophically pristine nor merely an instrument of practical power. The effect of the research contradicts traditional and recent readings of democracy and virtue as inherently antagonistic. The aim of the article is to identify ancient Greek contributions to understanding the potential, contingencies and dangers of the relationship between democracy (as a form of power) and virtue (as a form of ethics) — one which may benefit both democracy and virtue.


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