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Greek Literature in Contemporary Political Theory and Thought

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the uses of Greek literature, philosophy, and politics in contemporary political theory. It explains that, since the second half of the 20th century, the study and deployment of Greek texts in political theory has served four interrelated projects: (1) to underscore political theory’s roots as an embedded and politically relevant practice; (2) to show that the history of political thought may function as contemporary critique; (3) to recover the spontaneity, plurality, and equality of classical politics for modernity; (4) and to offer new resources for thinking about democratic equality and activity. The article suggests that the question of how to recuperate the new political theoretical possibilities posed by a polyvocal or deconstructed Plato remains an underappreciated but critical question for political and democratic theory today.

Keywords: political theory, Greek literature, democracy, history of political thought, postwar thought, polis, Plato

1. Introduction

Contemporary political theory’s relationship to Greek literature has been marked by considerable, at times contentious, debate over the merits of turning to the past for thinking politically in the present and the methodological assumptions that should govern this enterprise. Whatever their differences in interest and emphasis, political theorists generally endorse the view that Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and the dramatic poets are part of a shifting canon of political thought and that their works have helped constitute our political vocabulary. The question of how to recognize this Greek presence and (whether to) remain critical of it is nevertheless the subject of longstanding disagreement. Contemporary political theory’s relationship to classical Greek literature has thus frequently served as a topos for conversations about what the humanistic study of politics entails.

Since the second half of the 20th century, the study and deployment of Greek literature in political theory has served four interrelated projects: (1) to underscore political theory’s roots as an embedded and politically relevant practice; (2) to show that the history of political thought may function as contemporary critique; (3) to recover the spontaneity, plurality, and equality of classical politics for modernity; (4) and to offer new resources for thinking about democratic equality and activity.

There are numerous academic contexts for the politically oriented study of Greek texts. This article focuses on the relationship between the interdisciplinary Anglo-American subfield of political science called “political theory” and classical Greek literature, of which philosophy, poetry, history, and, to a lesser extent, oratory are all a part. Two critical approaches characterize the orientation political theorists take to this expansive classical Greek canon. One belongs to the “history of political thought,” a disciplinary subgenre focused on narration and critical commentary on past political ideas and texts. The other is explicitly present oriented and thematic in focus. Under this loose second grouping, political theorists treat Greek texts as new resources for thinking about a range of recurring topics, from justice, pluralism, and civil disobedience to equality, citizenship, and power. A theorist’s concern here would not be, say, how Antigone explores the gender politics of the Athenian polis but whether it offers future possibilities for feminist agency in a contemporary democratic state. Both approaches—with some exceptions (e.g., the Cambridge School of Intellectual History)—consider a nominal amount of comparison between eras to be possible and illuminating because democracy and theory, as the Athenians practiced them, are thought to share significant features with their modern namesakes. While assertions of continuity across time and space have not gone uncontested in political theory, most practitioners recognize that the idea of an unbroken theoretical “tradition” has helped constitute political theory’s self-understanding and thus warrants persistent critical examination.

The professional designations offered here are by no means precise or discrete. “Historians” of ancient Greek political thought may exhibit minimal concern with contextualism in their readings, and present-oriented political theorists may engage deeply with a Greek text’s historical context and reception history. But the line between the history of political thought and political theory tout court stands for more than a porous division of labor. It should be understood as a living artifact, the effect of decades of disciplinary efforts to stake out political theory’s identity both through and against its so-called Greek origins. This permeable division of specializations rests precariously on the contested view that theory and interpretation—of past thought in particular—are in fact distinguishable activities. As an indication of scholarly emphasis, the distinction is illuminating. As a conceptual frame, it may exact interpretive tolls on conversations among political theorists working on Greek thought. It is worth asking here whether this hierarchical division finds its own origins in the challenge some behaviorists flung at political theorists in the second half of the 20th century.

2. The Deployment of Greek Literature in Postwar Political Theory

As ahistoricist, positivist, and behavioral approaches to the social sciences gained traction in politics departments in the 1950s, the appeal to scientific inquiry accompanied a call to transform political theory. Theorists were urged to explain the relevance of their subfield to colleagues who claimed the historical or philosophical analysis of politics did not serve the discipline’s new aims of objective description and explanation of political phenomena (Gunnell 1979). Some of behaviorism’s adherents thought it was possible to conduct the empirical and normative study of politics without historical knowledge or context. They called for a purely empirical science of politics that could deliver the kind of “empirically verifiable generalizations” about human behavior—not action—common to the natural sciences (Gunnell 1993, 255). A new hierarchy of academic specializations emerged in which empirical explanations (“facts”) were not only distinguishable from theoretical explanations (“values”) but logically preceded and determined theoretical inquiry (Gunnell 1979).

Focused as it was on narrating past thought, political theory was an insufficient auxiliary to the new social sciences. One problem was that it did not emulate the disciplinary ancestors it claimed: at its “birth” in ancient Greece, wrote the political scientist David Easton, political theory had reflected on “practical affairs,” but modern-day theorists preferred to analyze the meaning and development of past political thought with little interest in its relation to the present (1951, 43, 42). “Why is it,” his controversial essay began, “that today in political theory we must turn to the past in order to find inspiration and genuine freshness” (1951, 36)? Political theory’s “impoverishment” was cast as a break from its originary practice in ancient Greece, but enrichment could not come from a “historicist” recovery of those roots. Commentary on past political ideas was simply incapable of stimulating the “revolutionary creative thinking” needed to address “the fundamental change and widespread conflict” symbolized by the political violence of 20th century (Easton 1951, 36, 42).

The most influential political theorists of this period shared the sentiment that modernity was in crisis, but they suggested that behaviorism—which displaced human agency by reducing politics to abstract interests and deterministic forces—was just another one of its symptoms. The new science of politics could thus never achieve the transformative methodological and political awakening it sought. In a series of searing interventions into the practices and politics of interpretation and criticism, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Sheldon Wolin variously defended the contemporary relevance of a political theory deeply and critically conversant in the history of political thought and especially its origins in classical Greek philosophy. Only the “exegesis, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the tradition” (Gunnell 1993, 253) could provide the political theoretical perspective needed for making sense of modernity’s violence, alienation, and individualism.

Though Arendt would weather charges of nostalgia for years, all three postwar thinkers self-consciously foregrounded the contemporary impulses driving their interests in ancient Greek literature and politics. “We are impelled” to turn “toward the political thought of classical antiquity,” Strauss wrote, not by antiquarianism but “by the crisis of our time” (1964, 1). Focusing on what he called the moral and cultural relativism of the West and its “uncertain purpose,” Strauss argued that the social sciences were bankrupt for thinking about “political things as they are experienced by the citizen or statesman” (1964, 11, 2). Political scientists were wrong to seek an immediate connection to politics by emancipating themselves from a deeply embedded political-philosophical tradition (Strauss 1989, 50). Classical theory was by contrast “directly related” to “political life” because it posed the questions raised “in assemblies, councils, clubs and cabinets” from “everyday experience and everyday usage” (Strauss 1989, 51). For a discipline that despite, or because of, its empirical emphasis had lost touch with any meaningful sense of the “political,” Greek philosophy exemplified a much-needed politically relevant theorizing.

But Greek philosophy was more than an exemplar. Its analysis was thought to reveal how the field’s impoverished approach to politics reflected the alienation and detachment of a particular cultural moment and, worse, helped naturalize it. If the so-called truths of the modern scientific worldview now dominated the study of politics as “demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically,” Arendt wrote, the present danger was that political truths were no longer comprehensible in “normal expression in speech and thought” (1958/1998, 3). Behaviorism’s reduction of political life was a sign of the modern era’s larger inability to see political action for what it really was. This failure had grave political consequences. Incapable of making sense of what was being done around them as action, human beings experienced their “capacity to respond in kind” as already thwarted (Tsao 2002, 118). A return to the ancient record would not only show this to be the case; it would inspire theoretical orientations conducive of genuine political praxis.

To insist that Greek political philosophy was instructive and inspiring because it emerged in response to the realm of practical political affairs was not the same as claiming that ancient critics could or should inspire the theory and practice of democracy. Greek texts played a key role in postwar political theory’s transformation, but, as the stark differences between Strauss and Arendt showed, there was no agreement over the particular vision of politics that classical Greek thought should support. Later political theory, by contrast, would take a decisive democratic “turn” and seek resources for thinking positively about democracy even in Plato. What united the postwar thinkers, however, was not a particular interpretation of classical Greek thought but rather the awareness that the value of contemporary political theory could no longer rest on a claim of Greek ancestry. Genuine critique and political transformation depended on reimagining the terms of this heritage and the authority it wielded: to do political theory meant thinking against the tradition while using its conceptual tools (Pitkin 1998, 243).

If current political theory (claimed it) had inherited its political concepts and approaches from Greek thought, it was incumbent on political theorists to show how the careful study of Greek literature could be both diagnostic and productive of present political thinking. Wolin argued in this vein that political philosophers since Plato had thought of “harmony,” “unity,” “temperance,” and “fixity” as the “most desirable attributes of a political regime” and had conceptualized “political institutions, procedures, and activities” as a whole system “dependent upon the performance of specified functions or tasks” (1960/2004, 31). The purpose of measuring Plato’s influence this way was not to demonstrate the eternal truth of Plato’s ideas but to suggest that political theory’s contours were largely the effect of a particular and persistent reception of Plato in the discipline. Many political theorists followed Plato, Wolin thought, when they sought to eliminate the conflict, ambiguity, and change that actually gave the political its distinctiveness (1960/2004, 41).

The political theoretical study of Greek literature thus expanded to include critical reconstructions of the history of political thought, with great emphasis on how a reconsideration of the meanings of “antiquity” and “modernity” could illuminate contemporary political theory and practice in unexpected ways. Such an activity was conceived as an exercise less in the application of Greek ideas than in education, disorientation, and revision through textual exegesis. “We cannot reasonably expect that a fresh understanding of classical political philosophy will supply us with recipes for today’s use,” Strauss cautioned. “Only we living can possibly find a solution to the problems of today. But an adequate understanding of the principles as elaborated by the classics may be the indispensable starting point for an adequate analysis, to be achieved by us, of present-day society in its peculiar character” (1964, 11).

One possible reason for this was that, according to Wolin, political theory was by definition an activity of writing against its own tradition. He imagined political theory as one long conversation between past and present, with each major political thinker innovating on a previous one. The history of past thought was therefore not superfluous to contemporary theory, as some political scientists had charged, but a constitutive part of the enterprise. Their inheritance of a specific body of literature enabled political theorists to frame “an old question in a novel way,” rebel “against conservative tendencies of thought and language,” and “unfasten established ways of thought” in order to provoke contemporary reassessments (Wolin 1960/2004, 23). Seen in this light, the history of political thought displayed recurring “problem-topics” but also variation and incongruity. Theorists may have used “the same concepts,” but they meant “very different things by them” (Wolin 1960/2004, 24).

This cross-temporal, dialogical perspective served much more conservative aims in Strauss’s hands. Hedging even more than Wolin on the question of historical specificity, Strauss advised readers to recognize the uniqueness of classical antiquity as they looked for the transhistorical value of its rational inquiries. Strauss opposed what he called the liberal and historicist position that there were no universal standards for political judgment. He celebrated instead Greek philosophy’s characteristic commitments—embodied in Socrates—to asking perennial questions, providing timeless meanings, and demanding a “higher” orientation for politics. Classical authors were preferable, according to Strauss, because they wrote about political life in terms of virtue, not interest, and truth, not utility. If properly recovered, the universal values in Greek texts would remind the moderns that there were indeed standards for discerning “the hierarchy of the various types of genuine needs” in their communities (Strauss 1953, 3).

Nowhere was the subfield’s new emphasis on critical reconstruction more evident than in Arendt’s novel engagements with Greek literature and politics. Like Strauss, Arendt looked to classical authors to criticize the abstraction and relativism of the modern age. But where Strauss seemed to think “one could improve modern democracy by viewing it in the light of Plato’s or Aristotle’s ideal conceptions” (Kateb 1995, 41), Arendt saw Platonic philosophy in particular as the origins of a still-dominant tradition in need of reassessment and distancing. The classical search for universal truths to govern political life was indeed a seminal moment in the history of political thought, but it was not clear that modernity had in fact departed from this troubling tradition.

It was the Greek polis, not its critics, that appeared most instructive—though not necessarily imitable—in Between Past and Future (Arendt 1961/1993) and The Human Condition (Arendt 1958/1998), Arendt’s most “Greek” work. Yet even there, her analyses of Plato and Aristotle were indispensible to the overall project, which announced its contemporary inspiration in the very first line: “In 1957, an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe” (1958/1998, 1). What did the fact that science had finally “realized and affirmed” the “first step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth” have to do with antiquity (1958/1998, 1–2)? The wish to escape the human condition—to act as “dwellers of the universe” despite being “earth-born creatures”—was apparent in Plato’s desire to transcend the political realm of appearances and opinions for the realm of unchanging truth (1958/1998, 4). Although the modern age fixated on labor not philosophy, it had a similar effect of repudiating the public realm, where the spontaneous and plural performance of human freedom was possible. Recasting the original conflict between the philosopher and the polis in these terms was a key step toward illuminating contemporary alienation and its political effects. Later democratic theorists would find this oppositional framing helpful in their own critiques of liberalism.

The Human Condition traced modernity’s debasement of political action back to classical philosophy, which “discovered” that the political realm could not provide for all of “man’s higher activities” (1958/1998, 17–18; 1968, 47). As Arendt put it:

Escape from the frailty of human affairs into the solidity of quiet and order has in fact so much to recommend it that the greater part of political philosophy since Plato could easily be interpreted as various attempts to find theoretical foundations and practical ways for an escape from politics altogether”

(1958/1998, 222)

This evaluation of the history of political thought found pithy expression in Arendt’s preference for “political theorist” and her eschewal of “political philosopher,” a title Strauss embraced. With this gesture, Arendt registered her departure from a philosophical approach to politics that since Plato had imagined political activity as an obstacle to freedom rather than its guarantor (1958/1998, 14).

Unlike her contemporaries, who mostly focused on reading Greek thought, Arendt’s study and deployment of the Greeks for contemporary political theory was decidedly two-pronged. In her critiques of liberalism and modern politics, she devoted attention both to rereading Greek works of philosophy, poetry, and history and to recovering the uniquely participatory aspects of their democratic context—an approach that would come to characterize much recent political theory on Greek thought, though with curiously little acknowledgment of its overlap with this feature of Arendt’s work.1

Pitting the philosopher against the polis was of course not new, but Arendt presented the terms of the antagonism differently and in urgent tones. The theoretical tradition contemporary political theory traced back to Plato was not simply critical of democracy. It was antipolitical. Practical politics could “never lie in theoretical considerations or the opinion of one person,” as philosophy since the Republic had supposed, because by definition they went on “directly between men” (Arendt 1958/1998, 5, 7). Plato may have emphasized the common benefits of the Callipolis, but “the Good at which the Platonic community aimed was in no way dependent on the community, nor was it in any real sense a matter for political decision” (Wolin 1960/2004, 47).

Chief among the insights aiding Arendt’s critical project was the view, now obscured by the scientific turn, that everyday speech constituted political action in Athens. For the Greek polis, the capacity for speech and action distinguished human beings from animals and barbarians. This capacity needed particular conditions for its actualization, and so the polis maintained a political sphere, distinct from the oikos, in which to realize its political freedom in the presence of others (Arendt 1958/1998, 24). Modern society, however, had dissolved this key distinction since the organizations that employed most people’s time and attention were those through which they made their living (Tsao 2002, 117). A constellation of modern developments, including the emergence of large-scale markets, the commodification of labor, and “the growth of a spirit of conformism” that helped “reduce human activity to scientifically predictable and administratively tractable ‘behavior,’” had broken down the old distinction between public and private, “giving rise to a ‘new realm,’ in which the labor and the life process, once confined to the household,” was now “the focus of (what can no longer properly be called) public concern” (Markell 2011, 21).

Arranged this way, modern society could neither understand nor experience public freedom as something separate from the necessities of the household realm (Villa 2001, 249). If the significance of the polis-oikos erosion had been difficult for modern thinkers to grasp, it was in part because it fit with the picture they already admired in ancient philosophy. Arendt’s critical reconstruction of the tradition revealed that the philosopher’s idea of freedom promised not only an escape from the necessities of life and compulsion by others but also a “freedom and surcease from political activity” itself (1958/1998, 14).

Insofar as the distinct political space for realizing freedom in the polis depended on the relegation of labor and bodily necessity to the hidden domain of slaves and women, Arendt’s veneration of the polis seemed to some readers insufficiently sensitive to the injustice of the polis arrangement. Notwithstanding this frequent critique, the Human Condition did not actually hold the ancient polis in unqualified esteem but rather referred to the oikos as a condition of inequality (Tsao 2002). Had Arendt argued for the unique injustice of the classical arrangement, her comparison between the ancient household and modern society would have lost much of its thrust. To call Arendt nostalgic was a way of inoculating liberalism from The Human Condition’s critique: liberalism may have rejected direct, participatory democracy, but so long as it did not embrace the slavery on which classical direct democracy apparently rested, the modern liberal state could appear differently, if not more, egalitarian than the polis.

In the foundational conflict between the philosopher and the polis, Arendt and Strauss took opposite sides. But both options (action or eudaimonia) were meant as alternatives to the routinized, rationalized, and disenchanted politics of the modern era (Villa 2001, 247). Against Arendt, Strauss held that philosophy was relevant to and compatible with politics even though it might be impossible to persuade “citizens that philosophy is permissible, desirable, or even necessary” (1989, 61). The death of Socrates served to show that the philosopher’s political responsibility to speak the truth to the community was permanently risky. Nevertheless, the philosopher could not relinquish his responsibility to speak the truth, Strauss thought. The delicate balance between that responsibility and the desire for self-preservation meant that the philosopher might have to “conceal or obscure [the truth] through the use of secrecy and obfuscation”—including not only Socratic irony but also the esoteric writing for which Strauss and some of his students are known (Smith 2006, 164).

Whatever Strauss’s political beliefs, his interpretations of Plato and Xenophon on this point opened the door for readers and politicians to locate in Greek literature—and especially in the Republic’s “noble lie”—a precedent and justification for the use of mendacity by elites for the supposed benefit of the whole. (The Republic suggested that those in power could find a truth that “transcends the vagaries of time and place” [Jay 2010: 154].) The noble lie’s political utility had played a prominent role in Karl Popper’s (1943/1966) denunciation of Plato as a proto-totalitarian two decades before Strauss’s treatment of the Republic in The City and Man (1964). Although their assessments of the Republic’s value for contemporary political thinking appeared fundamentally divergent, together they conspired to limit the democratic possibilities of Plato’s thought for contemporary political theory.

Strauss was not solely interested in Greek thought, nor was he the only political theorist of his generation to develop sustained engagements with it. Yet while Arendt and Wolin have remained significant influences on contemporary political theory, only around Strauss has a professional school of thought committed to studying ancient political texts and especially Plato emerged in the field of political science. Strauss’s noted ties to neoconservative American politics have shaped disciplinary perceptions of the political theoretical study of Plato—in particular the view that outside their study in the history of political thought, the dialogues are resources particularly suited to conservative political projects (Allen 2006).

3. Historical Sensitivity and a Democratic Turn

From the late 1960s through the 1990s, the methodological challenges posed by historians associated with the Cambridge School of Intellectual History, along with the reception of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s structuralism in Anglo-American classics, inspired some political theorists to attend rigorously to the political and historical contexts in which a Greek text was produced and set. Whether they relied on classical scholarship or attempted to reconstruct their own contexts for reading, political theorists began interpreting Greek texts as historical performances. A major feature of this contextualist turn was attention to the range of cultural practices and rituals that helped constitute Athenian political life (Connor 1987; Ober 2008). Vernant called on readers to foreground the historical production of Greek tragedy in their interpretation of tragedy as a literary work. Against Levi-Strauss, whose canonical reading of Oedipus separated the play from its historical contexts, Vernant transposed the myth onto an Athenian setting where it invited a critical exploration of democratic institutions (Vernant 1988). The approach, which could extend to the analysis of other classical genres, suggested that interpreting Greek literature involved a reckoning with the political realities in which it was produced.

Historical sensitivity to Athenian poetic production and its relationship to the cultural life of the polis enabled readers to locate critical figurations of those practices in classical texts and then use them to question the meanings traditionally attributed to the activities of philosophy and democratic citizenship. Though Strauss and Arendt had incorporated a range of classical genres into their work, their critiques of contemporary political theory and practice focused on rereading philosophy. To the extent that the new historical angle placed greater emphasis on the democracy’s civic festivals, tragedy, and other discursive modes appeared to be underexploited sites of political theorizing that, unlike philosophy, embraced the inevitable conflict (Euben 1986) and uncertainty (Castoriadis 1997) thought to characterize political life.

Political theorists’ engagements with this new terrain built on some concerns of the postwar deployments of Greek literature. Despite criticisms of philological and historical inaccuracy (Euben 2003), Arendt’s work attended to etymology, cultural practices, and an expansive classical canon. Her illumination of the material conditions of democratic citizenship defamiliarized the polis and presented it as an exemplar through and against which to think political action anew. When later political theorists incorporated these lenses of analysis, they did so much more systematically than Arendt and often to opposite conclusions, of which the most striking was that Plato’s thought offered positive resources for democratic theory.

Critical of the stark antidemocratic characterization of ancient political philosophy and alert to acute issues of historical specificity, many political theorists returned to Plato and Aristotle in order to expose this entrenched picture as unduly hostile, sweeping, or anachronistic (Salkever 1991; Saxonhouse 1996; Monoson 2000; Wallach 2001; Frank 2005; Tarnopolsky 2010). By directing attention to the material conditions of Athenian politics, this work raised implicit questions about the dominance of constitutional and institutional approaches to democracy in political theory.

Political scientists often took for granted the notion that a democratic regime was (pre)constituted by its institutions and procedures, but this idea was incompatible with the case of Athens and the theoretical approaches of Greek literature. The persistent modern translation of politeia as “constitution” did more than reveal the privileged position of an institutional or procedural lens in modern political thinking. “This inexplicable sign of ignorance or incomprehension,” wrote Cornelius Castoriadis, “made it impossible to appreciate that a politeia was both a city’s political institution and “the way people go about common affairs” (1997, 278). As Derrida had written about the word pharmakon in Plato studies, the typical translation of politeia “obliterate[d] the virtual, dynamic references to the other uses of the same word in Greek” (1972/1981, 98) Politeia’s translation canceled out “the resources of ambiguity” and made more “difficult, if not impossible, an understanding of the context” in which the lived experience of citizenship was a critical node of political theoretical analysis (1972/1981, 97). Law and procedure could never predetermine politics in the classical view because they were always subject to an unpredictable and risky process of contestation and revision by the people (Castoriadis 1997). As Wolin put forth in his Greek-inspired “aconstitutional” theory of democracy, political science would do better to think of democracy as “resistant to the rationalizing conceptions of power and its organization which for centuries have dominated western thinking and have developed constitutionalism and their legitimating rationale” (1994, 37).2

A serious engagement with classical scholarship and an analysis of a wider range of classical sources, including poetry, oratory, myth, and history, demonstrated that Athenians understood and enacted democracy through a number of political practices not captured by the constitutional frame. Nicole Loraux’s groundbreaking work The Invention of Athens (1986) introduced Anglo-American political theorists to the epitaphios logos, a genre Athenians used to develop their ideas of the model city. These underappreciated speeches of public mourning were critical discourses that revealed the democracy’s paradoxical commitments (e.g., to the heroic individual and the community, to earned and inherited virtue) and its attempts to unify the polis amid internal and external divisions continually threatening its stability (Loraux 1986). The funeral orations depicted in Thucydides and Plato and the burial practices invoked by Antigone now offered some political theorists alternative languages for evaluating the role eulogy and lamentation played in contemporary democracy (Stow 2007; Honig 2013).

Perhaps more important still, the deeper appreciation of Athenian civic practices allowed for an engagement with the literary and historical features of Plato’s work, which was shown to draw on formerly underrecognized democratic language, imagery, and practices (Vidal-Naquet 1986; Nightingale 1995; Ober 1998; Allen 2000, 2010). If Plato’s distinctive practice of philosophy appropriated aspects of such popular institutions as the democracy’s parrhēsia (Foucault 2001) the antidemocratic characterization of philosophy and Plato may have obscured more than it illuminated about the Platonic project (Monoson 2000). Arendt found the theatrical in the dialogical and public character of the Greek polis. Political theorists now saw it reflected as well in the performative features of Platonic philosophy. As J. Peter Euben observed,

Plato’s debt to theater is not a debt to some arbitrary aesthetic invention but to the social institution of his culture, which means that his attitude toward tragedy is a way of locating him in the intellectual traditions and political practices that defined Athenian democracy.

(1990, 236)

Efforts to situate Plato more firmly in his political realities, or show that Plato situated the dialogues there, did more than discredit a Cold War picture of Plato. They drew attention to Plato’s possibilities as a political thinker (Wallach 2001; Allen 2006) to theorize with rather than only against. To approach Plato as “an ‘immanent’ critic of a corrupt Athenian democracy” (Tarnopolsky 2010, 16, emphasis added) was to see in his work not an unconditional rejection of democratic rule but still-relevant meditations on the circumstances in which democracy reneged on its own political commitments to equality, discussion, and freedom. This Platonic corpus was polyvocal. It could serve as the origins of a deliberative tradition committed to objective rational agreement (Urbinati 2010) at the same time that it offered a powerful argument for the necessary role emotions played in political judgment (Tarnopolsky 2010). One could locate a foundational moment of sexual difference in the Timaeus (Butler 1993) and a “feminist” argument uncoupling sex from the eligibility to rule in the Republic (Vlastos 1997).

If the flip side of the antidemocratic characterization of philosophy had been the celebration of the polis as an antipode to the modern liberal state, then this polis also needed reconsideration. The nostalgic version of Athens, for which Arendt and others had come to stand (Euben 2003), tended to emphasize the city’s participatory citizenship, which rested on an unprecedented decoupling of rule and wealth. Yet interest in the city’s egalitarian aspects seemed to come at the price of understanding not that the city also used sex- and blood-based exclusion to constitute citizenship, as historians had long documented, but how these strategies of exclusion worked alongside the city’s more inclusionary notion of citizenship (Loraux 1993; Kasimis 2013). Focused on the category of woman, Loraux shed light on how Athenian founding stories, like the exceptionalist myth of autochthony, were not only important contexts for the interpretation of Athenian imperialism and identity but also objects of criticism in the Athenian corpus itself (Loraux 1993). If political theorists sometimes dismissed classical authors as elitist or chauvinist, they risked overlooking their critiques of democracy’s tyrannical, aristocratic, oligarchic, imperial, and patriarchal dimensions (Loraux 1986; Saxonhouse 1992, 1996; Balot 2001; Wallach 2001; Frank 2005). Restored to a moment “between polis and empire,” for instance, the metic Aristotle turned out to be much more ambivalent about the imperial conquest and Greek hegemony he was often enlisted to support (Dietz 2012). Overall, the diversified political theoretical record has challenged the broad impulse to see Greek literature as the unequivocal ground for political positions modernity either disavowed or celebrated.

At the same time that questions of historical specificity have gained traction in some circles, most theorists writing on the Greeks in recent decades have oriented their readings around questions of democratic equality and action. What this democratic turn means for present-oriented political theory is frequently different from the historically sensitive project of looking at the democratic possibilities of a thinker like Plato—and may even work against it. Efforts to find instructive explorations of pressing democratic questions in classical Greece tend to take two, though by no means discrete, forms. One looks to tragedy, a genre seemingly more polyvocal and thus better suited to an antistatist, emancipatory politics than Greek philosophy. The other expresses the postwar interest in figuring the polis as a productive counterexample to liberal and deliberative conceptions of theory and politics.

Largely symptomatic of Hegel’s reception of the play, few Greek texts have proved as generative for new thinking about contemporary politics as Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. For over half a century, Antigone has figured largely in debates about civil disobedience (Walzer 1970), pluralism (Nussbaum 1986; Connolly 2008), mourning (Butler 2004; Honig 2013), and most strikingly feminism and political action. Among feminist critics, there has been little agreement about how to categorize Antigone’s challenge to Creon’s edict, with the effect that Antigone has frequently represented competing conceptions of feminist agency and political resistance. Through her identification with the “private” sphere of kinship, Antigone stood in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s reading for an antistatist politics giving “voice to familial and social imperatives and duties” (1982, 307). Mary Dietz countered that rather than mobilize Antigone to “reverse the existential priority of the public realm over the private realm,” Antigone should be read as a citizen acting in opposition to a particular kind of politics of authoritarian rule (1985, 22, 29). In her reading of the play, Judith Butler revisited the question of Antigone’s resistance to ask in what sense the heroine could be said to stand outside the political order she defied. Antigone’s Claim (2000) took aim at the dominant Hegelian reception of the play when it noted that “every interpretive effort to cast a character as representative of kinship or the state tends to falter and lose coherence and stability” (2000, 5) The reason for this faltering, Butler argued, was that there was “no kinship without the support and mediation of the state and no state without the family as its support and mediation” (2000, 5). By foregrounding the question of kinship and its political contingency in the play, Butler’s reading firmly established Antigone in the political sphere and marked a shift in political theoretical interpretation (Holmes 2012), whereby Antigone was no longer defined by her exclusion from the public realm but exemplary of transgressive, political action (Honig 2013).

In the second half of the 20th century, the desire for an Archimedean point from which to theorize politics, which Arendt originally attributed to Plato, found renewed expression in the liberalism of John Rawls, who ground just institutions in rational, objective, and unanimous agreement (Rawls 1971). The newer debates around liberalism subtly recast some of the conflicts Arendt had set up between Plato and Athens. The postwar theorists explored liberalism’s abstraction through an immediate consideration of Athenian thought and politics. Now the debt to Plato and the polis was more presumed than critically examined, a sign that the postwar opposition had become more or less entrenched.

Rawls’s philosophical experiment put forward an “original position,” in which abstract and ideal agents were imagined to negotiate principles of justice from behind a “veil of ignorance.” From there, they were unable to “choose principles of justice that [would] advance their own particular interests or reward their own particular talents” and could guarantee a just outcome by rendering the site of original political negotiation “safe, calculable” and closed off from future contestation (Honig 1993). Having canceled “the unpredictability of plural interaction that constitutes the proprium of politics,” liberalism replaced it with the predictability of order (Cavarero 2002, 512). Such distance from the world presumed that philosophy’s task was to stand apart and provide criteria for judgment. But as a blueprint for politics, it was as vulnerable to Arendt’s critique as the Republic had been. Here, as in Arendt’s Plato, the founding principles of justice were settled ahead of time and politics became “the application of rules to particular cases by judges and administrators, and the following of rules by citizens generally” (Rawls 1971, 199). Rawls’s theory relegated disagreement to the private realm. Despite his theory’s commitment to pluralism, those who deviated from the norm would have no resources through which to assert their difference; their inequality could not be justified.

To critics, liberalism’s neat vision of politics was fundamentally opposed to autonomy and equality in spite of its legal guarantees to the contrary. Athens provided a powerful counterexample for illustrating that politics was not reducible to institutions and their procedures but rather consisted in “the activity and struggle around the change of the institutions” (Castoriadis 1997, 274), those practices Rawls’s theory depoliticized and displaced. The poleis “do not stop questioning their respective institutions,” wrote Castoriadis. “The demos goes on modifying the rules under which it lives” (1997, 275). In Athens, only the movements of “self-institution”—enactments, not assertions, of the creed that “we posit our own laws”—made a people autonomous. And on this “active participation” also depended equality, so that it was not only “the granting of equal passive ‘rights’” but their repeated performance that (re)secured equality for citizens (Castoriadis 1997, 275).

Theorists of “agonistic” politics pointed out that, in celebrating consensus, liberals like Rawls and deliberative democrats like Habermas advanced a negative view of contestation as a disruptive, irrational, and unpolitical act (Mouffe 1993). They countered by affirming the central political importance of two ideas implicit in the Greek notion of agon—struggle and a concern for the “other,” without whom an agon could not take place (Connolly 1991; Honig 1993; Mouffe 1993). What followed from depoliticizing contestation, agonists suggested, was a reality in which some claims of injustice and inequality would always go unrecognized as political demands—a problem that signaled to some an irreconcilable difference between a liberal politics and democratic politics (Chambers 2013, 10).

The realities of postcolonialism, migration, and postnational citizenship made it clear that the question of which claims counted as political demands was also a question of speech—or whose counted as such. As Arendt argued by way of the Politics, “Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being” (1958/1998, 3). But what of those persons whose capacity for logos was denied? The possession of logos might be the mark that distinguished the political animal from all others, but Aristotle’s idea could also be wielded as a political tool for excluding persons whose speech was polemically interpreted as mere (animal-like) sound. Crossing national boundaries in the discipline, French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s influential Disagreement (1999) revisited not the polis per se but Aristotle’s “celebrated lines” to ask just how given or legible the sign of logos was (Chambers 2013, 96ff). “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being,” Rancière explained, “you begin by not seeing them as the bearers of politicalness, by not understanding what they say, by not hearing that it is an utterance coming out of their mouths” (Rancière 2001, par. 23). If the distinction between phônê and logos was not prepolitical or pregiven, it was drawn, redrawn, and thus always contestable. With this foundational Aristotelian binary unsettled, political theorists began exploring its wider implications for questions of immigration and noncitizen activism (Beltrán 2010; Frank 2010): democratic politics actually occurred when persons excluded from logos contested the line that polities used to render them illegible (Rancière 1999, 22).

Whether looking to explain or unsettle the political present, many of the aforementioned engagements with the Greeks have tended to leave the critical reconstruction of the history of ancient political thought to the “historians” of political thought. Whereas much historically sensitive work sought to question the oppositions (e.g., philosopher vs. polis, ancient vs. modern democracy; antipolitical vs. embedded Plato) they inherited from the postwar period, explicitly contemporary political theory has been slow to incorporate the implications of these challenges into their readings of Greek thought and politics. Likewise, historically sensitive readings of Greek literature have not, as a rule, engaged in the kind of large-scale contemporary critique central to the major postwar engagements with the history of political thought.

This shift, though not universal, risks reinscribing the distinction between theory and interpretation that some postwar theorists sought to polemicize and subvert. In different ways, Arendt, Strauss, and Wolin insisted that the narration of past texts and the theorization of contemporary politics were unavoidably imbricated critical practices. The years since the “historical turn,” however, reveal an increasing division of labor along those lines. If earlier theorists stressed the importance of analyzing Plato and Aristotle as the origins of a wayward philosophical tradition, it was because they held that contemporary critique required a radical and simultaneous reconstruction of the tradition that was said to bequeath the discipline’s core theoretical nodes and concepts. Recent political theory has tended to bifurcate this practice in the study of the Greeks even when presented with alternative theoretical models from other fields.

Though not always recognized as a political thinker, Jacques Derrida pursued the political theoretical project of rewriting the tradition by mobilizing classical texts “in an ongoing dialogue with the present” (Leonard 2010, 3). His forty-year engagement with antiquity demonstrated that “the urgency of the now [could] be best addressed” by a “radical re-reading of the foundational texts” (Leonard 2010, 2), which he performed famously in his seminal essay on antiquity, “Plato’s Pharmacy” (Derrida 1972/1981), and elsewhere connected to such explicit political issues as immigration in contemporary Europe. Attending carefully to the Greek in “Pharmacy,” Derrida emphasized close textual engagement. He tracked the term pharmakon to show that Plato’s “text” could not be reduced to a system of hierarchically ordered oppositions, as generations of readers had presumed. The distinctions Plato drew engaged in a kind of textual play that rendered their meanings unstable. If, at the apparent instruction of the dialogues, translation and interpretation frequently closed down this play, then readers were complicit in claiming a certain kind of Platonism. This Platonism tethered them further to the traditions of antiquity and modernity that Derrida’s deconstructive strategy of reading sought to diagnose and ultimately explode.

4. Greek Literature and Contemporary Political Theory at the Postmillennial Juncture

Whether the realization is cast in terms of pluralism or conflict, political theory’s sense that “ends collide” in this world both across “comprehensive conceptions” and “within them” has deepened since the discipline crossed the millennial mark (White 2002, 474). This urgent realization cannot be captured by metanarratives aimed at reconciliation. At the same time, “the scale and power of a globalized market” and increasing flows of peoples and ideas across national borders are challenging the nation-state as the traditional unit in which democratic ideals can be realized (White 2002, 475) and suggest that the thought and politics of classical Greece may hold new relevance in a postnational condition. Feeling the need to radically rethink the spaces of democratic life and account for the “strange multiplicity of voices and activities without distorting or disqualifying them” (Tully 2002, 537), some political theorists have already looked to Athens and its literature for provocative explorations of plurality, marginality (Rancière 1999; Butler 2000; Euben 2003; Markell 2003; Honig 2013), and political inertia (Lane 2012).

In the postwar period, the question of Greek literature’s relevance to contemporary political theory pressed some theorists to think about their enterprise as a historical-critical practice and enabled the discipline’s appreciation for the past’s power to disorient in the present. Some political theorists continue these efforts at reconstructing the tradition by bringing an acute historical specificity or hermeneutic lens to their textual exegesis. Others show their debt by deploying the polis as the strange-yet-familiar antipode to logocentric, authoritarian, and procedural conceptions of politics. The postwar theorists, however, also held that Greek thought could not provoke new insights into aporias of democracy, action, and equality unless the same theorists diagnosed the terms of their Greek inheritance as they read. To embrace the full thrust of this insight is to ask how today’s political theorists may have come to domesticate the postwar picture of Greek literature and politics.

Political theorists’ desires to find new insights in the practices and values of classical Athens have often been accompanied by a broad and comforting impulse to trace the limitations of modern abstract and universalizing theories to the city’s purportedly staunchest critic. Despite the polyvocal Plato that emerged from the previous decades of historically sensitive work, the Plato that haunts contemporary democratic theory is still frequently the originator of antidemocratic, foundationalist, essentialist, and conservative political projects (Cavarero 2002; Lane 2001). This figure, however, does not generally reflect conversations ongoing in the history of political thought.

Democratic theorists have grown increasingly alert to the “remainders” of politics—whether those refer to persons who do not meet the requirements of the orders in which they are living or those who, like Butler’s Antigone, do not fit dominant norms of kinship. This strategy for reading and thinking about politics may be partly inspired by Derrida’s deconstruction, which invites the reader to see the aporias, deadlocks, contradictions, and exclusions that constitute a text, a political order, or an inherited tradition. Yet most political theorists writing through or on the Greeks have yet to embrace the radical challenge deconstruction directly posed to the sedimented interpretation of Plato. In light of Derrida’s impact on the discipline of political theory and its related fields (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Spivak 1988; Butler 1990; Douzinas et al. 1991; Norval 2008), this reluctance is revealing. While a thinker like Rancière might show the fluidity of Aristotle’s distinctions, his ascendant work in the field remains invested in a decidedly un-deconstructed Plato—a figure who, despite his use of dialogue, stands for a logocentric philosophical project wholly antithetical to the model of contestation that agonists pursue (Chambers 2013; Rancière 2006).

Are Plato’s rigid hierarchies, oppositions, and logocentrism Plato or Platonism? Though for Derrida it would be “misguided” to “insist on an opposition between Plato and the tradition of reading Plato” (Leonard 2005, 196), much is at stake in marking this distinction. If “Derrida is anxious to uncover the history of reading which has made the Platonic text the ‘origin’ of Platonism,” it is to show that Plato’s text only becomes part of a “philosophical system” once the reader puts “a stop to the polysemy and ‘open-endedness’ of the Platonic text.” Derrida’s approach holds the reader responsible for fixing a certain version of Platonism (Leonard 2005, 195, 200).

Historically sensitive interpretations of Plato and Aristotle, new understandings of Greek political concepts, and a greatly expanded political theory canon of Greek literature have altered the terms of political theory’s Greek inheritance since the postwar juncture. Yet contemporary political theory has not often recuperated these new interpretive possibilities for democratic theory and in particular those posed by a polyvocal Plato. The danger implicit in overlooking this more complicated Plato is that contemporary political theory risks reproducing the rigid oppositions it often questions—not between the political and unpolitical but between the political and the depoliticized. As future generations pose questions about political theory’s critical practice and seek instructive explorations of recurring political questions in Greek literature, they might seek a different angle of vision. They might ask not how are we the receivers of Plato’s tradition but Plato ours.


My thanks to Brooke Holmes, Sara Monoson, John Wallach, Melissa Lane, Paul North, Ella Myers, Larry George, Philip Baker, Christopher Skeaff, Kevin Wallsten, and Vassilis Lambropoulos for their helpful comments.


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                                                                                                                                                                      (1) An exception to this tendency among political theorists focused on Greek thought is J. Peter Euben’s Platonic Noise (2003).

                                                                                                                                                                      (2) Melissa Lane has recently argued, however, that there is still value in thinking of politeia as constitution but more broadly as a “specific kind of ordering and structure” that applies to “natural bodies as much as to political bodies” (2014: 60−61).