With the collapse of communism and consequent disrepute of Marxism, there is a danger that liberalism will overwhelm democracy and that liberal political theory will become hegemonic despite the efforts of “communitarians” and postmodernists. I want to suggest that, given these developments, Athenian democracy and classical political theory read in its terms is a worthy political and theoretical interlocutor for both. (For a more detailed argument see the “Introduction” to Euben, Ober, and Wallach 1993.) This is not to engage in yet more polis envy, indulge in yet more Hellenic romanticism about “The Glory That Was Greece,” or endorse the uncritical worship of “great books.” My aim, rather, is to avoid the self-congratulation, complacency, and presentism that too often attends “our victory” in the Cold War and to make a contribution to the ensuing debate about American political identity.
As this suggests, my concerns here are partly political. I want to indicate the strategies by which “Athenian democracy” is delegitimated as a challenge to contemporary democracy and question the way classical political theory is used to legitimate an antidemocratic political and educational agenda. That democratic Athens should be understood in terms of contemporary political controversies is nothing new. The Federalist Papers used it as an object lesson by which to justify limiting democracy in the name of republicanism, and debates over reform of the British Parliament and French Revolution found conservatives criticizing the politics of their own day in terms of the putative excesses of democratic Athens, much as Allan Bloom has done in our own time (Turner 1981, chaps. 1 and 5).