From Foucault to a Straussian on Athenian Democracy

Reading I’ve been doing on Ancient democracy, in large part (though very certainly not exclusively) because of work on what Foucault says about antique politics, has led me to both some classic works on the antique polis, and to some more recent work.  I was surprised to find that I had unawares picked up a book by a Straussian with the innocuous title Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, Arlene W. Saxonhouse  (Cambridge University Press, 2006).  For those not already the know, Straussians are followers of Leo Strauss, a political philosopher of German origin who did most of his best known work in the United States.  This isn’t the place to discuss Strauss properly, my best summary right now is that he was a Platonist who saw democracy as threatened by nihilism unless grounded in Platonic natural law and virtue, though he may have seen those more as ways of masking nihilism rather than overcoming it.  He famously influenced some Neo-Conservatives in America, but also influenced some left leaning American political thinkers like William Galston.  In general, he appeals to those who tend to fear moral, political, and cultural decline.

Saxonhouse’s book seems like a scholarly and well written wrok to my non-specialist eyes, nevertheless of intrusion of Straussian orthodoxy is wearying.  Machiavelli ‘s arguments in favour of tension between classes as an incitement of political engagement, and the strength of a republic, are apparently not ‘really’ arguments in favour of democracy, but a form of psychological manipulation by the state.  The argument makes no sense to me as a reading of Machiavelli, and Saxonhouse does nothing to convince me that it makes any sense.  This is typical of Stauss who regarded Machiavelli, along with Nietzsche, as the preacher of moral nihilism.  A tiresomely one sided view resting on cliches which have long interrupted the proper understanding of both.

That was the worse moment for me, there’s a lots of interesting commentary on the role of parrhesia (free speaking) and isegoria (equality of status) in Athenian democracy.  It’s all very reminiscent of Foucault in its points of reference, though if she took inspiration from Foucault she keeps quiet about it.  As far as I can see Foucault’s work is well known amongst classicists and classicists did not refer as much to parrhesia and isegoria before Foucault wrote about them, as they did afterwards.  Maybe Foucault is too ‘nihilistic’ for the Struassians.  He features exactly twice in Saxonhouse’s index, which is even more strange we consider how much attention Saxanhouse pays to tragedy, particularly Euripides, in her discussion of parrhesia.  Foucault had done the same.

Saxonhouse does have some interesting things to say about shame and democratic discourse.  She argues that Socrates was put on trial because he took the element of shamelessness in democratic discourse to the extreme.  She also claims that this element in Plato’s dialogues links him with democracy as well.  The discussion is a good one, but is somewhat conditioned by the Straussian belief that democracy is the regime with which philosophers can best live in practice, engaging in a kind of coded discourse to avoid upsetting popular morality and religiosity.  Strauss comes pretty close to saying that the negative nihilism he attributes to Machiavelli and Nietzsche is true, but philosophers should not say so openly.   The Straussian assumptions are not acknowledged of examined by Saxonhouse, which is a deficiency, but an apparently inevitable one if Straussians.  They like to pronounce rather than explain, examine and defend their assumptions.

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2 thoughts on “From Foucault to a Straussian on Athenian Democracy

  1. If you’re interested in less tendentious scholarly treatments of the Athenian democracy and haven’t already read Mogens Herman Hansen’s The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes and Josiah Ober’s more theoretically elaborate Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, I urge you to do so. Saxonhouse is a good Straussian, which is to say that her work is often suggestive and provocative in productive ways. But even the best Straussians are usually wrong.

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