Silence and Democracy

Silence and Democracy: Athenian Politics in Thucydides' History

JOHN G. ZUMBRUNNEN
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/j.ctt7v4pf
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  • Book Info
    Silence and Democracy
    Book Description:

    The role of elites vis-à-vis the mass public in the construction and successful functioning of democracy has long been of central interest to political theorists. In Silence and Democracy, John Zumbrunnen explores this theme in Thucydides’ famous history of the Peloponnesian War as a way of focusing our thoughts about this relationship in our own modern democracy. In Periclean Athens, according to Thucydides, “what was in name a democracy became in actuality rule by the first man.” This political transformation of Athenian political life raises the question of how to interpret the silence of the demos. Zumbrunnen distinguishes the “silence of contending voices” from the “collective silence of the demos,” and finds the latter the more difficult and intriguing problem. It is in the complex interplay of silence, speech, and action that Zumbrunnen teases out the meaning of democracy for Thucydides in both its domestic and international dimensions and shows how we may benefit from the Thucydidean text in thinking about the ways in which the silence of ordinary citizens can enable the domineering machinations of political elites in America and elsewhere today.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05491-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    Reflecting on the life and career of the great Athenian politician Pericles, Thucydides tells us that during his ascendancy in Athens, “what was in name a democracy [logō men dēmokratia] became in actuality rule by the first man [tou trōpou andros archē]” (2.65).¹ How ought we to understand the political transformation suggested here? As his accounts ofstasis, especially at Corcyra and Athens, make clear, moments of revolutionary political change hold considerable interest for Thucydides. But those moments as they appear in theHistoryinvolve attempts to change the form of government or, more precisely, attempts to bring about institutional...

  5. 1 Athenian Stasis and the Quiet of the Mob
    (pp. 27-44)

    Before turning more directly to democratic politics in Thucydides’ Athens, I consider in this opening chapter Thucydides’ accounts ofstasis, first at Corcyra and then at Athens. As I noted in the Introduction, Thucydides in both cases deploys the language ofstasisto describe oligarchic movements against established democracies.¹ In this sense, his understanding of revolutionary politics apparently stands opposed to contemporary work—most notably that of Sheldon Wolin—that sees democracy itself as the revolutionary overturning of existing forms. In the case of Athens in particular, Thucydides’ different understanding of the phenomenon to whichstasisproperly refers in turn...

  6. 2 The Silence of Hoi Athenaioi: Two Modes of Athenian Action in the History
    (pp. 45-70)

    So Cleon, according to Thucydides the “most violent” but also the most influential Athenian in the years after the death of the great Pericles, launches his “volcanic tirade against the democratic practice of full discussion.”¹ Much is at stake in the debate that Cleon thus joins. Most immediately, hanging in the balance is the fate of those captured upon the fall of the city of Mitylene, which is part of the vast Athenian empire. Only a day before, the Athenians have decreed death or slavery for their rebellious eastern Aegean subjects; now a night of remorse and regret has somehow...

  7. 3 Deliberative Action and Athenian “Character”
    (pp. 71-94)

    Thucydides offers this comparison of the Spartans and the Athenians within a few chapters of the point at which theHistoryabruptly ends. Amidst the internecine political struggles of the 400 and the 5000 in Athens, a Peloponnesian fleet has engaged and destroyed twenty-two Athenian triremes off Eretria. With Athens itself suddenly left all but undefended by sea, the Spartans have a golden opportunity: they could blockade the Athenian port at the Piraeus and compel an unconditional surrender; or alternatively, they could feign an attack on the Piraeus, thus luring the remaining Athenian fleet away from the shores of Ionia...

  8. 4 The Silence of the Demos and the Challenges of Political Judgment: On the “Decline” of Athenian Politics
    (pp. 95-124)

    Other than what we learn from his brief appearance in theHistory, we know little of this Diodotus. His name means something like “the gift of god,” and some have thought him a figment of Thucydides’ historical imagination, fashioned to provide a foil for Cleon. We have seen in passing Diodotus’ response to Cleon’s attack on speech: there can be no other means, he says, “to throw light on that which still belongs to the dim and distant future” (3.42). In the passage above, Diodotus turns his attention from the flaws of Cleon’s argument to the foibles of the Athenian...

  9. 5 Justice and Empire: Athenian Silence and the Representation of Athens Abroad
    (pp. 125-156)

    To this point I have for the most part focused my reading of Athenian democratic politics in theHistoryon the interactions of Athenians in the assembly. The last two chapters in particular have centered on what I in Chapter 2 called the “deliberative mode” of Athenian action. Consideration of that mode of action centers our attention on the struggle of elites to win political influence and the manner in which the Athenian demos, by the silent power of its presence, problematizes all elite attempts to control the meaning of politics, action, and identity in the city. A full understanding...

  10. 6 Athenian Silence and the Fate of Plataea
    (pp. 157-180)

    In the summer of the fifth year of the Peloponnesian War, the remaining inhabitants of the small Boeotian city of Plataea, at the end of a lengthy siege and after the heroic escape of a number of their fellows, give themselves over to the mercy of the Peloponnesian allies. Though they allow the captives a lengthy speech, the five Spartans who subsequently sit in judgment in the end put a simple question to each: Have you done anything for Sparta in the current war? Long and loyal allies of the Athenians, some of whom surrender with them, none of the...

  11. Conclusion: Thucydides for Democrats?
    (pp. 181-191)

    Thucydides’ description of his work as a “possession for all time” and his assertion that the future will in some sense resemble the past (1.22) have long tempted readers to find more or less direct parallels between theHistoryand their own time. In these concluding pages, I succumb to this temptation, briefly considering what the reading of theHistoryI have offered here might have to tell us about American democratic politics in the first years of the twenty-first century. I do so with the caveat that finding contemporary relevance in theHistoryis not so straightforward as it...

  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 192-197)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 198-200)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)