Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge is the third in his series on ancient Athens. The series is written for college level (or beyond) and will enlighten those with a firm understanding of both Greek history and concepts in the social sciences or as part of a course curriculum. For people concerned about the ability of democracy to thrive in the modern world, this look back in time provides crucial insights.
Introduction: Dispersed Knowledge and Public Action
The 1st chapter explains that Athenian democracy was unlike modern democracy for one main reason: modern democracy "willfully ignores popular sources of useful knowledge." Policies are decided behind closed doors. In contrast, Athens aggregated, aligned, and codified useful knowledge from the very large body of ordinary citizens, which allowed it to compete with authoritarian rivals, make mistakes, and get back on track. As long as democracy is rational and moral, it is the best form of government, Ober claims. Rational, moral decision-making is possible in a large body, like the Athenian political body, only as long as the members have relevant common knowledge and share objectives. These are guided by self-interest and allow democracy to act more as a market than a closed board meeting.
Ch. 2 Assessing Athenian Performance
The 2nd chapter backs up Ober's contention that Athens was successful in the inter-polis world of ancient Greece. He provides tables and empirical evidence before detailing the 12 eras of Athenian history:
- 700-595 Eupatrid oligarchy
- 594-509 Solon and tyranny
- 508-491 Foundation of democracy
- 490-479 Persian Wars
- 478-462 Delian League and postwar building
- 461-430 High empire and struggle for Greek hegemony
- 429-416 Peloponnesian War phase I: Stalemate
- 415-404 Peloponnesian War phase II: Crisis
- 403-379 Post-Peloponnesian War
- 378-355 Naval Confederation and Social War, financial crisis
- 354-322 Confronting Macedon, economic prosperity
- 321-146 Macedonian and Roman domination
Athens was exceptional because it required so much participation. Legislation and the judicial were in the hands of groups of hundreds and thousands of citizens. Magisterial bodies might have 10 members to handle executive matters, but they were subject to review and were accountable to the citizens.
Ober argues that the reason Athens succeeded as well as it did was that it had a viable system for "organizing useful knowledge".
Ch. 3 Competition, Scale, and Varieties of Knowledge
Warfare was common in the ancient Greek world. Athens, like other urban areas, was destroyed and rebuilt. Political choice, like democracy, didn't prevent destruction, but helped with rebuilding. Despite external threats, there was only regional cooperation among the Greek poleis, not enough to join up into a Roman-style state. Most Greek poleis were small, with face-to-face communities where everyone knows everyone else's expertise. The term Ober uses is "Normalpolis". In such an environment, who is skilled at what is known, so the community can put such information to practical use. Small groups, like peer groups, also sanction inappropriate behavior easily. Athens outgrew the Normalpolis-type community, but still needed the knowledge of individuals brought together to serve the collective.
Ch. 4 Aggregation: Network, Teams, and Experts
Cleisthenes' Tribes of AthensNS Gill
Ober provides an example of how the Athenians handled public policy by showing a very detailed and complicated decree from 325/4 B.C. that we know about because it was inscribed on a stele. The purpose was to establish a naval station with permanent settlers and equipped warships. 14 public bodies and officials are named, few of whom would be considered pros. Provision of funds is stipulated, an incentive bonus is named for the fastest team, and sanctions are established for misconduct. Men who don't believe they are rich enough to outfit the warship, but have been named and thereby ordered to do so, have a specified appeal process. The legislative body that decided this decree was made of whichever citizens showed up at the Assembly that day.
The Athenian voters, no longer living in the small polis, were originally divided into regional tribes. Cleisthenes re-divided the citizen body so that villagers from one geographic area were paired up with villagers from other regions in new tribal groups: plains, coast and inland villagers mixed together. The groups interacted first together in their deme, then tribe, and then with the entire citizen body. Mixed in this way, the tribes had knowledge of a wider, more diverse group than would a tribe based on proximity.