The Wisdom of Crowds–In Ancient Greece

by Victor Davis Hanson

A review of Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athensby Josiah Ober (Princeton University Press, 2008, 362pp.)

Ancient Greek society had seen nothing quite like the myriad of classical Athenian bureaucracies, boards, courts, offices and voting bodies that redistributed private capital, brought status to the poor dêmos, and created a broad cultural renaissance among the masses. And Western civilization has not experienced anything quite like Athenian democracy since.

Democracy and Knowledge is the most recent, and largely successful, effort from Professor Josiah Ober to explain why this radical experiment was not merely exceptional among the more than 1,000 city-states of classical Greece, but can also serve as a model argument for the superiority of democratic government in general across time and space.

Ober’s first book on Athens, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, examined how public oratory at Athens served to bridge tensions between radical egalitarianism and traditional elite values. His second, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, argued that popular conservative critics of Athens — Socrates, Thucydides, Plato and others — were, in fact, engaged in a constructive dialogue with fervent supporters of democracy, whose ideas in the formal sense, unfortunately, are mostly lost to the historical record.

In this final book of his comprehensive, two-decade-long trilogy, Ober now believes that Athenian democracy grew unusually powerful and influential because its citizenry usually made the right decisions. And they did so, as he painstakingly argues, largely because they were better informed and knowledgeable about economic, military and political choices than their counterparts in the other less-democratic Greek poleis.

After the establishment of a democratic government under Cleisthenes (507 B.C.), thousands of Athenians, from far more diverse backgrounds than in the past, for the first time became directly involved in the decision-making of the state. Sometimes over the next two centuries the result was chaotic and scary — as the later comic playwright Aristophanes constantly pointed out, and Ober himself at times concedes. Nevertheless, Athens grew strong, wealthy and imperial precisely because the inclusion of knowledgeable citizens ensured that eventually the best ideas would be implemented into policy through the collective wisdom of the masses — a lesson, Ober also implies, quite relevant to democratic governments today.

How did Athenians do that much better than more hierarchical and authoritarian rivals in Sparta and elsewhere? Ober provides a good review of how 8,000 Athenians met about twice a month to opine, jeer and debate public policy in a no-holds-barred, open-air assembly. Decrees and public actions were publicly posted. Popular courts involved thousands in the minutiae of civil and criminal cases. Hundreds of offices were filled by random lot. That ensured that even the poor exercised some responsibility. Majestic public architecture at Athens facilitated the physical challenges involved in a mass exchange of ideas. Frequent festivals and dramatic presentations ensured collective familiarly with a common Athenian mythology and ethos.

As proof of all this, Ober also demonstrates well that the city of Athens and its surrounding territory of Attica only became truly superior to most other city-states during the two-century life of democracy in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. This period after Cleisthenes brought unusual prosperity and success compared to the oligarchy and tyranny that had came before — and would reappear afterward in the guise of Macedonian and then Roman subjugation of Athens. The sheer number of informed citizens also explains why classical Athenian culture often surpassed that of other city-states such as non-democratic Corinth, Thebes and Sparta. Such oligarchies may have had as many natural resources and as large a population, but often lacked Athens’ unique political advantages.

All that said, the general reader will find it difficult to wade through the language and style of Democracy and Knowledge. Some of the arguments read like sociology cloaked in postmodern theorizing. Difficult sentences such as the following two are commonplace: “Finally, trade-offs between alignment and resistance to alignment, in the people’s courts as in other decision-making assemblies, contributed to Athens’ non-hierarchical epistemic equilibrium while sustaining its social equilibrium.” And: “The hypothesis would be falsified if Athenian institutions manifested the strong path dependency associated with robust forms of socialization, or if they changed in the whimsical and undisciplined manner that Tocqueville (among others) associated with democracy as majoritarianism.”
Complex social science bar graphs, schematics and flow charts would be more at home in PowerPoint corporate presentations than in narrative history. Sometimes a reasonable argument is presented in deductive fashion: The abstract theory of knowledge assimilation is offered first; the hypothetical ‘if A…’ and ‘then B’ generic illustration follows second; and only third come secondary works on Greek history (and to a lesser extent primary sources from Greek literature) to support the seemingly preconceived results.

What was the role of mass collective wisdom upon popular morality — or how do we assess the notion of democratic success? Did an empowered Athenian citizenry prompt more ethical state behavior in comparison with the morality of other non-democratic city-states of the times? Ober could have explained at length how it was an informed Athenian dêmos somehow authorized the mass execution of the Melians, the Mytileneans, the citizens of Scione, executed the philosopher Socrates and exiled the historian Thucydides.

At one time or another, the Assembly drove out almost every gifted Athenian general who had once saved the polis, among them Aristides, Miltiades and Themistocles — and killed en masse most of the admirals who had just given the Athenians a brilliant sea victory at Arginusae over the Spartans. The American Founders were familiar with such atrocities and so as an inspiration preferred Roman republicanism to what they saw as a tyranny of the unfettered Athenian mob — which is more apt as a model for French social unrest than the American Revolution.

Despite such problems of presentation, Ober’s original thesis is surely right about Athenian dynamism, as contemporary observers such as Thucydides and Aristotle remarked when they chronicled how the Athenians’ singular democratic culture ensured that it recovered quickly from catastrophes the Assembly itself had caused.

In the long debate about what made imperial Athens great — natural resources, luck, or a few great men — in the end democratic egalitarianism and empowerment are the most likely causes, and Ober offers convincing reasons why and how an informed citizenry was central to all that.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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