2. Defining the Polis

In defining what a polis is, we can begin with its basic meaning in the archaic and classical periods: a polis is a settlement and a community. As a settlement a polis is “primarily a large nucleated settlement,” that is to say, a city. As a community it is “an institutionalized political community,” that is to say, a state. [1] Of course a polis is also “inextricably linked to its hinterland,” [2] which is demarcated by a series of extra-urban sanctuaries that symbolically, through ritual practices, consolidate the appropriation of, and the sovereignty over, the land and the territory around the city. [3] Communal action defines the possession of this territory, since it has to be defended militarily. Protecting the most remote parts of the city territory becomes part of the initiation rites of the Athenian ephebes, as beautifully shown in the classic “The Black Hunter and the Origin of the Athenian Ephebia” of Pierre Vidal-Naquet. [4] But also, and very importantly, extra-urban sanctuaries constitute a symbolic bulwark beyond which lies the domain of the “undifferentiated, disordered, and ephemeral, all that is dominated by abnormal relations and placed under the sign of cunning and noninstitutionalized violence: relations without mediation between men and gods … , between human beings themselves … , and between man and animals”; [5] in short, all things abhorrent to the culture of the polis.
Even when defining the urban and the extra-urban dimensions of the polis, the settlement and its hinterland, we have already entered into the realm of the symbolic demarcation of what is and what is not the domain of the polis, what belongs and what does not belong to it. These distinctions become even more important to delineate when we move to the notion of the “institutionalized political community” and its activity. The polis is the community of the citizens in a political context and the system of the institutions that define and enforce a legal order over the population. [6] A “polis” comprises the two aspects described above, the settlement and the community. But, quite early on in Greek thought, a polis becomes not “just a walled city but rather a community of men ready to defend their society.” [7] In the Greek democratic mentality, the polis is the people/citizenry of a city-state. “You would be a fine ruler over a deserted city!” Haemon exclaims sarcastically (Antigone 739) when his father, the king Creon, asks, “Is not the city thought to belong to its ruler?” (Antigone 738) [8] —a notion extraordinary to the average Athenian ear.
To this mentality we shall now turn. The people and the institutions, [9] policy and the making of it, [10] along with the modes of thought and the imaginary social significations that create a world, in reference to which the society exists [11] —all these elements are the Greek polis, and the Athenian democratic polis, in particular, in which tragedy is a constituent part.
In order to better understand this notion of the polis, we need to contextualize it within the broader confines of fifth-century democratic Athens. Josiah Ober has argued convincingly that contrary to the common assumption that democracy is the rule of the majority [12] (an interpretation that may itself have pejorative resonances originating largely from democracy’s Greek critics), the original meaning of the word democracy (dêmos + kratos = the power of the people)’ [13] points to the notion of “power” as the capacity of the citizens to do things together in the public realm, “to make things happen.” [14] Dêmos is a term referring to a collective body, which is not the equivalent of the “tyrannical” or “monopolistic domination of government apparatus by the many who were poor,” but it refers to the “whole of citizenry.” [15] Dêmos with the –kratos suffix becomes an empowered collective body and, consequently, democracy is “the regime in which the dêmos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm.” [16] Additionally, this capacity does not imply a simple matter of control, but a “collective strength and ability to act within that realm, and indeed to reconstitute the public realm through action.” [17]
This last sentence leads us to reflect on the mechanisms that enable the body politic to reconstitute the public realm through its political praxis. Reforms, of course, are the result of tangible political action: new laws are introduced, the distribution of power among the members of the body politic is redesigned, the political system is reorganized—to name just a few possibilities. Some of the reforms might seem to be the result of a long evolutionary process. There are moments, however, in the history of the Athenian democratic system that are thoroughly radical, such as Cleisthenes’ redesign of the political system by introducing the ten political tribes. Without going into the philosophy of historical change in general, one should reflect in particular on the conditions that made these reforms possible. My approach is formulated in the light of the uprising of the dêmos preceding the reforms, what Ober calls the “Athenian Revolution,” without which “the Cleisthenic reforms would have remained empty words.” [18] It is also informed by Castoriadis’s insight into the nature of human institutions and the social imaginary significations that symbolize political praxis. Such a radical moment, moreover, is a moment when history is seen as creation.
Reforming the political reality presupposes the action of re-imagining it. This process of re-imagining becomes possible because classical Athens is the self-instituting society par excellence, for what defines the instituting activity of the citizens is their autonomy, not heteronomy. The dêmos is autonomos (self-legislating), autodikos (self-judging), and autotelês (self-governing). [19] This overstressed autonomy (nothing in this society is enforced as inviolable law by a higher authority, a god, an emperor, or a religious or political elite) creates the preconditions for the creation of “a new eidos, a new essence, a new form in the full and strong sense: new determinations, new norms, new laws.” [20] Such a new eidos is the Cleisthenic radical reform consisting in ten blatantly artificial Athenian tribes; these new forms had to be conceptualized, that is to say to be imagined first.
In order to understand this action of being imagined (which is the functioning of the radical social imagination), we need to reflect on the nature of a human institution, taking the meaning of an ‘institution’ in its broadest sense. In his seminal book The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis defines an institution as “a socially sanctioned, symbolic network in which a functional component and an imaginary component are combined in variable proportions and relations.” [21] The imaginary component is responsible for the radical activity of the social creation: of the new institutions, the new ways of living and thinking, and the new significations on the social plane, what are defined as “the social imaginary significations.” [22] The latter is what holds a society together. In Castoriadis’s words:
Society exists in positing the requirement of signification as universal and as total, and in positing its world of significations as what can satisfy this requirement. And it is only in correlation with this world of significations as it is instituted in each case that we reflect on the question raised above: what is the ‘unity’ and the ‘identity’, that is to say the ecceity of a society, and what is it that holds a society together? What holds a society together is the holding-together of its world of significations. What permits us to think of it in its ecceity, as this particular society and not another, is the particularity or specificity of its world of significations as the institution of this magma of social imaginary significations, organized in a particular way and not otherwise. [23]
The shared social significations make you what it is to be an Athenian. How do you imagine yourself to be? What is your perception of yourself? In the case of the Athenians, at that important moment of their history after the abolition of Tyranny (510 BCE) and just before the Cleisthenic reforms (508 BCE), a salient question might have been articulated thus: does it make sense for us, the Athenians, to belong to a clientele adherent to a local aristocrat serving individual centers of power, rival to each other (as must have been the case in late-seventh- and most of sixth-century Attica)? [24] Or, do we consider ourselves as members of a body politic belonging to the collectivity of our polis, serving common goals and aiming at reconstituting political reality so as to lay the ground for the well-being of the entirety of the citizenry to which we belong? And (depending on the answer to the above questions), how do we organize our political praxis? Do we try to work together and avoid conflict with each other, as civic strife (stasis) needs to be prevented at all costs?
The Athenian Revolution of the years 508/7 BCE, as interpreted by Josiah Ober, [25] and the subsequent Cleisthenic reforms are fine examples of the working of the social imaginary significations and of the collective capacity to effect change in the public realm. They exemplify a political praxis that bears all the characteristics of a collectivity being imagined first, then empowered to implement major reforms (the ten new artificial tribes) that made this social imagination reality.
This is how things happened. In 508 BCE Athens experienced a three-day riot of the dêmos, fueled by the aggressive political decision of the Spartan King Cleomenes I, who was in control of Attica, to dissolve the Boulê of the Athenians. His intention was clearly to turn Athens into a client-state, with a status similar to the other Peloponnesian allies. He was backed up by the archon Isagoras and the pro-Spartan elite, who had exiled Cleisthenes and some 700 families. The Boulê resisted and, in reaction, Cleomenes and Isagoras occupied the Acropolis (Herodotus Histories 5.72.1–20). There, they were besieged by the Athenians for two days and on the third, after a truce, the Spartans fled Attica (5.72.1–2). Some of their Athenian supporters were summarily executed. [26] From the scarce evidence of our sources, Ober infers [27] a spontaneous and sudden riot of the dêmos that spread quickly without being led by any figure of the elite, for the sources name none. The sudden uprising took Cleomenes off his guard; he then occupied the Acropolis, probably without securing enough supplies, and he was thus forced to surrender within three days.
What made the Athenian Revolution possible? Was it the new abstract notions of “Athens” and “Athenians”? The perception of oneself as an Athenian involved the imaginary signification of a citizen attached to his polis, and not of a client attached to his aristocrat lord, nor of a subject of Sparta. The emerging awareness of citizenship can be traced back to the reforms of Solon that “undercut the traditional authority associated with birth.” [28] But just as emphatically, the sense of connection to the polis as a prime locus of the Athenian identity can be traced back to the policy of Peisistratus, who seriously undermined the ties between the landholder aristocrats and their clientele. Public festivals, celebrations, and extensive building programs to reconstruct and embellish the face of the urban polis all aimed at “fostering closer ideological identification of the citizenry as a whole with the Athenian state.” [29] Of course, this was initiated by Peisistratus in order to “legitimate his own position” [30] but an indirect and inevitable result of the reforms was that “a greater meaning was attached to Athenian citizenship,” [31] which then became not simply “protection from ultimate status degradation, but something much more positive and potentially more politically meaningful.” [32]
This “potentiality” became social and political reality in the new reorganization of the body politic into the ten artificial tribes. Experts before me have analyzed the reforms extensively. [33] What I would like to stress here, in the context of my argument, is that these reforms are a paradigm of a pure and radical political creation, resulting in what, in Castoriadian terms, we would call a new eidos. This unprecedented “form,” consisting of new determinations, norms, and laws, reestablished and redefined the political time, space, and identity of the Athenians. The new institutions forming the legislative, judicial, and executive bodies of the new political organization were the functional component part of this creation. In order for the creation to acquire this form, it needed to be imagined first at the collective imaginary level. The Athenians needed to have a differentiated perception of themselves, as we saw manifested in the Athenian Revolution a few months prior to the reforms. The collective social significations had changed (in a long process starting from the time of Solon), laying the preconditions for Cleisthenes to initiate a radical new concept of the organization and institutionalization of the polis and its citizens. Cleisthenes evaluated the mass action and designed institutions “capable of framing and stabilizing a new ideology.” [34]
The new concept and its political application aimed at undermining the strong local ties between aristocrats and their clients or other locality-based bonds with possible political implications. The body politic was reorganized on a cross-class and cross-regional basis. The radical character of the reforms is masterfully exemplified in the combination of the three equal thirds (trittyes) from the coastal, urban, and inland regions of Attica in order for each new tribe to be created. In their year of service, the fifty Councilmen of each new tribe, people who had never met before, had to work closely together as members of the same tribe. During the thirty-five or thirty-six-day period that the tribe had the presidency of the Council (Boulê), one third of the Councilmen of the same tribe had to sleep, eat, and spend each day together in the public building of Tholos, where they were constantly on duty, ready to respond to any political emergency. The random mixing of the populace in the formation of the tribes and the imperative for close collaboration was not confined to the political praxeis of the Council; other important venues were the People’s Courts, the groups created ad hoc to deal with various administration issues, and, of course, the military service, with the majority of the Athenians serving as heavy infantry, hoplites, or oarsmen in the war ships. A powerful symbol of the new social order was tribal participation in civic celebrations. For example, dithyrambic choruses composed of one hundred members (fifty men and fifty adolescent boys) of each tribe opened the celebrations of the Great Dionysia—one of the prime venues where Athenian civic identity was consolidated. The result was that the Athenians made polities, deliberated, fought and died, or danced together as citizens of the same tribe, albeit coming from distant localities (demes), different backgrounds, and various social classes. [35]
One of the effective tools for reshaping the new social-imaginary signification attached to the abstractions “Athenians” and “Athens” was a novel networking system, starting from the local level of the demes and embracing the whole of Attica, fostering a “master” network. [36] This master network, the result of a complex and extremely sophisticated concept, created new ties among the diverse and dispersed members of the ten new tribes, consolidating a new civic identity extending across the whole of Attica. This was perhaps the first time that such a conscious and consistent effort had been made to create the ground for a political system that would promote equality, collaboration, and solidarity among otherwise disparate citizens. The master network formed a platform where people coming from isolated, small, or unimportant demes had to work together with the wealthy or the better educated people from the city, the port, or other important demes. They worked as equals on a cooperative basis sharing the “collective responsibility for decisions that could not be enforced by external authority”; [37] their political praxis was the result of their self-instituting activity. The transfer of individuals’ knowledge [38] from the administration of their local networks to the master network favored an unprecedented aggregation of knowledge of political affairs, thus producing the successful paradigm of the participatory and deliberative political system of Athens. In terms of assessing its performance compared to contemporary rival cities, Athens outpaced its rivals by a substantial margin. In all domains where success is normally measured—growth, wealth, intellectual life, artistic creations—“Athens was an outstandingly successful state.” [39] During the exceptional performance of the 180 years of democracy (508–338 BCE), the Athenians managed to sustain a large hegemony, accumulate public and private wealth, establish institutions that prioritized the common well-being, erect public buildings of unique beauty, and produce unparalleled intellectual life. In Ober’s words:
Participatory and deliberative government, dedicated to and constrained by moral values, can be grounded in choices made by interdependent and rational individuals—people who are concerned (although not uniquely) with their own welfare and aware that it depends (although not entirely) on others’ behavior. Bringing normative political theory together with the philosophy of joint action and the political science of rational choice creates space for conceptual advances in democratic theory and social epistemology: it leads to defining democracy as the capacity of a public to do things (rather than simply as majority rule), to focusing on the relationship between innovating and learning (not just bargaining and voting), and to designing institutions to aggregate useful knowledge (not merely preferences or interests). [40]
In the last sentence of the quotation, my emphases point to the essential characteristics of Athenian democracy. One final point emerges that, although stated as a feature of the political system, complements the overall picture of the identity of an Athenian of the classical period: the perception of being highly experimental, innovative, and daring, [41] powerful witness to which is found in the funeral oration of Pericles, as reconstructed by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War–4.1):
διαφερόντως γὰρ δὴ καὶ τόδε ἔχομεν ὥστε τολμᾶν τε οἱ αὐτοὶ μάλιστα καὶ περὶ ὧν ἐπιχειρήσομεν ἐκλογίζεσθαι· ὃ τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀμαθία μὲν θράσος, λογισμὸς δὲ ὄκνον φέρει. κράτιστοι δ’ ἂν τὴν ψυχὴν δικαίως κριθεῖεν οἱ τά τε δεινὰ καὶ ἡδέα σαφέστατα γιγνώσκοντες καὶ διὰ ταῦτα μὴ ἀποτρεπόμενοι ἐκ τῶν κινδύνων.
And this is another point where we differ from other people. We are capable at the same time of taking risks and of estimating them beforehand. Others are brave out of ignorance; and, when they stop to think, they begin to fear. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come. [42]
The Athenian ideology of civic identity, pervasive in the funeral oration (and in other Thucydidean passages) “valued innovation as a good in itself.” [43] The powerful drives of innovation and experimentation manifest in all aspects of Athenian life—in war, as well as in peace—can be said to be employed at a symbolic level to “test” the sustainability or viability of their institutions. This last characteristic brings us full circle back to the Castoriadian concept of the self-institution of the society and the human activity of constantly creating and re-creating one’s own institutions. Experimenting and innovating are the qualities that secure the re-imagining [44] and re-design of an institution if changing circumstances demand.

2.1 Tragedy as a Self-Restraining Mechanism of Athenian Democracy

This is where tragedy comes into play. Castoriadis argues that tragedy, a purely Athenian intellectual product, is one of the controlling, corrective, and self-restraining mechanisms of democracy. The philosopher maintains this on the grounds that tragedy reflects on and warns against cases of overweening arrogance [45] manifested in words, thoughts, and behavior, what is commonly understood as hybris. It is worth noting that the word τολμᾶν found in the above passage of Thucydides is cognate with τόλμας in the hypsipolis/apolis passage with which I began my overall argument (ἄπολις ὅτῳ τὸ μὴ καλὸν / ξύνεστι τόλμας χάριν, Antigone 370–371), where Sophocles juxtaposes the positive and negative potentialities of civic identity. [46] The fine line between them is embodied in the word τόλμα (Attic τόλμη). [47] Audacity and its intrinsic tendency towards innovation and experiment, although highly esteemed and praised in Pericles’ funeral oration as social and cultural capital, can so easily transform into one of the major pitfalls of Athenian democracy, and reveal the “dark” side of citizenship.
To my mind, however, the major contribution of tragedy as a controlling, correcting, and self-restraining mechanism of the political system lies in its ability to mediate deliberation about the viability of the current institutions. As an example, I will consider here the abandonment of the corpse of a traitor to the city unburied to be eaten by animals, as the ultimate dishonoring sanction of the polis, as in Ajax and Antigone. In both tragedies, the playwright favors burial, contrary to the widespread practice in Athens of forbidding such burials in its land and its hegemony. [48] Honoring and dishonoring the dead is part of the discourse of civic identity. I am not suggesting that the solution that Sophocles advocates is a straightforward suggestion to the body politic to change or modify the practice. I am suggesting that the playwright calls for deliberation on an institutionalized political action that touches upon issues that often follow civil strife and political upheaval, issues capable of profoundly traumatizing the Athenians. In his treatment, the playwright introduces to the story complex matters interwoven with family ethics and divine justice, together with notions of personal honor and pride, thus throwing the subtle complexities of these issues into stark relief. In characteristic Sophoclean manner, the denouements of both plays refrain from offering any unequivocal solution (a feature that perplexed scholars often call the “open-endings” of his plays). Of course, the social order (seen in tragedy as integral to the wider cosmic order) must be re-established, but the intense tragic feeling of the endings eats into the very essence of this order; the restoration always comes at a high price.
The final point that I would like to raise in reference to the contribution of tragedy in the re-imagining and consequent redefining of existing institutions is that the particular issues of each play invoke a higher notion of justice to be debated. In the deliberative system of Athenian democracy the concept of justice is paramount and runs through all aspects of life, a prerequisite for the constant activity of decision-making. We are aware of at least one major change of decision in the case of the dissent of Mytilene (428 BCE) as a result of fierce deliberation, which Thucydides recorded.
In a stormy meeting of the Assembly, the Athenians decided to change the brutal decision taken in the previous meeting to punish the rebels by killing the entire adult male population and selling the rest into slavery. [49] According to the historian, [50] while the trireme was still on route to convey and implement the decision, the anger of the Athenians was supplanted by remorse, leading to the second Assembly that voted for the moderate decision to spare the dêmos and punish only the oligarchic leaders of the revolt. The notion of justice in various forms had been brought into the debate, even if the deliberation was in part about “whether justice [had] anything to do with the decision.” [51] Whether it was about justice, or about the utility for the Athenians of preserving the Mytilenean dêmos, as the argument of Diodotus went, is not at question here. The fact was that everything concerning the life of the polis had to be debated publicly, and measured against common assumptions of “what is right, and what is not,” even if this argument was not openly expressed. In the Mytilenean debate, a multitude of other issues of vital importance at the time were implicitly touched upon, among them “the relationship between the deployment of power, domestic politics, and social diversity,” “the relationship between an individual speaker’s personal interests and the public interest,” “the discontinuity between public and private interests,” and the reconciliation between “prudent … policy and decisive action.” [52]
In many other debates in the Assembly as reconstructed by Thucydides, similar issues were raised, as is the case with particular issues debated by the dramatis personae of tragedy. Every aspect of civic life was discussed in the Assembly, as well as in tragedy, where a higher notion of justice is constructed as a measure and a goal. And if in the Mytilenean debate Cleon and Diodotus claimed that their argument was not about justice, in the famous Melian deliberation, as every student of the Histories knows, everything was about justice.
In the argument for tragedy as a controlling and correcting mechanism of democracy, it is evident by now that it is not merely through the hybris of the individual that this is accomplished; it is also through a complex deliberation on issues that are pivotally significant to the survival of the polis and its citizens. In a sense, Attic tragedy depicts a polis in civil strife (stasis) when members of the same body politic find themselves driven by divisive pathos in the context of the disintegration of the ethical and ideological system of the polis. [53] Every time that a tragic play is staged, disintegration and the countervailing healing processes are enacted in the realm of the imaginary; possible solutions of the crisis are tried out—they are imagined during the performance and the ensuing discourse that a successful play is bound to inspire. How true this is for the two most successful plays of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone: through their long history of reception and criticism, they have produced a robust discourse well into the twenty-first century.

2.2 Summing Up

My effort to define the notion of the polis started with the strict definition of the polis as a technical term. It took us from the walled city and its hinterland to the political community and its institutions. In both cases we could read the symbolic that resides in the imaginary. The importance of the construction of new social imaginary significations regarding the identity of the “Athenians” and “Athens” (what Ober calls the “new abstractions” of the terms) is manifested in (and is a prerequisite of) the Athenian Revolution, just before the radical reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. Those reforms are explained as an act of radical creation in the Castoriadian sense, that is, a moment in history when a society creates itself. This self-creation presupposes a period when important social significations had been modified (in the case of Athens this happened throughout the sixth century BCE) and projected onto the imaginary, that is, they were re-imagined. As the Athenian polis is a societas instituans [54] (and not a societas instituta), nothing, no law or institution, is enforced by an external or higher authority. Everything is the result of the self-instituting activity of its citizens. Therefore, the activity of imagining and re-imagining its social significations is constant and paramount, and it is interwoven with the autonomy of the political praxis. In this context, controlling and self-restraining mechanisms of the political system have been devised, [55] for the body politic is responsible for deliberating on and modifying the institutions.
Tragedy, a product of the imaginary, is one of the prime mechanisms of imagining, re-imagining, and redefining the ideology that underlies the creation and modification of institutions. One of its avenues is the notion of hybris that warns the Athenians against any excess in behavior and thought; another is the deliberation over the sustainability and viability of the existing institutions. Finally, and of great importance, is the discourse constructed around a higher notion of justice that permeates all political praxeis of the body politic.
One last word of clarification: although the notion of the polis comprises all the partial characteristics stated at the outset of this chapter, each of them being a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the entirety, the most important of all is the notion of the community of citizens mutually bound by strong bonds. “Athens” is primarily “the Athenians” and not the urban settlement. When Themistocles was hard pressed by the Peloponnesians to engage in naval battle, not in Salamis but in the Isthmus, the main argument of the Corinthian general Adeimantus was that the Athenians did not have a country and a polis anymore to protect, for the Persians had just conquered the city of Athens and burnt it to ashes. “Since Athens does not exist anymore,” the argument went, “the sensible action is to protect the remaining of the Greek cities in Peloponnese.” [56] To this, the Athenian general replied that the Athenians had a country and a polis, greater than any other Greek city, as long as they had their ships and could conquer any city they wanted. But most importantly, Themistocles said that as long as there were Athenians, the city could be founded somewhere else. The general threatened to embark all the Athenians on the ships, sail to Italy, and settle there, thus re-founding Athens. [57] Athens existed as long as the Athenians existed.


[ back ] 1. Hansen 2006:56. Also, “every polis-city was the centre of a polis-state, and every polis-state had a polis-city as its political centre” (59).
[ back ] 2. Hansen 2006:57, 101–105.
[ back ] 3. de Polignac 1995:21–24, 32–88.
[ back ] 4. Original publication in 1968 as “Le chasseur noir et l’origine de l’ephébie athénienne,” Annales 23:947–964.
[ back ] 5. de Polignac 1995:35–36.
[ back ] 6. Hansen 2006:64.
[ back ] 7. Hansen 2006:98.
[ back ] 8. ΚΡ. Οὐ τοῦ κρατοῦντος ἡ πόλις νομίζεται; [ back ] ΑΙ. Καλῶς ἐρήμης γ’ ἂν σὺ γῆς ἄρχοις μόνος.
[ back ] 9. Hansen 2006.
[ back ] 10. Ober 2008a:1.
[ back ] 11. Castoriadis 1997a:359.
[ back ] 12. Even a critic as sensitive and well informed as Hansen, who directed the Copenhagen Polis Center from 1993–2005, refers to Athenian democracy as the majority rule of the “little people” or the “less wealthy.” Note the following statement: “under a rule of the people (demokratia or politeia) it is the ‘little people’ (dêmos), the majority in fact, of the less wealthy citizens who exercise power through a People’s Assembly in which all citizens have the right to speak and vote irrespective of their property status” (2006:111).
[ back ] 13. The “how many people may occupy official positions of authority” is denoted by the -arche suffix: monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy (the last term denoting that magisterial offices of the government are vacant); the equivalent of the “majority rule” would be “polloi-archia,” which does not exist in classical Greek (Ober 2008b:6).
[ back ] 14. Ober 2008b:7.
[ back ] 15. Ober 2008b:8.
[ back ] 16. Ober 2008b:7.
[ back ] 17. Ibid., the last emphasis is mine.
[ back ] 18. Ober 1996:41.
[ back ] 19. Castoriadis 1997b:275 (the original essay, “Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” appeared in 1983, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 9:79–115); the terms are found in Thucydides.
[ back ] 20. Castoriadis 1997b:269.
[ back ] 21. Castoriadis 1997a:132.
[ back ] 22. Charles Taylor in his Modern Social Imaginaries (2004:24) defines the social imaginary as follows: “Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. Such understanding is both factual and normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with the idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice” (my emphasis). And further down: “Humans operated with a social imaginary well before they ever got into the business of theorizing about themselves (26).” In a similar manner, Castoriadis (1997a:147) refers to the action of the humans to deliberate in the realm of the imaginary (and the symbolic) as prior to any systematic philosophical thinking; see also Chapter 3 below, p. 27.
[ back ] 23. Castoriadis 1997a:359.
[ back ] 24. Ober 1989:57–59, 66–69.
[ back ] 25. The two extensive accounts, and interpretation, of the events are found in “The Athenian Revolution” (1996), and in “I Besieged that Man. Democracy’s Revolutionary Start” (2007:83–104). The idea of the Athenian Revolution as a spontaneous leaderless uprising of the dêmos permeates all Ober’s writings.
[ back ] 26. The two sources that record the events are Herodotus Histories 5.66, 69–78, and Aristotle Athênaiôn Politeia 20–22.1.
[ back ] 27. What is offered here is an “inferential but plausible sequence” of the events (1996:43), which Ober also reiterates later in his work (2007:92–93). Of course, historians do not agree as to various aspects of the events and the consequent reforms of Cleisthenes: do we detect here the “real” origins of Athenian democracy? Was it truly a leaderless revolution? What were the motives of Cleisthenes in introducing his reforms: his self-interest or the interest of the people? Ehrenberg (1973) and Lewis (1963) detect individualistic motives, while de Ste. Croix (2004:136) argues: “we cannot know what Cleisthenes’ motives were in 508.” Ehrenberg reads the events as a person-to-person communication between Cleisthenes and Isagoras. Ostwald (1986:16–17) remarks: “… Cleisthenes was … no ideological democrat but a practical politician concerned with eliminating the roots of internal conflict from the society in which he lived. … Cleisthenes acting as a private citizen in opposition to the ruling archôn, used the dêmos—presumably meaning Council and Assembly—as the forum for passing his reforms. That this was a revolutionary step to take is evident, but it does not follow that the political aims to be achieved by this procedure were equally radical.” My own thesis, evident throughout these pages, supports clearly the radicalism of the Athenian Revolution and the reforms of Cleisthenes.
[ back ] 28. Ober 1996:38.
[ back ] 29. Ober 1989:66.
[ back ] 30. Ibid.
[ back ] 31. Ibid.
[ back ] 32. Ober 1989:67.
[ back ] 33. For major publications on Cleisthenes’ reforms, as well as a short history of how ancient historians shifted their interest from Solon and Pericles to Cleisthenes, see Appendix 2.
[ back ] 34. Ober 1996:33.
[ back ] 35. See the same idea, albeit differently formulated, by Ober (2008a:142): “The experience of marching, fighting, sacrificing, eating, and dancing, together in this newly ‘intermixed’ grouping, would, according to Cleisthenes’ plan, lead to a strengthened collective identity at the level of the polis.”
[ back ] 36. Ober in his Democracy and Knowledge (2008a) studies extensively how, starting with small-scale local networks, information/knowledge was transferred across the extended network of the entire polis by building bridges between the local administration of demes (and the accumulation of social, technological, and political knowledge there) and the numerous political bodies created by the new system of the ten artificial Cleisthenic tribes; the latter form the “master” plan of the administration of the city, where an extensive aggregation of knowledge ensured the success of the “epistemic democracy” of classical Athens (see also n38 below). “Athens knows what the Athenians know,” remarks Ober (150).
[ back ] 37. Ober 1989:73.
[ back ] 38. What Ober calls “social epistemology” (2008a:34). The Athenian democracy as a political system, based on aggregated knowledge transferable from individuals to the collective bodies of citizens materializing political praxis, is termed by the author “epistemic democracy,” to which he dedicates his contribution in J. Elster and H. Landemre (eds.) titled: “Epistemic Democracy in Classical Athens; Sophistication, Diversity, and Innovation” (2012:118–147). At the very beginning of the Introduction, we read: “A democracy may be said to be ‘epistemic’ to the degree to which it employs collective wisdom to make good policy. Scott Page (this volume) offers a formal model of collective wisdom, in the sense of accurately predicting or characterizing an outcome that is produced by two factors: the individual sophistication of participants and the diversity of their perspectives. The city-state of Athens, from the late sixth century through the late fourth century B.C.E, is a case study of a participatory epistemic democracy: an intensively-studied historical example of a community whose remarkable success can, at least in part, be explained by … sophistication and diversity” (118).
[ back ] 39. Ober 2008a:78.
[ back ] 40. Ober 2008a:5, my emphasis.
[ back ] 41. Ober 2008a:275.
[ back ] 42. Translated by Warner.
[ back ] 43. Ober 2008a: 275.
[ back ] 44. We should note, that “whatever has been imagined strongly enough to shape behaviour, speech, or objects can, in principle, be re-imagined (re-represented) by somebody else” in the long process of the self-creation of this society, Castoriadis 1997b:270.
[ back ] 45. Castoriadis 2008:337.
[ back ] 46. See chapter 1 above.
[ back ] 47. In the twenty-eight passages of τόλμας - τολμᾶν and their cognates found in Sophocles, all have negative connotations, denoting an unrestrained, malign action or thought; one passage only is contextualized positively (εὖ τολμᾷ τελεῖν, Ajax 528).
[ back ] 48. I think one of the most apt formulations regarding the polis’ right to deny burial to Polyneices, who is a traitor and not just an enemy to Thebes, has been made by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood: “The funeral was a family affair, but this does not affect the fact that it was the polis that sanctioned funerary discourse and practice. In Athens the war-dead were given public burial by the polis … . The mirror image of the public funerals of the war heroes, the disposal of the traitor’s body, also belonged to the public sphere. It was normal Athenian practice for traitors, sacrilegers and certain other categories of transgressors to be denied burial” (1989:137, with n20, my emphasis). This is corroborated by the following quotation from [Plutarch] Vita X Oratorum regarding Archeptolemus and Antiphon who were charged, and condemned, for treason (προδοσία) in relation to the regime of the Four Hundred: καὶ μὴ ἐξεῖναι θάψαι Ἀρχεπτόλεμον καὶ / Ἀντιφῶντα Ἀθήνησι, μηδ’ ὅσης Ἀθηναῖοι κρατοῦσι· (834 B.1–2). For relevant recent discussion on the matter, see Karakantza 2011a:40, 40n41; Patterson 2006; Hame 2008.
[ back ] 49. Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War–3: ὑπὸ ὀργῆς ἔδοξεν αὐτοῖς οὐ τοὺς παρόντας μόνον ἀποκτεῖναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς ἅπαντας Μυτιληναίους ὅσοι ἡβῶσι, παῖδας δὲ καὶ γυναῖκας / ἀνδραποδίσαι.
[ back ] 50. Thucydides History of the Peloponesian War–5.1: καὶ τῇ ὑστεραίᾳ μετάνοιά τις εὐθὺς ἦν αὐτοῖς καὶ ἀναλογισμὸς ὠμὸν τὸ βούλευμα καὶ μέγα ἐγνῶσθαι, πόλιν ὅλην διαφθεῖραι μᾶλλον ἢ οὐ τοὺς αἰτίους.
[ back ] 51. Ober 1998:101.
[ back ] 52. Ober 1998:102.
[ back ] 53. Karakantza 2011a:27.
[ back ] 54. “The instituting society is the social imaginary in the radical sense,” Castoriadis 1997b:269.
[ back ] 55. Castoriadis 1995:202–203.
[ back ] 56. I condense here the argument of Adeimantus in the fierce debate between himself, Eurybiades, and Themistocles in relation to the location of the naval battle. The Greek text (Herodotus Histories 8.61.1-6) runs as follows: Ταῦτα λέγοντος Θεμιστοκλέος αὖτις ὁ Κορίνθιος Ἀδείμαντος ἐπεφέρετο, σιγᾶν τε κελεύων τῷ μὴ ἔστι πατρὶς καὶ Εὐρυβιάδην οὐκ ἐῶν ἐπιψηφίζειν ἀπόλι ἀνδρί· πόλιν γὰρ τὸν Θεμιστοκλέα παρεχόμενον οὕτω ἐκέλευε γνώμας συμβάλλεσθαι. Ταῦτα δέ οἱ προέφερε, ὅτι ἡλώκεσάν τε καὶ κατείχοντο αἱ Ἀθῆναι (“During his speech Themistocles was again attacked by the Corinthian Adeimantus, who told him to hold his tongue because he was a man without a country, and tried to prevent Eurybiades from putting any question to the vote at the instance of a mere refugee. Let Themistocles, he cried, provide himself with a country before he offered his advice. The point of the jibe was, of course, the fact that Athens had fallen and was in Persian hands”; trans. de Sélincourt/Burn).
[ back ] 57. Herodotus Histories 8.61–62.