Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Excerpt

Athens stood out among its many rivals in the ancient Greek world. No other city-state was as rich, as resilient, or as influential. This book shows how democracy contributed to Athenian preeminence: Innovative political and economic institutions enabled citizens to pursue their private interests while cooperating on joint projects, coordinating their actions, and sharing common resources without tragedy. Anticipating one of the great insights of modern social science, ancient Athenian democracy harnessed the power of dispersed knowledge through the free choices of many people.

Democracy and Knowledge completes a trilogy on the theory and practice of democracy in classical Athens, a historical, social-scientific, and philosophical undertaking with which I have been engaged for most of my career. Athenian history is worth a life's work because it shows how participatory and deliberative democracy enabled a socially diverse community to flourish in a highly competitive and fast-changing environment. Athens proves that democratic productivity is not merely a contingent result of distinctively modern conditions. That is an important conclusion if one supposes, as I do, that our modernity is not the end of history and that democracy is uniquely well suited to human flourishing—both in the sense of material well-being and in the Aristotelian sense of happiness as eudaimonia.

No real-world democracy can claim to be a fully just society. Athens, with its slaves and male-only political franchise, certainly could not. Yet democracy promotes just and noble actions by self-consciously ethical agents. Through participating in common enterprises and deliberating with their fellows on matters of great moment, democratic citizens come to recognize themselves as free and equal individuals and as the joint creators of a shared destiny. Democracy is the only form of government in which the inherent human capacity to associate in public decisions can be fully realized. Understanding the conditions that have allowed for the emergence, flowering, and spread of productive democratic practices in the past is, therefore, of fundamental moral, as well as practical, importance.

I did not know that I would be writing a trilogy when, in the late 1970s, I began gathering notes for the book that became Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. It was only some twenty years later, as I was completing Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, that I realized that my portrait . . .

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