The Athenian Nation

The Athenian Nation

The Athenian Nation

The Athenian Nation


"Challenging the modern assumption that ancient Athens is best understood as a polis, Edward Cohen boldly recasts our understanding of Athenian political and social life. Cohen demonstrates that ancient sources referred to Athens not only as a polis, but also as a "nation" (ethnos), and that Athens did encompass the characteristics now used to identify a "nation." He argues that in Athens, economic, religious, sexual, and social dimensions were no less significant than political and juridical considerations and accordingly rejects prevailing scholarship's equation of Athens with its male citizen body." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


For present-day historians of ancient Greece, classical Athens is largely the incarnation of “the Athenian citizen body, a closed group inaccessible from outside” (Davies 1978: 73), sharing a culture of indigenous and coherent mutuality, a “consensus based on the common outlook of citizens” (Millett 1191:39). This false premise has infected a multitude of significant contemporary Western scholars and thinkers—from socalled communitarians through Kuhnians—who often cite Athens as historical exemplar of a hermeneutically sealed society functioning as a face-to-face community. in fact, ancient historians have not derived from Athenian sources this characterization of classical Athens as the face-to-face model that contemporary commentators and critics— Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Alasdair Maclntyre, William Galston, Philip Selnick, and Mary Ann Glendon among others— are perceived to offer as “a retreat from the larger institutions of the state and economy.” Instead scholars have merely appropriated Laslett’s conceptualization of English village life to identify Athens as the “model of a face-to-face society” where the entire population knew one other intimately and interacted closely on a societywide basis. According to this conceptualization, hhich has achieved hide currency and accep-

Maclntyre (1981: esp. 49–59; 1989: 196), for example, contrasts modern society—purportedly overdetermined by an excess of narratives and a plurality of incompatible backgrounds—with a conceptualization of “premodern culture” characterized by hermeneutically coherent concepts and beliefs. “Beauty and wisdom such as the Athenians loved them and lived them could exist only in Athens.” Castoriadis 1991: 123 (cf. 1987: esp. 146–64).

Himmelfarb 1996. Cf. Kymlicka 1990: 199–297; Sandel 1982; 1996; Barber 1984.

See Laslett 1956; 1972; Finley [1979] 1985: 17 and 1989: 28–29, 82. Laslett cited the Greek polis as the prime example of his face-to-face society, ignorantly arguing that the number of citizens was “never more than 10,000” and that “every citizen would know every other citizen” (1956: 158, 163).

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