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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Heroic Democracy: Thucydides, Pericles, and the Tragic Science of Athenian Greatness

  • Author(s): Fisher, Mark Douglas
  • Advisor(s): Hoekstra, Kinch
  • et al.

Employing the tools of both textual and contextual analysis, this dissertation demonstrates that a central project of Thucydides’ work was to reexamine and radically reinterpret the essential features of Athenian democracy, its relationship to other regime types, and the conditions for its success by considering it as a type of collective hero. It argues that, against the grain of fifth-century democratic ideology, Thucydides developed an account of the imperial democracy that placed it within the tradition of Greek heroism and autocracy, thereby contesting the belief that democracy should be characterized primarily as a form of egalitarian rule antithetically related to kingship and tyranny. In undertaking this project, however, this dissertation shows that Thucydides was less a critic of Athenian democracy than of Athenian democratic ideology. He conceived of his city as a collective autocrat not in an effort to denigrate it, but to better understand the apex that it achieved.

This dissertation further demonstrates that, in redescribing Athenian democracy as a heroic autocrat, Thucydides also set out to reinvent the Greek tradition of heroic autocracy. His commitment to a rationalistic and naturalistic mode of inquiry practiced by fellow fifth-century thinkers such as the Hippocratic medical writers appears to have provided some of the impetus for this ambition. However, this dissertation shows that it also stems from Thucydides’ deep and careful contemplation of the Athenian experience of the war itself. Recognizing that many of the central fixtures of the heroic worldview offered a helpful frame for thinking about the causes and pitfalls of democratic greatness, Thucydides nevertheless perceived that these could get him only so far. This dissertation tracks the crucial differences between a collective, democratic autocrat and an individual hero that had to be accounted for if the rise and fall of Athens was to be made fully intelligible. Many of these flowed from the democratic hero’s ability to selectively incorporate egalitarian practices into its domestic organization. At the most basic level, some degree of equality allowed for greater inclusivity, cooperation, and collective action in the heroic project, which translated directly into greater power. This was an unambiguous good, but the same cannot be said of all manifestations of equality within the democracy. In the deliberative sphere, the possession of an equal vote by all citizens created a variable dynamic between people and leaders, resulting in either excellent or catastrophic policy depending on the relative merit of those who vied for popular leadership. For Thucydides, this dissertation shows, the success of the democratic hero depended on the maintenance of a delicate balance between egalitarian and autocratic relationships among citizens, and the eventual tragic fall of the democratic hero could be traced to the overextension of equality in the deliberative sphere, which led to untrammeled autocratic ambitions abroad and ruinous civil war at home.

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