Studies of the ancient world have remained a part of the culture of “amateurs” for a long time: only during the 19th century were they finally claimed as the almost exclusive domain of a group of “specialists,” philologists and historians. This was inevitable, especially in the case of highly specialized topics, but it created a separateness that, on the whole, did not benefit the sense of the classical tradition. However, nowadays this segregation has broken down, and indeed a reversal has occurred: the expert’s pronouncements are, and will continue to be, marginalized, confined to circles that are perhaps more and more specialized, and certainly more and more narrow.
Thus, when it comes to authors or topics from the classical world, straddling disciplinary boundaries and with a view towards other areas, uncompromising freedom of reflection is salutary, and appears necessary, especially if it allows the debate to be more influential.
This is clearly seen in the case of Greek democracy and the theoretical or historical texts that offer reflections on it: the object of study of the specialists of the “sciences of antiquity,” these materials are also being investigated, with different tools and different aims, by political thinkers.
From this perspective comes Yves Mény’s book Démocratie: l’héritage politique grec: Mythes – Pouvoir – Institutions (published in Italian as Democrazia: l’eredità politica greca. Miti – Potere – Istituzioni, edited by Dino Piovan, Italian translation by V. Cavagnoli, Ariele Editions, 244 pages, €20.00). The author speaks as a political scientist and a scholar of contemporary trends: therefore, his perspective on Greek antiquity, while remaining in dialogue with recent research, is able to take more lightly the sometimes burdensome task of referencing historiographical technicalities.
Instead, Mény opens up towards general observations, useful for a broad audience, not for philologists of Greek antiquity. The latter, however, still have the tasks of pointing to some of the problems in the Italian translation: who is “Patrocle”? And would the Italian reader understand who the “enarchs” are (i.e., the public administration officials trained at the École Nationale d’Administration, recently shut down by Macron)?
The book begins with an illuminating essay by Piovan, who points out that today’s links to classical political thought are “anything but linear.” The paradigm of ancient politics appears “multifaceted and ductile,” and the history of the reception of the ancient model incorporates the prominent reflection of contemporary issues. Among such vast subject matter, Mény avoids systematic exposition and selects a few key concepts which bring together information and reflection (the citizen, forms of power). This is accompanied by particular analyses on institutional concepts (“democracy,” “oligarchy”) and then on more technical issues (selection by lot, ostracism and so on).
The style is neither antiquarian nor textbook-like, but in constant reference to present experience: see, for instance, the section in which the adjective ”Jupiterian” (pp. 148 ff.) is introduced when discussing the personal role in politics. The term (of classical origin and difficult to translate properly) is used in French politics to designate the monarchical and at once seductive style of government adopted by certain presidents. In a few cases, however, for example on ancient misogyny, the connections made end up less convincing, because they adhere to commonplace notions that a more technical discourse would tend to question and discuss; and because, oddly enough, some traces of the old cliché of the “Greek miracle” still pop up.
Apart from certain sociological asides (à la Foucault), other digressions on the subject of “control” turn out not quite memorable, or frankly distracting (for instance, on the labyrinth, Venice and the GPS, p. 129 ff.). By contrast, the reflections on the legacy of classical models in modern politics are quite effective: not least because they are approached not with a need for methodical scrupulousness and historicist orthodoxy, but with an eye towards the actual influence of an idea: this is seen, for example, in the juxtaposition between the Greek idea of autonomy and the U.S. myth of self-government. For Mény, what is important above all is “the ability of the Greeks to anticipate legal principles that pre-modern Western societies will only slowly manage to introduce and perfect over the centuries.” Thus, even the “political” scenes in Homer are read as foundational texts of later democratic developments: persuasion through speech, participation in debate as the origin of decision, and competition, sometimes including combat (p. 171).
However, the book does not hide, and instead clearly highlights, that the way in which the “myth” of Greek (i.e. Athenian!) democracy as a perfect model was constructed in the 19th century presents heavy ambiguities.
Mény also illustrates the critical issues that the appeal to ancient Greece has brought with it in the construction of the European Union (p. 179 f.), whose institutions suffer – in the words of Giuliano Amato from 2005, quoted with approval in the book – from a disturbing and structural political “hermaphroditism.”
The book gives modern myths very little quarter: it’s not surprising, then, that at the end, oligarchy is discussed as the most useful model of political management for understanding our troubled present. Indeed, according to Mény, the question of centralized power “in the time of Aristotle and Plato, as in that of Trump, Putin, Merkel or Macron” arises “in the same theoretical terms.” After all, the increasing opaqueness of the decision-making processes, whether the effect of globalizations, epidemics or wars, appears irreversible, and has marginalized any effort to reflect on what good governance means. Compared to the ancients, and to our ancestors, even the myth of tyrannicide has been lost.
What “palace” can conceivably be stormed anymore? The latest examples, from Casa Rosada to the Capitol, show that this act is turned on its head. And what tyrant would a modern day Harmodius and Aristogeiton slay? Here, too, a path was lost, and the ancient example is now neutered, including on the moral plane.
To be sure, the author is well aware of the critical issues in the ancient system and the limitations of so many uncritical, mythologized or self-interested modern takes. His particular approach comes across as convincing, or at least challenging. What would be utopian, it seems, is to hope for an overcoming of the “realist skepticism” about the imperfection of the ancients, leading us back to looking at them with eyes that would be perhaps more naive, but less despairing.