Gabriel Herman: Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens. A Social History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006, xxi + 472 S., ISBN 978-0-521-85021-6, GBP 60,00
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In this bold and wide-ranging book, Gabriel Herman sets out to answer big question: What was the character of the Athenian democracy? Were inter-personal relations marked by strong negative impulses of honor, greed and the desire for violent revenge on enemies? Or was democratic Athens more like a modern nation-state, characterized by rule of law and the peaceful virtues of generosity, fairness and equality? Herman recognizes that the answer to this question is complex and he provides an appropriately lengthy and detailed analysis. His overall position, however, is that Athens under the democracy (c. 508/7-322BCE) was a remarkable society in which anti-social emotions had been largely diffused and civic values flourished.
Herman's motivation in making this argument is twofold. First he wishes to set the record straight in the face of what he views as the pessimistic and subjective assessments of contemporary scholars. Secondly, he seeks to explain how Athens both developed and sustained its remarkable civic culture. This latter inquiry is the most valuable part of the book, particularly for its use of insights from a wide range of social and biological sciences. Herman provides some original explanations of how the Athenians were transformed from the "self-regarding" individuals of the Homeric type, to "other-regarding" citizens of classical Athens. While one may disagree with Herman on the extent of this transformation (see below), Herman's wide reading, deep knowledge of ancient history and passion for Athenian democracy cannot help but impress his readers.
Chapter One sets out some of the key questions and concepts of the book. Herman proposes to examine the Athenian 'code of behavior' by which he means the "complex of explicitly defined or implicitly recognized rules that a community of people accepts and makes predominant." (22) The task of describing the full range of rules recognized by a given society would be too large a task, however, so Herman narrows his inquiry to the consideration of two spheres of behavior that are crucial for maintaining social stability: modes of conflict and cooperation and levels of violence. His central claim is that the moral system of the Athenians - both their ideals and their actual behavior - was characterized by the principle of "under-reacting to provocation," or "turning the other cheek." By contrast, in many other societies that historians and anthropologists characterize as primitive or feuding, the principles of "an eye for an eye" or even "head for an eye" are dominant. Herman contends that while due historical credit has been granted to the Athenians' remarkable discovery of democracy and their lasting achievements in art and culture, their advanced moral code is distinctly underappreciated.
Chapter Two provides an overview of Athenian democracy, ranging from the physical environment and economy to the complex social, legal, political structures of the state. Though Herman acknowledges some central tensions in Athenian society (free vs. slave, rich vs. poor) he persuasively argues that these conflicts were less fraught in Athens than in other city-states. Indeed, as many scholars have recognized, Athens was better run, more resilient and more stable than other societies and hence the central question for historians is "why?" While other scholars place emphasis on Athens' highly developed "sense of community fortified by the state religion, by their myths and their traditions" (Finley) or the ways that elites and masses were afforded channels of communication and negotiation by the institutions of democracy (Ober), Herman lays emphasis on the coercive power of the state and the ideological power of religion, both discussed at length in subsequent chapters.
Chapters Three and Four lay out Herman's methodology. He begins by surveying modern assessments of the Athenian democracy starting from 18th century and ends with what Herman sees as the current climate of negative evaluations as exemplified by the work of such scholars as Dover, Winkler, Blundell, Cohen, Christ and Fisher. According to Herman, the judgments of these scholars have been overly subjective and have failed to distinguish between what actually happened in the past, the sources describing what happened and the moral codes of modern scholars. Herman explicitly models himself on Thucydidean practice, focusing on deeds not words and cross-checking his information to the greatest extent possible. Despite Herman's valid exposition in this chapter of the problems with the concept of a universal Mediterranean culture, these chapters are disappointing not only for their naïve confidence in the possibility of objective history, but also for their insistence on a rigid typology of societies (feuding or cooperative) when in fact most societies, including classical Athens, probably fit somewhere in between. To be fair, H. sometimes phrases the problem in terms of a spectrum of societies (e.g., 161, 189, cf. 205-6 "the question is one of degree") and in some parts of the book he provides a nuanced picture of the complexities of Athenian social practice. In this chapter, however, he insists on rigid logic of opposites or mutual incompatibility as if Athens were a mathematical equation rather than a living society. As many social theorists (e.g., Bourdieu) have shown, most societies hold conflicting norms. Individual action often consists of optimizing on whatever set of norms suits a particular circumstance. Much of Herman's evidence comes from the law courts where individuals naturally justified their actions in conformity with legal norms.
Chapters 5 and 6 examine a number of conflicts described in Athenian law court speeches and compare them with violent feuds in several other societies, including 6th century Gaul, 19th century Corsica, and contemporary Lebanon. In contrast to the code of "head for eye" typified by these latter societies, "the people of democratic Athens seem overall to have been of an unusually mild temper ...The threshold for taking offense was high in Athens and responses to insult or injury were low key. Victims of aggression were expected to refrain from impulsive reaction and behave rationally, subordinating any violent impulse to considerations of communal utility" (201). The fact that speakers appeal to the principle of the rule of law rather than revenge shows, according to Herman, that the former rather than the latter was expected to resonate with Athenian jurors. Against those who would point out that litigants often refer to the importance of timoria "vengeance," Herman argues that the term did not mean vengeance in the sense of passionate retaliation but rather "seeking vengeance for their wrongs in conformity with the laws of their state and through the medium of dikasts, the proper agents of that state's power and authority"(190). Timoria, according to Herman, was closer in meaning to our term punishment than vengeance (196).
Herman's argument here is subject to the objection made above, namely, that the nature of the sources dictates the particular norms invoked. Had we evidence for extra-legal conflicts, we might see another set of norms articulated. Furthermore, it is not so clear that timoria has shed all vestiges of its basic meaning of revenge of honor. Skilful litigants seem to have had it both ways - both flattering the juror by representing him as the rightful arm of justice, but also appealing to a more basic human sense of the need to restore one's honor by avenging wrongs. In Lysias 1, for example, the speaker appeals both to the principle of law as the proper arbiter of disputes (26), and also to the jurors' sense of outrage at the dishonor inflicted on his household (4). Given the context, however, the speaker gives priority to arguments based on the norm of the rule of law rather than revenge.
Herman is right, nevertheless, to point out there is little evidence for on-going violent feuding behavior of the sort that is found in 6th century Gaul or 19th century Corsica. He is also right that somehow Athens succeeded in displacing much of this kind of conflict into the formal legal arena, thereby divesting individuals of the right to personal violent retaliation. Herman is surely also correct that this displacement represents one of the crowning achievements of democratic Athens, a fact of which the Athenians were well aware (Aeschylus' Oresteia). Yet, this conclusion does not imply the further claim that Athens was completely purged of all vestiges of the code of behavior in which personal honor and revenge were of paramount importance. For example, how else are we to explain the fact that adulterers who failed to win a suit for unjust detention as an adulterer were not only subject to a fine, but the offended husband was given the right to physically abuse and humiliate the adulterer in the presence of the court (Dem. 59.66). In this case, we see how the principle of personal revenge for insult is incorporated into the formal legal arena. Herman does, however, make a convincing case for a relatively high level of peace and security in Athens by citing evidence that Athenians did not regularly carry arms and that personal safety was not a concern for Athenians in day-to-day life. While not claiming that Athens was a peaceful "paradise on earth," Herman plausibly concludes that there were remarkably low levels of violence between Athenians under the democracy.
Chapter 7 and 8 turn to official punishments in classical Athens and argue not only that interpersonal "violence" had been replaced by state-inflicted "coercion," but that democratic modes of punishment were significantly less bloody and cruel than those of other regimes. While Herman is certainly generally correct in the latter claim, his insistence on a strict distinction between state-inflicted punishment and private violence not only dismisses evidence for extra-legal, yet communally-sanctioned, forms of popular justice, but also the ways that the two systems of justice coexisted and even overlapped with one another. In these chapters, Herman also addresses the problem of "how the Athenian democracy succeeded in imposing its collective will on powerful and recalcitrant individuals and groups using only so slight a coercive apparatus" (232). Herman argues that in addition to widespread agreement about the rules regulating collective life, the authority of the Athenian demos had the implicit backing of the hoplites, that is the citizens who owned heavy armor. Herman is able to adduce scant evidence for real or potential intervention of hoplites in enforcing punishments and civic order; most of his argument rests on the improbability that the demos could have imposed its will without the backing of any real physical force. Finally, these chapters include a discussion of how Athenian sentiments were transformed from those of the Homeric hero to those of the "refined, cultured and law-abiding citizens" of the classical city. Herman's answer, reached by way of digressions into evolutionary anthropology, social psychology and cross-cultural comparison, is that violence was "sublimated" and "displaced," most significantly onto slaves.
Chapter 9 turns to Athenian religion and argues that Athenian myths and religious practices promoted altruism and patriotism among the Athenians. In contrast to other scholars who read Athenian rituals and beliefs as ambiguous at best or elitist/patriarchal/ phallocentric at worst, Herman suggests that Athenian religion promoted civic mindedness and "other-regarding" values. The most interesting part of this chapter falls at the end where Herman extrapolates from the principle of kin selection in evolutionary biology to argue that Athenian society and culture developed ways of encouraging identification of "unrelated members of their communities as kin." They did this by mimicking the conditions of natural kin-groups, namely by inhabiting a limited territory, engaging in complex multivalent interactions and enforcing similarity. While Athens is not unique in the first condition, it is plausible that the democracy was better at promoting interaction (through its institutions) and similarity (through its ideal of equality) than other regimes.
In the final chapter, Herman argues that the social trust resulting from Athenian collective values had a positive impact on economic relations and overall prosperity. Taking up a middle position between the modernist and the substantivist schools of economic history, Herman argues that the Athenian economy was "intensive" in the sense that there was rapid circulation of goods and services, but not ruthlessly competitive in the way we think of modern capitalism. Herman's evidence for the latter quality is the continued use of interest-free ("eranos") loans, which garnered social approval but were not profitable. The final part of the chapter applies the results of a computer programme known as the "Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma" to classical Athens. This computer simulation seems to show that the best strategy of interpersonal interaction is "tit for two tats," that is, retaliating only after the other player has committed two offenses. Beginning with the prime example of the democrats' "collective act of under-reaction to provocation" following the oligarchic coup of 404/3, Herman reviews episodes in Athenian history and literature to show that the Athenians discovered and employed this ideal form of interpersonal behavior. By under-reacting to provocation, the Athenians put a stop to potentially interminable conflicts, thereby successfully preserving public order and the stability of their democracy. There is much merit to this argument. I myself have interpreted the democratic institution of ostracism as a moderate, largely symbolic, institution that replaced an earlier more violent form expulsion practiced by elites.
As this brief summary shows, Herman's book contains a great wealth of information and ideas, but they are not always clearly woven together and integrated into a single argument. Herman's main position - that Athens developed a remarkable civic culture that somehow redirected basic human instincts towards goals benefiting the community as a whole - is largely persuasive. In my view, however, Herman does not place sufficient emphasis on tensions and conflicts in Athenian norms and behavior and therefore his portrait comes across as a little too one-sided to be wholly convincing.
Sara L. Forsdyke