This class investigates a series of inter-related questions and concepts by reading “classical” Greco-Roman political theory as a jumping-off point: into the later tradition, into the classical historical context, or into contrast with realities and theories outside the “Western” world, prior to colonization. The core political notions we will investigate are community and democracy. We will also look more briefly at the related notions of rhythm and education.

  • What constitutes a community? What are its characteristics? How does community relate to hierarchy and equality? How are groups formed, deformed, and disbanded? What brings unity across political groups, and what fragments them? What groupings are we a part of? How do they order us? When and how do certain orderings collapse? Should groups be centered, or decentered? Should groups of groups be centered, or decentered? Can plurality persist in unity? Can unity persist in plurality? Are we ourselves unities, or pluralities?
  • And then with respect to democracy: what is it? Is it a weak and messy affair, or dignified and effective? (How) can democracy involve representation? What are models of functioning democracies? Is there such a thing as “classical” democracy? What were the “classical” forms of political organization in Indigenous populations in the Americas, in Africa and in Asia? What is the strange relation of democracy and war? Does democracy mean a form of government, or the absence of government? Is the absence of government war? (Or is it community?)

We begin by attempting to bracket some typical foundational prejudices. We need to pause before affirming that all “history” has been “development” and “progress”; that only the worlds spinning out from the Mediterranean “classical” nexus are really important and historical; that state and class structuration are essential to “civilization.” In fact throughout the history of “civilizations,” from Mesopotamia to neoliberalism, there have existed both non-democratic, hierarchical, surplus- and slave-based, militaristic orderings of life, and democratic, egalitarian, communal, reciprocal, classless orderings of life, often in the same places though in differing ways. Further, these latter communal forms pre-exist the hierarchical ones, and account for most of the earth’s population’s social-political organization prior to European colonization. As we look for a “classical,” clean, fully-formed model of what is truly politically possible, as we look for forms that we might ourselves embrace, we need to look at both sides of this history: the state side, and the communal, democratic side. While community and democracy are limited and criticized in the “classical” tradition of the West—that is, by theorist minorities at the top of pyramidal societies—they are essential to many traditions every bit as old and venerable.

 In this class, we do look at “classical” Greco-Roman political theory—mostly at Plato’s Republic; also at Aristotle’s Politics, Euripides’ Bacchae, and Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War. But we also look beyond this tradition. We use Plato as a jumping-off point for very specific questions. We begin with a brief look at rhythm and music, in and beyond Plato. We then spend a long time on the notion of “community,” dealing with questions of order vs chaos and unity vs. plurality, and also the question of the proper ordering of the (parts of the) self. We look at Plato’s and the Athenians’ view(s), the antagonism to this view within the Greek and Western traditions themselves (the “Dionysian”), and we look beyond this Western perspective to Indigenous and revolutionary perspectives in the Americas and Africa. We pause for a week to discuss Education, in and beyond Plato, and then spend the last third of the class considering democracy in its real Greek historical manifestation, then as criticized theoretically in Plato and Aristotle, in its historical manifestation in Rome, but then also in pre-colonial contexts in Africa and the Americas.

The point of our investigation is to think through and beyond the possibilities delineated within the “Western tradition,” to discover models of social and political organization that can truly empower us today. And since the class is about community and democracy, it seems reasonable to try to practice community and democracy within it. Our meetings will aim to elucidate what community and democracy might be through discussion, but also to experimentally embody these realities through mutual honesty, respect and decision-making.