An interview with Josiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The period considered classical Greece (roughly the 4th through 5th century BC) had a profound effect on Western civilization, forming the foundations of politics and philosophy, as well as artistic and scientific thought. Why did Greece experience such economic and cultural growth—and why was it limited to this 200-year period? Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University and author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, took the time to explain the reasons behind Greece’s flourishing, and what its economic rise and political fall can tell us about our own world.

The Rise and Fall of Classical GreeceWhat was the rise of classical Greece and when and why did it happen?

JO: Basically, sustained economic growth lead to the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

At the Early Iron Age nadir, in ca. 1000 BCE, the Greek world was sparsely populated and consumption rates hovered near subsistence. Some 650 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased at least twenty-fold. During that same period, per capita consumption probably doubled.

That rate of growth is far short of modern rates, but it equals the growth rate of the two standout societies of early modern Europe: Holland and England in the 16th to 18th centuries. Historians had long thought that the Greek world was impoverished and its economy overall static – which of course made Greek culture (art, philosophy, drama, and so on) seem that much more “miraculous.” But, thanks to the recent availability and quantification of a huge mass of data, drawn from both documentary and archaeological sources, we can now trace the amazing growth of the Greek economy, both in its extent (how many people, how much urbanization, and so on), and in terms of per capita consumption (how well people lived).

So the rise of the Greek world was predicated on sustained economic growth, but why did the Greek economy grow so robustly for so long?

JO: In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful. As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange. The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states.

So what about the fall?

JO: There are two “falls” – one political and one economic. The economic fall is the decline of the Greek economy from its very high level in the age of Aristotle to a “premodern Greek normal” of low population and near-subsistence consumption levels with the disintegration of the Roman empire. That low normal had pertained before the rise of the city-state ecology. After the fall, it persisted until the 20th century. But we also need to explain an earlier political fall. Why, just when the ancient Greek economy was nearing its peak, were Philip II and Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon able to conquer the Greek world? And then there is another puzzle: Why were so many Greek city-states able to maintain independence and flourishing economies in the face of Macedonian hegemony? The city-states were overtaken by the Macedonians in part because human-capital investments created a class of skilled and mobile experts in state finance and military organization. Hired Greek experts provided Philip and Alexander with the technical skills they needed to build a world-class army. But meanwhile, deep investments by city-states in infrastructure and training made fortified cities expensive to besiege. As a result, after the Macedonian conquest, royal taxes on Greek cities were negotiated rather than simply imposed. That ensured enough independence for the Greek cities to sustain economic growth until the Roman conquest.

What does the economic rise and political fall of classical Greece have to tell us about our own world?

JO: The new data allows us to test the robustness of contemporary theories of political and economic development. In the classical Greek world, political development was a primary driver of economic growth; democracy appears to be a cause rather than simply an effect of prosperity. The steep rise and long duration of the city-state ecology offers a challenge to neo-Hobbesian centralization theories of state formation, which hold that advanced economic and political development requires the consolidation of centralized state power. The comparatively low rate of ancient Greek income inequality, along with the high rate of economic growth, suggests that the negative correlation of sustained growth with extreme inequality, observed in some recent societies, is not a unique product of modernity. Finally, the history of the ancient Greek world can be read as a cautionary tale about the unanticipated consequences of growth and human capital investment: It reveals how innovative institutions and technologies, originally developed in the open-access, fair-rules context of democratic states, can be borrowed by ambitious autocrats and redeployed to further their own, non-democratic purposes.

How did you get interested in the topic of rise and fall – was it just a matter of “Edward Gibbon envy”?

JO: Gibbon is amazing, as a prose stylist and historian. But the origin of my project actually goes back to a quip by a senior colleague at the very beginning of my career: “The puzzle is not why the Greek world fell, it is why it lasted more than 20 minutes.” Twenty-five years ago (and fifteen years after my colleague’s quip), the historical sociologist W.G. Runciman claimed that classical Greece was “doomed to extinction” because the Greek city-states were, “without exception, far too democratic.” True enough: the classical Greek world eventually went extinct. But then, so did all other ancient societies, democratic or otherwise. The Greek city-state culture lasted for the better part of a millennium; much longer than most ancient empires. I’ve long felt that I owed my colleague a solution to his puzzle. This book is an attempt to pay that debt.

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Democracy and Knowledge, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.

 

Jonathan Zimmerman on how to publish your Op Ed

Jonathan Zimmerman, author of the new book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, also happens to be known for writing (and publishing) more op eds than any other living historian. Recently he spoke to the History News Network about his unusual success in this area—a must-listen for authors and anyone whose desktop features a few op eds looking for a home.

 

 

Lawrence Stone Lectures with Chris Clark this April

At the end of April, Chris Clark of St. Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge, and author of the international bestseller The Sleepwalkers, is giving the Lawrence Stone Lectures, jointly sponsored by the Princeton History Department’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center and Princeton University Press. The lectures are on Power and Historicity in Germany, 1648-1945. They are open to the public and held at 4:30 pm, 010 E. Pyne, with a reception to follow.

On Tuesday, April 28, “The State Makes History”

On Wednesday, April 29, “The State Confronts History”

On Thursday, April 30, “Nazi Time: The Escape from History”

Check the Davis Center’s website for more information on this lecture series.

Lawrence Stone Lectures

 

Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

The Failure of Islamic Democracy, by John Owen, author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM: Six Lessons from the West’s Past — Op-Ed Original

The Failure of Islamic Democracy
By John M. Owen IV

The recent jihadist horrors in France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have lured our attention away from political conditions in the Middle East that indirectly helped produce them. In Turkey and Egypt “Islamic democracy” failed in 2014, and that failure will likely have long and deep repercussions for the entire region.

From northwest Africa to South Asia, majorities of Muslims routinely tell pollsters that they believe their country should either adopt literal Sharia, law derived from Islam’s holy texts, or at least follow the principles of those texts. The secularism that authoritarian Muslims imposed on their peoples from the 1920s through the 1970s is simply not popular over this vast region.

At the same time, the late Arab Spring made clear that Middle Eastern Muslims want governments that are accountable to them. The only resolution for most countries in the region, then, is some kind of Islamic democracy.

The very phrase “Islamic democracy” seems incoherent the Western ear, and indeed any Islamic democracy could not be liberal, in the individualist and secularist sense that we mean by that term today.

What, then, is Islamic democracy? Since it took power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party has invited the world to watch it build just such a system (although its leaders insist on the term “conservative democracy”). The early years of AK Party government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked promising, as the economy grew, negotiations with Kurdish separatists progressed, and Turkey even moved toward membership in the European Union. The AK Party fairly won several elections.

The unraveling began in 2013 with a crackdown on protests, and in 2014 it continued with corruption charges against Erdoğan allies, media censorship, politicization of the judiciary, and arrests of political rivals. Elected President in August after twelve years as Prime Minister, Erdoğan has made clear his determination to expand the powers of that office.

Then there is Egypt. Its stirring 2011 revolution ousted the authoritarian secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, and free elections in 2012 produced an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and an Islamist majority in parliament. Openly admiring of the Turkish model, the new Egypt was poised to exemplify an Arab Islamic democracy.

But in November 2012 Morsi assumed extraordinary powers. Mounting public protests against Morsi’s power grab were followed by his ouster by Egypt’s military in July 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2014 al-Sisi ran nearly unopposed for President, and while in office he has suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. Egypt appears where it was before 2011, only with a different former army general in charge.

Turkey’s Erdoğan has bested his opponents; Egypt’s Morsi was destroyed by his. But in both countries the experiment with Islamic democracy has failed. Each elected leader confronted powerful elites and large segments of the public who did not trust him to remain a democrat. Relations deteriorated, factions polarized, and both countries are settling into sultanism.

These depressing stories are not only about Turkey and Egypt. They are about the future of Islamic democracy itself. For nearly a century the entire Middle East has been passing through a legitimacy crisis, or a struggle over the best way to order society. The West and other regions have passed through legitimacy crises of their own in past centuries – most recently, the twentieth-century struggle between communism and liberal democracy. Prolonged spasms like these scramble political loyalties and generate unrest, revolution, and foreign interventions.

In the Muslims’ current crisis the original contenders in the struggle were secularism, pioneered by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic; and Islamism, formulated by thinkers such as the Sunni Hassan al-Banna and the Shia Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, journalists, and politicians lately have touted Islamic democracy as a hybrid solution to this long struggle.

Western history shows that long international ideological contests are played out in the policies and performances of real countries. And they end only when a large, influential state that exemplifies one contending ideology manifestly outperforms large states exemplifying the alternative ideologies.

Consider the Cold War, a struggle between the liberal democracy and communism that played out in the competition between the United States and Soviet Union. By the 1980s America’s economic, technological, and military superiority was clear. Societal elites the world over concluded that communism did not work after all. Country after country abandoned state socialism, and liberal democracy enjoyed a period of predominance over much of the globe.

In 2011 and 2012 it appeared that the Middle East was heading for a similar resolution, with Turkey showing the superiority of Islamic democracy, Egypt following its example, and elites in neighboring societies adopting this new hybrid regime as the wave of the future. As 2015 begins, things look nearly the opposite. Tunisia, which recently held fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, provides some hope. But if history is a good guide, Tunisia is too small and peripheral to be an exemplar or inspire imitation.

We can continue to argue over whether the retreat of Islamic democracy was inevitable or caused by other factors. We can argue over whether Islamic democracy’s time has passed, or not yet arrived. What is clear is that the Middle East’s legitimacy crisis continues, with an end no longer in sight.

John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia and author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM.

Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood to be honored at annual conference of the American Meteorological Society

On January 7th and 8th in Phoenix, Arizona, authors Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy were recognized by the Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) for their books Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, respectively.

Canfield’s account of the history and importance of oxygen won him the 2014 ASLI Choice Award and will be recognized as “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.” Wood received an honorable mention for this year’s Choice Award in History. Tambora, will be acknowledged as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood!

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Oxygen:
A Four Billion Year History
Donald E. Canfield

 

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Tambora:
The Eruption That Changed the World
Gillen D’Arcy Wood

Cowardice: A Brief History, the song

Walsh_CowardiceCowardice: A Brief History explores a subject that is as important as it has been overlooked. The book shows that over the course of modern western history, the idea of cowardice has faded–a welcome trend because the fear of being judged cowardly has led to much recklessness and violence. Yet when this trend goes too far, when cowardice is dismissed as an absurd or irrelevant idea, we lose an essential part of our ethical vocabulary. So while the book condemns specious and harmful invocations of cowardice, it also argues that a rigorous and nuanced conception of cowardice–one that condemns failures of duty born of excessive fear, to give a quick definition–is worth keeping.

The book focuses on the archetypal home of cowardice, the battlefield. Sometimes I felt like I was in a battle (mostly with myself) in writing it. It took me a long time–almost twenty years--to finish. But the last part of the book escapes from war to explore cowardice in everyday life, in religion and crime and in love (another kind of battlefield). As I was writing this part I was actually able to have some fun–even to the point that I wrote lyrics and sent them to the amazing Chandler Travis who put them to music and recorded a demo you can listen to here. We titled the tune… “Cowardice: A Brief History.”

This is probably the only scholarly book to have its own eponymous song released with it. This is probably the only song that alludes to The Temptations and the Russian General Georgy Zhukov (1896-1974) in the same verse. And this is probably not the sort of thing a writer should do if he wants to maintain any sense of dignity, gravitas, etc.

But one of the things Cowardice advocates is not giving in to the cowardice of fearing excessively what people might think. The book argues that fear of cowardice can–sometimes–actually be useful in battling against other fears, more useful even than the aspiration to courage. The existence of the book itself is a modest example of this usefulness. It didn’t require me to be courageous, but once I decided that it was my duty to write it, to start a conversation that would not take place without a book called Cowardice, the fear of being cowardly helped me finish it.


This is a guest post by Chris Walsh, associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.

Cowardice: A Brief History  

Chris Walsh

 

Angela Stent on 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and her book The Limits of Partnership

angela stentOn November 9th, 2014, the world will join Berlin in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Also on that day, PBS will air  Angela Stent’s American Forum discussion of the fall, as well as her book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century. The discussion, to take place today at 11:00AM at the University of Virginia Miller Center, can be live streamed here (for those of you who can’t wait until November 9th!).

Derek Sayer’s Prague, winner of 2014 George L. Mosse Prize, American Historical Association

pragueThe American Historical Association recently announced its 2014 prize winners, and congratulations are in order (again) for Derek Sayer and his book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History. 

Prague will be the recipient of the George L. Mosse Prize, an award given to “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500.” The award ceremony will be held at AHA’s Annual Meeting in New York on Friday, January 2nd.

For the full list of 2014 prize winners, click here. Again, congratulations to Derek Sayer on yet another noteworthy (and blog worthy) achievement!

Derek Sayer’s Prague receives honorable mention for the 2014 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize

pragueThe Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize is awarded to the “most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline in the humanities or social sciences,” by The Association for Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).

This year, Derek Sayer, author of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History, received an honorable mention for the award, along with Valerie Kivelson for her book Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Russia (Cornell University Press). Kate Brown and Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press) took home first place.

For the list of winners and honorable mentions for other ASEEES awards, click here. Congratulations to Derek Sayer on the noteworthy achievement!

Francis Fukuyama in conversation with David Runciman

Check out Francis Fukuyama’s and David Runciman’s discussion (or perhaps more accurately, debate) on “Democracy: Even the Best Ideas Fail.” This is part of the excellent programming from Intelligence Squared. The description for the event stated, “Professor Fukuyama comes to the Intelligence Squared stage where he will square up with one of Britain’s most brilliant political thinkers, David Runciman, to assess how democracy is faring in 2014.” You can watch the event below or download a podcast of the discussion here.


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The Confidence Trap
A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present
David Runciman

Book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox


Princeton University Press senior designer Jason Alejandro created this book trailer for Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox. (The catchy song in the background is the aptly named “Weekend in the City” by Silent Partner.)

8-7 Atlas of Cities Atlas of Cities
Edited by Paul Knox