Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism

An America’s Founding and Future Lecture

April 20, 2018
Ober lecture poster

Josiah OberMitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics, Stanford University

What did democracy mean before liberalism?  And what are the consequences for our lives today?  Combining history with political theory, this lecture restores the core meaning of democracy as collective and limited self-government by citizens. That, rather than majority tyranny, is what democracy meant in ancient Athens and in “Demopolis,” a hypothetical modern state that lacks Athens’ historical baggage. Demopolis’ residents aim to establish a secure, prosperous, and non-tyrannical community, where citizens govern as a collective, both directly and through representatives. They willingly assume the costs of self-government because they recognize that doing so benefits them, both as a group and individually. Basic democracy, as exemplified in real Athens and imagined Demopolis, can provide a stable foundation for a liberal state. It also offers a possible way forward for religious communities seeking a realistic alternative to autocracy.

Josiah Ober, Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University, works on historical institutionalism and political theory, with an emphasis on democracy and on the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world. He is the author of a number of books, most recently Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice (2017) and The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015)which won the Douglass North Research Award of the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics. His other books include Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (1989), The Athenian Revolution (1996), Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (2008), and Democracy and Knowledge (2008). His current book project, tentatively entitled The Greeks and the Rational, looks at how ancient Greek political theorists (including Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides) approached questions of individual motivation, social cooperation, and constitutionalism, arguing that certain of the problems they confronted and solutions they devised have analogues in contemporary game theoryProfessor Ober received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. 


Lewis Library 120