Judgment in the Athenian Courts as Anti-Tragedy: Demosthenes’ On the Crown (Review of Politics 2022)
This article grows out of my doctoral research comparing judgment in the courts and theater of democratic Athens. In 330 BCE, the statesman Demosthenes delivered his famous court speech “On the Crown” which commentators have called “tragic” due to the litigant’s unusual appropriation of tropes from Attic tragedy to make his case. In this article, I offer an alternative reading of Demosthenes’ speech that rests on an alternative approach to theorizing democratic judgment. My view is that the rhetorical force and political significance of Demosthenes’ metaphors, linguistic expressions or ideas depend upon the institutional setting in which they were delivered, and that within each institutional site, a specific political practice of judgment is taking place that structures the reception and response to ideas and images. Democratic judgment is shaped by what I call institutional “charge,” i.e. the distinctive dynamics that inform its practice in a given context, including: the political and institutional pressures placed on the judge; the required outcome or telos of a given judgment; the institutional constraints on narrative; and the civic role and relationship between the judges and those judged. Reading Demosthenes’ “On the Crown” as a product of political practice leads me to the conclusion that the speech is in fact “anti-tragic” and reflects the kind of democratic judgment encouraged in the popular courts.
Tocqueville’s Savages (The Tocqueville Review 2019)
My research in democratic political theory has also led me to consider the intersections between democratic thought and the historical experience of empire. My article, “Tocqueville’s Savages” shows how Tocqueville’s representation of indigenous groups facilitated his divergent appraisals of colonial violence in Algeria and America. I situate Tocqueville’s liberal and democratic commitments in relation to his view of history and Realpolitik to explain his unwillingness to extend to indigenous subjects the liberty he is famous for celebrating.
Abstract: A comparative study of Democracy in America and Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria reveals a striking divergence in how Tocqueville responds to the devastation wrought on indigenous peoples by European settlers. In the American case, Tocqueville deplores the “tyrannical” and “atrocious” treatment of Amerindians, whereas in Algeria he describes the ruination of native Algerians as an “unfortunate necessity” and largely refuses to criticize French conduct on moral grounds. As part of a larger attempt to reconcile Tocqueville’s liberalism with his unapologetic defense of colonial domination, this article offers a critical account of Tocqueville’s representations of foreign others. It ends by suggesting that because Tocqueville’s conceptualization of the Algerian “other” is grounded in the implicit identification of the international realm with pure power politics, he is able to utilize a discourse specific to times of war that evades normative considerations. By contrast, insofar as the Amerindians are situated within American domestic space, they elicit normative thinking about their status and treatment.
Beyond Impartiality: “To Listen to Both Sides Equally” in the Athenian Popular Courts (In Progress)
Abstract: Although many have criticized impartiality, the “contested concept” and the conceptual binaries it generates continue to inform political thought and practice. They also structure interpretations of historical cases that might offer alternative horizons. One such case is democratic Athens. Scholars of ancient Athens, particularly with respect to its judicial practices, often emphasize either the Athenian commitment to impartiality and judgment in accordance with the laws, as articulated in the obligatory judicial oath (Ostwald 1989, Harris 2007), or the role of anger, personal interest, and political consideration in judicial practice and their legitimacy according to an Athenian conception of justice (Osborne 1985, Cohen 1995, Allen 2002).
In this article, I revisit the Athenian case to show that neither a conception of impartiality nor its opposite can render legible the norms and expectations guiding jurors in the popular courts. Translations of the judicial oath that use the modern and conceptually-laden term “impartiality” are misleading, and a missed opportunity to understand how the ancient, pre-Kantian democracy navigated the political problem of democratic judgment. Likewise, contrasting Athenian practices and norms with impartiality obscures how Athenians themselves sought to avoid biased, undemocratic and inegalitarian judgment. I argue that the judicial oath’s injunction to “listen to both sides equally” refers to the political and relational conception of equality at the heart of the Athenian conception of just judgment. Attending to this conception pushes us to think beyond impartiality. Although the Athenian conception of just judgment is unlikely to offer straight-forward guidance for democracy today, it may help to disabuse us of the dominant view that disinterested or dispassionate judgment are required to protect democratic equality and the rule of law.