The political ideas of the ancients still endure—and still propel us into debate and even more vigorous conflict.
Lane (Politics/Princeton Univ.) has written previously about the contemporary relevance of the ancients’ ideas in Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living (2011). Here, she devotes a chapter to each of the eight ideas: justice, constitution, democracy, virtue, citizenship, cosmopolitanism, republic and sovereignty. In each chapter, she reminds us of the Greek and Roman history we have possibly forgotten since our days of Ancient Civilizations 101, then explores each idea in detail, suggesting how that idea continues to resonate today. (The Why They Matter portion of her subtitle could benefit from a bit more heft and development.) Along the way, Lane reacquaints us—sometimes in great detail—with some of the most notable names in political theory and ancient culture: Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Zeno, Cicero, Tacitus and Seneca are among the most prominent. Continually, we see how three forms of constitution (not the written documents but the more generic meaning of the word) have risen, fallen and combined: kingship, oligarchy and democracy. The author shows how each held sway in various eras (and in various places and combinations) and how the human desire for power and the persuasive enticements of corruption inevitably corrode and eventually destroy. Lane also explores the troubling contradictions at the cores of some democracies: the presence of slaves, the subservience and subjugation of women, the restrictions on the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. Here, the author’s parallels to the contemporary world are most evident and telling. To provide her readers with context, Lane offers a number of useful charts, chronologies and maps.
Although the diction (and thus the going) is sometimes a bit dense, the author successfully illuminates the political ideas that still perplex and divide us.