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"Philanthrōpia, Democracy, and the Proof of Power"

Ted Parker

University of Toronto

My paper focuses on an emergent political buzzword in fourth-century Athens: philanthrōpia or “generosity.” Mentioned only twice in the fifth century, attestations of philanthrōpia exploded in the fourth, preserved for us in the works of Xenophon, Isocrates, and Demosthenes. Far from remaining an innocent term for a commendable personal virtue, philanthrōpia was quickly dragged into the public arena of contemporary political debate. While some wanted to mint it as a specifically democratic value, others wished to cast it as a traditionally aristocratic one. For democrats, philanthrōpia had the potential to represent the “gentle” virtues of tolerance, civility, and sociability—dispositions necessary for the smooth functioning of an “open society” like Athens’. For those with more aristocratic sympathies, philanthrōpia (in the sense of “beneficence”) offered a ground on which a philanthropic elite could found its moral superiority and stake its claim to power.

As I hope to show, this dispute over philanthrōpia can provide us with greater insight into Athenian democracy and society. In particular, it gives us a window into the cut and thrust of the ideological struggle between aristocratic and democratic values in Athens. While scholars are generally agreed on the aristocratic origins of most Greek values—for example, aretē (“excellence”) and kalokagathia (“nobility”)—how (or even if) those “aristocratic” values were “democratized” in Athens remains an open question. Optimists like Josiah Ober and Matthew Christ consider the process of democratization straightforward and unproblematic: once aristocratic values are attributed to the dēmos or the democracy, they become, ipso facto, democratic (Ober: 259-66, 289–92, 338-9; Christ: 205, n. 14). On the other side, pessimists like Nicole Loraux and A. W. H. Adkins assert that aristocratic values have to undergo a conceptual change—from hierarchical to egalitarian, from competitive to cooperative—in order to become genuinely democratic (Loraux: 172-220; Adkins: 112-33, 139-47). Otherwise, the risk is that the dēmos may unwittingly buy into values that legitimize an elitist ordering of society. If, for instance, the dēmos accepts a competitive, aristocratic conception of aretē, then they may be more easily convinced to respect the legitimacy of a meritocracy that will inevitably be dominated by the elite. The status of these values is therefore of vital importance to our understanding of Athenian democracy.

In this paper, I will examine what Matthew Christ calls Demosthenes’ “democratization” of philanthrōpia (204). While Christ considers the identity of the represented philanthropic figure as determinative of whether an author’s conception of philanthrōpia is “democratic” or “aristocratic,” I posit that attending to the precise conceptual differences between “democratic” and “aristocratic” philanthrōpia can provide us with more robust reasons for coming to these conclusions. To demonstrate this, I examine philanthrōpia in Xenophon and Demosthenes, where the concepts of autonomy, gratuitousness, hierarchy, and desert serve to distinguish their rival conceptions of philanthrōpia. In particular, I argue that Demosthenes departs from Xenophon’s conception of philanthrōpia, which privileges the autonomous will of the (aristocratic) philanthropist, who gives not out of a sense of obligation, but out of his own overflowing plenitude. Instead, Demosthenes marries philanthrōpia with the concept of desert, which tilts the scales in favor of the recipient of philanthrōpia by making the philanthropist accountable to external, communally negotiable criteria, rather than his own autonomous will. I focus especially on his speech Against Meidias, where Demosthenes repeatedly links philanthrōpia with desert (as well as other communal values and the laws)—something that Xenophon, Isocrates, and the other Attic orators never do, since they remain committed to the idea of the unconditioned will of the philanthropist. The fact that Demosthenes is unique in making this connection and that he makes it in such a concerted way suggests that he is doing something new and important and, as I claim, radically democratic. Not content with merely appropriating aristocratic values, Demosthenes gives us proof of the desire to “democratize” them on a deeper, conceptual level.

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Greek Political Thought

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