Not Talking but Thinking and Voting: Democratic Deliberation in Classical Athens

Presented as part of the Rhetoric Spring Colloquia

Classical Athenian democracy is often described as deliberative, implying that discussion by the dêmos played an important political role. But of the three Greek verbs associated with deliberation, only one, bouleuomai, denoted an action performed by the dêmos, and in mass political contexts it suggested not discussion but internal decision-making communicated by voting. While speech was crucial to democratic politics, it was oratorical rather than dialogical and performed by rhêtores, ‘orators’ or ‘politicians’, who by the very act of speaking were conceived as casting themselves outside the deliberating dêmos. With respect to public speech, classical Athenian democracy had more in common with modern democratic politics than is usually recognized. This similarity makes it more, not less, useful as a model today.