The highest praise that I can bestow upon "The Honey and the Hemlock" by Eli Sagan is to say that it's the political equivalent of Harold Bloom's remarkable "The Book of J"--an audacious rereading of ancient texts that take on new and startling meaning when seen through the eyes of a daring interpreter.
Just as Bloom sends us back to the Bible, Sagan urges us to refresh ourselves at the very font of our democracy--the city-state or polis of Athens.
"What can Athens teach us?" he writes. "A stable Republican society requires a simple, but enormously difficult, psychological maneuver: the renunciation of violence as a political means within the \o7 polis\f7 , the sublimation of primitive aggression into intense, nonviolent competition."
"The Honey and the Hemlock" is Sagan's extended contemplation of the lessons of ancient Greek democracy, which gave us "philosophy, psychology, the study of politics, and science," but also the example of "imperial domination of other Greek cities, the slaughter and enslavement of its wartime opponents, the occasional genocide of another \o7 polis,\f7 not to mention the ownership of . . . slaves and the almost total exclusion of women from cultural and political life."
Sagan argues that the flesh-and-blood realities of Greek democracy--as opposed to its faint and constantly fading mythos--offer insight into both the causes and the cures of our own contemporary political malaise.
"The study of ancient Athens is so exhilarating and so frightening because it was the most . . . paradoxical society imaginable," Sagan writes. "It is almost unimaginable that one human society could successfully contain and reconcile such ambiguities, producing, as Plutarch remarked, men of such excellence and men so notoriously bad, just 'as the country produces the most delicious honey and the most deadly hemlock.' "
Sagan, author of "Freud, Women and Morality," is a practicing psycho-historian, and the key intellectual conceit of his new book is drawn from the principles of clinical psychology: "Every society is paranoid, and has succeeded to a greater or lesser degree in overcoming the paranoid position," he writes. "Democratic society, even the imperfect democracy that we simultaneously enjoy and deplore, represents the least paranoid of any form of society yet seen."
Sagan ranges comfortably through the literature of the ancient Greek and Roman world, but he is no ponderous classicist--he writes with all the verve and topicality of an Op-Ed page essayist, and he's especially adept at tracing the surprising points of connection between Greek democracy of the 4th and 5th centuries BC and politics of more recent vintage.
Sagan hardly regards ancient Greece as some shining beacon of democratic virtue--he knows his subject too well to overlook the uglier side of Athens, and he discerns in the Athenian example not only the origins of democracy but also the death camp and the death squad: "It was not necessary to wait until the 20th Century . . . to discover what the people, empowered and enraged, are capable of."
But Sagan insists that even the ambiguities and contradictions of ancient Greece--and especially the manner in which they were resolved in practice--are instructive to American democracy in crisis.
And so, for example, when he harks back to the peasant farmers whose daring insurrections were the birth pangs of democracy in the era of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, Sagan is very much concerned with the urgent and ennobling lessons to be learned from antiquity and applied in the here-and-now.
"How and why such spirit entered the breasts of those impoverished visionaries is one of the great unanswered historical questions," he muses, and he calls on us to honor their example: "We are the beneficiaries of their remarkable refusal to be passive victims."
Next: \o7 Richard Eder reviews Francis Steegmuller, "A Woman, A Man and Two Kingdoms" (Knopf). \f7