What I’m Reading: An Interview with Josiah Ober

tags: interview, Josiah Ober

Erik Moshe is a freelance journalist and an HNN features intern.

Josiah Ober is an American historian of ancient Greece and a classical political theorist. He is Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in honor of Constantine Mitsotakis, and Professor of Classics and Political Science at Stanford University. He is the author of Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (1989), Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (2008), and Democracy and Knowledge (2008).

What books are you reading now?

Amartya Sen, Collective Choice and Social Welfare (new edition, 2017).

Thomas Cole, Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (a classic from 1967).

Recently: Paul Cartledge, Democracy: A Life, and Barry Strauss, The Death of Caesar - both terrific.

What is your favorite history book?

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Almost by accident: I thought I was interested in sociology, anthropology - until I took a few university courses. I took my first ancient history course because it fit my schedule and was immediately hooked.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Above all, creativity and good taste in posing questions. Every historian has to be very dedicated, hard-working, attentive to detail, obsessive about getting things right. But none of that comes to much without the capacity to pose a new and significant question and then figure out a way to answer it. That is hard because many of the obvious questions have been posed long ago, and answered by historians of great distinction and deep learning. Of course, it can be valuable to seek a new answer to a "classic” question. But taking on a classic question means that the historian had better have access to some new evidence, or a new theory or method to bring to bear, or imagine that previous generations of historians missed something.

Which historical time period is your favorite?

I fell in love with the Greek world of the fourth century BCE, the age of Plato, Aristotle, Epaminondas and Alexander the Great, when writing my senior undergraduate thesis and have never found an era I liked better.

Who was you favorite history teacher?

I decided I wanted to be a professional historian after I took a Greek history course from Thomas Kelly at the University of Minnesota. He was very old-school, very demanding, and utterly passionate about Greek history. After getting over his initial skepticism about my willingness to do the heavy lifting, Kelly recommended me to Chester G. Starr at the University of Michigan, who directed my PhD dissertation. Between them, Kelly and Starr taught me to be a historian and I am forever grateful to them.

What was your favorite historic site trip?

A particularly memorable trip was my first tour of the ancient fortifications on the borderlands of Attica, Boeotia, and Megara in the summer of 1978; my wife Adrienne Mayor and I bused, walked, and hitchhiked along the mountainous borderlands, sleeping out in ancient fortifications, talking to shepherds, scavenging for food (almonds recently fallen from trees gone wild on public land, a few tomatoes fallen from a passing truck). I went on to write my PhD dissertation on the historical context in which those fortified sites were first built.

What are your hopes for world and social history?

That historians will become more familiar with theories and methods being used in contemporary social science, especially political science and economics. There is a huge opportunity for productive collaboration on historical topics across social science disciplines. This does not mean that historians need to learn all of the techniques that a competent social scientist commands (or vice versa) - but we need to learn enough to make collaborations effective.

Are you concerned with any aspects of the current American government? Are the basic institutions of democracy under threat?

Yes, I’m deeply concerned about the current state of American government  – and indeed about the prospects for anything I would recognize as democracy in much of the developed and developing world.

Forget for a moment, if you can, the fact that the President of the USA is a childish, bullying, megalomaniac with zero respect for truth or justice. Forget likewise that another equally childish, bullying megalomaniac now rules a nuclear-equipped country as an absolute dictator, and that the two children-in-rulers’ clothing are on a collision course. Etc.

What really worries me is that elected officials and electorate alike, in the US and other putatively democratic countries, have willfully forgotten that democracy is or even could be anything other than naked partisanship aimed at satisfying the selfish preferences of a plurality faction. That is, they have forgotten that there is any such thing as a national “common interest” (say in true security or general welfare) or that democracy has the means for identifying those interests and seeking the best solutions when those interests are not being adequately fulfilled. Having reduced democracy to a zero-sum game about winners and losers, they express surprise that it seems to be working so poorly. Under these conditions, it is not particular institutions, but the entire structure of democratic government, along with the political culture of citizenship that sustains it, that are under threat.

These are the deep worries, by the way, that inform my new book: Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have a number of books that were previously owned by distinguished classicists and ancient historians - these are not collectible, I suppose, but there is a great joy in reading a book that was read by an honored intellectual ancestor.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding: Working with outstanding students who ask questions that never occurred to me and who go on to do superb scholarship of a sort that I could not hope to do myself. Most frustrating: the very difficult job market for historians, which means that even the very best doctoral students face deep uncertainty about their future careers.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Along with the emphasis on comparative and world history, the greater openness on the part of professional historians to serious scholarly work that aims at a wider audience. “Popularization” was once a slur; it is now I think pretty widely recognized as an essential part of what historians ought to be doing.

If you could sum up world history in one word, what would that word be? Why’d you pick it?

Power. The questions of who has it, what it is used for, and how it is contested define a great deal of what I find interesting about history.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

“ktema es aiei” (a possession for all time). That is what Thucydides said his history of the Peloponnesian War aimed to be, and I suppose it is the desire of every historian to write something that will last - even if our ambitions don’t rise to the level of “forever” (or even 2400 years).

What are you doing next?

As I mentioned, my new book conjoining history and political theory, Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, was published by Cambridge UP in July. I have begun work on the general topic of “the economics of choice in ancient Greek thought” which will (assuming the project comes together) be presented as the Sather Classical Lectures at Berkeley in 2019. 

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