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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Josiah Ober Delivers Spring 2013 Katz Lecture on Democracy

The original, ancient Greek meaning of democracy—“the People’s capacity to do things”—emphasizes citizen participation. By acting as citizens, with the authority to decide important public matters, we achieve a basic human good: freely exercising our distinctive natural capacities of speech and reason, to deliberate about public interests. Moreover, the conditions necessary for an extensive and diverse citizenry to address public interests require other independently valued goods: freedom of speech and association, political equality, and civic dignity. Democracy is therefore good for the exercise of our innate capacities and good for liberty, equality, and dignity. 

Yet, according to Spring 2013 Katz Lecturer Josiah Ober, if democracy is to be sustained over time, individuals must pay the costs of defending it.  An ancient Greek case study points to a self-enforcing equilibrium in which citizens have the motive and means to coordinate against threats to democratic order.

Ober explores this subject in his lecture, titled “What Is Democracy and What Is It Good For?” It takes place in Kane 110 on Tuesday, Apr. 16, at 7:00 p.m.

A leading theorist of democracy, deliberation, political dissent, and institutional design, Ober is Constantine Mitsotakis Professor in the School of the Humanities and Sciences, Professor of Political Science, Classics, and Philosophy at Stanford University. His teaching and research link ancient Greek history and philosophy with modern political theory and practice, as he looks to the democracy of ancient Athens to explore political issues of the present and reimagine forms of democratic engagement. Ober is the author of numerous books, including Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008) and the award-winning Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (1989).

While at the UW, Ober will also participate in a colloquium at the Simpson Center. Titled “Political Theory: Normative & Positive / Ancient & Modern.”  It takes place Wednesday, Apr. 17, from 3:30-5:20 p.m. in Communications 202. Attendees are encouraged to read three essays prior to attending, available here.

A microseminar for graduate students, “Defining Democracy, Ancient and Modern,” is being held Spring Quarter in conjunction with Ober’s visit. Facilitated by Deborah Kamen (Classics) and Jean Roberts (Philosophy), the course frames Ober’s lecture and related work. Read more about the microseminar here.

The Katz Distinguished Lectures in the Humanities Series recognizes scholars in the humanities and emphasizes the role of the humanities in liberal education. The series is named after Solomon Katz, who served in many capacities for 53 years at the UW—as professor and chair of History, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and provost & vice president for Academic Affairs.

Victoria Lawson (Geography, University of Washington), Shu-mei Shih (Asian Languages & Cultures, Comparative Literature, and Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles), and Cathy Davidson (English and Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke University) delivered Katz Lectures this year.

All Katz Lectures are free and open to the public. Read more about the Katz Lectures.