We often talk loosely of the “tyranny of the majority” as a threat to the workings of democracy. But, in ancient Greece, the analogy of demos and tyrant was no mere metaphor, nor a simple reflection of elite prejudice. Instead, it highlighted an important structural feature of Athenian democracy. Like the tyrant, the Athenian demos was an unaccountable political actor with the power to hold its subordinates to account. And like the tyrant, the demos could be dangerous to counsel since the orator speaking before the assembled demos was accountable for the advice he gave.
With Dangerous Counsel, Matthew Landauer analyzes the sometimes ferocious and unpredictable politics of accountability in ancient Greece and offers novel readings of ancient history, philosophy, rhetoric, and drama. In comparing the demos to a tyrant, thinkers such as Herodotus, Plato, Isocrates, and Aristophanes were attempting to work out a theory of the badness of unaccountable power; to understand the basic logic of accountability and why it is difficult to get right; and to explore the ways in which political discourse is profoundly shaped by institutions and power relationships. In the process they created strikingly portable theories of counsel and accountability that traveled across political regime types and remain relevant to our contemporary political dilemmas.