Freedom News

Cities of Hubris

Freedom reproduces the prologue to:

Reclaiming Cities: Revolutionary Dimensions of Political Participation
Yavor Tarinski
(Black Rose Books, 2023)
ISBN: 9781551647944

In the play Antigone (442 BCE) Creon, king of the city Thebes, condemns Polyneices’s corpse to rot on the battlefield as lawful punishment for the treasonous act of killing his younger brother, Eteocles, who took the throne before Polyneices could. Going against Creon’s orders, Polyneices’s sister Antigone sought a burial for Polyneices that was consistent with the gods’ wishes. In doing so, she placed divine law over human law. The paradox is that by insisting on the punishment of letting Polyneices’s corpse rot Creon, who upholds the city’s laws, demonstrates his willingness to be alone in thinking that he is right. As such, he transgresses collective wisdom and becomes a man without a city. But Antigone is also without a city as she flouts the city’s laws to champion divine laws. In these ways, both Creon and Antigone commit hubris.

For [philosopher] Castoriadis, this play illustrates how justice of the gods does not suffice any more than do the laws of the land suffice. In obeying these laws, people must know that they do not define exclusively what is permitted and that they do not exhaust, either, what is forbidden. The play exhibits the uncertainty pervading political action and democratic frameworks as it “sketches the impurity of motives” and “exposes the inconclusive character of the reasoning upon which we base our decisions”. Rather than being just a cultural phenomenon, the ancient role of tragedy served to illuminate that human intentions, as causes, are unable to guarantee the production of positive and corresponding outcomes. This is especially pertinent for individuals who are alone in thinking they are right. For, tragedy shows “not only that we are not masters of the consequences of our actions but that we are not even masters of their meaning”. Thus, aside from exposing the dangers of hubris, tragedy also exposed the need for collective wisdom.

Collective wisdom is necessary to fulfil common objectives and public endeavours in a city. Thus it is a citizen’s role to help arrive at this collective wisdom. However uncertain the outcomes of the autonomous project may be, it is the process of public creation and deliberation which is how a directly democratic society reabsorbs the political as explicit power back into politics “as the lucid and deliberate activity whose object is the explicit institution of society”. Institution, in this sense, is used as a verb and includes directly democratic creation without representation in legislation, jurisdiction, and law but also encompasses the totality of social institutions generally. The self-instituted society deliberately proposes to itself to fulfil common objectives and public endeavours and is the opposite of the closed society that is no longer critically self-reflective and becomes stagnant or self-destructive. We live in an era which includes self-destructive tendencies in which people lack empathy for one another, their surrounding environment, and the immediate future is painfully and existentially uncertain.

City & Citizen

The relationship between the city and the citizen – between society as a collective power and the individual — is critical. For how do people care for one another, themselves, and their surrounding environment if they are completely alienated from the creation of that society? In this book, Yavor highlights that cities today “are run in a bureaucratic state-like manner that nurtures political and economic inequalities.” Leveraging historical examples and theoretical insights, he argues that this has not always been the case and he insists that “a radically different approach is needed”. He casts critical light on the modern relationship between city and citizen. Contrasting the problems of today’s cities with democratic practices of citizens in ancient times is more than a theoretical exercise. It enables us to draw lessons from real world examples, past and present.

The ancient Athenian experience lasted for nearly two centuries. It is a rich source of information and lends itself to social-historical comparative analysis. Here, I’d like to extrapolate a bit further on certain themes; those contrasting our modern world with ancient times, to help elucidate the problems we face today in creating this new relationship.


The ancient Greek democratic forms contrast sharply with modern Western forms. As noted, in ancient times the relationship between society as a collective and power was critical. Democracy in its ancient form was direct whereas its modern form is representative. The significance of this difference, Castoriadis underscores, can be measured by noting that ancient Greek public law had no conception of representation and that the idea was unknown, whereas modern political systems enshrine representation in their very foundations. Occasionally, when people do seize power directly in the modern world, in popular assemblies and councils for instance, the seizure is a rupture in modern systems where the alienation from representation is, subsequently, exposed. The public assemblies of the global Occupy movements, for instance, illustrate this rupture, as the occupations opened spaces for public deliberation and reflection.

Exceptions in the ancient world include magistrates, who were elected based on expertise, such as military strategists (other magistrates were selected by lot or rotation), but it is important to note that among the polis all were considered to be equally knowledgeable about political affairs, that politics was a matter of doxa (common sense), and that representation was unnecessary. In contrast, in the modern world every politician is assumed to be an expert in some specialization and the citizen is expected to defer their decision-making abilities to the expert. However, this assumption is based on a deep tradition in Western political thought and ideology that is anti-democratic, in that it assumes that people are unable to govern themselves.

Until the early nineteenth century, the West held the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of ancient Sparta in high esteem. But the rise of modern forms of representative democracy in the United States and Britain, as well as the newly established Greek state in 1830, enabled the reconfiguration of the West’s political imaginary to better situate the more democratic ancient Athenian experience within its ancestral constellation as the supposed progenitor of today’s democratic systems. But there are fundamental differences between those aspects of the ancient directly democratic forms offering self-reflection for self-institution and those liberal representative forms of politics, which Castoriadis understood to be “liberal oligarchies” and thus not democratic in the deep, direct, autonomous sense. The ancient experience of democracy, however, predates the philosophical expression of liberalism as a body of thought and politics. Even so, the ancient experience stirred hatred among its contemporary critics who have supplied modern liberal oligarchies with philosophical reasoning for representative rule that dismisses popular self-governance.

One of the ancient critics to provide this reasoning was Plato, as exemplified by his dialogue translated into English as Statesman. This translation, however misleading, has enshrined a concept of representative rule into the Western Imaginary even though there was no state apparatus that was separate from the polis in ancient Athens, and the concept of “statesman” did not exist at the time. As translator David Ames Curtis noted, it is not possible to accurately describe the person who participated in self-governing the polis as a “statesman.” The Greek translation of this title as Politikos as well as the Latin translation as Le Politique are less suggestive. Nevertheless, this insertion of the statesman into the Western Imaginary has enabled Plato’s anti-democratic message to be cemented into our conception of democracy as the rationalization for liberal oligarchy. That message included the argument that the statesman possesses true knowledge and that it is his task to prescribe to each individual who participates in society, each citizen, to follow what the statesman believes is the just thing to do. The underlying assumption being that the individuals who make up society are incapable of running their own lives. This is complementary to modern democratic systems, where every politician is assumed to be an expert in some specialization, but it is also consistent with the basis for state socialist (bureaucratic capitalist) and totalitarian domination, from the factory floor to the public square. The statesmen know what is best. Castoriadis saw Plato as a great philosopher but ultimately working to stop and suppress self-institution. Plato, in this sense, represented “everything reactionary and pro-establishment; everything opposed to the democratic movement . . . found among the Romans, among the first Christians, during the Middle Ages, and in modern times”.


Ancient and modern social imaginary significations of democracy diverge on the relationship between people and political institutions as well. Castoriadis distinguished between the ancient awareness of the collectivity as the source of political institutions and modern sovereignty of the people from political institutions. For example, Castoriadis points out that Athenian laws always began with the preamble that “it appeared (it seemed) good to the Council and to the people, that . . .” and in this way the collective source of the law is made explicit. It is rooted in the people themselves. In the modern West, however, sovereignty of the people has emerged (between 1776 and 1789) which proposes that political institutions are rooted in something other than the people, such as reason, natural law, rationality, or history. For Athens in the fifth century BCE, the collectivity was seen as a set of individuals reared by the paideia (broadly meaning education) and the common works of the city, as noted by Pericles in his “Funeral Oration.” Modern social contract theory, however, posits that the individual shapes society (i.e., Rawls’s “Veil of Ignorance”). Whereas the objective of ancient political activity was to reinforce political collectivity, the modern objective of politics is to defend private, group, or class interests, including the interests of the state.

Rights and Political Participation

On the issue of political participation—where matters concerning private property and the family were considered beyond reach—the ancient Athenians excluded women, slaves, and migrants from political activity, while the modern West has adopted universal human rights standards. These rights have come, however belaboured, from protracted social struggles of the disenfranchised, such as the suffragettes who fought for the women’s right to vote in public elections. Even so, many human rights—as individual rights but not collective rights—enshrined in law remain abstract aspirations as states are simultaneously responsible for upholding, promoting, and protecting human rights, while also being the violators of human rights. However, on the right of political participation, Castoriadis recognized the failure of ancient direct democracy to universalize and expand the right of citizenship to every person as the ultimate reason for its collapse.

Happiness, Mortality, and Immortality

Beyond political activity were the objectives of human activity more broadly. For example, Pericles described the way of living in and through the love of beauty and of wisdom. This objective was fulfilled through the paideia that the city offered. In contrast, the proclaimed modern objective is the pursuit of individual happiness and the sum of individual happiness, universal happiness, manifested through the acquisition of property, money, and power.

Castoriadis argued that behind this is a deeper difference between the stratums of ancient and modern social imaginaries which is the difference between mortality and immortality. Ancient mortality was closely associated with self-limitation, in that while one was alive they could commit hubris, or excess, and that this could tarnish their reputation. However, it was only when one was dead that they became free from the possibility of hubris and thus became happy. Immortality in the West, however, manifests itself in the modern ethos of indefinite progress, unlimited expansion, and rational mastery. These traits characterize most major cities in the West today.

Finally, the ancient Greek perception of mortality was rooted in an ontology found in the oppositions of chaos and cosmos and nature and law, which meant that it provided a sense of indeterminacy. This is the consequential difference between ancient and modern ontologies, whereas the modern ontology relies upon determinism, such as Cogito, ergo sum (Descartes). This deterministic ontology has its roots in Plato and has been expressed theologically in the Hebraic-Christian idea of a Promised Land which, Castoriadis proposes, ultimately transferred to the Western notion of “Progress.”

Beyond Ancient and Modern

The purpose of this brief summary of differences between ancient and modern experiences is not to argue for a return to the ancient social-historical forms or its social imaginary. On the contrary, it is to elucidate these forms and their imaginary in order to deepen our understanding of autonomy and to enable a radical critique of the city. The point is to go further, beyond both the ancient Greeks and the moderns. More precisely, to instaturate (create original forms in their first instance) genuine democracy under contemporary conditions, to universalize the project of autonomy where each society faces their own unique set of problématiques. For Castoriadis, this is only possible by demolishing the dominance of the economic sphere in the modern world (neoliberalism)—the heteronomous belief that capitalism is eternal and that markets know more than people—and by trying to create a new ethos connected at its center to humanity’s essential mortality.


As Yavor writes, this book is an urgent call for change of perspective, a perspective that puts people armed with radical imagination in charge of creating new citizens and new cities based on collective wisdom. While our present societies enable lives of hubris and the future is uncertain, there is also hope. Yavor outlines many positive examples, and these examples provide one feature for what I define as “Our decisive moment”. In our book Castoriadis and Autonomy in the 21st Century, co-authored with Alexandros Schismenos and Nikos Ioannou, I argue that this decisive moment is characterized by the combined weakening of liberal democracy, the rise of new ideological conflicts, the urgency of multifold planetary crises threatening nature and society, and new openings for the radical imagination. This decisive moment is a moment to choose between liberal democracy and the technical domination of nature, between state and capitalism or the emancipatory social movements of past and present—those struggling for autonomy, self-governance, and direct democracy. It is a choice between autonomy or barbarism.

~ Chris Spannos

‘Reclaiming Cities:Revolutionary Dimensions of Political Participation’ can be purchased here.

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