The Honey and the Hemlock
Democracy and Paranoia in Ancient Athens and Modern America
Examining Athenian democracy as an object lesson for democracy in general, and invoking Freud as his guide in this task, Eli Sagan explores the startling contradictions in the society of Athens: its delicious honey and its deadly hemlock.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
"The highest praise that I can bestow upon The Honey and the Hemlock by Eli Sagan is 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."--Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times
A fractured psychoanalytical history of democracy focusing mostly on the ancient Athenian city-state, from sociologist Sagan (Freud, Women and Morality, 1988, etc. Sagan believes that Athenian democracy and our modern American republic share fundamental moral and psychological dilemmas that derive from the "paranoid position": a desire to control others and a fear of loss of self. Society, he says, is like a child whose primitive aggression and anxiety require sublimation before it can develop into a mature adult. The golden age of Athenian democracy represents the collectivized toddlers first steps; our liberal, bourgeois, capitalist democracy has moved to the second stage by abandoning slavery, empowering women, and rearing children more humanely. What will be the third and final stage? Sagan does not claim to know, but he is cautiously optimistic that our evolutionary social and moral process will continue solely because radical transformations have occurred in the past and are, therefore, possible in the future. He concedes, however, that the general intellectual consensus is that such a humane metamorphosis is unlikely and that we may have come to the end of history. Initially conceived as the first of a seven-volume history of democracy and its perversions, this treatise underwent revision because the author decided "to skip to the last volume and spend as much time as possible trying to understand the modern world." Unfortunately, Sagan's intention and the subtitle are misleading: there are only a few brief historical asides referring to our era grafted onto what is basically volume one of the history. Sagan knows his ancient history and compellingly elucidates Athenian self-destructive paranoia, but his argument loses force with tentative speculations on the future, only tangential references to modern democracy, and overreliance on Freudian theory. (Kirkus Reviews)