Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reading the Edinburgh Companion

About three years ago I was asked by Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell to contribute an article on the democratic history of ancient India to their book, The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy.   My copy and I have finally met   up, and I have been reading the rather sizable tome.

Perhaps   it is inevitable that such an ambitious and diverse multi-author work has turned out rather uneven.    At the top end there are essays that are good to  brilliant (those on the American and French Revolutions go well beyond what might be expected to say fresh and important things about their significance for the world; I thought the chapter on  Early  Modern Switzerland very informative).  There are others that tell stories whose relevance to democracy is not quite clear, or at least not compelling.  This particularly applies long past societies which never used the word democracy and whose direct influence on more recent societies is weak.  Writing on ancient India, I have tried to be very careful not to claim too much relevance for the ancient republics, yet still argue that knowledge of their existence had a certain specific value for students of democracy.  A few of the essays here could have benefitted from more attention to making the case for relevance.
I was a little disappointed in the treatment of Medieval Europe.  As a mostly medievalist, I was disappointed to see the phrase “Dark Ages” and the term “feudalism” used as they might have been fifty or a hundred years ago.  I feel too that an opportunity was missed to engage with Susan Reynolds’s brilliant 1984 book on collective judgment, Kingdoms and Communities. Her analysis provides a starting point for the history of democracy in Europe, an analysis that cuts across many outmoded ideas and generalizations.
Nonetheless, the book succeeds in providing its readers with a lot of data and food for thought.  I don’t think too many will go away still in thrall to the old paradigm that begins with the Greeks and ends up with us and our (rather stale and defective) representative institutions.

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