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Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government
by Nadia Urbinati
University of Chicago Press, 2002
Cloth: 978-0-226-84277-6
Library of Congress Classification JC223.M66U73 2002
Dewey Decimal Classification 321.8092

Despite John Stuart Mill's widely respected contributions to philosophy and political economy, his work on political philosophy has received a much more mixed response. Some critics have even charged that Mill's liberalism was part of a political project to restrain, rather than foster, democracy.

Redirecting attention to Mill as a political thinker, Nadia Urbinati argues that this claim misrepresents Mill's thinking. Although he did not elaborate a theory of democracy, Mill did devise new avenues of democratic participation in government that could absorb the transformation of politics engendered by the institution of representation. More generally, Urbinati assesses Mill's contribution to modern democratic theory by critiquing the dominant "two liberties" narrative that has shaped Mill scholarship over the last several decades. As Urbinati shows, neither Isaiah Berlin's theory of negative and positive freedom nor Quentin Skinner's theory of liberty as freedom from domination adequately captures Mill's notion of political theory.

Drawing on Mill's often overlooked writings on ancient Greece, Urbinati shows that Mill saw the ideal representative government as a "polis of the moderns," a metamorphosis of the unique features of the Athenian polis: the deliberative character of its institutions and politics; the Socratic ethos; and the cooperative implications of political agonism and dissent. The ancient Greeks, Urbinati shows, and Athenians in particular, are the key to understanding Mill's contribution to modern democratic theory and the theory of political liberty.

Urbinati concludes by demonstrating the importance of Mill's deliberative model of politics to the contemporary debate on liberal and republican views of liberty. Her fresh and persuasive approach not only clarifies Mill's political ideas but also illustrates how they can help enrich our contemporary understanding of democracy.
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