Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Counting and Accountability. The Politics of Numbers in the democracy of Classical Athens

We live in a data-drenched society awash with numbers. An inhabitant of the democratic polis of Athens (5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.) increasingly found himself surrounded by numerical data. This project aims to analyze the communicative functions and the political meaning(s) ascribed to these public numbers and calculations.

2013  -   2017
Tazuko van Berkel

Contemporary politics is to a large extent conducted through numbers: numeracy is believed to serve as a stimulus to democratic discourse and civic decision making, while politicians are expected to convey correct and exact numerical data as their ability to do so vouches for their accountability, objectivity and expertise—core values of democratic leadership crucial for political trust in society. These democratic connotations of numbers find their origins in an important sense in Classical Athens where the political function and communicative meaning of numbers and calculations were subject to debate.

An inhabitant of the democratic polis of Athens increasingly found himself surrounded by numerical data, ranging from financial records monumentalized on stone and deliberative speeches in the assembly, to playful allusions in tragedy and comedy or highly technical discussions in philosophy. It is my hypothesis that, whereas numbers and calculations are not inherently democratic, the particular cultural circumstances of Athenian direct democracy (5 th and 4 th centuries bce) have given rise to a conception of numbers and calculations as democratic phenomena, representing open access to information, objectivity, rational necessity and accountability.

This project aims to describe this process and the debate surrounding it by analyzing three types of discourse: written communication in public inscriptions, oral communication in political speeches and explicit reflection in ancient Greek political thought. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, consisting of philosophical, literary, epigraphic, cultural-historical and anthropological methods, a new interpretative framework will be offered for understanding the role of numbers and calculations as strategies of communication and persuasion in political contexts.