How did Plato’s representations of ancient Athenian democracy factor in resident foreigners? How might accounting for such figures recalibrate conceptions of political theorizing, both in Plato’s historical moment and in our own? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Demetra Kasimis. This present conversation focuses on Kasimis’s The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy. Kasimis is an assistant professor in the Political Science department at the University of Chicago, where she specializes in democratic theory and in the thought and politics of ancient Greece. Kasimis has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council for Learned Societies, and the Onassis, Fulbright, and Mellon Foundations.
ANDY FITCH: You point to theoretical possibilities opened up when we consider the figure of the metic not just as a historical referent in Plato’s dialogues, but as a discursive site, an “outside” permanently residing inside the polis — itself premised upon some foundational act of establishing (no doubt dubious) nativist credentials for Athenian citizenship. You suggest that Plato himself might have had something similar in mind when deploying these metic characters. So here could you first make your most general case for how “the recovery of the metic animates a strain of criticism in which Athenian thinkers are wrestling deeply with democracy’s relation to nativism and its ambiguous, even paradoxical effects”? What might it mean for scholars to recognize the metic as a political / theoretical concern for ancient Athenian thought? What might it mean for Plato to have started thinking about inclusion and exclusion together? How might such concerns have pointed not just to the unstable place of metics within the Athenian polis, but to fraught and ever-shifting conceptions of democracy and of citizenship?
DEMETRA KASIMIS: In the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, Athenian thinkers were responding in creative and critical ways to democracy, which was a fairly new political arrangement. A striking feature of democracy was that it empowered native Athenian men of any socioeconomic background to rule themselves directly. This is the part of Athenian democracy with which we are most familiar. It is important to remember, though, that Athenians pursued and defined this expansive idea of citizenship within a context of inter-polis flows, imperial expansion, and ethnic diversity. They restricted democratic citizenship to persons born to two Athenian parents.
Historians have long acknowledged the large presence of “metics” (metoikoi), the term for immigrants and their Athens-born children. Metics could be highly integrated members of Athenian society, but their children were also barred from citizenship generation after generation. Readers of ancient Greek texts have been curiously reluctant to consider how this “immigrant” dimension of democratic politics might have manifested in the thought of the period. So I wanted this book to show that thinkers like Plato (though not only Plato) are deeply alert to the relationship between democracy and nativism. This particular study required treating “the metic” as a discursive site, which means reading for the ways a metic character or way of life might be represented in a text and produce meaning for or in the argument. Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense to think about how inclusive Athenian citizenship was without also thinking about how citizenship was delimited.
Today we also see that such membership rules are not permanent, and that they shift in response to specific political realities. In classical Athens, so long as the category “metic” existed, a citizen was always at risk of finding himself accused of being a metic “passing” as a citizen. This is the paradox. The rule that was supposed to safeguard citizenship for native-born Athenians made citizens vulnerable to losing their citizenship in practice.
Well in terms perhaps of passing, any scholar wishing to pick a fight with Plato’s supposed authoritarian project might first point to Socrates’s noble lie as the ultimate naturalizing justification for social hierarchy reframed as pseudo-biological fact. But your book argues that, read within its proper narrative context, set specifically within the Piraeus-based home of Cephalus, Socrates’s presentation of the noble lie self-consciously foregrounds this lie’s status as a regulatory fiction, pointing to unsavory nativist dynamics that drive not just aristocratic and / or tyrannical social orders, but potentially all social orders (democratic orders certainly included). So to start tracing the interpretive path that takes your book towards these broader ramifications, could we first step back to how Socrates tells his very particular audience (and / or us) about this lie that one could tell — with Plato here reconfiguring mimesis as a making of representation, with meta-theatrical framings of statements within statements, and scenes within scenes, splitting each audience member’s attention as he / she seeks to maintain a grasp on manifold layers of text? How might that mimetic thickness provide space for Plato’s own distinctive mode of theorizing Athens as a complex whole (not excluding its metics and its slaves and its women, never settling into any fixed sense of “authentic” and “imitative” Athenian identity)?
The first thing to stress is that the Republic is not a treatise, but often gets read as one. When I first encountered the Republic as a student, I was taught to read for “the argument,” as if the argument of the conversation could be extracted from the literary frame. The Republic is a work of prose historical fiction that depicts a philosophical discussion, among other things, but is still often read as a doctrine. We miss a lot when we read this way.
For one thing, the conversation in the Republic takes place in the home of a well-known wealthy metic family, living by the port of Athens, Piraeus, which was a site of trade and mobility. My book draws attention to this framing to argue that we ought to interpret what gets said about democracy and political difference by attending to how it is said (that is: where, and by and to whom). Socrates suggests that the hypothetical city the discussion’s participants have begun to imagine needs a founding myth of natural political difference, to ensure the city’s residents will never question the membership classes that they are “born” into. I wanted to ask how this proposal might have played to Socrates’s listeners, some of whom (his hosts!) were excluded from citizenship — for lacking Athenian “blood.” By extension, I wanted to ask how Socrates’s proposal might have struck Plato’s Athenian readers. It just seemed like a pregnant scene in light of this particular setting, as if Plato was nodding to us. I think the meaning of the noble lie changes dramatically when we take the political realities of this setting seriously. The noble lie no longer reads as a straightforward endorsement of natural difference. But nor does it simply amount to a kind of reveal. If natural difference turns out to be constructed, then the noble lie passage has striking relevance for the characters in the Republic, for ancient Athenian readers, and for contemporary readers living under patriarchy and racism.
Sure, when I think of dialogic mimesis not just representing but theorizing, I also think of the reader needing to situate him / herself amid that dynamic process. When I then incorporate your conception of the metic less as a literal character and more as a discursive space, less as a biological fact and more as a social practice, I wonder how a reader (comfortably ensconced, but lacking certain participatory agencies within the depicted scene, but still quite crucial to the collective enterprise, perhaps supplying necessary yet underrecognized labor) might mimetically mirror a metic, and of course vice versa. I also wonder whether readers, encountering a metic, might feel their own exclusionary prompt — seeking to bond with Socrates and other citizen characters by projecting beyond one’s own outsider status and pinning that on somebody else, perhaps on some traveling sophist shamelessly distorting “true” Athenian ideals. So the broader question here becomes: if the metic provides the infinitely near and infinitely far replica of the autochthonic Athenian, how does the reader’s conspicuously triangulated position amid dialogically dramatized pursuits of social coherence, and / or of definitional precision, and / or of philosophical truth, likewise place him / her both inside and outside?
I’m intrigued by this idea that we are like metics when reading the Republic. In the book I argue that the Republic imagines citizens and metics in a mimetic relationship to each other. The Republic invites us to think critically about the assumption that there are citizen originals and metic copies (of citizens), and that this difference could be evident in practice. Here the Republic appropriates a conceit already in circulation in Athenian civic life. We can find it in Pericles’s funeral oration, which presents Athens as open to outsiders who may come and observe its ways of life, but with only the Athenians (by blood) capable of authentically enacting that life. Pericles’s oration suggests that there are real citizens and then there are imposters — people who will only ever be like.
At the same time, however, Athenian exceptionalism does need imitators. Athenian greatness depends on the idea that there are non-citizens approximating (but never fully embodying) its way of life. But again, this dynamic also opens the door to “passing,” to what my book describes as a democratic anxiety over policing the boundaries of citizenship against interlopers.
In terms of reading the Republic, I argue that Plato lets us in on a conversation. As readers, we are “in the know,” but kept at arm’s length. That does suggest a kind of insider-outsider perspective on the Athenian scene. And for an Athenian listening to or reading the Republic, it might have also enabled an identification with metics. Although Polemarchus, a metic, is the host of the Republic, he takes a backseat for most of the conversation. Many of the people “there” for the discussion are just witnesses. I’ve been thinking recently about the various ways this text makes these “mere” witnesses (and us) complicit in the conversation. Much scholarship on the Republic emphasizes the absence of metics from the conversation after Book I, but it’s important to remember that they (and in particular, their home) never go away. This almost-but-not-quite presence in the Republic, when we foreground it, changes the context in which characters’ statements get received. As I say in the book, the Republic suggests that, without the metic figure, we could not grasp Athens in its entirety — or be moved to think it otherwise.
So let’s say that models of ancient autochthonic hierarchy don’t seem immediately applicable to a present-day US society supposedly premised upon credo-based nationhood. Or let’s say, alternately, that comparative studies tracing an ever-shifting inside-outside dynamic (forever splitting along fault lines of citizenship) have much to offer a nation in which unstable conceptions of whiteness, of the native, of the foreigner, never have settled onto sturdy ground. In any case, The Perpetual Immigrant sketches a troubling political dynamic whereby the more diverse and cosmopolitan a culture becomes, the more pressing certain nativist claims to authentic citizenship might get – particularly for those “natives” who sense their own social status most acutely under threat. So I’ll leave it up to you whether we bring in the brute reality of our current president launching his political career by calling for Barack Obama’s birth certificate! But however you want, could you outline why praising the virtues or condemning the hypocrisies of ancient Athenian democracy (and / or of its ancient Athenian critics) might not by itself provide a sufficiently perspicacious present-day response to Plato’s deft depictions of negotiating selective citizenship within a broader civic culture?
Returning to the ancient Greeks to think about contemporary problems of membership is important precisely because the situations are not the same. I’ll offer two main insights to take away from this juxtaposition. The first is that we tend to invoke Athenian democracy as a model of political inclusiveness without asking the always-attendant question of how that inclusiveness was discerned or conceived of there — at what cost, how unstably, etcetera. To look at Plato’s Republic, for example, as offering a theory of democracy, while never considering that in Plato’s text a metic lens or immigrant perspective affords us this account, is curious. To me, that expresses a wish to think about dynamics of exclusion as somehow coincidental or secondary to egalitarianism. When we disappear the seductions and satisfactions of nativism from a “foundational” text of political theory, but use that text to think carefully about democratic life nevertheless, we implicitly suggest that questions of nativism or exclusion are irrelevant to theorizing democracy in general. Ancient Greek texts engage the immigrant and the citizen not as questions to solve once and for all, but as endless aporias for political life. Categories of membership are not fixed, nor are the criteria used to assign people to them permanent. Trump’s attacks on birthright citizenship may seem like an extreme example, but they are a good reminder of the shifting character of membership rules.
The second point to take away from the strange familiarity of these texts, then, is that democratic exclusion takes multiple mutating guises, which we seem to lack specific concepts to diagnose. Here is where the past provides heuristic tools. For example, it is difficult to translate “metic” into English (because a metic referred to both an immigrant and the native-born child of one, which means the term spans cleavages of conditions we have long treated as dueling and distinct: foreign and native, outsider and insider). But therein lies this term’s and this figure’s critical power. It’s not as if we lack contemporary examples of inherited exclusion in this country and elsewhere. The Athenian metic in fact provides us with a useful concept for theorizing connections between the uneven inclusion of American citizen racial minorities and the anti-immigrant sentiments raging worldwide.