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Research at St Andrews

Jon Hesk


Jon Hesk
Postal address:
School of Classics
The Scores
St Andrews
United Kingdom


Web address:

Direct phone: +44 (0)1334 462620

Research overview

I work on the poetry, drama, historiography, oratory and philosophy of archaic and classical Greece.  My first book Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens (CUP 2000) dealt with the representation and evaluation of deception in these genres in democratic Athens.   Part of this study explored the socio-political significance of discussions of ‘evidence’ in Athenian tragedy and forensic oratory. For example, Euripides’ Hippolytus stages the ease with which false written evidence is believed and true spoken evidence is disbelieved in a quasi-judicial setting.  The tragic consequences of this error  - Theseus condemns his own son to death with a curse - were very salient for a mass audience who regularly served as jurors, council members and assembly-goers.  In Deception and Democracy, I treated this example as particularly concerned with the dangers of deceptive testimony.  But I have come to see that it is also one of many instances in which tragedy exhibits a more general concern with what philosophers call ‘epistemic failure’  in the deliberations and decisions of its main characters and choruses or of reported assemblies or juries.

            More recently, my work on Homer, Greek tragedy, Aristophanic comedy and Athenian oratory has uncovered a contradiction at the heart of the Greek city-state’s approach to public deliberation: on the one hand, the polis prized creative, entertaining and devastating performances in verbal contests, often conflating the form of an argument with its substance; on the other, the city’s various written and performed genres exhibit the worry that insults, entertaining rhetoric and appeals to tradition or ‘values’ were usurping proper evidence-based  proof, policy advice and intellectual argument. 

            In my new book, I will offer a deeper and wider account of the operations of this ‘performance/evidence tension’ and related discourses about verification, reliability and the characteristics of sound practical decision-making.  The essential thesis of the book is that internal and external challenges to the survival and success of Greek poleis gave rise to a sophisticated and varied range of reflections and analyses on the subject of deliberation and decision-making. This subject arose in all the main genres of writing and performance associated with the archaic and classical polis and their interaction with each other is key to our understanding of the development and demise of Athenian democracy, the rise of Macedon and the persistence of polis-based values and structures into the Hellenistic period.

            My approach promises a comprehensive account which will not be preoccupied with certain domains or types of deliberation or only one or two genres of writing.  At the same time, I argue that such an account can both illuminate, and be illuminated by, modern normative accounts of deliberative democracy, difference democracy, virtue ethics and virtue epistemology.


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