Coffee Chat with Josiah Ober

Josiah Ober, Mitsotakis Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics, about his work on political theory and the lessons that modern society can learn from the practices of the ancient Greek world. 

Professor Ober’s current research investigates the conditions which must be met in order for a democracy to rise and thrive, with specific reference to Greco-Roman antiquity. Over the course of the afternoon, he gave us his take on the "rational ignorance" problem in a democracy as it scales up to include hundreds of millions of citizens (as is the case in the United States), if a democracy should selectively weight the voices of citizens who would openly use their voice towards a hateful end, and what problems arise when liberalism is intersected with democracy. 

Before becoming a professor at Stanford, Professor Ober was a Professor of Politics and Classics at Princeton University, prior to which he was a Professor of History and Philosophy at Montana State University. 

When asked about if he finds any troublesome aspects of the United States' democracy today compared to those of the ancient Greek world, Dr. Ober said that he certainly finds some. However, he clarified that in assessing the state of our democracy, it is imperative not to get bogged down in the daily news cycle. He also mentioned that it is altogether too easy to drive oneself crazy trying to take in every opinion and "hot take" available via news outlets and social media, to the point of unproductivity. 

Towards the end of the afternoon the conversation took a turn towards questions related to the difference between applied and theoretical political science in terms of what can be learned by studying each subfield. In addition, we spoke with Dr. Ober about how politics interacts with scientific discovery, and if there are any answers to be found in studying the ancient Greek world and its reconciliation of new science with new political systems. 

To learn more about Josiah Ober, visit his profile on the Stanford Classics Department Website at

Written by Pratyusha Javangula