Socrates’ Conscience and Executive Order 13769

The extraordinary actions of the nascent Trump presidency are provoking some striking acts of conscience.  Sally Yates was sacked from her job as Acting Attorney General by President Trump because she would not permit the Justice Department to defend Executive Order 13769 in court.  In a letter to her staff, she wrote that she wasn’t convinced that a defence of the executive order was consistent with the department’s ‘solemn obligation always to seek justice and stand for what is right’.  Nor was she convinced that the executive order was lawful.   And just yesterday, the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, John Bercow, took the highly unusual and controversial step of very firmly stating his opposition to the idea of President Trump making an address to Parliament during his prospective State Visit. He presented his rejection of Trump as a matter of political-constitutional conscience: ‘I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and to sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.’  House of Commons Speakers aren’t supposed to pass political comment or take a position in this way.

In the Classical Athenian democracy there were also moments when individual citizens took a conscientious stand in defence of the rule of law.  The classic example was when eight generals commanding the Athenian navy at the sea-battle of Arginousae (406 BCE) stood accused of failing to recover their own dead and dying sailors from the water.  The philosopher Socrates happened to be ‘chairman’ of the assembly on the crucial day of the debate about how the generals should be tried.  A citizen only got to be chairman for one or two days in an entire lifetime (if at all). Chairmen rotated from within each of ten tribal groups of fifty ‘presiding officers’ (prytaneis) who were picked by lot each year. Each group of ‘presiding officers’ took turns in maintaining the city’s permanent government and acted as an executive committee to the Council and Assembly.

From admittedly partial accounts of this momentous day in Plato and Xenophon, we learn that a politician named Callixenus proposed that the assembly itself should vote right now on the guilt or innocence of all the generals at one fell swoop.  On the previous day, the assembly had heard the generals’ brief defence that bad weather had prevented recovery of the sailors.  Riding a tide of popular grief and anger against the generals, Callixenus argued that it was now time to decide their collective fate with one vote and without further debate.  If found guilty, they would all be put to death.  A chap called Euryptolemus and several others opposed the motion on the grounds that it was illegal to conduct a trial in this way: the generals should each be tried separately via due process.  But they withdrew this objection after another politician proposed that the same penalty applied to the generals also be applied to them. Xenophon tells us that many in the assembly crowd shouted that ‘it was insufferable that the people (dēmos) should not be allowed to do whatever it wanted’ (Hellenica 1.7.12).   The ‘presiding officers’ were also intimidated into withdrawing their initial refusal to put Callixenus’ proposal to a vote.  Only Socrates himself held out, declaring that he would ‘do nothing that was contrary to the law’ (1.7.15).

Despite more impressive manouverings from Euryptolemus, Callixenus’ original motion was finally carried by the assembly.  Six generals were found guilty and executed. Xenophon tell us that the Athenians soon came to regret this decision, and charges were brought against Callixenus and his fellow travellers. These men escaped Athens before they could be brought to trial.

If Plato is to be believed, when the philosopher himself was later put on trial on charges of impiety and corrupting young men, he reminded the citizen-jury of his principled stand on that day (Apology 32b):

At that time I was the only one of the presiding officers who opposed doing anything contrary to the laws, and although the orators were ready to impeach and arrest me, and though you urged them with shouts to do so, I thought I must run the risk to the end with law and justice on my side, rather than join with you when your wishes were unjust, through fear of imprisonment or death.

Of course, the reader is meant to infer here that Socrates’ own trial and execution were another example of the Athenian democracy acting on ‘unjust wishes’.

Not long after the execution of the generals, the Athenians brought in measures to ensure that no assembly decree could override laws which were designed to have general and/or permanent validity. This wasn’t just about preventing a repeat of the Arginousae affair.  Even before that, in 411 BCE, the oligarchy of the Four Hundred was briefly set up when a meeting of the democratic assembly was duped into voting itself out of existence!

What can we learn from all of this?  Well, when I first thought up this post, I thought I was going to end on the importance of listening to one’s conscience and doing the right thing. But this is very easy to say and much harder to act upon when one’s own job, freedom or life are at stake.  Socrates’ stand didn’t even save the generals from an illegal trial and execution.  Perhaps the real value of such historical acts of conscience is to remind us that the ‘popular will’ or a majoritarian decision are not necessarily aligned with justice and the rule of law.  A democratic mandate to do x does not automatically make x fair, legal or just.  And the very fact that individual consciences can so easily be sidelined or even quelled through intimidation reminds us how important it is to have institutional safeguards against the possibility of democratically-sanctioned illegality and injustice.






Trumpist hyperbole and its classical-rhetorical critique

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

When Donald Trump said this in his Inaugural Address last Friday, I was okay with the point about inner-city poverty.  The tombstones comparison was just about within the bounds of rhetorical-artistic licence too.  But ‘an education system flush with cash’? Really?  Documented cuts to public education funding in many US States make that hard to swallow.  And for all the evidence that the US public education system is under-performing in certain respects, it’s completely false and bizarre to claim that it deprives its students of ‘all knowledge.’  Imagine all those high school graduates going around literally knowing nothing at all!

With these two claims, the Greek and Roman rhetorical device of hyperbole immediately sprang to my mind.   This is often translated as ‘exaggeration’, and that’s a fairly useful rendering of the technical rhetorical term.  But the common Greek meanings of ‘excess’ or ‘extravagance’ also help us here.  (The verb ὑπερβάλλω [huperballō], of which hyperbole is a cognate noun, often means to overshoot a mark). 

And it turns out that Trump is very familiar with the term.  In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, he says this:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.

nintchdbpict000295827558Lots of journalists and bloggers have linked this passage to Trump’s whole approach to political rhetoric and campaigning.  But as the philosopher

Despite its inherent deceptiveness, Trump is right to recognize the great rhetorical power of hyperbole to influence the psyche. Ancient Greek and Roman orators used both mild and quite extreme examples of rhetorical exaggeration a lot, although it was clearly wise to be sparing with the hyperbolai in any one speech.  Cicero was a master of the device.  Here he is on Mark Antony’s greed  (Philippics 2.67):

What Charybdis is so greedy? Charybdis, do I say? If there ever was a Charybdis, she was only one cicero_-_musei_capitolinianimal. No: the Ocean, heaven help us, could hardly have swallowed up so many things, so widely scattered, in such distant places, and so quickly!

Charybdis was a huge, terrifying ship-guzzling whirlpool of a sea monster but it becomes insignificant when compared to Antony’s oceanic voraciousness. It’s very entertaining stuff.

Ancient writers on rhetoric betray a good deal of ambivalence about such hyperbolic tactics.   In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses hyperbole only in the context of metaphors and similes (3.11).  One might say of a man with a black eye that ‘you would have thought he was a basket of mulberries.’  The purpleness of the black eye makes the comparison to mulberries apposite.  But the great exaggeration of moving from one bruised eye to ‘he was a basket of mulberries’ is obvious.  Interestingly, Aristotle feels that the use of hyperbole is ‘adolescent’ (meirakiōdeis: or perhaps ‘puerile’).  This is because hyperbolai convey a certain ‘vehemence’ and they are mostly spoken by people who are angry. (Aristotle cites an example from a speech by Homer’s Achilles).  Aristotle thinks it is inappropriate for an older man to use hyperbole. 

In his Education of the Orator, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian sounds a little Trumpish when he describes hyperbole as ‘appropriate exaggeration of the truth’ (decens veri superiectio, 8.6.68).  But if you look at this next  passage, it’s much less clear that he would classify many of Donald’s recent uses of the device as ‘appropriate’ (8.6.73-4):

A certain sense of proportion is necessary. Though every hyperbole surpasses belief, it must not be beyond all reason; there is no surer route to cacozelia (bad taste, affectation).  I feel it distasteful to report the many faults arising from this trope, especially as they are by no means unfamiliar or obscure. It is enough to remind the reader that hyperbole is a liar, but does not lie to deceive. We must therefore consider all the more carefully how far it is appropriate to exaggerate a thing which is not believed. The attempt very often raises a laugh. If that is what was aimed at, it comes to be called wit; if not, folly.

Appropriate hyperbole announces its own lie and (as with the Cicero passage above) it can be used knowingly to humorous effect.  But if we exaggerate excessively and without trying to be funny, we end up looking like an idiot.  It’s certainly not appropriate to make out that an extreme hyperbole does in fact represent the truth.

Quintilian goes on to observe that hyperbole is popular in ordinary non-rhetorical speech too. He snobbishly singles out ‘uneducated’ and ‘country people’. He points out that ‘everybody has a natural desire to exaggerate or to minimize things, and no one is satisfied with the truth. It is pardoned, however, because we do not vouch for what we say.’

This perhaps helps us to identify what has happened in modern political-rhetorical discourse. The hyperbolic but inconsequential  banter and ‘bullshit’ which we go in for in ordinary conversation has found its way into the very serious and consequential realm of politics. ‘Telling it like it is’ is actually ‘telling it like it is not’.





Fight ‘Post Truth’ with the Ancient Greeks

1GR-12-E1-B Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz Perikles, athen. Politiker, um 500 v. Chr. - 429 v.Chr. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles'. - (Versammlung der bedeutendsten Kuenstler, Dichter und Philosophen der Zeit). Druck, spaetere Kolorierung, nach dem Gemaelde, 1852 ff., von Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). E: The Age of Pericles / Foltz Pericles, Athen. politician, c.500BC Chr. - 429 BC. - 'The Age of Pericles'. - (Meeting of the most important artists, poets and philosophers of the time). Print, later colouring, after the painting, 1853, by Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). F: L'epoque de Pericles / Foltz Pericles, homme politique athenien, vers 500 av. J.-C. - 429 av. J.-C. - 'Das Zeitalter des Perikles' (L'epoque de Pericles). - (Rassemblement des artistes, poetes et philosophes les plus connus de l'epoque). Impr., coloriee post., d'ap. le tableau, 1852, de Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877).

‘“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”

You may have seen this quotation on your social media feed along with a still photograph of a younger Mr Trump (seemingly in interview mode) several times since it first emerged in October. It is attributed to ‘Donald Trump, People Magazine 1998’. But it’s now been checked out and it turns out that it’s a complete fabrication.

I must confess that I took this bit of ‘fake news’ to be 100% genuine – an ironic situation, given that the quote is itself about lies and gullibility. I feel a bit daft for not sussing it out.
Of course, an explanatory narrative for the success of such deception and fakery has emerged over the last couple months: market-driven algorithms behind my newsfeed ‘filter bubble’ interacted with my membership of an ‘echo chamber’ which in turn triggered my ‘confirmation bias’ concerning Mr Trump’s views and character. Furthermore, there are newly-emergent commercial and political drivers for the production of ‘fake news’. So, there is more of it about than ever before and some of it is quite sophisticated. Indeed, ‘fake news’ is alleged to be just one aspect of our arrival in an entirely new era of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics: misinformation, false promises and full-on lies, the triumph of ‘feelings’ over facts, the dismissal of scientific evidence and expertise (and so on).

But I think this declaration of an apocalyptic post-truth ‘era’ is premature and actually risks the fatalistic ushering-in of a state of affairs which has not yet really come to pass at all. If we elevate certain ‘post-truth’ tendencies and tactics to the status of an all-pervasive epistemological regime just because they proved particularly persuasive and viral in 2016, there is a danger that we will just throw up our hands in an act of final surrender.

Instead, we could take some inspiration from the orators and writers who inhabited (and often critiqued) the culture and discourse of classical Athenian democracy. But I am not saying this because I think Athens’ democracy was a paragon of political health and virtue (it wasn’t) or because it offers a close parallel to the modern western democracies of late capitalism (it doesn’t). I am saying it because these orators and writers knew how much of a threat deception and pandering to an excess of emotion could be to good decision-making in a polity. Lies, false promising and appeals to prejudice and anger were certainly a big feature Athenian political culture, but none of its orators and associated commentators think that these problems don’t matter or accept them as inevitable.

Here’s Demosthenes, for example: ‘In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?’ This observation is part of a forensic attack on a political rival (Aeschines) whom he accuses of becoming a bribed agent of Philip of Macedon. He goes into some detail about how lies and misinformation can completely undermine the integrity of Athens’ two-tier participatory deliberative system. If the citizen-council (boule) puts forward provisional proposals for debate and final decision in the citizen assembly which are premised on the false information and advice of a bribed ambassador, the implication is clear: Athens is having its decisions manipulated by a foreign tyrant. Even if Demosthenes is himself lying about Aeschines here, he neatly articulates the way in which deception can completely reverse the likely gains of careful and considered democratic deliberation.


And then there’s Aristotle, whose treatise on rhetoric acknowledges the role of emotion in the making and accepting of persuasive arguments, but only in conjunction with the operations of syllogistic reasoning.  For Aristotle, rhetoric isn’t just about manipulating the crowd: the Aristotelian rhetorician considers both sides of an argument  and learns to spot and expose fallacious reasoning.  Aristotle believes that the truer and more just argument will win the day if it is framed and delivered appropriately.  He also stresses the importance of real knowledge and expertise in the field of political deliberation.

Or take Thucydides’ account of an assembly speech by an obscure orator called Diodotus. (We’ve heard of a lot about how the politician Cleon was or wasn’t like Donald Trump over the past few months and rather less about Diodotus’ narrow win over Cleon on the question of how to deal with the rebellious city of Mytilene). In this speech, Diodotus argues that the Athenian people have colluded with their most powerful political advisers in creating a climate where orators are afraid to give unpopular but good advice for fear of being suspected of bribery or to speak with genuine frankness in the assembly. He also rails against the danger of a democracy taking decisions ‘in haste and anger’ and asks the Athenian citizenry to think about their own responsibility as deliberators and voters:

‘If the man who persuades and the man who follows were damaged equally, you would judge more sensibly but as things are, there are times when in anger after a failure you punish the man who persuaded you for his misjudgement, rather than your own mistake for which you were collectively responsible.’

It is time for all of us to take more responsibility for our judgements. We need to get off our newsfeeds and timelines and take more time to understand the complexity of an issue, to sift the facts from the lies.  And we need to be less hasty and angry in our judgments. Somehow, we need to interact more directly with those whom we disagree and with those whose lives are a world away from our own.

But we also need to take deception, false claims and corruption on the part of our politicians more seriously. In a political system based on speeches, how can it be safely administered if the speeches are not true?

Xenophon’s Socrates on businessmen as leaders.

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during their third and final debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

It’s Halloween tonight and the final days of the US presidential race offer me the opportunity to blog about an appropriately scary subject.  I have been thinking more about the papers delivered at our recent conference on the theme of ‘Leaders and Leadership’ in various ancient Greek authors. And I’ve been wondering about how ancient writing on Leadership might illuminate the Trump vs. Clinton nightmare.

One theme which both campaign teams have exploited is that of relevant previous experience. Trump attempts to make a virtue of the fact that he is a businessman rather than a career politician.  Sometimes, this is a means of burnishing his credentials as an ‘outsider’ untainted by the alleged corruption and remoteness which constitutes an entrenched self-serving intergenerational political elite in Washington.  At other times, Trump references his experience as a property dealer (etc.) and as a ‘guru’ of entrepreneurship as a sign that he will be much better than his opponent at protecting and promoting American interests during negotiations and deals with other countries, power blocs and transnational bodies.  Clinton’s response is to underline her long experience in grassroots and national politics, her spells as a First Lady, as a senator and as Secretary of State. She contrasts her complex policy work and hours of careful diplomacy with Trump’s inexperience, his apparent ignorance and his over-simplistic ideas.  She also cites evidence that he is not quite the successful or honest businessman that he claims to be.

Now, for me, Trump himself offers terrible exemplary evidence for those who would argue that our elected leaders should ideally have spent some decent time working in the so-called ‘real world’ (as opposed to going straight from school or college into jobs as political staffers or government officials before eventually running for office themselves).  As I’ve said before, I hope he doesn’t win.  But it is clear that a good part of Trump’s appeal to many voters lies precisely in the fact that he can claim relevant experience as a leader of a big corporation and yet has never held political office.

With many commentators making (often too simplistic or unhelpful) comparisons between Trump and various Greek or Roman so-called ‘demagogues’ who hailed from ‘new money’ elites, one could be excused for assuming that classical Greek thinkers were 100% sceptical about businessmen going into politics.  But their views were actually varied and complex.

Fifth-century democratic Athens often elected its political-cum-military leaders (the ‘generals’, strategoi) who came from ‘old money’ landed aristocratic families (e.g. Pericles). When the ‘new money’ types like Cleon or Hyperbolus whose families had made fortunes from commerce and manufacturing moved into politics and gained considerable mass support, comic playwrights like Aristophanes and Eupolis depicted them as low-life tradesmen peddling self-serving lies.  Thucydides blames them for practically everything that went wrong for Athens after Pericles’ death.  In these and other writers, a clear connection is being made between a politician’s entrepreneurial, ‘arriviste’ background and his alleged venality and vulgarity. And yet, it’s pretty clear that these so-called ‘new politicians’ ruffled the feathers of the birth elite and their surrogates precisely because they were so effective in the eyes of the Athenian people.   They were very likely no more corrupt, inexperienced or incompetent than their blue-blooded counterparts.  And I doubt that many of them were as bad at it as Trump would be.

And not every Greek writer or intellectual was disapproving or sceptical about the idea of businessmen becoming political and military leaders.    In a long and fascinating segment of his written ‘memoirs’ about the philosopher Socrates (the Memorabilia), Xenophon recalls some conversations which Socrates supposedly had with various interlocutors on the subject of military and political leadership.   In one of them, a certain Nicomachides complains that the Athenians have elected a businessman called Antisthenes to a generalship rather than himself (3.4.1):

“Isn’t it like the Athenians? … they haven’t chosen me after all the hard work I have done, since I was called up, in the command of company or regiment, though I have been so often wounded in action” (and here he uncovered and showed his scars); “yet they have chosen Antisthenes, who has never served as a hoplite nor distinguished himself in the cavalry and understands nothing but money-making.”

Socrates points out that Antisthenes has often also been a choregos  (financier and impresario of dramatic and dithyrambic choruses in festival contests).  Antisthenes’ choruses have always won the contest the because he is philonikos (eager for victory). Surely this is a good trait for a general?   Nicomachides doubts the cogency of any analogy between the handling of a chorus and of an army.  Socrates clarifies as follows  (3.4.4):

“But, you see,” said Socrates, “though Antisthenes knows nothing about music or chorus training, he showed himself capable of finding the best experts in these.”  

“In the army too, then,” said Nicomachides, “he will find other to command for him, and others to do the fighting. Do you mean to say, Socrates, that the man who succeeds with a chorus will also succeed with an army?”

“I mean that, whatever a man is a leader of (prostateuei), if he knows what he wants and can get it he will be a good leader (agathos prostates), whether he is leader of a chorus, an estate, a city or an army.”


The Death of Socrates (French: La Mort de Socrate). Painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1787.

The point here is surely a persuasive one: good leadership in any field partly consists in the ability to find, deploy and manage specialists and experts so that the relevant goal is successfully achieved.  The leader herself doesn’t necessarily have to possess all the relevant knowledge but does need to be good at sourcing and deploying the expertise of others.

Nicomachides is appalled at this thought: “I should never have thought to hear you say that a good business manager/estate manager (oikonomos) would make a good general.”   Socrates then goes on to show how certain key skills are transferable between the two: making one’s subordinates willingly obedient; selecting the right men for different jobs; creating incentives and punishments; cultivating good will and useful allies; dealing with enemies.  These are all themes which crop up elsewhere in Xenophon’s writing on rulership, military command and estate management.*   Finally, in the matter of military leadership on the battlefield itself, Socrates claims that the businessman is eminently suited to this because he has a good understanding of the the effects of profit and loss (3.4.11):

[He] will be eager to seek and furnish all aids to victory, careful to consider and avoid what leads to defeat, prompt to engage the enemy if he sees he is strong enough to win, and, above all, will avoid an engagement when he is not ready.

Socrates then warns his interlocutor: “Don’t look down on businessmen, Nicomachides”.  For Socrates, the management of private concerns differs only in point of number from that of public affairs: “In other respects they are much alike, and particularly in this, that neither can be carried on without men, and the men employed in private and public transactions are the same”.

Now, we would rightly want to quibble with several of Socrates’ assumptions and claims here. His attitude is very much part-and-parcel of Xenophon’s own wider agenda as a wealthy ex-mercenary commander and estate owner who spent some time estranged and exiled from Athens because of the company he kept.  And we wouldn’t want to say that Socrates’ leadership tips are easily or equally relevant to the role of commander-in-chief and president in the massive late capitalist representative democracy that is the USA with all its particular internal problems and worldwide obligations.  But it is fascinating to see how Xenophon’s writing entertains some very familiar debates about what kinds of knowledge, life experience and expertise make for a good leader.  And it is instructive that an ancient philosopher who is so often characterized as unworldly and impractical in his theorizations about ideal polis leadership was also regarded as a source of wisdom on the more mundane question of good generalship in the troubled  ‘real world’ of late fifth-century Athens.  This Socrates sees a connection between the ability to run an estate or business as money-making concern and the ability to run an army or a city-state.

*Here I have learned a lot from Dr Roger Brock’s paper at our conference and a forthcoming chapter by Dr Fiona Hobden on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus which she has kindly shown me

Leaders and Leadership from Homer to Polybius

CL_240_Pericles_Pio-Clementino_Inv269A couple of weeks ago my colleague Kleanthis Mantzouranis and myself hosted a conference called ‘Leaders and Leadership from Homer to Polybius’.  Yale’s Emily Greenwood spoke on submerged and paradoxical female leadership via Socratic texts’ depiction of Aspasia (the rhetorician-courtesan allegedly ‘behind’ Pericles the politician) and Ischomachus’ model of shared household management in Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Leeds’ Jamie Dow discussed how Aristotle’s Rhetoric presents more vs. less reputable models of argumentation against which the rhetoric of leaders (ancient and modern) can be tested. Then we had Roger Brock (also Leeds) on how Xenophon’s writing offers a much richer and more complex discourse on good and bad political and military ‘man-management’ than leadership gurus and management scholars have realized.  Kleanthis’ paper showed how the use of violence as a tool of authoritarian leadership frequently backfires in Herodotus and he related this material to the historian’s wider concerns (moral, ethnographic, religious and sensationalist).  Oxford’s Carol Atack used the rhetorician and Isocrates’ to focus on complex fourth-century BC debates about what the virtues of good leadership might be, not to mention how far, and in what way, they can be taught, imitated and transmitted.  I had a stab at viewing the flawed leadership of the Homeric Agamemnon and Achilles through the lens of normative and empirical-descriptive work in ‘Leadership Studies’.  Another of my St Andrews colleagues, Nicolas Wiater, then zoomed us forward several hundred years with a look at Polybius, a Greek historian who chronicled the rise of the Roman Republic. Nicolas discussed the ways in which Polybius’ depictions and assessments of Carthaginian and Roman leaders must be read against the backdrop of earlier Roman writing and the ideologically-loaded manner in which Roman generals memorialized and projected their success.

Finally, the sociologist Philip Roscoe,a colleague from the School of Management, made us step back from the ancient world in order to think about the agendas and interests which might constitute ‘leadership’ as an object of study and going concern in the first place.  He gave us an entertaining and cogent critique of those current strategies and rhetorics of corporate leadership and management which centre on ‘crypto-theological’ tropes of (self-)sacrifice and competitive striving. (See Philip’s great post here for some of this; and for some perceptive worries about what recent sloganeering about ‘leadership’ might really mean, see a post by classicist and commentator Mary Beard here).

The discussions after each paper were considerably enhanced by the fact that several staff and postgraduates from the School of Management joined the classicists and ancient historians throughout the event.  It was also great to see so many of Classics’ own postgraduates (both the newly-arrived and more battle-hardened) taking full part and asking great questions.

Hillary Clinton and Trump’s Semonidean sexism

5472Last week Hillary Clinton made history by becoming the first woman ever to become a major party nominee for US president.  One member of the Women’s National Democratic Club surely got it right when she said this to the BBC:  “It’s ridiculous it’s taken this long! So many years of hard work. We never gave up. This is a huge moment for America.”  But, as the BBC also reported, gender inequality in politics across the globe is still a huge problem:  as of 1st June 2016 only 22% of all national parliamentarians are women.

Clinton’s nomination gains even further significance because her Republican opponent in the race for the White House has a long and proven track record of misogyny, male chauvinism and sexism. This is not to say that previous GOP or Democratic Presidential nominees have been unbridled paragons of feminist virtue, but Trump is in a league of his own in this regard.  If he is elected, it will be an awful day for many reasons but the global struggle for gender equality and the promotion of better female representation in governmental politics and women’s rights in general will take a particularly big hit.  On the other hand we shouldn’t go too far down the line of thinking that Trump’s misogyny is isolated and exceptional. He is just a particularly vocal and obnoxious signifier of attitudes and biases which are widespread, sometimes unconsciously so and often at a deep and systemic level.

Trump’s misogyny and sexism sometimes sounds like the sort of thing which ancient Greek authors write about women. Take a look at Trump on women and prenuptial agreements (from his book Trump: the art of the comeback, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph Online):

“There are basically three types of women and reactions. One is the good woman who very much loves her future husband, solely for himself, but refuses to sign the agreement on principle. I fully understand this, but the man should take a pass anyway and find someone else. The other is the calculating woman who refuses to sign the prenuptial agreement because she is expecting to take advantage of the poor, unsuspecting sucker she’s got in her grasp. There is also the woman who will openly and quickly sign a prenuptial agreement in order to make a quick hit and take the money given to her.”

This sorting of women into ‘types’ (the ‘good woman’, the ‘calculating woman’…) as part of a didactic homily reminds me of a long fragment of a poem by the archaic poet Semonides (7th c. BCE).  Semonides claims that the gods created ten different kinds of women, each kind corresponding to the characteristics of an animal or an element of the environment.  For example, there is the ‘vixen’ woman ‘who has expertise in everything. Nothing of what is bad escapes her notice, nor even of what is good, since she often calls the latter bad and the former good. Her mood is different at different times’.  Or there is the ‘monkey’ woman: ‘Her face is extremely ugly […] Ah, pity the man who embraces such a plague. She knows every trick and scheme, just like a monkey. Being laughed at doesn’t bother her and she wouldn’t do anyone a good turn, but she has her eyes on and plots every day how she can do the greatest harm possible.’  The only ‘good’ type of woman listed is the ‘bee’ woman.  But her virtue consists entirely of the fact that she provides her husband with a flourishing home life and family. She is totally devoted to him and ‘takes no pleasure in sitting among women in places where they talk about sex’.

Given that Semonides is an ‘iambic’ poet whose stock-in-trade is therefore satire and scurrility, scholars have sometimes questioned the sincerity and seriousness of this tirade.  Whatever its precise tone and original intent, the fragment’s insistence that most women are a ‘plague’ to men, its heavy circumscription of their social role and its construction of women as objects of male gazing, praising and blaming are typical of ancient Greek texts, mythology and social practices.   And while ancient Greek culture allowed women an important role and a certain amount of agency in the areas of religion, festive ritual and household management and family life, even a well-off citizen wife and mother in a ‘democratic’ city like classical Athens had no political rights and lived in a society in which Trumpist attitudes to women (and even worse) were the norm.

Such attitudes entailed all sorts of contradictions and double standards.  On the one hand women were viewed as overly emotional and incapable of properly rational decision-making.  For example, Aristotle, whose superior wisdom in many matters can’t be said to extend to his views on women and slavery, acknowledges in the Politics that women, unlike slaves, have a deliberative faculty (to bouleutikon). But this capacity is akuron (‘without authority’). (It’s hard to be sure what this means: some think it means ‘without authority over their own emotions’, others go for ‘without authority over men’ or ‘inoperative’ and others argue that it designates some sort of deficiency in deliberative powers in comparison to men.) On the other hand, the male Greek imagination obsesses over the clever and calculating woman who is all too capable of rational planning and deliberation in her efforts to outsmart the husband, father or other male relative who is her guardian (kurios) and in the service of evil ends. The Watchman of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon calls Clytemnestra an ‘androboulos’ (manly-counselling, man-minded) woman.  This acknowledges Clytemnestra’s intellectual excellence at the same time as it brackets such smartness as anomalous and threatening.

Having said all this, male Greek authors do sometimes concede that women might be just as capable (or more so) than men in the public sphere – and in ways which are societally benign and productive. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that women are just as capable as men at being warriors and rulers.  He maintains that ‘natural abilities are evenly distributed between the sexes’. His interlocutor Glaucon even points out that ‘plenty of individual women are better at all sorts of things than individual men’.    Aristophanes’ comic heroines Lysistrata and Praxagora show levels of practical wisdom, organizational skill and political imagination which make a mockery of their respective plays’ male characters and in both cases it is specifically the Athenian male citizens’ political-deliberative capacities in the democracy which are shown to be hilariously and disastrously inadequate by comparison.  Furthermore, these men are at least partly undone by their excessive emotions and appetites.

So, if Hillary beats Donald this November (as I hope to god that she will), she won’t just be the first female president of the United States of America.  She’ll be another nail in the coffin for a very ancient and persistent strain of sexism and misogyny. And Donald will be like the Proboulos (Magistrate) of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, railing at the women as they effortlessly run rings round him and tie him up in intellectual and political knots.

‘Project Fear’ and ‘Project Anger’: some thoughts from Aristotle and modern psychology

How did the phrase ‘Project Fear’ get into the Brexitian rhetorical arsenal and gain such traction?  Well, the truth seems to be that during during the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2013, members of the Better Together Campaign first used the phrase as an office joke about themselves, in anticipation of their opponents’ criticisms.  Some journalists at The Herald got wind of all (or some) of this and a private joke became, as the The Guardian’s Ian Jack puts it, ‘a godsend for the SNP, which could now rebrand every unionist objection to independence as nothing more than scary propaganda’. It seems to be doing the same (or better?) rhetorical work for the pro-Brexit politicians and newspapers.

When their claims are branded as ‘Project Fear’, the Remainers’ rebuttals take various forms: distancing (‘others may be using the negative ‘fear’ card but I am going to stress the positive case)’; counter-attack (‘it is actually the Brexiters who are scaremongering and exaggerating with talk of European armies, uncontrollable immigration etc.), re-labelling (we’re not doing Project Fear, we’re doing Project Fact) and re-framing (it’s legitimate to stress the problems and risks of Brexit, even if they stimulate fear, because the other side hasn’t detailed any credible solutions to those problems and possible negative outcomes.  People should be anxious).

That last strategy, while rarely heard so explicitly, hints at the potentially positive role which fear and anxiety can have in contexts where the public is deliberating and voting.  Several psychological studies* have shown that the more anxious we voters feel about a particular political issue and/or an impending decision we have to make, the more engaged and questioning we become – we actively seek out further information, expert opinion and factual evidence about that issue rather than going with our ‘gut feeling’ about it or simply voting for the the side whose advocates we warm to the most.  The information which fearful and anxious voters seek is ‘broader and more balanced, as it is less shaped by partisan or other confirmatory biases’ (Brader and Marcus 2013: 185*).   Fear and anxiety can actually create a better-informed voting public than emotional sanguinity or indifference.

This might seem a surprising or even distasteful thing to write in the current divisive atmosphere and in the wake of a heartbreaking murder of an MP: the whipping up of ‘fears’ over immigration and free movement doesn’t seem likely or designed to create a better-informed electorate.  As Stephen Kinnock rightly said yesterday in his tribute to Jo Cox, ‘rhetoric has consequences’.**  But I am sure that the dominant emotion being worked on by certain rhetorical tactics from some (not all) elements on the Brexit side is not fear but anger. The psychological research* offers a completely different picture when voters primarily feel anger about an issue or against an identifiable group:

‘…anger appears to reduce the amount of time actually spent visiting political websites, shrink the number of web pages visited, and narrow searches to opinion confirming sources, produce less thoughtful opinions, and inhibit accurate recall of information.  In sum, these findings confirm that there exist two different decision-making modes, one triggered by anger, focusing on defence of extant convictions and hence disinterested in disconfirming evidence or new information triggered, and a second more deliberative and open mode that is triggered by anxiety.’ (Brader and Marcus 2013, p.185).

Ancient theorists of rhetoric had some sense of this.  Aristotle’s treatise On Rhetoric famously stresses from the start that it is important for an orator to stimulate emotion (pathos) in his audience because our judgements are affected by what frame of mind we are in.  Later on he devotes a substantial section to the workings of various human emotions (anger, calmness, friendliness and so on) and has several pages about what fear is and what makes people fearful.    Now, this doesn’t mean that he thinks a speech will or should persuade people simply by pressing the emotional buttons which suit the circumstances: it’s important to show that one is saying something right and true by having a logical argument which appeals to evidence and, famously, the speaker also has to project a character (ethos) which is credible and fair-minded.  And Aristotle is explicitly critical of other rhetorical writers who focus solely on the manipulation of emotions.  But this passage of the Rhetoric on fear seems especially salient (2.5.14-15, trans. G. Kennedy):

‘Those experiencing, and thinking they experience, great good fortune do not think they might suffer. Therefore they are insolent and belittlers and rash (wealth, strength and an abundance of friends makes them so); nor are those afraid who think they have already suffered all dreadful things possible and have become coldly indifferent to the future, like those actually being done to death.  For fear to continue there must be some hope of being saved from the cause of the agony.  And there is a sign of this: fear makes people inclined to deliberation, while noone deliberates about hopeless things.  The result is that whenever it is better for a speaker’s case that the members of the audience experience fear, he should make them realize that they are liable to suffering.’

If a political speech or argument makes us anxious or afraid, it isn’t necessarily designed to make us abandon our powers of logic or evidence-based reasoning.  Rather, it is a way of grabbing our attention and ensuring that we use those powers to assess, and deliberate upon, the risks, vulnerabilities and liabilities to ourselves which it raises and claims.

*These studies are summarized and fully referenced in Ted Brader and George E. Marcus ‘Emotion and Political Psychology’, pp. 165-204 of L. Huddy, D. O. Sears and J. Levy eds. (2013) The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. Oxford University Press.

** To donate to charitable causes in honour of Jo Cox, go here:


Enjoyed ‘Line of Duty’? Try Euripides’ tragedies.


Adrian Dunbar (Supt Ted Hastings) and Craig Parkinson (DI Matthew Cottan). Photo: BBC.

SPOILER AND CONTENT ALERT: if you haven’t yet seen all of BBC 2’s Line of Duty (Series 3), or read/seen Euripides’ Hippolytus this post contains some spoilers! As such, it also contains passing references to sexual abuse/violence.

Last week’s feature-length finale of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty was the most gripping and immersive episode of television drama we’ve seen in my household since, well, the previous week’s episode.  A number of TV police dramas are addressing the painfully topical subject of police criminality, corruption, collusion, smear tactics, cover-ups and incompetence in the UK at the moment: BBC 1’s Undercover and ITV 1’s Marcella and Scott and Bailey also acknowledge and explore these subjects within the inevitable limitations of a prime-time entertainment slot.

One of the many striking things about the final Line of Duty was the length and intensity of two central interview scenes: they took up 54 minutes of a 90-minute episode.   The first scene had DS Steve Arnott (an anti-police corruption officer in unit AC-12) being presented with the accusation and supporting evidence that he murdered former DI Lindsay Denton.  It was then put to Arnott that he was ‘the Caddy’ – a corrupt detective who could call on a network of other officers to do the bidding of organized criminals and the murky forces of the establishment anxious to cover up past collusion and crime, including a child abuse ring involving a politician and a senior copper.  We all knew Steve was innocent of these charges.  And yet, his colleague and nemesis DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan had done a masterful job at planting evidence against him and covering his own tracks.  We watched with mounting horror as a sweating and indignant Steve had each of his alibis and explanations rebutted by forensic and circumstantial evidence.   The exchanges got more and more heated and rancorous.  Arnott hadn’t exactly played things by the book in a previous operation against Denton, and Cottan was able to use this to influence the mindset of the rest of the AC-12 team.  By the end of the interview, it looked like Steve was going to cop for everything in a terrible miscarriage of justice.  But we still hoped that Supt. Hastings and DS Fleming would pick up on Steve’s few good points in reply.  Was he likely to have shot Denton at close range in his own service vehicle?  And why were the supposedly incriminating contents of an envelope not covered in blood and DNA when the inside of the envelope was?

As I was watching all of this, it struck me that the dramatic dynamics were not dissimilar to scenes of debate, quarreling and interrogation which take place in Greek tragedy. These scenes  follow certain conventions:  one character will make a speech of 50 lines or more and then another will attempt to rebut them in a speech of matching length; such a so-called agon of long speeches will then morph into quick-fire exchanges of single lines (stichomythia) or pairs of lines (distichs).  There is no rigid pattern to all this and every surviving tragedy does things differently.  But the tension, irony and sheer excitement which these scenes of verbal confrontation must have created for ancient Greek audiences are easily lost on us as we read – they can look dry and artificial on the page.  It takes good acting and directing in an actual modern production (or else a very vivid mind’s eye and ear) to recreate their edge-of-seat combination of vehement emotion, forensic argument and tit-for-tat rhetorical sparring.

One such scene which has ‘the Line of Duty factor’ in spades comes in Euripides’ Hippolytus.  After a long absence, Theseus returns to his palace in Troezen to discover that his wife Phaedra has just hung herself.  As he grieves over her body he reads a suicide note in which she has falsely accused her step-son (and Theseus’ biological son) Hippolytus of raping her.

The truth – of which Theseus is totally unaware – is that the goddess Aphrodite had made Phaedra sick with desire for her step-son. The queen had reluctantly confided in her nurse about the cause of her sickness. The nurse then took it upon herself to act as a go-between. But when the nurse revealed Phaedra’s love for him to Hippolytus he was appalled, rejecting the overture and railing against all womankind.  It is far from clear whether he will keep his oath to stay quiet or tell Theseus on his return. This prompts Phaedra to write the note and kill herself so that she can preserve her own and her children’s reputation.


Red-figured Apulian vase for mixing wine and water, c.340-320BC. Beneath an assembly of the gods, an old retainer looks on as a Fury and a bull terrify Hippolytus’ team of horses. Photo: British Museum.

So, when Hippolytus enters the action to be confronted by his step-mother’s dead body and his angry, grieving father, the audience knows that Hippolytus has been framed by the lying suicide note.  The terrifyingly ironic disjunction between how things look to Theseus and the truth of what has gone on must have really smacked the audience in the guts.  Even before Hippolytus has entered and pleaded his innocence, Theseus rushes to judge and punish him:

Theseus: O City! Hippolytus dared to touch my marriage bed by force, showing no honour to the revered eye of Zeus. Well, father Poseidon, you once promised me three curses; with one of these make an end of my son, and may he not escape this day if the curses you gave me are real.

Chorus: Lord, by the gods, take this back and undo this prayer: for you will recognize later that you are wrong. Listen to me!

Euripides has engineered a wonderful mixture of dread and suspense in his audience here.  The untried nature of the curses leave open the possibility that this one against his own son might not work. (Although spectators also have reason think it will work: for a big spoiler see my asterisked note at the end of this post).  And the chorus of women suggest that Theseus might yet be able to reverse it.  But they themselves can’t explain why Theseus is making a terrible mistake: they have previously sworn an oath of silence to Phaedra.  And at this point he isn’t listening to them properly anyway.

As Theseus denounces his baffled son in a long speech, it becomes clear that the heinous nature of the alleged crime and its consequences are not the only causes of Theseus’ extreme anger.  As a particularly pious young worshipper of Artemis who espouses an ascetic and ‘pure’  lifestyle free of sexual contact, Hippolytus has apparently proved himself to have been profoundly dishonest and hypocritical: ‘flee from men such as these’, shouts Theseus, ‘for they chase you down with their pious words, while they devise shameful deeds.’  Now, as with Steve Arnott’s approach to anti-corruption policing, Hippolytus’ brand of piety is not without its flaws.  But there’s some agonizing emotional realism at work here.  Like Steve’s colleagues in AC-12, Theseus is upset by the thought that he has been utterly duped and betrayed by someone he was close to – someone he thought he knew well.

Hippolytus now gets to make his long defence in reply.  Will he be able to convince the enraged Theseus of the truth? Ironically, his piety makes this a harder task: he doesn’t reveal Phaedra’s love for him or call the Nurse as a witness because he’s sworn an oath not to. Instead, he resorts to a form of forensic argument which serves Steve Arnott quite well – the Greek rhetoricians and lawcourt orators called it eikos: ‘argument from probability’ or ‘likelihood’.  Hippolytus says that even if Theseus doubts his devotion to chastity, he must consider the improbability that he committed this crime. Why would he pursue Phaedra when there were more beautiful women he could have gone for? Did he somehow expect to take over Theseus’ house by marrying Phaedra as its heiress? That would be a mad thing to think. Was it because he wanted to usurp Theseus’ rule? Well, nobody sane or sensible wants that kind of power!

For all the similarities of tension and forensic back-and-forth, notice too that a difference between Line of Duty and Hippolytus is emerging here.  Steve Arnott’s eikos arguments successfully cast a measure of doubt on Cottan’s version of events and Hastings and Fleming are given other reasons to question that account as the interview progresses.  But Hippolytus’ appeal to probabilities just comes across as mildly insulting to Theseus and his dead wife.  It makes things worse. And although he swears an oath by the gods that he never touched Phaedra, Theseus remains implacably convinced that the dead body and the note are all the evidence he needs. Blind to the fact that he is relying so heavily on the written word to convict his son, he says this: ‘it is the deed that proclaims you a bad man, it needs no words’.   Hippolytus must go into exile immediately.   In a heated, furious rapid-fire exchange between them, Hippolytus makes the important point that his father is circumventing due process and the gathering of further evidence:

Will you not first review the evidence of oaths, of pledges of good faith or of prophets’ utterances – but simply cast me from the land without trial?

When this has no effect, Hippolytus comes close to breaking his oath of secrecy. But he takes the view that such impiety would be pointless: ‘there is no hope that I could convince the man I have to convince’.

I’ll leave you to read, watch or recall the rest of Euripides’ tragedy for yourselves.  And I’ll end by stressing this: despite certain instructive similarities in the dynamics of the interrogation scene in Line of Duty and Hippolytus‘ debate scene, some big generic and cultural differences remain.  Line of Duty has its tragic elements – a fair share of moral ambiguity for example, and the sense that some of its characters are being groomed and controlled by higher powers.  But Euripides offers a much bleaker, complex and absolute image of human fallibility and frailty than even the great Jed Mercurio can muster.  I’m not saying Line of Duty isn’t very good. It is – I’ll be watching series 4. But Euripides will make you think and have you gripped too, surprise endings and all.


(*) It’s important to know that at the point when Theseus enters to discover Phaedra’s body and the incriminating note, the audience already has information that Hippolytus will die. The goddess Aphrodite tells us right at the start of the play that Theseus will find out about the the incestuous desire she has inflicted upon his wife and that he will kills his son as a result of his own father’s divinely-gifted curses.  Aphrodite’s plan is to infect Phaedra with desire for Hippolytus so that he can be punished for his irreverence: the young man spurns sex and marriage and refuses to worship the goddess.  We hear too that Phaedra will die.  But we don’t hear exactly how the two deaths will come about, which will come first, or whether they will be causally related.  If you believe the information provided by Aphrodite short-circuits all the suspense and uncertainty,  think about all those historically-based dramas, films and novels where we know the outcome and yet find ourselves in suspense over how that ending will be achieved.  We can get so carried away by the action and our wish that disaster be averted that we even forget our foreknowledge.









‘Performance’ vs. ‘evidence’ in negotiations and debates: an ancient tension.


© AP Photo/ Geert Vanden Wijngaert

The banner image for this blog comes from a very famous fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael which has become known as ‘The School of Athens’it was painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of Raphael’s commission to decorate the library rooms in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.   Here it is again (although I’ve shamefully cropped out all the magnificent Roman architecture above, below and to the side of the human figures):


The ‘School of Athens’ by Raphael.  For an excellent discussion which situates this fresco in its wider context, see this episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4)

On this are depicted a whole range of Greek ‘proto-scientists’ and philosophers, although scholars argue about exactly who is who in some cases.  (Islamic thinkers and Zoroaster are also depicted but the Greeks dominate).  In the centre of the picture you have Plato and Aristotle, the two most important and prolific philosophical writers from classical Greece and to the left, in green, we seem to have Socrates.  The picture depicts something that never could have happened in reality. You couldn’t really have Heraclitus, Socrates and Aristotle looking roughly the same age, hanging out together and arguing about philosophy because the dates and chronology just don’t work.  But by imagining all these thinkers in dialogue with each other Raphael distils and emphasizes the spirit of what is now known (albeit problematically) as ‘Renaissance humanism’. Humanists sought to create a citizenry who were eloquent in speech and writing.   They imagined that this would encourage engagement in civic life  and the persuasion of others towards virtuous actions and wise policy.  The primary texts to be used in such a project were the Greek poets, historians and philosophers.

Now, I think he humanists were right about the Greeks here. They did indeed realize that public, evidence-based reasoning and deliberation were key to problem-solving and our own collective and individual flourishing.  What the Greeks had to say about this was sophisticated and important.  For the most part, we moderns no longer appreciate the salience of this material for our current situation.

But, of course renaissance artists, thinkers and writers didn’t study the Greeks in a passive, unquestioning way or seek simply to imitate or reproduce their findings. For a start, there was a need to make pagan philosophy compatible with the goals and teachings of Christianity:  this fresco shouldn’t be taken too far out of its specific context as a counterpart and complement to another fresco in the same room  depicting theological disputation.   And in many cases renaissance thinkers criticized or went beyond the Greeks, especially in the area of natural science. The fresco displays and projects that spirit of active questioning of previous models too. For example, Plato is pointing upwards with his cosmic mind-blowing dialogue the Timaeus under his arm and his pupil Aristotle is pointing downwards with the more practical down-to-earth Nicomachean Ethics in his hand: and if you read Aristotle on rhetoric or tragedy, you’ll see how far the latter pupil disagreed with and tried to do something very different to his former master.

Furthermore, note the many other angry faces, aggressive physical gestures and posturing on the fresco.

So, Raphael’s image  partially undermines its own optimism by hinting that the realities of deliberation, debate and enquiry are painful, fractious, antagonistic and difficult – that ideas and arguments can be excluded, sidelined or superseded and that consensus may not always be possible, absolute or even desirable. Raphael captures the point that public deliberation, debate and argument are never purely or only constituted by the logic of the speakers’ arguments themselves or the quality and relevance of the evidence which they deploy to prove and illustrate their points.  In addition to this, there is a performative dimension: how we use our voices and hand-gestures for emphasis, the way we turn our gaze, what we are wearing, whether we make our arguments more palatable and persuasive with rhetorical devices, jokes, anecdotes, metaphors, analogies, colourful language and props – whether we go personal and ad hominem with our rivals or opponents to leverage our audience’s support.


 ‘The Age of Pericles’, by Philipp Von Foltz (1853) (Maximilianeum, Munich).  Pericles is depicted delivering a speech on the speaker’s platform on the Pnyx, the meeting-place of the Athenian democratic assembly. This platform still exists. See this previous post.

We all know about this performative dimension. And we all love to complain that modern public political debates and campaigns just ‘political theatre’ and  ‘all style and no substance’, that ‘spin’, ‘punch-and-judy politics’ and  staying ‘on-message’ have displaced something more ‘proper’, ‘honest’ and ‘real’.  But I think that complaint is in itself really another piece of simplistic spin from interested parties which ‘we the public’ have internalized.  The truth is more complicated and difficult:  namely, that conflicting political positions and rival policies often offer up different interpretations of the same evidence or different bodies of evidence altogether.  And deliberation towards a decision is difficult, not just because it is hard to disentangle substance from spin or to spot a dodgy argument, but also because we often feel ill-equipped to evaluate and test the evidence presented to support the argument in the first place.  Where does the spin stop and the evidence begin?

The Greeks of the classical period worried about, and grappled with these questions too. On the one hand they recognized that there were better and worse ways of deliberating towards a decision and they were optimistic about the potential of good public reasoning. They developed an interest in the structure and nature of different forms of argumentation and demonstration and in some cases that interest is directly relatable to the importance of the political assembly and the lawcourt in classical, democratic Athens. In Athens all citizens took part in decision-making: they didn’t delegate decisions to politicians – instead the politicians gave advice to the people.  The Greeks also developed an understanding of the importance of what we would call ‘critical thinking’ on the part of individuals who might be members of political council or assembly or a mass jury.

On the other hand, these democratic arenas of mass decision-making were highly theatrical and rhetorical in character. Winning a case or persuading the assembly to vote for your policy clearly required orators to put on an entertaining and highly competent rhetorical performance.  In this context, where important decisions are derived from the massed citizenry assessing two or more opposed public speeches, we get a tension between two opposed requirements.  On one side, the high stakes and related checks and balances in the Athenian council, assembly and courts demanded intellectually virtuous but essentially quite  dull forms of proof and demonstration on the part of speakers and sober, considered internal deliberation on the part of the people, the dēmos.  On the other hand, we have the theatrical and competitive-performative dynamic of these deliberative venues whereby elite amateur advisers and litigants are pitted against one another before a largely non-elite crowd.  The pressure to put on the best act and the difficulty shared by all pre-modern societies of securing compelling or incontrovertible evidence meant that sound and sober reasoning would rarely be enough to win over the crowd.   (This ‘evidence vs. performance tension’, as I am calling it, is well-expressed by the various meanings of the Greek word agōn: gathering/assembly, contest for a prize, struggle, legal trial.)  I think this performance-evidence tension and the way it is deployed, grappled with, refined and reproduced classical Athenian texts drove Greek literature and thought to realize important new ideas and techniques.  This hasn’t been appreciated enough within classical scholarship.  And its purchase on controversies and problems in modern normative democratic political theory hasn’t yet been fully recognized either. (Normative = what democracy ought to be. This is often thought to be different to what it is ( = empirical ).

Some (but not all) of my future blog posts will talk more about this!

 This post is taken from the introduction to a public lecture called ‘Deliberation, decision-making and evidence in Classical Greece’, which I delivered on 2nd February at Trevelyan College, University of Durham.  The lecture was part of a series of public lectures on the theme of ‘evidence’ delivered by Fellows of the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Durham.  Here is an abstract of the lecture and here is an audio recording of the whole thing. (The lecture starts a few minutes into the recording).


Paris, Cleocritus and the Chorus

The day after the massacre of 129 people in France I was at a conference in Edinburgh called ‘Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science’.  I was due to give a response to four papers about ‘associations and innovation’.  One of the papers was written by two academics based in Paris: Vincent Azoulay and Paulin Ismard.  Vincent was there in person while Paulin listened in from afar and graciously responded to our questions via Skype.  It was a great paper and Vincent prefaced it with some moving words in his native tongue which acknowledged the terrible events that had unfolded in his city the night before. He also spoke of the historical ties of friendship which exist between France and Scotland.

The paper’s ambition and intellectual panache reminded me of the pioneering ‘Paris School’ tradition of applying anthropology and sociology to ancient Greek culture and history.  It feels appropriate that two founding figures in that tradition were so active in their opposition to oppression and fascist violence.   Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914-2007)  had been a senior member of the French Resistance in World War II.   Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930-2006) campaigned against the use of torture by the French Army during the Algerian War. He also supported peace efforts in the Middle East and wrote extensively about the dangers of genocide denial in history-writing.

Vincent and Paulin’s paper argued that the very particular and special phenomenon of ‘the chorus’ in the classical Greek city and its conceptualization in ancient authors  might provide a fruitful interpretive category for observing the various groups to which it was possible to belong in Athenian civic society.  One of their key passages of evidence was a famous episode at the end of the Athenian civil war (stasis) between the pro-democracy forces under Thrasybulus and the brutal Spartan-backed regime of The Thirty Tyrants and their supporters.  After a battle between the two sides at the Hill of Mounichia, there is an exchange of the dead bodies under truce.   Xenophon’s Hellenica  narrates how men from each side started to mingle and speak to each other during the truce.  Then, a man called Cleocritus, a herald with a beautiful voice, called for silence and spoke:

“Fellow citizens, why do you drive us out of the city? Why do you wish to kill us? For we never did you any harm, but we have shared with you in the most solemn rites and sacrifices and the most splendid festivals, we have been companions in the choruses (καὶ συγχορευταὶ) and schoolmates and comrades in arms, and we have braved many dangers with you both by land and by sea in defence of the common safety and freedom of us both. In the name of the gods of our fathers and mothers, in the name of our ties of kinship and marriage and comradeship—for all these many of us share with one another—, cease, out of shame before gods and men, to sin against your fatherland, and do not obey those most accursed Thirty, who for the sake of their private gain have killed in eight months more Athenians, almost, than all the Peloponnesians in ten years of war.”  (Xenophon Hellenica 2.4.20-22)

Given what had happened in Paris just a few hours earlier, and given that most of the attackers were French citizens,  I couldn’t help but be moved by Cleocritus’ opening questions.  But it also struck me that much of the rest of Cleocritus’ speech just wouldn’t make any sense or have any credibility in relation to the current context of Jihadist ‘radicalization’ among young European nationals.  Athenian citizens who ended up fighting each other had indeed participated together in tragic, comic or dithyrambic choruses. They shared religious rites, festive meals and processions.  They even fought a common foreign enemy together as conscripts in previous years. But even with those engines of cohesion and shared experience behind them, they were still prepared to fight each other in the name of competing visions of society and statehood once the war with Sparta started to go wrong.  Given the absence of comparable engines of cohesion, common experience, equality and shared opportunity in our own modern European towns and cities, it becomes less surprising (although no less appalling)  that some young men have been persuaded to kill their own fellow citizens and then themselves.