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 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.