Back in 428 BC Athens was in a bit of a state and a good three years into a crappy war with Sparta. Athens had been used to being led by the bodaciously awesome Pericles. Pericles was like Obama and Lincoln combined and led for over thirty years: awesome orator, run the joint from 461 to 429, and could get up there at assembly and stitch together the ideals that all Athenians should strive, sacrifice and die for.
Unfortunately they’d just lost him to a big plague outbreak. And the Spartan war had dragged. And Mytilene, one of their key ally towns, had jumped over to the Spartan side. In revenge and in shock, the Athenians voted to have all male Mytileneans killed and their women sold into slavery.
Upon waking up the next day, however, and discovering that a ship had already departed to execute the city’s order, some horrified Athenians demanded that the assembly reconsider its decision.
Into this foment steps Cleon. Cleon had a massively wealthy merchant father who accelerated him into a political career. He’s portrayed by both commentators and playwrights at the time as a bellicose buffoon who uses and abuses the demos (the people) to rise to power. Furious with the weak-kneed Athenians and their moral qualms expressed at the assembly, Cleon declares that the “empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it.” So if you don’t like it, he thunders, “surrender your empire … [and] go in for philanthropy.” His political point is that Athens’ security trumps justice: “A city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered.”
In response steps in Diodotus. He’s as calm and collected as Cleon is seething and strident, and he’s totally prepared for this moment. The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening the people, “but by beating them fairly in argument.” Which is lovely but not a patch on Cleon’s superior realpolitik that national security requires brutal realism. So Diodotus argues that moral or legal right and wrong should be pushed aside. Instead the assembly must consider if the motion to rescind was simply to Athens’ advantage. National security is best guaranteed by showing leniency to the Mytileneans. Not because we are merciful or morally moist, but because we are pragmatists. Showing mercy is simply, according to Diodotus, the only way to avoid future rebellions against Athens.
So the assembly buys the rationale, reverses the decision, and sends a ship in all haste to overtake the first one. The second ship arrives just as the first one is about to execute the first order and spares the entire town. Whew!
Or not. The endless Peloponnesian War this is part of reached its real low point a few years later in the neutral city of Melos. The Athenians besieged and then devastated it to remind all other Greek cities that either you were a winner with Athens or a loser with Sparta. It was a massacre that Diodotus’ pragmatism had paved the way for. In a dialogue that preceeds the siege, an Athenian commander makes clear to the Melians (not Melons!) that the only matters he will discuss are expediency and advantage. The standard of justice, he announced, “depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
Justice and right are clearly for low-energy types. The Athenians have extrapolated from Diodotus that the sole law of human nature and thus of international relations is that of power. So since they are stronger than the Melians they have every right to expect them to bow. The Melians refuse and reveal another truth of human nature: Just as the will to exert power is all too human, so is the will to resist. Athenian hubris simply makes its competitors resist harder and harder, and less than a decade later Athens is decisively defeated in Sicily.
So let’s get to it. We have seen what the lawless tirades of the son of a wealthy father can bring out of people. But as we saw in the first tv debate, rather than rise rhetorically and morally to this challenge, Hillary Clinton has instead done a Diodotus. In the debate she regaled us with her practicality and the need for realpolitik. Her reply to Trump’s criticism of the Iran deal was that it had succeeded in “putting a lid” on the threat – makes sense in a narrow way but has none of the heroic sensibility we saw in Obama or in Pericles.
So, pragmatism. With Clinton as with Diodotus, political language undermines directness and transparency. The end of the Periclean era is marked by coldness and calculation. Both Diodotus and Clinton can’t bring “the vision thing”, because it’s just not in them. Sure they both seek the good in their own terms, but they both do so not by rousing their fellow citizens to rise to their nations’ ideals, but instead to lower themselves to matters of practical advantage.
This has been brought to you by the old Greek Thucydides. He had great 2,000 year old insights into the ties between language and democracy. Check out Pericles’ funeral oration yourself.
A big lesson is this: if we don’t grasp that words truly matter, for democracy’s defenders no less than its destroyers, it may spell the impending funeral of the best kind of democracy.
The next U.S. Presidential debate is a town hall style one within the polis or people. I’m looking for some ideals in there. Somewhere.