Aristotle in America: Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither

II. Gorgias’ Fine Art

Several years ago, while pouring over the Journals of the Continental Congress, I came across the following note, dated January 24, 1783:

The Committee [Mr. James Madison, Mr. Hugh Williamson and Mr. Thomas Mifflin] instructed on the motion of Col. [Theodorick] Bland to report a list of books proper for the use of Congress, recommend that the Superintendt. of Finance and the Secy. of Congress be empowered to take order for procuring the books enumerated below: the same when procured to be under the care of the said Secy.

The note is interesting in its own right. For although Madison, Williamson, and Mifflin were probably not aware of it at the time, they were in fact putting together the first catalogue for the legendary Library of Congress, the books that legislators and representatives would need in order to properly conduct the affairs of the new republic.

Then follows the list itself, nine pages of closely set type, line upon line, many of the titles listed in their original languages, not only German, French, and Spanish, but also Greek and Latin, accurately reflecting the superior training not only of Madison, Williamson, and Mifflin, but of all the members of Congress.

This superior training displayed itself four years later, when the states sent delegates to the Convention in Philadelphia. Education would appear to have been one of the leading criteria for selecting the body. Five had earned their degrees at Harvard, six at Yale, with eleven including Madison from Princeton, four from Middle Temple (London), and five from William and Mary. Only two had attended King’s College (Columbia) and only three the University of Pennsylvania, including Mifflin and Williamson. Darmouth had its delegate (John Langdon), as did Oxford (Charles Cotesworth Pinckney), St Andrews (James Wilson), Glasgow (Richard Dobbs Spaight), and Edinburgh (James McClurg), while fully six of the delegates had acquired their learning through retained private tutors. This was a learned gathering indeed.

And while it is surely doubtful that all of these men had full command of all the books in the Library of Congress’s, their command of the classics was impeccable, not only of Aristotle, Plato, and Thucydides, but of Virgil and Plutarch as well.

This command of the classics, it so happens, would be terribly important in determining the final form of our Constitution. For it meant not only that the framers were predisposed to embrace and write republican values and institutions into their Constitution, but also that they were deeply weary of the dangers posed by an overly-ambitious popular democracy. This weariness is apparent in nearly every debate and on nearly every page of the record of the Constitutional Convention. But perhaps nowhere does its appearance strike us as more peculiar than in Alexander Hamilton’s famous remarks regarding the the “celebrated Pericles” found in Federalist No. 6, “Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States”:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the Megarensians, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the Peloponnesian war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.

Hamilton’s remarks are peculiar because, then as now, Pericles was regarded as the “father of democracy.” And, yet, at least among the framers of the Constitution, this sobriquet was not taken as a compliment, but, rather, as a warning. The question is why?

In order to answer this question, we need to transport ourselves back to the dawn beginnings of the Athenian republic itself, when no more than one in twenty men of voting age were actually qualified to cast a ballot. At this point political power was divided fairly evenly among Athens’ leading families. Should any of them have sought more power than the others, or should any of them have attempted to exclude the others, then the citizens always had recourse to the practice of ostracism.

This practice permitted citizens to scratch the name of any leader they thought had grown too powerful on a shard of pottery, called an ostracon. The names scratched on the ostracons would then be counted. The individual whose name appeared most often among the ostracons would then be ostracized, literally sent out of the city. In this way, even though Athens was still a virtual oligarchy, a government of the few over the many, none of its oligarchs could wield power without the tacit approval both of the other oligarchs and, implicitly, of its leading citizens.

Enter Pericles, born of wealthy, well-placed parents, a full Athenian. Had he wanted to, Pericles could have taken his place alongside Athens’ other powerful families and helped rule this young republic as one of its oligarchs. But Pericles wanted more. He wanted to assume complete and total power over Athens, but he knew he could not do so without risking ostracism; unless, that is, he could woo Athens’ citizens over to his side.

Pericles’ campaign for total control over Athens began with his shifting his allegiance from the aristocratic to the democratic party. Assured that he would not himself be ostracized by the people, Pericles then moved quickly to have his leading opponent, Cimon, a member of the aristocratic party, ostracized. With Cimon’s ostracism behind him, Pericles next moved to consolidate his power. He helped pass a law giving free theater tickets to Athens’ poor. He then used his increasing popularity to lower the property requirement for serving as a civil servant in Athens. But, it was for his next act that he would become most famous.

In 454 BCE, Pericles dramatically increased the wages paid to jury members in Athens’ supreme court, making it possible for citizens without any other means of support or special legal training to play a central role in the highest court of the land. From that point forward, it was difficult for many jury members to separate their legal obligations to the republic from the financial debt they owed to Pericles, a conflict of interest not lost on the young Plato, whose dialogue Gorgias would poke fun at the foolishness of such a decision.

In his Gorgias, Plato pits Gorgias against Plato’s mentor Socrates. Like Pericles, Gorgias is trained in the fine art of political rhetoric. Gorgias tells Socrates that he can “make an orator of anyone who wishes to learn from [him].” He then tells Socrates that an orator, properly trained, can convince anyone of anything. And, for this reason, says Gorgias, rhetoric is the finest of all arts. But, then the dialogue gets interesting:

SOCRATES: And consequently in all matters [the orator] will be able to get his way before a mass of people not by teaching but by convincing?
GORGIAS: Certainly.
SOCRATES: You said just now that even on matters of health the orator will be more convincing than the doctor.
GORGIAS: Before a mass audience—yes, I did.
SOCRATES: A mass audience means an ignorant audience, doesn’t it? He won’t be more convincing than the doctor before experts, I presume.
SOCRATES: Now, if he is more convincing than the doctor then does he turn out to be more convincing than the expert?
GORGIAS: Naturally.
SOCRATES: Not being a doctor, of course?
GORGIAS: Of course.
SOCRATES: And the non-doctor, presumably, is ignorant of what the doctor knows?
GORGIAS: Obviously.
SOCRATES: So when the orator is more convincing than the doctor, what happens is that an ignorant person is more convincing than the expert before an equally ignorant audience. Is this what happens?

No one, but no one, mistook Plato’s dialogue for anything other than a direct swipe at Pericles and Periclian democracy. Pericles had created the perfect environment not for democracy, but for demagogy, leadership through deception. Nor was Socrates the only Athenian who faulted Pericles for his methods.

Thucydides, whom we usually think of as one of Pericles’ allies, held a similarly dim view of Pericles’ methods. Three stories, all from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, illustrate why Thucydides, along with America’s Founders, were troubled by these methods.

In the first story, against the best advice of his wisest advisors, Pericles has elected to go to war to help suppress a rash of democratic uprisings in the Peloponnese. The war is not going well for Athens. Archidamus, the leader of the opposing Spartan army, is closing in on Athens, when Pericles is suddenly gripped by the fear that Archidamus might spare Pericles’ substantial personal land-holdings. Why?

Well, it so happens that Archidamus and Pericles are good friends. Their families have vacationed together. They have visited one another’s homes. So, it made sense that Archidamus might spare Pericles’ estates. But, of course, this could prove to be a political disaster. What would the Athenians think if all of Athens was laid waste, with the exception of Pericles’ private property?

Ever the master of political strategy, Pericles quickly hatches a plan, which Thucydides describes as follows:

He therefore came forward first and made a statement to the Athenians in the assembly, saying that, though Archidamus was his friend, this fact was certainly not going to be harmful to Athenian interests, and, in case the enemy should not lay waste his estates and houses, like those of other people, he proposed to give them up and make them public property, so that no one should have any suspicions against him on their account.

The plan was brilliant. Pericles had profited hand over fist from his political career. So, too, had Athens. As they plundered the coasts and cities of the Peloponnese, Pericles’ armies shipped their riches back to Athens, helping fund the most expansive and expensive public building project in Greek history. But the benefits from war did not end there. This was also the age of expansion in the arts and sciences, the age during which even the poor now could view the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides free of charge. War, at least initially, was good for Athens, very good.

But, then Athens’ luck began to change. As Pericles plowed more and more of Athens’ resources into creating and maintaining his empire, this left fewer resources for Athens itself. Nor had Archidamus squandered his advantage. As his armies laid waste to the countryside and destroyed Athens’ ability to obtain fresh food and water, her citizens were struck by what Thucydides called “the plague.”

The plague was not one catastrophe. It was many catastrophes piled one upon another. It was the financial crisis brought on by Pericles’ expansionary policies, but his refusal to pay for these policies by taxing wealth. But it was also the lack of fresh water and a crumbling infrastructure. And it was the accumulation of sons and fathers, whose death brought untold hardship to all Athenian families. And, then, lastly, it was the plague itself. So that, while Pericles’ silver tongue had been sufficient to bring Athens’ citizens to support military expansion, many wonder whether it sufficient to convince them to stick with their mission to the bitter end. Athenians were now demanding an unconditional drawing down of forces. Would Pericles be able to charm them once more?

What is remarkable about Pericles’ speech—his “oration,” Socrates would have called itis how skillfully he twists the real suffering, sorrow and justifiable fear of his supporters into a sign of their weakness and lack of resolve, but a sign of his heroism and courage.

I am the same man and do not alter, it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt, and waited for misfortune to repent of it; and the apparent error of my policy lies in the infirmity of your  resolution, since the suffering that it entails is being felt by every one among you, while its advantage is still remote and obscure to all, and a great and sudden reverse having befallen you, your mind is too much  depressed to persevere in your resolves.

But there is more. Not only does Pericles fault his followers for their weakness. He then goes on to admit that his detractors had been right all along. Athens, Pericles confessed, was not a democracy, but a tyranny. His wars had made many enemies around the Peloponnese. So it would be foolish to draw down now.

You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides,
to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamoured of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it
perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.

And, yet, as Thucydides recounts bitterly: “Not long afterwards, as is the habit of crowds, they again elected him general and committed all their affairs to his hands.”

When the framers of the Constitution read these accounts, they could not help but feel that the initial error—granting the vote to men ill-equipped to judge the merits of what Pericles was telling them—was more serious than the last. It was Gorgias’ fine art, rhetoric, at its finest. Could Pericles persuade his audience to do as he wished? Yes he could. Could he have persuaded an audience made up of experts? No. The broadening of the political franchise had not been a move toward greater democracy. It had instead been a cynical move to expand the power of one man, Pericles.

The very idea sent shivers up the spines of the Founders. So, should America too become a democracy? Will an illiterate dock worker or sailor or common laborer be able to see through the lies of one ambitious politician? And would not a Constitution built on a universal, all-male, franchise invite—no, reward—precisely those qualities and character traits—deceit, lying, graft, power, greed, envy, crime—that have wrecked many a republic? As our third illustration demonstrates, the framers knew from whence they spoke.

For, not long after Pericles’ death, Athens quite simply disintegrated under the weight of the political form Pericles had unleashed on them.

In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher. . . . So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge.

Had not the framers just passed through a similar revolution? Were they not at similar risk? How were common laborers or dock workers to distinguish their war against the British occupiers from their war against the banks, the property owners, or “federalists” of any and every stripe? Daniel Shays, they knew, was not an exception. He was a patriot. A good man. But he was also an anti-federalist, a democrat, to whom common folk looked for leadership. The framers knew that there was scarcely a tenant farmer in all the northeast or central coast, scarcely a dock worker or common laborer, who wouldn’t at a moments notice take up arms against the men meeting in Philadelphia should the occasion arise.

These farmers, laborers, and sailors had fought and died for freedom and liberty. And, yet, guns silenced and red coats safely shipped back to England, what was the thanks they had received? No right to vote; inflation that reduced their wages to less value than the paper on which it was printed; and an unending string of shortages, foreclosures, and jailings . And for this they had fought and died?

No. Daniel Shays and his rebellion was not an exception, and the Convention delegates knew it. So, when they read Thucydides’ account, they were far from comforted. Popular rule based on lies and deceit, on public oratory and rhetoric, could only meet a bad end.

Here is how Thucydides had described that end:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. . . . Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. . . . Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. . . . The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.

Thus, it is entirely understandable why Thucydides’ words sent chills up the spines of the Convention delegates. What had they unleashed? Would they be able to avoid Athens’ fate? Could they steer clear of Pericles’ error?

Obviously there is much in Thucydides’ account that speaks to our own day. Many would argue that we too have lost that “simple way of looking at things,” that “what used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression” is now regarded as courageous, and that the ability to look at an issue from many sides is now widely viewed as a sign of weakness, not strength.

As the delegates pondered their options, they believed that they had found a solution. Not Gorgias’ fine art, but Aristotle’s Politics; not oikonomia, but res publica; not the rule of the deceitful over the gullible, but the rule of citizens equally endowed to rule over one another together, in turn.