Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Gordon Brown and Demosthenes

Perhaps it's the innovation (for Britain at least) of the TV debates, or perhaps it's the consensus among the political leaders to say as little as they can get away with about the real issues facing the country, but I've noticed a tendency to look for parallels from the ancient world. Mary Beard was discussing Roman electioneering techniques with Boris Johnson on Radio 4 yesterday (here she is, in the wake of "bigotgate" on the subject of ancient gaffes). She commented that thirty years ago any parallels seemed far-fetched, not least because republican Roman politics was far more about personality than policy, but that the history seemed far more relevant today.

Yesterday Gordon Brown was speaking at an event run by community organisation Citizens UK also addressed by the other party leaders, and orated with such passion about the need for social change and improvement he sounded more like an opposition leader decrying the follies of the incumbent than a prime minister with a record to defend. His performance - in which he associated himself with Lincoln, Wilberforce and Obama - had the Guardian in ecstasies. He also trotted out this line:

When Cicero spoke to crowds in ancient Rome people turned to each other after hearing the speech and said ‘great speech’. But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other they said, ‘let’s march’.

Brown has used the anecdote several times before: at Michael Foot's funeral, in a Time magazine article about Barack Obama, at the 2008 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, even at a gay/transgender rights conference at Downing Street two years ago. It was also used by Adlai Stevenson introducing John F. Kennedy in 1960. Obviously it's one of Gordon's favourites, though I can't help thinking the same comparison could be made between Churchill and Hitler.

At first sight it's more than a little hubristic of Brown, a notoriously tedious speaker, to compare himself with the man reputed to have been the most scintillating orator of antiquity. But maybe he has a point. The Edwardian classical scholar J.B Bury - no great admirer - wrote of one of Demosthenes' most famous speeches that

No politician ever knew better than he how short is the memory of ordinary men for the political events which they have themselves watched and even helped to shape by their votes and opinions; and none ever traded more audaciously on this weakness of human nature. Hardly four brief years had passed since the peace was made, and Demosthenes, confident that his audience will remember nothing accurately, ventures lightly to falsify facts which had so lately been notorious in the streets of Athens.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Unless you're a specialist, if you know anything about Demosthenes at all it's probably the story that he cured his stammer by loading his mouth with pebbles. His reputation as a practitioner of the art of rhetoric is unmatched, but his political career is another matter. Demosthenes managed to involve Athens in several unnecessary and unwinnable wars, by deluding both himself and his audience that the city was still the great power it had been in the age of Pericles a hundred years earlier.

He led the Athenian opposition to the rise of Macedonia under Philip and then Alexander, a policy that, given the reality of power in the second half of the fourth century BC was almost suicidal to his native city. Suicidal it would probably have been had his fellow citizens done as Gordon Brown asserted they did. On those occasions when the Athenians did march with Demosthenes they usually suffered catastrophic defeats. More often, though, they listened, cheered, and then paid heed to more cautious voices.

But where does the story come from? It's unclear. The version quoted by Brown has been sourced to a 1906 book about rhetoric by William Jennings Bryan, where it is attributed to "someone". Bryan adds, "the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them." But the anecdote exists in several other versions, too. Sometimes Demosthenes is replaced by Caesar - which makes more sense, given that Cicero and Caesar were contemporaries. But that would change the meaning to a contrast between the man of action and the man of words.

Alternatively, a version attributed to advertising mogul David Ogilvy contrasts Demosthenes with his greatest rival Aeschines, who may not have been as memorable a speechmaker but who proposed a more subtle accommodation with Philip's expansionism. That makes better chronological sense, but it over-simplifies history, in particular ignoring the fact that the Athenian citizenry often sided with Aeschines. In 343 BC Demosthenes accused his rival of taking bribes from the Macedonians and at the subsequent trial made one of his greatest speeches, which Bury described as "a triumph in the art of sophistry". Aeschines was acquitted.