Daniel Mendelsohn - townandcountrymag.com
"Vulgar and audacious…buffoonish and reckless…he stripped political oratory of its decorum, setting the fashion of yelling when addressing the people, and imbuing politics with a triviality and contempt for propriety that soon after would ruin the entire state."
Although it seems like something torn from yesterday's op-ed columns, the text above happens to be 2,000 years old.
It's a passage from the biographer Plutarch lambasting one of the most notorious politicians of democratic Athens's golden age, a brilliant demagogue called Cleon, whose career evokes an eerie déjà vu just now.
At the height of Athens's power, in the 430s BC, when national politics was still dominated by a relatively small number of wealthy and well connected families (sound familiar?), Cleon suddenly appeared on the political scene more or less out of nowhere; having inherited a fortune from his father, a leather merchant, he was the first person with a background in commerce to challenge the political establishment (sound familiar?).
His contempt for diplomatic decorum (when the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta, in 431, he was a fierce hawk, openly contemptuous of his opponents' more restrained approach to international relations. Sound familiar?), along with his flamboyant speaking style and canny way of courting the working classes (I won't even ask this time), made Cleon a force to reckon with.
Do I have to add that the intellectual classes abhorred him? From the comic playwright Aristophanes (who said of Cleon, "You're like eel fishers: In still waters they don't catch anything, but when the slime is stirred up the fishing's good") to the historian Thucydides (who called him "the most violent man in Athens") to the philosopher Aristotle (who decades later crowned him "the man who, with his attacks, corrupted the Athenians more than any other"), the literary elite was repulsed by Cleon and his low tactics.
Not that their protests did much good. Soon after Pericles's death, during the first years of the war, Cleon became the leader of Athens, and his rabid policies became those of the state. One early act was to call for the extermination of the entire adult male population of a rebellious allied state, along with the enslavement of all the women and children. Luckily, cooler heads ultimately prevailed.
All of which is to say that to an ancient Greek the 2016 presidential election might well inspire a frisson of anxiety. But at least one modern candidate should be worried too. For not only did Cleon's allergy to diplomacy and compromise cost Athens the opportunity for a negotiated peace early in the war (which ended with the great city's total humiliation and defeat), he lost his life in the conflict. Caught up by his own war fever, he decided to try his hand at being a general, with disastrous results. Caveat orator!
Daniel Mendelsohn is an author and a classics scholar