The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre is a blindspot in my reading history, perhaps from a contrarian streak reacting to his fundamental importance to the speculative fiction genres. It was this streak that explains why the only other Dick I have read was problematic Dr. Futurity. Reading The Man in the High Castle in 2018 was a frustrating experience for some reasons, but finally opening one of Dick’s classic works demonstrated why he is so highly regarded.

Everything you know about the outcome of World War 2 is wrong. President Roosevelt was assassinated before the war even began and the US was slow to build its military against the rising threats of Japan and Germany. Now in 1962, the former United States is divided between the Pacific States (Japanese occupied), the Rocky Mountain States (free), and the German-occupied United States. The allies Japan and Germany split occupation of America, one was predominantly inward-looking, while the other achieved world-domination. German demands prevail, meaning a return to slavery of African Americans (a mild outcome compared to what happened when the Germans conquered Africa) and all Jews are declared renegade German citizens who must be deported. German technology grew by leaps and bounds, making them the dominant partner.

The Man in the High Castle unfolds through several small, loosely connected stories. In one, an antiques dealer in San Francisco named Robert Childan gets caught up in a forgery scandal when it turns out that some of his firearms were less than authentic, a fact brought to his attention by Frank Fink, a Jewish man living in secrecy in the Pacific States who approached him in disguise after losing his job as a forger. Around the same time a man calling himself Mr. Baynes and claiming to be from Sweden but speaking not a word of the language arrives in the city to pass information about Germany to one of Childan’s clients, the Japanese bureaucrat Mr. Tagomi. Meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain States, Frank’s ex wife Juliana meets a man who introduces her to a banned book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Germany loses the war and convinces her that they should pay a visit to the author—the man in the high castle himself.

As plots went, each of these was thin, and the characters were only a little bit better. They all served their purpose to show a slice of life in this dystopic America, but I did not find any of the characters particularly memorable or get swept away by any of the plots. What compensated for these weaknesses, was the alternate history that unfolds in the pages. Now, I should say that much of this world exists off stage and those parts are actually filled with a good deal of classic sci-fi fabulism, such as Nazi space colonization. In contrast, what happens in these pages is the stuff of horror as a highly plausible rendition of what could happen in the event of fascist takeover.

The Man in the High Castle was worth reading for the setting alone, but I found myself asking what the takeaway ought to be from the novel. This grim vision of what could happen in the United States seems to have particular resonance in the current political climate, and Dick does a good job of underscoring that some American collaborators welcomed the new status quo rather than simply acquiescing to the new reality. But the novel is structured to build toward the ultimate reveal of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. We are led to expect that he is a political reactionary living in a fortress, but when Juliana arrives it turns out that he is living in his own delusion, namely a normal suburban life. Further, she discovers, Hawthorne has largely put aside the I Ching and ceased looking at the world through the lens of this form of divination. These passages reek of fatalism, but a positive reading of this is to say that the refusal to give into fear and reclaiming agency is the highest form of resistance—not to mention that a book can change the world.

In the end, I was uncertain where I came down. The people bent on destruction are thwarted, at least for the moment, but the Reich still rules.

ΔΔΔ

Things have been hectic around here between the summer class I am teaching and trying to find time for my research projects, so I am slowly working my way through Ghost Wars, a history of the US involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11.

The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

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…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

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Hate in a Digital World

Despite how exhausting the 2016 election cycle was in this regard, I continue to be fascinated by the effect of social media on interpersonal relations, something I wrote about a little bit in 2012 when I deleted my Facebook account, in 2014 about the intimidation of professional Twitter, with respect to activism in 2015.

I stand by most of what I wrote before, about the ways in which social media is performative (there is an entire genre of Instagram posts comparing posed and “natural” pictures), is intimidating even when interacting with well-meaning enthusiasts, and isolating. I would revise my assessment of its role on friendship, something I was reminded of this week in light of a thread on Twitter. The general point, since this is not my main focus here, is that when there is a reciprocal interest, social media and other forms of digital communication are an immense boon to friendship. The catch is that reciprocity is foundational, so while it has allowed me to maintain several friendships with people who I have only seen in person once or twice in a decade, many others have withered as one or both sides in the relationship have lapsed. This is not explicitly the fault of social media—people have busy lives and many other responsibilities—but I think Facebook and other social media sites that give the appearance of intimacy make it easier for people to not put in the work to maintain relationships.

Like a lot of people, I have been impressed with the high school students from Florida and elsewhere in the country organizing marches and keeping up the pressure on issues such as gun control. Their ability to sustain pressure online is the one thing that gives me hope that this time, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting might result in change. Not immediately, and probably not enough, but something.

On the other side of the equation is this:

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As the Twitter user mentions in subsequent tweets, the origin of this photoshopped image could well be a Russian troll farm, but it still has its intended effect. This and the issue of privacy, brought again into public discourse by the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, are the legacies of the first two decades of social networking.

The features of the internet that were meant to bring about an enlightened, educated populace and connect people have done that. There is more information on many more topics on Wikipedia than there ever were in the old, lacunate collection of hardbound Encyclopedia Britannica’s I pored through as a child. Sure, it might not have the same specific figures for the size of the East German army as in EB, but in terms of breadth, depth, and (if you know how to look) granularity of the information online, even just counting the content that isn’t behind paywalls, is astounding. News travels at an incredible pace, though rumor still travels faster. The diversity of voices and ability to communicate online is remarkable.

And yet, these same features have their perversions. Falsehood, rumor, myth, and propaganda abound, reinforced and socialized in niche communities. The intersection of the intimate and the impersonal are particularly insidious in this respect. Beyond even the fact that it is easy to attack someone anonymously, the tools of the internet make it easier to attack someone for several reasons.

1. It is possible to see someone like David Hogg as a social media avatar rather than as an individual. He is a face to an issue, not a person expressing one. Besides, if everyone is performing to some extent online, then who is to say that school shooting victims aren’t actors?

2. There is the impersonal nature of the internet. Not only is it easier to attack someone who you will never meet, but it is also easier to caricature or otherwise other them.

3. It is easier to engage with a partial or corrupted versions of ideas rather than their entirety. This happens on all sides; I know I have been guilty of falling for fake Twitter accounts or buying a misleading headline of an article that I didn’t read.

4. This is always the case, but the acceptance of a truth is the responsibility of the beholder. Some facts are more verifiable than others, but accepted truth is just that: a social consensus that is usually based on a deference to authority. With an abundance of information and misinformation online, anything and everything might be regarded as “Fake News.”

Here is the thing: none of this is new. Each of these forms of slander and misinformation has been used against people for as long as there has been communication. For instance, portraying your opponent as an “other” (the more grotesque the better) is a common feature of anti-Jewish, Bolshevik, Irish, and German iconography. Partial truths and outlandish fabrications fill the pages of ancient texts. Some of these come from cultural misunderstandings and curiosities, some from deliberate propaganda, and some out of simple malice. These stories have been the justification for slavery and the cause of wars.

What has changed, in my opinion, is how easy the internet has made the transmission of information. In other words, hate in the digital age is not new. It a cancerous mutation of old problem.

Mass Persuasion (again)

Sometimes when you see a theme, it starts to appear everywhere. That is what is happening with the ancient Greek truism that people in a crowd are more vulnerable to persuasion in a way that the individual is not. Two more instances:

The Athenian ambassadors spoke as follows: “Since the speeches are not going to happen before the majority, there is no way for us to deceive the listeners and seduce the masses once and for all with uninterrupted speech safe from cross-examination (for we know that this is the reason we have been led before the few)…

οἱ δὲ τῶν Ἀθηναίων πρέσβεις ἔλεγον τοιάδε. ἐπειδὴ οὐ πρὸς τὸ πλῆθος οἱ λόγοι γίγνονται, ὅπως δὴ μὴ ξυνεχεῖ ῥήσει οἱ πολλοὶ ἐπαγωγὰ καὶ ἀνέλεγκτα ἐσάπαξ ἀκούσαντες ἡμῶν ἀπατηθῶσιν (γιγνώσκομεν γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτο φρονεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ ἐς τοὺς ὀλίγους ἀγωγῆ)…

Thucydides 5.85, in the opening gambit of the Melian Dialogue.

And the common people marveled [at the arrival of Alcibiades and Chalcideus] and were concerned. The conspirators had arranged that the council happened to be in session, and Chalcideus and Acibiades gave speeches, saying that many more ships were on their way and concealed the naval blockade around Speiraium. So first Chios and afterward Erythrae revolted from Athens.

καὶ οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ ἐν θαύματι ἦσαν καὶ ἐκπλήξει: τοῖς δ᾽ ὀλίγοις παρεσκεύαστο ὥστε βουλήν [τε] τυχεῖν ξυλλεγομένην, καὶ γενομένων λόγων ἀπό τε τοῦ Χαλκιδέως καὶ Ἀλκιβιάδου ὡς ἄλλαι [τε] νῆες πολλαὶ προσπλέουσι καὶ τὰ περὶ τῆς πολιορκίας τῶν ἐν τῷ Σπειραίῳ νεῶν οὐ δηλωσάντων, ἀφίστανται Χῖοι καὶ αὖθις Ἐρυθραῖοι Ἀθηναίων.

Thucydides, 8.14.2, at the outset of the Ionian War.

Pericles Making Athens Great

The cause of his authority was not mere words, but, as Thucydides said, the opinion of his life and the honesty of the man, being conspicuously incorruptible and above bribes. And from greatness, [Pericles] made [Athens] the greatest and wealthiest city. [He] far surpassed kings and tyrants in power, some of whom made him the guardian of their sons, but he did not enrich his estate by a single drachma from what his father left him.

Αἰτία δ᾽ οὐχ ἡ τοῦ λόγου ψιλῶς δύναμις, ἀλλ᾽, ὡς Θουκυδίδης φησίν, ἡ περὶ τὸν βίον δόξα καὶ πίστις τοῦ ἀνδρός, ἀδωροτάτου περιφανῶς γενομένου καὶ χρημάτων κρείττονος, ὃς καὶ τὴν πόλιν ἐκ μεγάλης μεγίστην καὶ πλουσιωτάτην ποιήσας, καὶ γενόμενος δυνάμει πολλῶν βασιλέων καὶ τυράννων ὑπέρτερος, ὧν ἔνιοι καὶ ἐπίτροπον τοῖς υἱέσι διέθεντο ἐκεῖνον, μιᾷ δραχμῇ μείζονα τὴν οὐσίαν οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἧς ὁ πατὴρ αὐτῷ κατέλιπε.

Plutarch, Life of Pericles 15.5

There are always going to be accusations of impropriety and Pericles is no exception. We are told that Pericles was charged with dressing Athens in bangles and ornaments like a wanton woman (Plut. Per. 12.2), misappropriating money from allies to pay for building projects (Plut. Per. 12.1) and various forms of sexual impropriety (Plut. Per. 24; Athenaeus 12.45, 13.25), but these are for the most part slander from political opponents bitter about his power or mean jokes composed for the comic stage.

Plutarch here offers an explanation for why Athens flourished under the guidance of Pericles. Intelligence and presence help, but the fact that Pericles resisted using his position for personal, monetary gain was critical to Athens to becoming great. He might be onto something.

Person and People: Herodotus

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.”

So Kay declares in Men in Black, using this to justify keeping the public in the dark about the existence of aliens. This is a memorable scene, but, despite ongoing debates about government secrets and a contentious presidential election, not to mention elections in Europe, that raised questions about mass participation in politics and how decisions are made, it is something of an outlier in modern discussion about democracy.

The same is not true in ancient Greece. In Athens during the 5th century BCE one of they key questions was about the fickleness of the crowds and how dangerous this could be. When a leader was both respected and responsible, such as Thucydides credits to Pericles, the system worked, but there were repeated concerns about the masses being bought by crafty politicians. (Cleon is the usual target of accusation, but Plato says something similar about Pericles in his Gorgias.) I wrote about how Aristophanes describes this problem in Clouds where he stages a debate between Just and Unjust Logos, the unjust argument declaring that his brand of speaking works better in front of a crowd. This performance, though, appears to be a reflecting an Athenian aphorism about democracy.

From Herodotus (5.97):

It seems easier to mislead the many than the one, since Cleomenes of Lacedaemon alone was not deceived, but [Aristagoras] did this to to thirty thousand Athenians.

πολλοὺς γὰρ οἶκε εἶναι εὐπετέστερον διαβάλλειν ἢν ἕνα, εἰ Κλεομένεα μὲν τὸν Λακεδαιμόνιον μοῦνον οὐκ οἷός τε ἐγενετο διαβάλλειν, τρεῖς δὲ μυριάδας Ἀθηναίων ἐποίησε τοῦτο.

The year was 500/499 and Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, travelled to both Sparta and Athens looking for support for the rebellion against Persia he was trying to orchestrate (the Ionian Revolt). Cleomenes, the king of Sparta, effectively told Aristagoras to pound sand. There were a multitude of reasons why Cleomenes might have done this that had nothing to do with the failure of Aristagoras to dupe him, but Herodotus pairs the failure in Sparta with the vulnerability of democracy.

Re-evaluating Antisemitism

I am not particularly religious. I generally don’t begrudge people their religion and am frequently awed by the faith of others, but personally fall into the categories “agnostic” and “skeptic.” My fascination with holy books comes out of my instincts as a historian rather than in a search for answers. All of this is rooted in my personal philosophies and while I am happy to discuss them, both the philosophies and religion generally, I am not in the business of proselytizing. This was not always the case, but I have more interesting things to do with my time than argue about religion, provided that it isn’t being used as an excuse for bigotry.

It is for this reason that I do not feel a strong attachment to my Jewish heritage. I had a moment to reflect on this at my grandfather’s funeral earlier this year. He was particularly active in the Jewish community in Minneapolis, helping settle refugees among other things, and in his synagogue. I’d be best described as adjacent to Jewish culture—loosely conversant, barely observant, and mostly there for the food. I’ll light candles at Channukah and know a lot of the stories, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to services for high holidays and don’t keep kosher (the home kitchen is vegetarian, however). I’ve been to Israel on Birthright and attended Brandeis, but, as I thought about in January, this part of life that was so important to my grandfather is something that I could see from the outside, but never fully enter.

Here’s the thing: I’m Jewish enough. I don’t count myself a Zionist, I don’t look particularly Jewish, and I don’t attend temple, but none of that matters. For the purposes of the intolerant, rationalized with pseudo-scientific concepts of genealogy or loosely conceived and broadly construed labels about culture and lifestyle, I count.

Ultimately this post has been formulated in the tumult following the rioting in Charlottesville. In the past I have been largely indifferent to neo-Nazi posturing, not because it isn’t important (it is), but because “Nazis are bad” seemed to be one of the few points of consensus in mainstream American politics. Even with strains of Holocaust-denial breaking out like a bad rash that could never quite be eliminated, anti-semitism in the form of anti-Judaism seemed mostly benign, contained by social contracts. To follow through on the medical analogy, this sort of anti-semitism is chronic, but treatable and not fatal.

This is hardly an endorsement of anti-semitism, rather that I was more conscientious of other forms of bigotry, against African Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, and people who fall outside the hetero-normative gender and sexuality spectrums—i.e. forms of intolerance that, if not deemed acceptable, are more widely tolerated.

Now, I am not so sure.

Other forms of bigotry are still more common and that obviously makes them more dangerous, but it is becoming difficult to dismiss the increasingly visible anti-semitism. A recent poll showed that nearly 1 in 10 Americans believe that holding Nazi beliefs is acceptable. A glance at the numbers show a decent amount of noise in this poll; “only” 3% agreed strongly with the statement and it did not get specific about specific beliefs. Allowing for the undecideds and the somewhat-agrees to be mere defenders of free speech does not improve the situation because it means that a growing number of people are willing to tolerate antisemitism, and in this tolerance is a slippery slope toward tacit endorsement.

Throw this situation into a mixer with the polarization and toxicity that the internet can facilitate and a dash of a void in leadership, strained over easy access to weapons and you have a dangerous cocktail. Just this morning Brandeis University announced it is closed today because of threats sent by email.

Like the poll linked to above, the recent rally in Boston demonstrated again that many more people oppose these forms of intolerance than support them, but recent events have been pointing to a trend moving in the wrong direction. There are no easy answers or solutions, and the longer that the current political atmosphere persists, the more toxic things are going to get.

Let me offer two relevant quotations by way of conclusion.

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, 1948

“No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
– Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770

More political wisdom from Ancient Greece

In a speech alleging to defend his educational program, Isocrates offers the following political advice, to his errant pupil, Timotheus, in the form of a fictional dialogue. Timotheus’ tragic flaw, Isocrates suggests, was his trust that the people of Athens would recognize the services he performed, while others went about flattering them.

I (and others) frequently advise that for those who wish to engage in public life and want to be looked upon favorably it is necessary for them to do the things that are of the greatest good and to speak the truest and most just words, but neither can that person neglect consideration as to how everything they say may demonstrate their graciousness and philanthropy, since those who esteem these things little are considered by their fellow citizens burdensome and overbearing.

You see the nature of the masses, how disposed they are to sweet words, and better love those who indulge them than those who do well by them and (prefer) those who cheat them with joy and amiability than those who succor them with honor and solemnity. You have given these words no regard, but believe that if you attend to matters affairs abroad, then the people at home will look upon you favorably.

This is not so, and the opposite often comes to pass. If you please those people, they will not judge you by the truth of the matter, whatever you do, but will support you, overlooking mistakes and praising the things you do to the high heavens. For good will disposes all men this way.

καί τοι πολλάκις καὶ παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ τοιούτους λόγους ἤκουσεν, ὡς χρὴ τοὺς πολιτευομένους καὶ βουλομένους ἀρέσκειν προαιρεῖσθαι μὲν τῶν τε πράξεων τὰς ὡφελιμωτάτας καὶ βελτίστας καὶ τῶν λόγων τοὺς ἀληθεστάτους καὶ δικαιοτάτους, οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κάκεῖνο παρατηρεῖν καὶ σκοπεῖν, ὄπως ἀπιχαρίτως καὶ φιλανθρώπως ἄπαντα φανήσονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ πράττοντες, ὡς οἱ το´των ὀλιγωροῦντες ἐπαχθέστεροι καὶ βαρύτεροι δοκοῦσιν εἶναι τοῖς συμπολιτευομένοις.

ὁρᾷς δὲ τὴν φύσιν τὴν τῶν πολλῶν ὡς διάκειται πρὸς τὰς ἡδονὰς, καὶ διότι μᾶλλον φιλοῦσι τοὺς πρὸς χάριν ὁμιλοῦντας ἤ τοὺς εὖ ποιοῦντας, καὶ τοὺς μετὰ φαιδρότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας φενακίζοντας ἤ τοὺς μετ᾽ ὄγκου καὶ σεμνότητος ὠφελοῦντας. ὦν οὐδέν σοι μεμέληκεν ἀλλ᾽ ἤν
ἐπιεικῶς τῶν ἔξω πραγμάτων ἐπιμεληθῇς, οἴει σοι καὶ τοὺς ἐνθάδε πολιτευομένους.

τὸ δ᾽ οὐχ οὕτως ἀλλὰ τοὐναντίον φιλεῖ συμβαίνειν. ἢν γὰρ τούτοις ἀρέσκῃς, ἅπαν ὅ τι ἂν πράξῃς οὐ πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν κρινοῦσιν ἀλλὰ πρὸς τὸ σοὶ συμφέρον ὑπολήψονται, καὶ τὰ μὲν ἁμαρτανόμενα παρόψονται, τὸ δὲ κατορθωθὲν οὐρανόμηκες ποιήσουσιν, ἡ γὰρ εὔνοια πάντας οὕτω διατίθησιν.

(Isocrates, Antidosis 132-4)

Timotheus was put on trial, found guilty, and given a staggering fine. Isocrates is a difficult writer and not always the most charitable to the virtues of democracy, often considering true democracy not that differently from how the founding fathers did—that is, fickle and dangerous—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.

The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.