Isocrates, on corrupt politicians

“For a long time now we have been corrupted by men who have no other ability than to cheat, men who are so disdainful of the mass of ordinary people that whenever they want to incite hostilities against anyone, these men who take money to speak,* they dare to say that we need to imitate our ancestors, not allow those looking on to mock us, and deny the sea to those who are unwilling to pay us their contributions.”

*Probably that they accepted bribes.

διεφθάμεθα γὰρ πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ὑπ᾽ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ἢ φενακίζειν δυναμἐνων, οἳ τοσοῦντον τοῦ πλήθους καταπεφρονήκασιν ὥσθ᾽, ὁπόταν βουληθῶσι πόλεμον πρός τινας ἐξενεγκεῖν, αύτοὶ χρήματα λαμβάνοντες λέγειν τολμῶσιν ὡς χρὴ τοὺς προγόνους μιμεῖσθαι, καὶ μὴ περιορᾶν ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καταγελωμένους μηδὲ τὴν θάλατταν πλέοντας τοὺς μὴ τὰς συντάξεις ἐθέλοντας ἡμῖν ὑποτελεῖν.

Isocrates, 8.36

The Greek world was particularly unstable in the 350s BCE and Athens had long since lost most of its dominant position in the Aegean. In this decade, Isocrates, already the Grand Old Man of the Athenian political scene, published his On the Peace, which is dedicated to the virtues of peace. He goes on to ask these politicians what, exactly, they mean by emulating their ancestors and suggesting several possibilities, including the battle of Marathon, which was nearly as long ago in his time as is the American Civil War is to this time. Isocrates then attacks the hypocrisy of these politicians who simultaneously heap praise upon their ancestors and act in the opposite manner.

Isocrates should not be mistaken for a bleeding heart in On The Peace. He can be high-minded in his values, but the overriding concern in this speech is the preservation of Athens and the Athenian democracy. Toward that end, he is unflinching in his opposition of politicians who put their private interests ahead of the state.

“We may restore the polis and make it better, first by appointing as advisors the sort of men for common affairs as those we would wish for our private ones, that we may stop considering sycophants* as public councilors and the men who are good and true** to be of the oligarchic faction, recognizing that no man belongs by nature to one of these, but for each they wish to establish the type of government that will accord them honor.”***

* Here, in the root sense of the word as prosecutors who took up court cases in the hopes of currying favor or receiving money.
** A loaded Greek phrase that probably holds both the meaning of the people in the aristocratic strata of society and “good people”.
*** Honor here is somewhat ambiguous, but probably best encapsulates advancing their political power and, with it, opportunities for economic enhancement.

ἔστι δ᾽ἐξ ὧν ἂν ἐπανορθώσαιμεν τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ βελτίω ποιήσαιμεν, πρῶτον μὲν ἢν συμβούλους ποιώμεθα τοιούτους περὶ τῶν κοινῶν, οἵους περ ἂν περὶ τῶν ἰδίων ἡμῖν εἶναι βουληθεῖμεν, καὶ παυσὠμεθα δημοτικοὺς μὲν εἶναι νομίζοντες τοὺς συκοφάντας, ὀλιγαρχικοὺς δὲ τοὺς καλοὺς κἀγαθοὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν, γνόντες ὅτι φύσει μὲν οὐδεὶς οὐδέτερον τοὐτων ἐστίν, ἐν ᾗ δ᾽ἂν ἕκαστοι τιμῶνται, ταύτην βούλονται καθεστάναι τὴν πολιτείαν.

Isocrates, 8.133


I finally read Harry Potter. I own the books and sort of see what all the fuss is about. And I have reread them. I still don’t like Harry Potter (the character), but I did enjoy the books. This is old news, but for those who know my history of staunchly refusing to read them for the better part of ten years, it may come as a shock. The motivation for reading the books was prompted by a Greek assignment to read the first book. In Greek. Trying to figure out what is going on and who this Dursley character was just by reading a Greek version proved a challenge, so I broke. I read them all and enjoyed them. I have since re-read them and will probably do so about once a year from here out–I also do the same with The Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings. But I still haven’t seen the movies of Harry Potter, and have little interest in doing so. These days I am still taking ignorant stances about books, but now it is Twilight and similar books. If one of my professors decides to make me read Twilight in Greek I am dropping that class and may have to consider a new line of work.

As much as I protest against this genre of ‘porny vampire books’ and am thoroughly turned away by a variety of contemporary literature, this is a personal issue. On a broader level I want people to read. I want them to read a lot and often. Not everyone will read A Tale of Two Cities in fourth grade and come away with an implacable hatred of Dickens, but it worries me when I meet people who don’t read books. The more intelligent the person, the less of an excuse I feel they have, but it bothers me the same. Given the choice between death and reading Twilight I would have to stop and think, but that is because I see them (and most modern ‘literature’) as bad books. This doesn’t make the people who read them bad; on the contrary, the very fact that they are reading is an encouraging sign. I hope they grow out of Twilight, or at least read other books, too, but any book that gets people (old, young, middle-aged, young at heart, and everything in between) to read has some sort of value. I have certainly read more than my fair share of bad books, I just (usually) don’t keep going back to them.

This is markedly similar to my stance on kindle and other e-readers. I like books. I like the smell of books, the feel of the paper. Some of my most used books have been dropped from trees, duct-taped back together, re-covered (one of those covers has comments from Yoda (Good book, it is) and Osama bin Laden (Blow up America!), written just before 9/11) and drink stained. With one or two exceptions, I don’t write in my books but rather enjoy books that others have written in, the more profound or more mundane the comments, the better. The only way I like to mark my books is through use and through love, otherwise I want them to remain in the condition which I found/purchased/received them. In fact I love books too much to ever switch to an e-reader, but e-readers have value if they get other people to read. Just don’t take my books out of print.