Democracy, Demagogues, and Political Wisdom: Understanding Trump in the Wake of Thucydides’ History
Few characters in the classical world offer a more tempting comparison with our president than the Athenian demagogue Cleon. In post-Periclean Athens, Cleon was a leader and flatterer of the Athenian demos known for his “towering moral indignation and its accompanying boastfulness, bloodthirstiness, calumnies, lies, pretense, theft of the deeds of others, and cowardice.” Thucydides’ History, which offers the most extensive picture of Cleon’s political career, presents Periclean Athens as a moderate alternative to the dangerous democratic extremes posed by men like Cleon and his more talented and ambitious successor, Alcibiades. For Thucydides, the rhetoric of Periclean Athens corrects a vulgar nativism, to which men like Cleon and Trump are prone, and a rootless cosmopolitanism, which both men criticize. And yet, while Thucydides is critical of Cleon, his portrait of this demagogue also highlights the political virtues of Cleon’s defense of imperial Athens, one that remains rooted in a profound attachment to justice which Thucydides intends to refine.
- Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.Google Scholar
- Aristotle. The Athenian Constitution. Translated by Frederic G. Kenyon. London: G. Bell, 1914.Google Scholar
- Blits, Jan. Telling, Turning Moments in the Classical World. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.Google Scholar
- Burns, Timothy. “Anger in Thucydides and Aristophanes: The Case of Cleon.” In The Political Theory of Aristophanes: Explorations in Poetic Wisdom, edited by Jeremy Mhire and Bryan-Paul Frost. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014.Google Scholar
- Dobski, Bernard J. “The Enduring Necessity of Periclean Politics.” POLIS: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought 34, no. 1, 2017: 62–93.Google Scholar
- Foster, Edith. “Aristophanes’ Cleon and Post-Peloponnesian War Athenians: Denunciations in Thucydides.” Histos 6, 2017: 129–52.Google Scholar
- Orwin, Clifford. The Humanity of Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.Google Scholar
- Schake, Kori. “The Summer of Misreading Thucydides.” The Atlantic Monthly, 2017, July. www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/07/the-summer-of-misreading-thucydides/533859/.
- Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by John Marincola. New York: Free Press, 1994.Google Scholar