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Democracy, Demagogues, and Political Wisdom: Understanding Trump in the Wake of Thucydides’ History

  • Bernard J. Dobski
Chapter

Abstract

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.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernard J. Dobski
    • 1
  1. 1.Assumption CollegeWorcesterUSA

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