My Demagagoue Hero
published by Critical Muslim, no 24, Oct-Dec 2017
Before the Koran was sent down to earth, there were many books deemed sacred by mankind. Treasured tomes that could be opened at random in order to extract some advice of the moment, recited over the dead and dying, or written down as charms to heal the ill and the deranged. One of the most beautiful in language, but with the oddest morality for any modern reader to embrace, is the Iliad. Like the Koran it first existed on this earth as an oral recitation before it was committed (many, many years after it was first composed) into a written form. This book was cherished by the Greeks (and then the Romans) for a thousand years. It inspired hundreds of subsidiary works, commentaries, translations and grammatical glosses. Scholars are still at each other’s throats about re-assemblying an agreed first written textual version of it, whilst others duel with each other as to how far back into history it’s composition can be pushed. Does it portray the events of a raid by a mixed gang of pirates from the Greek coast on a civilized Bronze Age city of Anatolia with documentary accuracy, or does it depict some of the anarchy with which the Iron Age Aegean was consumed, or does it also contain some fragments of ancient cultural memory from the lost homeland of the horse-riding Aryans?
Three thousand years after its first composition it remains one of the cornerstones of western civilization, though people are now unlikely to turn to it for divination, or to tell them how to best worship the gods. Though there is not a year when it does not inspire a new play, a film, a novel or a new poet. I have been fortunate enough to hear two British poets of my chance acquaintance, recite their own very powerful adaptions of portions of the Iliad. One was sitting in a courtyard in Greece, right towards the end of his long life, with his mind already confused but yet he remained razor sharp about these words. He was not a scholar translator, but someone who delighted in the constant emerging forms of everyday English, perfectly caught in the title of his last collection of Iliad derived verse, All Day Permanent Red. The other recital was in an attic-lecture hall in Somerset House. I had first met the poet when we worked together decorating an underground grotto with flints and bleached bones, but that evening she avoided all eye contact with any member of the audience. Like some ageless Sybil she addressed a distant corner of the room, with her words seemingly coming to her in a trance. What bound both together was that they had excavated the text of this ancient, classical work and turned the antiquarian dust of centuries of scholarship into a highly visual, and alarmingly vivid word entertainment about the pleasure to be derived from violent killing.
A dichotomy was being exposed, for in practically every other way, Western civilization inherits a long tradition of absolute reverence for the culture that emerged out of ancient Greece. It is the centre of everything we not only venerate but continue to aspire to, whether one looks to the origins of painting, sculpture, architecture, medicine, ceramics, philosophy, history, theatre or athletics. Last year I wondered around the ruins of Olympia at noon in mid-August. It could have been a discouraging tourist-ridden process, but the crowds of sightseers, drawn from every corner of Europe brought home an insistent truth. The history of Western Art is in many ways just the story of how we have endlessly tried to copy the achievements of ancient Greece, century after century after century, and have also always failed. Nothing we create either quite catches the verve, the delicacy, the nobility, the severity, inventiveness, colour and playfulness of this period.
But beyond all the many intellectual and cultural virtues of Ancient Greece it also reigns in primary importance in the Western imagination as the birthplace of democracy. It can therefore be something of a shock to be reminded that all this superlative, inventive excellence yet co-existed with a spiritual holy book that continuously glorifies in violence.
This violence is not just reserved to the battlefield. Book Two of the Iliad begins with a depiction of the Greek army being called together by King Agamemnon who is described as with “Eyes and head like those of Zeus, slender his waist like Ares, his chest like that of Poseidon, just as a Bull is by far pre-eminent among all in the herd’. Agamemnon knows that a plague and the absence of Achilles from their ranks, has discouraged the army. This is not the only time that the Iliad provides us with evidence of a form of proto-democratic gathering. An assembly of all sword-bearing soldiers including their tribal chieftains, captains, commanders gathering together to mull over the problems of the hour. Odysseus, one of the trusted leaders of the ultra war party, is sent into the assembled crowd of soldiers and entrusted with the royal sceptre. He picks his way through the crowds of soldiers, acting all charming, civil and attentive whenever he spots a chieftain but he alternates this behaviour with that of violent bully whenever he meets a man of the people. Silencing some with threats, and physically beating others with his staff whilst telling them to keep still and listen to their betters. In Pope’s version “But if a clamorous vile plebeian rose, Him with reproof he checked or tamed with blows.” The sole spokesman of the soldiers left speaking is Thersites who is “loquacious, loud and turbulent of tongue: awed by no shame, by no respect controlled, In scandal busy, in reproaches bold: With witty malice studious to defame, scorn all his joy and laughter all his aim: But chief he gloried with licentious style, to lash the great, and monarchs to revile.” In Pope’s lively verse translation Thersites comes across as the very model of a free-speaking journalist.
Thersites also has the wisdom to point out to his comrades that most of their problems derive from their leader, King Agamemnon, who not content with his tents stuffed full of war booty has proceeded to rob Achilles of his one of his captive slaves, which is why the great warrior champion of the army has withdrawn from the fight. Thersites asks his comrades if it is not time they left Agamemnon alone with his treasures, for surely Troy had been punished enough for sheltering that pair of lovers Paris and Helen, and it was high time the army sailed home? It was a good debating point and true, worthy of some sort of reply, but rather than answering these charges in a rational way, Homer decides to damn this man to his imagined audience by describing Thersites as evil-framed, bandy-legged, lame in one foot, with rounded shoulders coming together in a stooped chest with a wonky eye on a thin head that bears but a scant crop of stubble. Odysseus does confess that Thersites is a ‘clear voiced talker though thou art” but then attacks him “no viler mortal than thou” for daring to talk of the affairs of Kings, no matter that an assembly of soldiers has been called. He then has Thersites stripped of his cloak and beats him into a bloody pulp with the royal sceptre in front of his assembled comrades until his face streams with tears and a weal of flesh rises up from his back. He is then driven from the place of gathering down to the ships. It is a humiliating public disgrace, his only crime to have talked some sense to his fellow men when they were asked to assemble for just such a purpose.
I can remember being bemused by this episode when I was first taught the Iliad as a boy. We are effectively being asked to join in with the cheers that salute a gangster-boss as he first humiliates, then strips, then beats a man into a bloody mass on the ground because he is not a handsome nobleman and he dared talk some common sense. Then as he crawled away in shame we are asked to applaud the wisdom of old King Nestor who dismisses ‘holding an assembly after the manner of silly boys who care no whit for the deeds of man” and reminds the soldiers ‘let no man depart homewards until he has raped the wife of a Trojan, and caused Troy’s proud matrons to render tears’.
It is as if we are suddenly being told that to sympathise with the temple guards and Roman soldiers who beat, stripped and humiliated Christ before he was made to carry the instrument of his execution. Whilst I will not be the first commentator who links the ugliness of Thersites with that other ugly man who dared speak the truth, and who would be punished for this sin with his death, Socrates.
So I learned as a boy that one may delight in the language and imagery of Homer, but only with the same caution that one might now admire the innovative angled camera shots of Leni Riefenstahl, but remain ever vigantly opposed to her politics. But this early lesson about the aristocratic spin embedded within Homer has a potent legacy.
Nine times out of ten when I have bought up the subject of a Demagogue, I have found that people naturally link the word in their mind with Demigod. There is an obvious similarity in English pronounciation, but the chance examples of Demagogue’s that I have gathered up in these conversation (which repeatedly included Robespierre, Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini) explicitly make this deluded messianic connection. A Demagogue is instantly presumed to be a bewitchingly brilliant speaker-leader, who achieves absolute mastery over his people through his evil genius and then like some mad self-selected Demi-God leads them off towards their ultimate destruction.
Although this is true of the five characters named, it is not what the word Demagogue means. A Demagogue was initially just a leader of the people drawn from the people. James Fenimore Cooper in his essay ‘On Demagogues” might define a Demagogue as ‘leader of the rabble” but that is to misread Athenian history where Democracy first evolved. The Demos was not an ancient code-name for the lumpenproleteriat, the unemployed and unemployable rabble of a city, that restless fickle mob. The Demos, the people, directly derived from the word Deme, the smallest unit of the self-governing City-state, an urban ward or a rural village which when gathered together was small enough for everyone to be able to recognise and attest to the identity of every other member of the community. A man could only enter the Popular Assembly of Athens by first being registered in the official roll call of his own village community, his Deme. To do this he would have to be 18 and sufficiently proficient in arms to join the roll call of his Deme when it formally gathered together as a militia. This group of men could then solemnly attest that this new member of the community was the son of free-born Athenians and neither a foreigner, a slave or a freed slave. In short you could not vote or take part in the politics of the Democratic city of Athens if you were not prepared to actively defend this city, and had been registered in your village muster rolls as such. To my mind this rather changes that nature of being a Demagogue. A leader of the community of men prepared to die in defence of their city.
But the men who wrote about the earliest democratic leaders, especially Cleon of Athens, were all aristocrats whose careers had in some way been eclipsed by such men. I venerate the works of Thucydides and Aristophanes as much as any amateur reader of ancient history, but it would be foolish not to recognise an innate bias towards the Athenian aristocracy in their writings, if not a sneaking regard for the aristocratic constitution of Sparta. We also know that Cleon was a real member of the working class, for he came from one of the most socially despised of all manufacturing trades. He was a tanner and all leather worker who have always used urine and animal shit in the smelly process of tanning skins.
The aristocratic historians who wrote about him were too clever to delve into the personal insults with which Homer besmirches Thersites, but they nevertheless slowly build up a hostile character portrait of a Demagogue such as Cleon. He will be shown to lack the natural caution, manners and dignity of an aristocrat on numerous occasions. He will be portrayed as too excitable, he will jump to quickly to conclusions, he will be too pompously proud of his civic dignity, he will be too aggressive in debate and too fierce with his enemies. Although his greatest fault in their eyes was almost certainly his ability to speak openly and honestly to their own people. For a Demagogue knew the real concerns of their comrades, they spoke their language, their dialect, and they could make them both cry and laugh. While the very definition of an aristocrat (within the context of Athenian democracy) meant that he was one of the 10,000 men who owned sufficient land to render their household and families completely self-sufficient. An aristocrat owned his own plough oxen and horses and could happily survive from the income from their broad acres, their orchards and vineyards. Such men could never truly empathise with the artisans, seamen, labourers and small farmers who made Athens great and distinctive.
Roman democracy was based on a similar tradition to that of Athens. The Roman People became politically relevant when they were marshalled in the tribes and clans with which they would serve as citizen-soldiers in the Legions. This Popular Assembly had its own spokesmen, but in practice its duty was to solemnly applaud the decisions of the aristocratic Senate and acclaim the new Consuls, who would later become the commanding general of the Legions. Even the most radical of Roman politicians, be they the Gracchi brothers (the Bobby and Ted Kennedy of the ancient world) or their political heir Julius Caesar - were aristocrats following a popular policy, not men of the people. The People of Rome were free to applaud or oppose, but effectively they were always led by a faction from within the Senate. The same restraining hand of the educated, office-holding gentry can be seen in the English Revolution and the French revolution. For even during the height of the Jacobin terror, power never passed out of the hands of the committee of Public Safety composed of university educated lawyers and intellectuals. I like to remember that Robespierre, the great sea green incorruptible, the master tactician and architect of the French Republic, continued to dress in satin breeches and a powdered wig.
One should not insult the memory of Thersites and Cleon by allowing Trump and Farage to be rated as fellow Demagogues. But like Odysseus it would be foolish to underestimate either their charisma or their determination. They spotted that a broad consensus had developed within the ruling meritocratic elite (defined by their university education, their liberal-outlook, their salaries, their index-linked pensions and urban identity) who had imagined that the old working class was dead as an electoral force. The working class had indeed been driven from the land a hundred years ago by agricultural mechanization and has now been all but driven out of skilled work in factories by robots and computerization. So politicians now studied the fifty shades of middle class aspiration to identity the issues that attracted a caucus of supporters. They concentrated their energy on focus group analysis of this ever growing middle class block, especially that which identified the concerns of the 7% swing vote which decides every democratic election. If market research could analyse the very small difference between Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola, or who shops at Waitrose or Sainsburys it could do the same job to sort out the slight difference between compassionate Conservatives and New Labour, between Republican and Democrat.
By contrast Trump and Farage had the Odysseus like ability to talk on their feet, to be seen to inhabit their own skins, rather than constantly consult a press secretary for the right response to tie in with the latest market research. They also had the ability to get things wrong but carrying on smiling. For they knew that they could pull together support by just using one tool - fear. Fear of the outsider coming in to steal the last of the working class jobs, be it Mexicans or Muslims in the USA, or East Europeans and illegal migrants in the UK. This could be combined with fear that indigenous working class culture was being swamped by the existing immigrants. It could also be combined by manipulating the visceral dislike of the urbane liberal elites by the old working class living simpler, less cultured lives in the provinces. To get a taste of this, look at any successful American film which habitually presents the simple country dwellers as good folk and as the perennial victims of the Big City elite. The Hunger Game trilogy, though a fantasy follows this trope to perfection.
But the political Fear has been used before, most especially in America, and it will no doubt be used again. If you look back over recent American history, it is a recurring theme, brought alive every generation. The American Party rose like a meteor in 1850 as a backlash against German and Irish Catholic immigrants flooding the land, repeated in 1880 by President Arthur Chester’s Chinese Exclusion Act. Woodrow Wilson’s fantastically enlightened vision of the League of Nations would be destroyed by American isolationism, which returned after the Second World War in Joseph McCarthy ( the Senator for Wisconcin’s) witch hunt against Communists in 1950, who were invariably found to be both foreign and intellectual.
We just have to make certain that we don’t cheer to loudly as Odysseus wields the royal sceptre like a club, raining blows on Thersites back until his body is soaked with tears and blood. It also brings to mind one of my favourite stories about the Prophet, chided in a verse of the Koran for the crime of having once turned his back on the complaints of a poor man, in order to pay attention to an elegant delegation.
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by Barnaby Rogerson