Wednesday, February 2, 2011


North Star of Democratic Statesmanship?

Ask classicist J. Rufus Fears to name the greatest democratic statesmen of all time, and he holds up three individuals – Churchill, Lincoln, and Pericles.[1] In choosing Pericles, Fears follows the lead of several ancient writers who took the Athenian as the North Star of democratic statesmanship. In the pages of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides seems to idolize the great democratic leader who is thirty years his senior.

Pericles held high office in Athens for more than three decades, during which time he oversaw the triumph of direct democracy. Successfully outflanking conservative aristocrats, he allied himself with radical democrats to reform the Athenian constitution and empower the lower classes of citizens (the thetai who had fought in the Persians War). Pericles sponsored legislation that eliminated property qualifications for holding office; he made the courts more democratic; and he masterfully led the assembly during the war with Sparta. More than anyone else, he turned Athens into the full participatory democracy we read about in textbooks. Indeed, as classicist Kenneth Harl notes, “Pericles established a certain standard of democratic leadership.”[2] Thus for almost 2,500 years, the study of Pericles has been de rigueur for leaders.

Oh, did I forget to mention that it was Pericles who ushered in Greece’s Golden Age, which later historians christened the Periclean Age?

How many individuals receive the honor of having their name stamp their age?It was not an easy feat to dominate a rough and tumble democracy. In the fifth century B.C., Athens demanded much of both her citizens and her leaders. To get to the assembly place, thousands of citizen-soldiers made the tiring climb up the craggy hillside called the Pnyx. There they met in the open-air, in all kinds of weather. Imagine, on a hot day, thousands of sticky, sweating bodies trekking above the agora and bumping into each other to take their places on the Pynx. A tough environment, this. An uneasy crowd to please, these. How did Pericles repeatedly get their vote?

Thucydides provides clues. One passage of The Peloponnesian War, from Book 2, Chapter 65, has become canonical for leaders. The context is this: Athens was in an all-out war with Sparta. Things were going badly for Athens, and her citizens had mixed feelings about Pericles. Nevertheless, after a time they understood

that he was the best man of all for the needs of the state. For as long as he was at the head of the state during the peace, he pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time its greatness was at its height. When the war broke out, here also he seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country. He outlived its commencement two years and six months, and the correctness of his foresight [pronoia] concerning the war became better known after his death. He told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine [navy], to attempt no new conquests [of empire], and to expose the city to no new hazards during the war, and doing this, promised them a favorable result…. Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude – in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy was becoming in his hands government by the first citizen.[3]

It is instructive to unpack what Thucydides writes about Periclean leadership. The beginning of the passage suggests a foundational quality – tenacity – the ability to weather hardships, setbacks, and reversals of fortune. Democracy is a fickle form of government. Citizens can quickly become disillusioned with their leaders in difficult times. But Pericles was a survivor. He escaped ostracism, exile, and assassination. Year after year between 461-429 B.C., he was re-elected supreme general by Athenian citizens. In the end he was felled not by enemies foreign or domestic, but by the plague.

What else does Thucydides suggest about Periclean leadership? In the above passage, the importance of integrity stands out: “he never sought power by improper means.” Athens’ first citizen remained in high office for 33 years because he earned the trust of fellow citizen-soldiers. He was a man of his word. Also, by reputation, word, and deed, he was regarded as a patriot, someone who could be counted on to put the people’s interests above his own. Thucydides suggests that this admixture of trust and patriotism was Pericles’ most powerful lever in the assembly.

Second was his foresight (Greek pronoia, the quality Thucydides praised so highly in Themistocles). Pericles had the imagination to see how Athens could become a great power, and secure her place as the greatest democracy in the world. She would continue to build up her navy and expand her empire – but only to the degree that the navy could support that empire. Pericles had a prudent sense of the limits of empire and was wisely cautious about not overextending the empire beyond Athens’ military capacity. With the tributes flowing in from other city-states – a fiscal stimulus, to be sure – Athens could undertake a building program like none other in the Greek world. With the newly built Parthenon crowning the Acropolis, Athens would not only act, but look the part of the world’s greatest democracy.

Third was Pericles’ view of leadership. Even though he was democracy’s first citizen, he never led by taking public opinion polls or convening focus groups. He made up his mind to do the right thing, regardless of whether it was popular or not. The people might disagree with him at times, but they seem always to have respected his capacity for sound judgment.

Fourth was his commanding presence, aided by a powerful voice. Pericles was the leader of both army and naval forces, and apparently one successful ingredient of his leadership was his ability to communicate in difficult circumstances. The orders he issued could be heard above the din of battle, which made addressing thousands of citizen-soldiers on the Pnyx imminently manageable.[4]

Pericles needed as much commanding presence as he could muster during the first years he held high office. His program of radical reform met considerable resistance. The aristocrats were not happy. Early on there was a coup attempt and an assassination as Attica lurched toward civil war. But Pericles had an intuitive sense for when to pull back. By staying alive politically, he could exercise patience and live to fight another day.

[1] Rufus Fears, “Pericles,” Famous Greeks

[2] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War, vol. 2, pp. 8-18; quotation is on p. 8.

[3] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 2, Chapter 65. This translation is from The Landmark Thucydides, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Robert R. Strassler, intro. Victor Davis Hanson (New York: Free Press, 2008), pp. 127-28.

[4] Kenneth W. Harl, The Peloponnesian War, vol. 2, p. 8.

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