a passage on the decay of Athenian democracy by Thucydides — brace yourself, it’s fairly long, and I am editing for clarity:
In those days it was impossible for any man to give good and profitable counsel for the commonwealth, and not incur the displeasure of the people … [The only men who] swayed the assemblies, and were esteemed wise and good commonwealth men, [were those who] put them upon the most dangerous and desperate enterprises.
Whereas he that gave them temperate and discreet advice was thought a coward, or not to understand …
And no marvel: for much prosperity (to which they had now for many years been accustomed) maketh men in love with themselves, and it is hard for any man to love that counsel which maketh him love himself the less.
And it holdeth much more in a multitude, than in one man.
For a man that reasoneth with himself will not be ashamed to admit of timorous suggestions in his business … but in public deliberations before a multitude, fear … seldom or never sheweth itself or is admitted.
By this means it came to pass among the Athenians, who thought they were able to do anything, that wicked men and flatterers drave them headlong into those actions that were to ruin them; and the good men either durst not oppose, or if they did, undid themselves.
While there are undoubtedly strong parallels with present-day governance (e.g. Bush administration warmongering — any other examples?), the idea that temperate and discreet advice is eschewed simply because of “much prosperity…[which] maketh man in love with himself” is somewhat opaque to me at present & more thought is required.
I have been thinking that there is rather something about the passage from private thought to public rhetoric that invariably polarizes. Maybe it’s overly obvious, but I’ll make the point anyway — rather, a conjecture: subtlety, discretion & temperance do not weather the journey into rousing rhetoric well. Dangerous & desperate enterprises provoke and lend themselves to action; discreet & temperate advice requires too much care, distinction, and uncomfortable caveats. “For God, King and Country!” is a battlecry. “For A Potentially Not-Universal Ideal of Democracy And Freedom, Continued Trade Opportunities By Ensuring The Favourable Dispositions Of The New Government That We Will Put In Place Though Being Careful Not To Alienate The Local Populace By Implementing Culturally Insensitive Policies Such As A Secular Constitution, And By The Way We Hope You Do Not Mind That We Are Raising Taxes Across The Board And Conscripting All Your Sons!” is — how do I say this — unpopular.
but: the desperate men drave them into ruinous actions, and the temperate men were silent — this is the nub of many historical tragedies, including the one I (perhaps naively?) see enacting itself today: that moderate (read, perhaps, “liberal”) thought is too tempered to sway, let alone drive any “commonwealth” to action; that it is rabble-rousing rhetoric that gives the flock direction and purpose. This is what happens in Malaysia: only polarized, racialized politics has thus far been effective in retaining power & shaping nation-building. Also, I watched some harrowing, if slanted, documentaries on Christian evangelist politics in America recently; knowing as relatively little as I do about American politics, this has certainly added to my current morose outlook.
Comments and corrections — discreet, temperate or otherwise — welcome.
In other news, Cliopatria has graciously invited me to write for them over at History News Network; I am all set to take my place as a kind of weed amidst the luminaries of the online historical rose garden. Interesting times!