Ancient and modern

Jeremy Corbyn and Pericles: spot the difference

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

Whatever else one can say about Jeremy Corbyn, one thing is clear: he is a leader who does not believe in leadership. But he is (he believes) a democrat, and thinks democracy means acceding to the views of those who voted him into the leadership. He should try the 5th-century bc Greek historian Thucydides to see what it really entails.

Thucydides’ hero was his contemporary Pericles, a man who so controlled the Assembly — Athens’ sovereign decision-making body (all Athenian citizens over 18) — that Thucydides described Athens at the time as ‘in theory a democracy, but in fact rule by the foremost individual’. This is an exaggeration. Pericles in Assembly had no more power to enforce his will than any other citizen; he was but a single voice among many others. So what was his secret?


Thucydides puts into Pericles’ mouth a speech (in a military context) in which he argues that, since Athens can, as a community, support individuals’ misfortunes, but individuals cannot support hers, it is essential that citizens forget their personal problems and rally rather to the cause of Athens as a whole. That, he says, is his sole concern: the good of the whole city. And, Thucydides went on, the Athenians believed him, ‘for his strength lay in his reputation and intelligence, and he was patently incorruptible. Further, he held the Assembly on a light rein, and far from being led by them, led them himself. He did not have to adapt what he said in order to pander to his listeners and gain power by improper means; indeed his authority enabled him even to anger them by speaking against them.’

And that is the point: Pericles was a man of authority, who had the interests of the whole city at heart, not one small part of it; he could stand up before the whole citizen body and say ‘I know and can explain what is needed’ — and be believed and trusted. And Corbyn? Well, he can hymn the glorious socialist martyrs in the ‘Red Flag’ (1889), to the tune ‘O Christmas Tree’ (1824). Among whom the Labour party is the latest.

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  • Ashley Smyth

    The article says that “all Athenian citizens over 18” could vote. Only about half this number could vote as one of the requirements not mentioned is that one had to be in possession of external genitalia. Other than that I really enjoyed this comparison.

    • David Broder

      Yes, well that’s the point of the word “citizen”. Women weren’t citizens. And nor were slaves and metics (i.e. not Athenians). Together these groups were the big majority of the population, but not citizens

      • Ashley Smyth

        I take your point, however, women in Athens did have limited property rights and so limited citizenship, so I will pretend that I am making the point for the purposes of clarification rather than just for an excuse to type the word genitalia.

    • Isaiah 2:4

      Erhm honey, I hate to break it to you but the human female also sports external genitalia, notably the labia majora/minora and the clitoris, to this day Athenians are not known to have engaged in FGM culture. Other than that I think I know what you were trying to say.

      • Ashley Smyth

        Well…you live and learn. Also you shouldn’t call me honey, not because I have any real objection to it, just because It doesn’t quite fit as there is nothing sweet about me at all. Thank you for your candid clarification though.

        • Isaiah 2:4

          The idea was to be patronising which is kinda ‘on topic’.

          • Ashley Smyth

            Ah, well mission accomplished then I suppose. Why have you placed ‘on topic’ in inverted commas?

      • JJ

        What is a minora?

        • Isaiah 2:4

          minora, inner
          majora, outer

  • Itinerant

    ‘difference’
    Corbyn supports the EU and mass immigration while Pericles was a zenophile ; )

  • Barber O’Riley

    Class signalling, much?

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