Ancient and modern

Boris’s hero Pericles didn’t need a spokeswoman

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

A spokeswoman has been appointed ‘to communicate with the nation on behalf of the Prime Minister’. He apparently needs ‘a protective ring of steel’ and Tories feel that she will be the answer. So getting someone else to say what the PM thinks solves all problems? Really?

It is inconceivable that Boris Johnson’s hero Pericles would have sent someone else to speak and answer questions on his behalf before Athens’s democratic citizen assembly. (The spokesman would have been given the world’s shortest shrift — ‘a confession before execution’ — anyway.)

The reason why Pericles would never have dreamed of such idiocy was that his success as a statesman depended entirely upon his personal ability to persuade. So when he rose to speak, his whole reputation was on the line.

He would have been appalled at the idea of outsourcing it to someone else. Indeed, the whole education system — a rich man’s game in the ancient world — was designed specifically to produce men fully equipped with the skills to win arguments on the public stage, whether before their peers or the crowds.

This priority emerges in the very first works of Western literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c.700 BC). Achilles was trained up by his old tutor Phoenix to be ‘a speaker and a man of action’ — a man who would be a winner, whether locking words or swords.

Indeed, the plot of the Iliad is triggered by a ferocious debate between himself, the greatest fighter, and Agamemnon, commander of the biggest contingent at Troy. Achilles loses, later admitting (as his tragedy unfolds from the result of that quarrel) that ‘others are better in debate’.

It is no surprise, then, that handbooks of effective public speaking were popular in the ancient world, the most famous being Aristotle’s on rhetoric (fourth century BC), professors of which could earn gigantic salaries. It was the key to success in public life.

This spokeswoman is a cipher, mouthing to order. Why should anyone pay her the slightest attention? By contrast, Sir Keir Starmer will run his own briefings. He has won this battle already.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments