Why you should care
Because demagoguery is as old as democracy itself.
One of the more common epithets hurled at Donald Trump these days is “demagogue,” a term that comes with a great deal of historical significance, and baggage. From demos (the people) and agogos (leader), the term is in many ways as old as democracy, originating in ancient Athens, where a demagogue referred to a particular type of leader: a populist politician, often wealthy but not noble-born, whose very popularity and ability to appeal to the masses can place the very institution of democracy in jeopardy.
Calling Trump — who swept yesterday’s primary votes in five states — a demagogue “is to do two things at once,” as Megan Garber notes in The Atlantic: “to dismiss him as a political candidate and amplify him as a political threat.” In the 420s B.C., Athens confronted such a threat with the ascension of Cleon, a tanner turned general whose uncouth but charismatic pro-war bravado made him the dominant force in an Athenian democracy preoccupied with rival Sparta.
Cleon was a breath of fresh air, a wealthy product of the commercial class with a penchant for litigation …
And so a young comic playwright named Aristophanes decided to take aim at a fictionalized version of Cleon in his fourth play, The Knights, by posing a challenge to him in the form of a rival demagogue, a vulgar sausage seller and political novice. It was like making a movie in which a comic commercial foil like Joe Isuzu or Tommy Boy is brought in to take down the Donald, and the result was one of the most searing and lasting indictments of political demagogues, not to mention the populace on which such figures feed.
By 424 B.C., when The Knights was produced, Athens had been bogged down for seven years in a stalemated fight with the Spartans. “Seizing on the common people’s frustration,” says William H. Race, a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “the demagogue Cleon belittled his opponents for their lack of courage and promised a get-tough, aggressive war policy.” Sound like anyone you know?
For many in Athens, Cleon was a breath of fresh air, a wealthy product of the commercial class with a penchant for litigation (and false charges) and over-the-top speechmaking who could appeal to the aspirations of the polis’ poorer citizens. “He was the first who shouted on the public platform, who used abusive language,” an Athenian named Aristotle wrote of Cleon.
In The Knights, Aristophanes depicts the Athenian populace as an old and gullible man named “Demos,” whose house has been taken over by a cunning tanner named “Paphlagon” (Cleon). Two of Demos’ disgruntled slaves take it upon themselves to oust Paphlagon by plucking a sausage seller named Agoracritus straight from selling his wares on the street to beat the demagogue at his own game. The sausage seller doubts he has what it takes to lead men, but the slaves reassure him that as a “common market rogue” with a loud mouth and no shame, he will do just fine. “A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man,” one slave tells him. “He has to be an ignoramus and a rogue.”
When the slaves accuse Paphlagon of treason before the Knights of Athens, the challenger gets his chance to press his case before the Knights and Demos himself. Each demagogue attempts to outdo the other with increasingly shameless and vulgar ploys to win his favor, including offers of ointment, shoes and a cushion to sit on. “When you wipe your nose, clean your fingers on my head,” Paphlagon proclaims. “No, on mine,” prays Agoracritus.
Eventually, Agoracritus wins the epic pandering match. “The play shows,” says Race, “how vulnerable a populace under stress is to the personal ambitions of politicians who outbid each other in promising to provide relief.”
The play is not just an indictment of Cleon’s demagoguery, but also of the very populace he has preyed upon. The old man Demos is a gullible fool, susceptible to flattery and easily led astray, and although he returns rejuvenated to the stage, thanks to his receipt of free food, spa treatments and other indulgences, his happy ending is a superficial one. Demos, like Athens, has been “made great again,” but in reality he is only under the thumb of a new master. Aristophanes and other prominent Athenians, like the historian Thucydides and the philosopher Plato, says Race, “were well aware of the vulnerability of democracy to shameless manipulation by ambitious, self-interested demagogues, who played on the anxieties and frustrations of a distracted populace with promises of success and restoration to their former greatness.”
As they say, beware of Greeks bearing gifts, and of politicians making loud promises to make everything great again.