Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's Going On?

I had planned a little political essay for today, as it is once again election time. Despite that it is finished, instead of sharing it with you I thought I would share some political thinking of a more timeless quality. All that remains of my original essay is the title of this post, which duly conveys my current sentiments if not my specific concerns, which nonetheless can be found below in the works I decided to highlight.

There are three sections to this post:
I. Demosthenes
II. Links
III. Yes, Prime Minister

I. Demosthenes

I have excerpted the speech known as the Third Olynthiac, the Olynthiacs being a series of three speeches Demosthenes delivered to the Athenians in 349BC, urging them to help the citizens of their ally to the north, Olynthus, who were threatened by Philip II of Macedon.
  • The full speech is available in Greek and English at The Perseus Project.
  • Versions in print are also available in Greek and English.
  • Please see below for other texts on Demosthenes and his time.
  • The boldface sections below are my emphases.
Selections from Demosthenes' 3rd Olynthiac

English translation by J. H. Vince, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1930. via The Perseus Project.

[3] Never was there a crisis that demanded more careful handling than the present. But the difficulty lies, I think, not in proposing a plan to meet the case: what puzzles me, men of Athens, is how to put it before you. For what I have seen and heard convinces me that most of your chances have escaped us rather from a disinclination to do our duty than from a failure to understand it. I must ask you to bear with me if I speak frankly, considering only whether I am speaking the truth, and speaking with the object that things may go better in the future; for you see how the popularity-hunting of some of our orators has led us into this desperate predicament.

[6] Well, what is done cannot be undone; but now comes the opportunity of another war. That was why I have referred to the past, that you may not make the same mistake again. What use, men of Athens, are we to make of our opportunity? For if you do not send help “in full muster, whereto your power shall extend,” observe how all your generalship will make for Philip's success.

[8] What remains then, men of Athens, but to help them with all your power and energy? I see no alternative. For, quite apart from the disgrace that we should incur if we shirk our responsibilities, I see not a little danger, men of Athens, for the future, if the Thebans maintain their present attitude towards us, and the Phocians have come to the end of their money, and there is nothing to hinder Philip, when he has crushed his present foe, from turning his arms against Attica.
[9] But surely if anyone of you would postpone the necessary action till then, he must prefer to see danger at his very doors, rather than hear of it far away, and to beg help for himself, when he might be lending help to others now; for I suppose we all realize that that is what it will come to, if we throw away our present chances.

[10] Perhaps you will say, “Of course we all know that we must send an expedition, and we are willing to do so; but tell us how.” Then do not be surprised, Athenians, if my answer comes as a shock to most of you. Appoint a legislative commission. Do not use it to frame new laws—you have laws enough for your purpose—but repeal those which hamper us in the present crisis.

[11] In plain language I mean the laws for administering the Theoric Fund, and also some of the service regulations. The former distribute the military funds as theatre-money among those who remain in the city; the latter give impunity to deserters and in consequence discourage those willing to serve. When you have repealed these laws and made the way safe for wise counsel, then look round for someone who will propose what you all know to be salutary measures. But until you have done this, do not expect to find a statesman who will propose measures for your benefit, only to be ruined by you for his pains.

[12] You will never find one, especially as the only result would be that the proposer would get into trouble without improving the situation, and his fate would also make good advice more dangerous for the future. Yes, men of Athens, and you ought to insist that those who made these laws should also repeal them.

[13] It is not fair that those legislators should enjoy a popularity which has cost the community dear, but that the patriotic reformer should be penalized by the odium of proposals by which we may all be benefited. Until you have set this right, Athenians, do not expect to find anyone so influential among you that he can break these laws with impunity, or so wanting in discretion as to run open-eyed into danger.

[14]  At the same time, Athenians, you must not forget this, that a mere decree is worthless without a willingness on your part to put your resolutions into practice. If decrees could automatically compel you to do your duty, or could accomplish the objects for which they were proposed, you would not have passed such an array of them with little or no result, and Philip would not have had such a long career of insolent triumph. Long ago, if decrees counted for anything, he would have suffered for his sins.

[15] But that is not so. For in order of time action is subsequent to speaking and voting, but in importance it comes first and ranks higher. It is action, then, that must be added: of all else we have enough. You have among you, Athenians, men competent to say the right thing, no nation is quicker-witted to grasp the meaning of speech, and you will at once be able to translate it into action, if only you do your duty.

[17] But, in the name of the gods, when we have abandoned all these places and almost helped Philip to gain them, shall we then ask who is to blame? For I am sure we shall never admit that it is ourselves. In the panic of battle the runaway never blames himself; it is always his general's fault, or his comrades', anyone's rather than his own. Yet surely to the runaways collectively the defeat is due; for he might have stood firm who now blames the others, and if every man had stood, the battle would have been won.

[21] I am not talking for the idle purpose of quarrelling with anyone here. I am not such a misguided fool as to pick a quarrel deliberately when I see no advantage from it. But I consider it right as a citizen to set the welfare of the state above the popularity of an orator. Indeed I am given to understand—and so perhaps are you—that the orators of past generations, always praised but not always imitated by those who address you, adopted this very standard and principle of statesmanship. I refer to the famous Aristides, to Nicias, to my own namesake, and to Pericles.

[22] But ever since this breed of orators appeared who ply you with such questions as “What would you like? What shall I propose? How can I oblige you?” the interests of the state have been frittered away for a momentary popularity. The natural consequences follow, and the orators profit by your disgrace.

[24] Now your ancestors, whom their orators, unlike ours today, did not caress or flatter, for five and forty years* commanded the willing obedience of the Greeks; more than ten thousand talents did they accumulate in our Acropolis; the then king of Macedonia was their subject, even as a barbarian ought to be subject to Greeks; many honorable trophies for victory on sea and land did they erect, themselves serving in the field; and they alone of mankind left behind them by their deeds a renown greater than all detraction.

[25] Such was their rank in the world of Hellas: what manner of men they were at home, in public or in private life, look round you and see. Out of the wealth of the state they set up for our delight so many fair buildings and things of beauty, temples and offerings to the gods, that we who come after must despair of ever surpassing them; yet in private they were so modest, so careful to obey the spirit of the constitution,

[26] that the houses of their famous men, of Aristides or of Miltiades, as any of you can see that knows them, are not a whit more splendid than those of their neighbors. For selfish greed had no place in their statesmanship, but each thought it his duty to further the common weal. And so by their good faith towards their fellow Greeks, their piety towards the gods, and their equality among themselves, they deserved and won a great prosperity.

[27] Such was their condition in those days under the leaders I have named; and what is our condition today, thanks to our worthy statesmen? Is it the same or anything like the same? Why, we—I pass over much that I might mention, but you all see what a clear field we had got, with the Lacedaemonians crushed, the Thebans fully occupied, and no other city fit to dispute the supremacy with us, while we might have been both the vindicators of our own rights and the umpires of the rights of others;

[28] and yet we have been robbed of our own soil, we have wasted on unnecessary objects more than fifteen hundred talents, our statesmen in peace have lost us the allies we gained in war, and we have provided a training-ground for this formidable rival. If not, let someone come forward and tell me who but ourselves has made Philip powerful.

[29] “But,” says an objector, “if our foreign policy has failed, there is great improvement in domestic affairs.” And to what can you point in proof? To the walls we are whitewashing, the streets we are paving, the water-works, and the balderdash? Look rather at the men whose statesmanship has produced these results; some of them were poor and now are rich, some were obscure and now are eminent, some have reared private houses more stately than our public buildings, while the lower the fortunes of the city have sunk, the higher have their fortunes soared.

[30] What is the cause of all this, and why, pray, did everything go well then that now goes amiss? Because then the people, having the courage to act and to fight, controlled the politicians and were themselves the dispensers of all favors; the rest were well content to accept at the people's hand honor and authority and reward.

[31] Now, on the contrary, the politicians hold the purse-strings and manage everything, while you, the people, robbed of nerve and sinew, stripped of wealth and of allies, have sunk to the level of lackeys and hangers-on, content if the politicians gratify you with a dole from the Theoric Fund or a procession at the Boëdromia, and your manliness reaches its climax when you add your thanks for what is your own. They have mewed you up in the city and entice you with these baits, that they may keep you tame and subservient to the whip.

[32] You cannot, I suppose, have a proud and chivalrous spirit, if your conduct is mean and paltry; for whatever a man's actions are, such must be his spirit. By our Lady, I should not wonder if I got rougher treatment from you for pointing out these faults than the men who are responsible for them. For you do not allow liberty of speech on every subject, and indeed I am surprised that you have allowed it now.

[33] If, therefore, even at the eleventh hour, you can shake off these habits, and consent to fight and act as becomes Athenians and to devote the abundant resources that you have at home to the attainment of success abroad, perhaps, men of Athens, perhaps you may gain some important and unqualified advantage and may be quit of these paltry perquisites. Like the diet prescribed by doctors, which neither restores the strength of the patient nor allows him to succumb, so these doles that you are now distributing neither suffice to ensure your safety nor allow you to renounce them and try something else; they only confirm each citizen in his apathy.

[36] I am not indeed blaming the man who does your duty for you, but I call on you to do that for yourselves which you reward others for doing, and not to desert that post of honor, men of Athens, which your ancestors through many glorious hazards won and bequeathed to you.

I have now said almost all that I consider suitable. It is for you to choose what is likely to benefit the city and all of you.

* The interval between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

Works on Demosthnes and His Time 

On the Style of Demosthenes. Dionysius of Halicarnassus. (In the Loeb edition, titled Dionysius of Halicarnassus: Critical Essays, Volume I.)

II. Links

I keep track of:
  1. the October 2008 "Bailout" at ProPublica.
  2. the February, 2009 "Stimulus" at ProPublica.
  3. "earmarks" on federal legislation at Washington Watch.
  4. bills in Congress at GovTrack.
  5. State legislation at FindLaw. 
  6. Supreme Court Decisions at The Cornell University Legal Information Institute.
  7. my representatives at Vote Smart.
  8. lobbying funds at Open Secrets. 
III. Yes, Prime Minister (ep. A Conflict of Interest)

Part I - Part II - Part III

N.B. I realize much of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister is available on YouTube. Such clips are, in fact, what introduced me to this fine show. Should you enjoy it too, the shows are available on DVD and Netflix (discs and streaming.)

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