Choking on their own eloquence

The news broadcasts are overflowing with the eloquence of Government ministers at their party conference. What kind of education has enabled them to twist logic and pose as the friends of low-paid workers and Syrian refugees, the “true party of labour”, the “new centre ground”, builders of infrastructure, supporters of local government, providers of “world class education”? It’s a wonder they don’t choke on their own words.


Anticipating a flow of classical references from our old friend Michael Gove, and concerned that he might think us lacking, our thoughts wander to Socrates. Readers will enjoy the resonance of this extract – purchased privilege, the removal of spoken English from GCSE, the virtual absence of citizenship education in the curriculum, £9000 university fees, the rhetorical style of the Oxford Debating Society…

Melissa Lane (2014) Greek and Roman political ideas, chapter 4

Despite the premium on public speaking in the Athenian democracy, the city offered no formal public education to teach young men how to do it. Thus advantage accrued to those who were able to seek private help in honing their speaking and arguing abilities, whether to pursue political ambition or simply to defend themselves should they be prosecuted.

Rhetoricians and sophists flooded into Athens alongside home-grown varieties, all offering to teach ambitious young men how to speak persuasively to win power and prestige in the city. Some taught grammar, others etymology, others rhetoric – the ability to speak on either side of any question.

These self-professed experts for the most part took the goals of wealth and power for granted, accepting them as the given ends for the individual and for the city alike, and focusing their attention on the clever means by which to outstrip others in achieving them.

Excellence, or virtue (arete: the Greek word means the virtue of succeeding in carrying out an appropriate function), meant excelling in conventional political roles, getting the demos to accept one’s advice by whatever means necessary; this would bring the pleasures, wealth and honours to which most men aspired.

This was the cosy consensus that the philosopher Socrates attacked… He exposed blatant contradictions in the city’s priorities and in those of its most prominent inhabitants.

Socrates asks his fellow Athenians some difficult questions: if the city officially excoriates tyrants, why does it act like a tyrant abroad?

He exposes the fact that hidden beneath the surface of what is said by sophists like Gorgias is a corrosive tension between individual success and collective flourishing… Concealed in the public celebration of rhetorical skill and political service lies the potential for an unscrupulous speaker to undermine democracy itself.

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