Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

GEORGE BUSH and Jimmy Carter solemnly inform us that President Clinton has diminished the presidency. Ancient Greeks would have been staggered at their brass neck.

Clinton is on the horns of an ancient dilemma. On the one hand, there is a tradition going back to Homer that the power of kings is sanctioned by God. Plato gave this a moral twist: only a good state can be a happy one, so kings must be good and make their subjects good. In the world of Hellenistic kings like Alexander and Ptolemy, a fullblown theory of monarchy developed: the monarch must love his subjects, be wise, far-sighted, courageous, self-controlled, and so on. Early Christians gave this a Christian spin and applied it to the emperor: he must exhibit and encourage Christian values.

On the other hand, there is the equally powerful tradition of success at all costs. The Homeric hero Odysseus notoriously came to exemplify the sort of person who sets out to win at any price. Ancient Greeks invented rhetoric so that, in their democratic new world, everyone had an equal chance to persuade, but, as Plato complained, this had nothing to do with right and wrong, only with winning. Not many politicians paid any attention to him. In that competitive world, winning was very important indeed: mislead the people or originate a failing policy, and fines, exile, even death could await you. …

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