Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: From Socrates to Boris

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: From Socrates to Boris

Article excerpt

In writing an article that argued both for and against the European Union, Boris Johnson was following a solidly classical precedent -- that the finest exponents of the art of persuasion were those able to argue equally convincingly on both sides of any question.

An anonymous document entitled Dissoi Logoi ('Two-sided arguments', c. 4th Century BC) provided a long list of examples: 'Death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers. Farming, when it makes a handsome success of producing crops, is good for the farmers, but bad for the merchants... It is shameful for a husband to adorn himself with white lead and wear gold ornaments, but proper for a wife. It is proper to do good to friends, but shameful to do it to enemies. And it is shameful to slaughter friends or fellow citizens, but proper to slaughter the foe.'

But is this all just verbal clever-dickery? The Greek philosopher Carneades, for example, once outraged strait-laced Romans by arguing on one day in favour of, and the next day against, justice. …

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