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Ancient and modern

Demosthenes vs Michael Fallon

The Defence Secretary could — and should — have taken a lesson in rhetoric from ancient Athens

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon’s claim that Ed Miliband, having practised on his brother, would also stab his country in the back by not renewing Trident has not gone down well. As a classicist, Mr Fallon should surely know there is a more effective rhetoric at hand.

When an ancient Greek wanted to attack a political opponent, two particular angles were popular: whose interests does he have uppermost in his mind — his own or the city’s? And has he any track record of being useful, (or as we might say, ‘adding value’), to the city?


Both angles were superbly marshalled by the Athenian statesman Demosthenes in 330 bc. His policy of resisting King Philip of Macedon had been a total failure, but he still persuaded the Athenians to award him a gold crown for loyal service, against all the efforts of his bitter opponent, the pro-Macedonian Aeschines.

Aeschines, Demosthenes argued, could have used his oratory to support his city against the tyrant Philip; he had it in his power to help make Athens great and to deserve its greatness. But instead he did the reverse, looking only to his own interests. A man of his ability could have yielded a fine harvest of benefits to everyone — new trade contacts, revenue streams, protecting Attica and our grain supplies, and bringing other cities into alliance (as I did). What did he do? Nothing.

‘So where in the wide world have you proved useful? What economic prosperity did you bring to rich or poor? None at all. Now even without this, you might at least have demonstrated good will and energy. But where? When? In what circumstances do you leap into action? When do you shine? Only when you are damaging our people’s interests…’ and so on.

A blunt knife or the thunder of Demosthenes? Dust down your classical library this weekend, Mr Fallon.


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