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Greek Philosophers Saw Politicians Crises

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(Photo by Eurokinissi/ Stelios Missinas)

Philosophers in Ancient Greece saw themselves aligned, in a way, with political leaders during crises that ranged from wars to the plague, at odds with a world in chaos today over the COVID-19 pandemic that sees authoritarianism rising.

From U.S. President Donald Trump wondering out loud whether drinking bleach or injecting light into the body was a cure, to China covering up the virus' origins and political leaders around the world using it to consolidate power, the philosophy of rulers is far removed from Plato advising sophrosyne, moderation, in an ideal state.

On the site The Conversation, a place where academics and researchers write about the state of the world, Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Associate Professor in Ancient History as Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote about the dichotomy.

She noted that in the COVID-19 crisis, what needs to be asked is what needs to be cured more urgently: the virus itself or people’s poor sense of moderation.

“We have seen shocking footage of panicked citizens fighting over the last pack of toilet tissue, our politicians’ exasperation at selfish stockpiling, and blasé disinterest from those who don’t think social isolation rules apply to them,” she said.

Plato argued that philosopher kings should be the rulers, as all philosophers aim to discover the ideal polis. The ‘kallipolis’, or the beautiful city, is a just city where political rule depends on knowledge, which philosopher kings possess, and not just power.

She wrote that Plato outlined in his dialogues, especially the Symposium and the Laws, that justice and injustice in the soul are comparable to health and illness in the body, drawing a likeness too to political leaders needing to be healers.

“Although Plato eventually promoted philosophers as political leaders, other writers saw leaders as physicians curing diseased communities. These ideas feed into what we expect from politicians today,” she said, even if it's not happening.

In his Fourth Pythian Ode, written in 462-461 BC, the lyric poet Pindar compared Arcesilaus IV, the king of Cyrene, with a physician. The king is entreated to “heal” the city which has been left wounded by the exile of a prominent citizen, Damophilus.

Another example she gave came from Aeschylus’ tragic play Agamemnon, written in 458 BC in which the king, having just returned from Troy, announces to the Argive assembly his political agenda.

He will maintain what is good, “but whenever there is need of healing remedies”, he “will try by applying either cautery or the knife reasonably to avert the damage of the disease.” In simple terms: cut out the bad bits with surgical means if necessary.

The historian Thucydides wrote of the wisdom of Nicias, the General who warned the Athenians about the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415 BC but was ignored in favor of the adventurer Alcibiades, who brought ruin.

Nicias advised the city’s executive council to act as physicians “in trying to do as much good as possible or at least no voluntary harm,” sounding every bit like the beginning of the Hippocatic oath and further linking philosophy to politics and medicine in a metaphor to today's pandemic and its handling.

Both Nicias and his political opponent Alcibiades agreed that the Athenians needed to change their usual way of doing politics to deal with the crisis at hand. Nicias insisted on a radical, immediate change of habits. Alcibiades argued remedies ought to be proportionate. “By employing medical metaphors in their arguments, they sound very much like today’s politicians debating approaches to the pandemic,” she wrote.

Plato, preoccupied with the ideal constitution, appreciated the leader-as-physician metaphor and in his last work, The Laws, he explored the ethics of government and law, including the notions of social responsibility and restorative punishment.

“Plato thought justice secured a better life for the individual and made them more willing to obey laws,” she said, recommending at a social level, “the union of justice, moderation, and wisdom” as the solution, or prescription, to ensure social harmony – like the balance the Hippocratics aspired to for the body.

In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War Alcibiades, who she called Greek history’s bad boy, makes a familiar call to arms: “...understand that neither youth nor old age can do anything without each other, but together the frivolous, the middling, and the very exact, when united, will have most strength. And that, by sinking into inaction, the city, like everything else, will wear itself out...” he said.

In today's language: we're all in this together, like the pandemic that knows no political or geographical boundaries and kills without knowing a person's rank, distinction, wealth, or power.

What does all this mean now? “The trouble might be today’s citizens are getting mixed messages. On the one hand, they hear Alcibiades’ rallying cry,” she wrote.

But, she added, “they also hear, via the mouths of political office holders, his political opponent Nicias’ more drastic treatment approach for a sick society at war. Nicias asked the Athenians to vote to “stay home.” History proved him right.